There is a lot of things wrong with the majority of superhero comics put out by the Big Two in the ’70s-’80s; a lot of the attempts at social progressiveness, while certainly done with the best of intentions, comes across as hokey, misinformed and occasionally offensive. The strict adherence to continuity often hampers meaningful characterization or deep storytelling, and the early pre-Moore attempts at political commentary or literary aspiration usually miss the mark they’re aiming for, and come across a bit naive as a result. Despite many, many gems from both Marvel and DC, The Bronze Age is easily my least favourite era in superhero comics.
So trust me when I say this – INVINCIBLE UNIVERSE is a Bronze Age story done right.
Right from page one, Hester and Nauck pretty well break every rule of post-modern storytelling – told simply and straight-forwardly, set in contemporary times and having superheroes discuss a complex real-world political issue, INVINCIBLE UNIVERSE practically taunts a ready-to-sneer audience who prefer the style and humour of books like HAWKEYE or YOUNG AVENGERS. There’s a reason those books are successful (despite, of course, the fact that they’re very expertly done in every way) – trends, by definition, are a continually changing thing, and the storytelling devices used in the late ’70s should be jarring for modern readers. However, there’s a way to be classic without being nostalgic – to draw from the strengths of your influences and place them in a modern context.
That’s exactly what Phil Hester and Todd Nauck do. Because everything about the opening to INVINCIBLE UNIVERSE sounds like the kind of Bronze Age story I described earlier – except that it’s great. Hester uses the recent events of the main INVINCIBLE comic to say something interesting, instead of trapping him into a world of dot-connecting editorial footnotes. Dinosaurus has flooded a large part of the developed world, and while that’s gone largely unexplored in Kirkman’s title, Hester chooses to show how this has affected the civilians of a world overpopulated with superheroes.
The working class feels ignored, not just by politicians and the uber-rich, but by the superhero police of the Invincible U – who are, after all, government maintained. Being controlled by major corporations, Marvel and DC can’t have their superhero characters take too strident political affiliation, lest the readers perceive this as the company’s point of view. I don’t necessarily think those characters work for those kind of stories – and I think the Bronze Age stories really prove that – but it’s great to see Hester take advantage of the freedom of a creator-owned superhero universe. Cecil sees a bigger picture, Yeti doesn’t want anybody getting on his friends backs, and there’s even a bit of potential meta-commentary with Brit, the oldest of the Invincible members – he doesn’t think it’s the Guardians job to make political statements.
The same kind of modernization of Bronze Age staples happens in a scene between Outrun and Kaboomerang – one of the more regrettable things about ’70s stories is the near-obession with women’s lib, and the attempt at justifying the more exploitave aspects of the superhero genre. Women wore revealing costumes because it was their choice and their bodies, and you could look if you wanted, buster, but don’t underestimate her just because she’s a girl! The same went for sexual expression – female superheroes became increasingly promiscuous, and again, though I think the mostly male writers of these books had their hearts in the right place, most of the dialogue reads like cheesy soft-core porn set-up than anything else.
Hester has Outrun and Kaboomerang taking a trip to Utah, both of them trying to build an emotional core to their relationship after already spending plenty of time getting to know each other physically. “A bit like trying to rewrap a Christmas present after you’ve already played with it,” as Outrun puts it. Hester plays the scene in a way that creates real drama and tension and he and Nauck manage to sell it as a real moment between two adult partners – this isn’t a juvenile fantasy played out by a fanboy writer, but two people trying to make a monogamous relationship work.
Hester is telling a modernized classical superhero story, so it’s fitting that we have Todd Nauck on art. Nauck’s artwork has the best attributes of Bronze Age pencillers – clear storytelling, characters with weight and solid structure, simple but dependable staging – but gives the stories way more life and personality than, say, an Al Milgrom. Nauck’s characters live and breathe, they leap off the page and feel like they’re actually speaking Hester’s dialogue, rather than just posing while bubble clouds are placed over their heads. Speaking of Hester’s dialogue, it’s great to read an INVINCIBLE book that doesn’t have the assault of verbiage Kirkman has become so famous for – Hester knows when to let the artwork speak for itself, knows that what the characters don’t say is as important as what they do.
INVINCIBLE UNIVERSE #5 is old-school in the right kind of ways. Hester uses continuity, a large cast, contemporary politics and, of course, plenty of melodrama and action to tell a well-crafted, entertaining and fascinating story – not because they’re staples of the superhero genre. Hester takes a look at the ninety-nine percent, female sexuality and US relations with China without forgetting he’s writing a book about a team of superpowered weirdos featuring a yeti who is pretty much a face with arms. It’s the kind of book that would feel either nostalgic or passe under any other creative team – instead, Hester and Nauck tell the kind of story they grew up reading, but with a modern sensibility. They took the stuff that, while admirable, didn’t work from those old stories, and found a way to make them work.
Plus, this happens.
INVINCIBLE UNIVERSE #5 is available now at your local comic shop or digitally for just $2.99.