[Beginning three days of Marvel guest reviews! First up, a new review from Doug Glassman.]
While Marvel may have a literal Justice Society of America analogue in the Invaders, Agents of Atlas is more similar in tone to Geoff Johns’ vaunted JSA run. Both books feature veteran heroes -- kept young through unusual means -- assembling to take on new threats from their past. But whereas the Justice Society was the most widely respected superhero team in the DCU, the Agents of Atlas pretend to be criminals.
It’s all explained in the original Agents of Atlas story. The seed of this tale goes back to What If? Vol. 1 #9: “What If . . . The Avengers Had Fought Evil During The 1950s?” This issue united some of early Marvel Comics’ heroes from back when they were called Atlas Comics. The resulting team broke up after it was decided that such a concept was far too revolutionary for the time. For a while, this was simply just a fun out-of-continuity tale, and it played a huge part in Kurt Busiek's Avengers Forever. Writer Jeff Parker takes this a step farther by transplanting this time into the main Marvel Universe, but without calling them the Avengers. The Agents of Atlas trade collects the What If issue along with the first historical appearances of all of the major characters, plus Parker's 2006 miniseries.
Leading the Agents is Jimmy Woo, a Chinese-American S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and the arch-enemy of the fearsome Yellow Claw, perhaps the first villain to have his own title. Woo actually aged in real-time in comics, and he gets a reset back to his 1950s looks and personality after nearly getting killed by the Claw. Jimmy’s trusted right-hand ape is Gorilla-Man, a.k.a. Ken Hale, a former soldier of fortune whose greed turned him into a strange form. Hale is aided in rescuing Woo from S.H.I.E.L.D. custody by X-11 the Human Robot, a powerful oddity who may have a human soul. The third conspirator in Woo’s rejuvenation is Bob Grayson, the original Marvel Boy. Long thought dead (and with his power bands given to Quasar), he’s been brought back by one of many eagerly-received retcons.
As Woo tries to find the Yellow Claw, Parker introduces the rest of the group: Venus, who believes herself to be the Greek goddess and whose song can entice the minds of all around her, is found in a formerly war-torn part of Africa. She’s literally sung the opposing civilizations into tranquility. The last recruit is Namora, also retconned back from death. The seventh member of the group is S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Derek Khanata of Wakanda. Assigned to investigate Woo’s kidnapping, he becomes their unofficial liaison with the agency as they keep one step ahead of Dum-Dum Dugan.
The plot isn’t exactly intricate, but the fun comes from the personalities involved. All six are outcasts due to their looks or origins, and they form a tight bond despite quirks like Bob eating by extending his esophagus and Venus walking around topless all the time. At the center of it all is their loyalty to Woo, which comes together when they find Yellow -- now "Golden" -- Claw. Parker draws on the “Yellow Peril” themes of the old Yellow Claw series to explore the racism involved in Woo’s relegation to desk duty, the change in his enemy's name from “Golden” to “Yellow,” and their interwoven destiny. The Claw is the heir to the Spirit Banner of Temujin and thus the power of the empire of Genghis Khan . . . a power he wants Jimmy to wield. The always-practical Woo takes him up on the offer, setting up the theme of a villainous enterprise secretly doing good.
While Bob’s weirdness and shyness mark him as an interesting character, Hale is easily the most memorable member of the bunch. Like Congorilla over at DC, he’s gone through a renaissance, turning into a hard-edged, seen-everything veteran. The series’ recap and final pages go to Hale, including some of my favorite lines of the book. As the Agents investigate the thousands of arms of Atlas Enterprises, Hale keeps notes of what they visited. These include a mine which employs brainwashed CD-listeners, a ninja dojo, a super-addictive cookie company and a comic book publisher with a “constant crossover” racket. The last two may or may not be legitimate, according to Hale.
Further linking Atlas and JSA is the presence of Leonard Kirk, my second-favorite artist on that book. (Sorry, Leonard, but the artist Buzz drew the revenge of Atom Smasher, so he gets first-billing.) Kirk demonstrates his excellent sense of page layout a few times, such as when Bob beams his life story into the minds of his teammates, who act out the story as if they were Marvel Boy. I really enjoy the level of detail and cleanliness; in fact, Kirk is perhaps my standard when it comes to art.
The first trade of Agents of Atlas comes with numerous extras. Along with the first appearances of every main character, making this a great "historical" Marvel book, there is a lengthy section documenting the publicity done for the book through Comic Book Resources. Each chapter has false documents, like Ken’s list of Atlas businesses and a radio show transcript from the point of view of a bystander in an issue. These make the trade thick, but well worth the purchase.
While the Agents of Atlas has had trouble gaining popularity, it’s most certainly worth a look, especially if you miss the old days of JSA. It may help to know some Marvel history, but if you don’t, you’ll get an education very quickly.