Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]
Ten years after Deathmate, the core Image brand was in a rut. Some of its component studios were doing well for themselves, such as Top Cow’s successes both on the page and on television with Witchblade. But other parts were spinning off into their own companies, notably Dreamwave and Devil’s Due, following in Wildstorm’s footsteps. Image’s flagship title Spawn was far past its heyday of film and anime tie-ins; McFarlane Toys was on the downward spiral into making statues over toys. Still, Image had enough pull to get some creators to launch a group of titles featuring teenage superheroes. Firebreather by Phil Hester was great, but its animated adaptation entered development hell and killed much of its momentum. Jay Faerber seemed to be the next big thing thanks to Noble Causes until a disastrous run on DC's The Titans arguably tarnished his career.
And then there was Invincible. Robert Kirkman had made his Image debut with the Guyver-esque romp Tech Jacket, but his new book, about the son of Superman pastiche Omni-Man Nolan Grayson, seemed destined to not go far. Co-creator and artist Cory Walker kept the title delayed frequently, and his somewhat odd-looking artwork, including a tendency to draw eyes as just dots, was a bit off-putting. But then issue #8 happened and introduced two major turning points: the massacre of the Guardians of the Globe (a Justice League parody) and the arrival of new artist Ryan Ottley. Not only could Ottley stay on schedule, but his sharp, detailed artwork was like nothing Image had published in years. The switchover was also very amicable, which prevented background drama.
[Review contains spoilers]
The aforementioned massacre led into one of the greatest twists in comics. Because the twist happens late in the title’s first year, I recommend Invincible: Ultimate Collection Vol. 1 as the best way to start reading Invincible. The trades are fine, but it really takes until the end of the second trade for the true greatness of the book to emerge. I would also warn against getting the massive “Compendium” versions; not only are they unwieldy, but the track record on their binding is very spotty. If you’re aware of Invincible at all, then you know what the secret is, but like the original Thunderbolts, it’s a swerve that still works all these years later: Nolan is actually an advance scout from an alien race and is on Earth to conquer it.
Much of the reveal’s success is based on the lengthy set-up of the immediate issues. In the second issue, there’s a long flashback sequence as Nolan Grayson recounts his origin story to his son, Mark. In issue #11, when it’s revealed that Nolan killed the Guardians of the Globe, Ryan Ottley redraws and manipulates Cory Walker’s panels from issue #2 to show the truth and demonstrate that many of Nolan’s lies were just semantics in his mind. Sandwiched between those sequences are numerous occasions to see how Mark and Nolan get along both as superheroes and as father and son. One issue tracks the angst felt by a superhero’s family when said hero is abducted by aliens. Another shows the dangers of accidentally revealing your superhero father’s name in public, especially if you’re an up-and-coming hero yourself. The divide between wanting to conquer the world and wanting to stay Mark’s father clearly tore Nolan apart.
Mark, dubbed Invincible, became the icon of the new version of Image Comics both because of his success and because of his costume; the “I” in the center of his costume is the Image logo. With Spawn played out, Invincible was a perfect title for Image to throw their support behind. The founders of Image left to tell the superhero stories that they felt they couldn’t tell at Marvel and DC due to editorial influence and character ownership issues. The problem was that, apart from Erik Larsen and arguably Jim Valentino, those founders weren’t very good storytellers, relying on just their artwork to sell comics. Many of those movie and cartoon deals didn’t work out because they didn’t have anything to say; even the most successful, WildC.A.T.s, barely made it to a full season.
At its core, Invincible truly is a story that Marvel or DC couldn’t do with their characters, even in an Elseworlds or What If title. Superman just couldn’t slaughter the Justice League and then fight with Superboy in public before apparently dying while flying away from Earth. Even in Red Son, perhaps the darkest Superman story held in high regard, he’s still the hero. Omni-Man is just enough like Superman that we get the concept behind him . . . and then the rug is brutally pulled out from under the reader. At the same time, Kirkman sets up a new, if very loose, Image shared continuity by having Savage Dragon, Superpatriot, and other heroes show up at the Guardians’ funeral. Mark would even form a team, The Pact, with other teenage superheroes, a rarity when most Image team books debut with a fully-intact roster.
Kirkman has since replaced Jim Lee as an Image “founder," having both secured Image’s viability as a superhero publisher with Invincible and then created a perpetual success for it with The Walking Dead. I’ll admit that Invincible isn’t a perfect title. It occasionally gets way too bloody, the Viltrumites all having mustaches is kind of silly, and Kirkman really loves his puns; Mark’s friends on the Teen Team are named Dupli-Kate, Rex Splode and Atom Eve. But said pun-based characters have gotten heavily fleshed-out as Invincible raced past one hundred issues -- a miracle for any comic these days, much less one from Image -- with no sign of stopping. Having lost my father a few years before picking up Invincible: Ultimate Collection Vol. 1 makes my connection to it that much stronger. Even with a bit of a rough start, it’s a title that deserves your attention.