Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Comics Page #6: The Irredeemable Ant-Man #1

[Image yanked from Newsarama]

First things first- post number 50! Whoo!

Moving on. Yes, this has been out for nearly a week, but stuff got in the way. Something as historic as this still needs to be trumpeted.

Historic, you say? Well, yes. THE IRREDEEMABLE ANT-MAN marks an esoteric but nonetheless important first for Marvel Comics. The character of Ant-Man was an early Marvel headliner in the Sixties, and though this didn't last for long, he's since been a frequent supporting player in many team books including THE AVENGERS and FANTASTIC FOUR. However, as Bradley Hamlin of Retrocrush has pointed out, he has never truly had his own title, and Marvel has never published an ANT-MAN #1. Until now. Congrats, little guy.

There's a slightly less-good distinction that this issue has. The sub-genre of the "funny superhero" book has gone into severe decline lately, scorned by editors and fans who feel that superheroics ought to be a serious business. Over at DC, formerly lighthearted characters like Ralph Dibny, G'nort, and Captain Marvel are getting dark makeovers, while at Marvel, Dan Slott's wonderful SHE HULK is set to take a more serious turn in a few issues (to set up next year's WORLD WAR HULK event.) Which will leave THE IRREDEEMABLE ANT-MAN as the only in-continuity "funny" superhero book published by the Big Two; it's not fully a humor book (so the creative team insists), but it's as close as we're going to have. Somewhere the Inferior Five are weeping softly.

In short, I'm tempted to support this book just on principle. I grew up with the Giffen/DeMatteis "Bwah-ha-ha" version of the JUSTICE LEAGUE, read THE TICK when the rest of the comics world bored me, and on the whole have never understood the thinking that it's important to protect the dignity of superhero characters; maybe it's the long-term fallout from BATMAN AND ROBIN. I dunno. (To be sure, it's one thing to want one's favored medium/hobby/whatever to be "taken seriously", but this does not necessarily mean that their content must be serious. CALVIN AND HOBBES is recognized as a masterpiece of the comic strip form.) So maybe I'm biased in its favor. But while not great, THE IRREDEEMABLE ANT-MAN #1 shows a lot of promise, and is a solid start to what could end up a great series, if it's allowed to grow. And since it's (at least viewed as) a humor book, starring a new incarnation of a relatively obscure hero, its prospects aren't great. It needs what support it can get.

We begin with the Ant-Man in action, taking down a mugger by using his ability to leap around at insect size and pummel someone with the strength of a full-grown man. He then uses the opportunity to score a date with the grateful victim. These two pages convey two very important things: Ant-Man's powers, and his less-than-selfless approach to the job.

We then flash back six months, to one of the hovering fortresses of the international superspy group S.H.I.E.L.D. Two guards, Chris and Eric, are assigned to guard a room where superscientist Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man) is working on a new Ant-Man suit for the organization. Unfortunately, the guards, given vague orders about just what guarding the room entails (a likely nod to MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL), panic a bit when Hank suddenly exits the room, and Eric cold-cocks him with his rifle. Dragging the unconscious scientist back into his lab, they notice the Ant-Man costume, and Eric dares Chris to try it on. The rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. is distracted by the rampage of a mind-controlled Wolverine, so Chris tries the suit on, and inadvertently trips the shrinking mechanism. Eric, further panicked by the apparent disappearance of his friend, runs, and Chris makes his way through the ventilation shafts of the Helicarrier just in time to see his friend lie to his girlfriend Veronica in a play for her affections. When we flash-forward again, Eric has apparently taken on the role of Ant-Man himself.

It's not for nothing that the issue is headlined "The World's Most Unlikable Super-Hero." Writer Robert Kirkman's taste for dark humor was more than ably demonstrated by MARVEL ZOMBIES, last year's macabre miniseries in which the superheroes of the Marvel Universe were turned into flesh-hungry undead ghouls, promptly eating the rest of mankind and then fighting over what flesh remained (all out of continuity, naturally.) I still haven't gotten around to reading that, but I've followed his WALKING DEAD for several issues. Here he employs a very dialogue-heavy approach, favoring character over action, which inevitably means that by the standards of the genre, this is a slow start. But the establishment of character is important. Here we are being given a protagonist who continually lies, not just habitually but specifically for his gain. Such a figure is hard to identify with, but he has a near-sympathetic side as well; he's stuck at the low echelon (never having seen legendary head agent Nick Fury, he claims the man is an urban legend), not good with women, and generally not in the best place in his life. We've been there. While we can't exactly root for him, he makes for an entertaining antihero. It helps that penciler Phil Hester draws him so sympathetically, giving him a non-suave stature and a face you think you can trust. It'll be interesting to see how this character develops, and whether or not the "Irredeemable" part of the title will remain true.

IRREDEEMABLE ANT-MAN isn't fully a comedy; there are a couple of very funny riffs, but more time is spent establishing the character's relationships to each other. It does, however, have a casual tone that places it closer to the "funny" end of the axis.

Kirkman has a solid grasp of character, and the dialogue is believable and smart. The art is interesting as well- Hester has a vaguely abstracted, just-this-side-of-cartoonish style, which is counterbalanced by subtle color shadings and very solid inkwork (I think. I've yet to grasp the subtle interplay of penciler and inker that lets me tell who did what.) The layouts are interesting as well- there are a lot of panels per page (nearly 9 on average) and they're arranged and separated in interesting ways.

So, THE IRREDEEMABLE ANT-MAN, at present, is shaping up to be a dry dark comedy with a heavy character emphasis and an antiheroic protagonist. It's a unique direction in superhero comics, and though the first issue is largely set up, it's a very well-crafted set-up that should lay the foundation for great things. I hope it delivers, and I hope readers respond to it. I'd hate for the Marvel Universe to lose its sense of humor completely.

Grade: B+

1 comment:

Evan Waters said...

And I realized now that I used "The X is interesting as well-" twice in the second-to-last paragraph, and "interesting" three times under that.

I need to start looking more closely at my drafts of these things.