October 10, 2009

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Agents of Atlas

Written by Jeff Parker
Illustrated by Leonard Kirk, Kris Justice and Terry Pallot
Reprints by Various
Marvel

So yeah, this is where I admit to how badly I suck sometimes at getting around to reading amazing comics. I just read this a few days ago, on my trip.

Feel free to mock me now.

I know Jeff Parker is a great writer. And I love the idea of using old characters in fresh ways that does not involve killing them off. Plus, as the icing on the cake, the whole thing is based off an issue of the old What-if? series that I love so fondly.

In other words, this is going to be a very positive review of a series that most folks have already read, if they're inclined to read it. But I'm going to talk about it anyway.

Agents of Atlas opens with Ken Hale, the one person (sort of) still around to tell the secret story behind the creation of an Avengers team decades before Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and the rest got together. Parker deviates a bit from the original premise, which you can chalk up to either Hale's embellishment or the fact that this is not quite the same group as in the What-If story. (God bless Marvel and its belief in alternative earths.) Either way, it's hard times for the soon-to-be-late Jimmy Woo.

Or is it?

Before you can say "Why did we let Tony Stark run this group?", there's a whole lot of explosions, a gorilla using 4 guns at once, and jokes about Uranus. The next thing you know, a Wakandan S.H.I.E.L.D. agent goes semi-rogue following the adventures of the best supergroup no one's ever heard of, as Woo and his crew (slightly changed by life over the years) try to solve what was going to be Woo's last case--the mysterous Atlas company.

As the team starts to gel again despite the usual Marvel personal problems (and kudos to Parker for Marvel-izing the Atlas heroes without taking away their appeal or turning them all grim and gritty), they soon discover that Atlas may be more than any of them realized. Can they survive the challenge that almost cost Woo his life?

And what happens when you find out there's a whole lot more to the story and 21st Century life is a lot more complicated than the days of Patriots versus Commies?

Agents of Atlas is, at heart, a spy-story that probably has more in common with Nick Fury's aventures than it does with, say, the Avengers which Wikipedia attaches the Agents to. While Woo's team may have superpowers, the way he runs the team is far more like the "spy stuff" I've read in Fury's long back history. As such, it's a bit harder to go over the plot without spoiling too much. But one thing I appreciate is that Parker plays fair with the reader about the mystery--everything is in place, if you were looking correctly.

(Yes, I'm still bitter about 52 and not getting clues that were helpful.)

Kirk's artwork for the series works well with the material Parker writes for him. I remember him working with Peter David once upon a time, and thinking that he really molds his images to the needs of the writer without compromising on the quality of the art. That's true here as well--the characters have a bit of nostalgic shine to them and Kirk refrains from showing graphic violence that's so popular these days. Overall, I was reminded of Pat Olliffe, and not in a bad way.

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention how seemlessly Parker addresses possible issues about the characters' histories (particularly Marvel Boy) and creates some real backstory for the others. Not only that, Parker even leaves open quite a bit of possible story options for later, like Ken Hale's true history, M-11's programming, and whether or not Jimmy is the only person involved with ties to the Yellow Claw.

This is a team that wants to be together and make the world a better place--but it's also a team with more secrets than Dick Chaney's private files. Not knowing doesn't hurt the overall story arc, but boy are there several places where a long-time Marvel reader like me was thinking "I wonder if...", particularly when T'Challa is involved in anything. (I owe that all to Priest, one of the best guys not currently writing a comic.)

In addition to being a great story, Parker works hard to make sure this team has all the elements a good group needs. Hale is the comic relief--he talks about being an expert lock picker, then crushes it with his paw--ready to diffuse the tension with a well-played line. Marvel Boy is the reluctant hero. Namora is the impulsive vengeful spirit--Captain America without the idealism. Venus is the sexpot, straight from the pulps. M-11 is an inigmatic robot who may very well end up being the most interesting of them all. And leading them is a complicated man with a fixed vision, who knows how to lead (and maybe mislead?) a team.

C'Mon Jeff Parker--give me the Nick Fury/Jimmy Woo one-shot set around the Steranko years that we desperately need!

This trade is a bit more expensive than usual, but it's well worth it, and not just because the 5-issue mini is so damned good. There's all kinds of bonus material, such as text stories, Hale's hysterical list of the Atlas operations they visisted, and behind-the-scenes artwork and notes.

But really, what sells this trade for me is that Marvel includes each character's first appearance, in full color and often rediculous premise (Venus, I'm looking at you). So we get to see a vintage Submariner story, a romance comic, Marvel's attempt at a lame post-war Superhero, and two horror comics, one of which was even drawn by John Romita Sr. It's fun to see how far--and sometimes, how not-so-far--comics has evolved over the last 60 years or so.

And, as if that weren't enough, watch as Roy Thomas plots the idea of using Golden Age heroes in the first place, as the final entry is the rather roughly drawn but entirely enjoyably written What-if story is included as the final piece of this puzzle.

This is a nice collected effort by all involved. Agents of Atlas is a great comic, and I feel bad that I wasn't supporting it in single issue form. I just don't really read that way anymore, but if this ever comes back again (the ongoing is in limbo, from what I understand), I am totally adding it to my pull list. (Yes, I know, there's the X-Men crossover thing right now. But I just don't know if I can get into that...)

I can't think of anyone who wouldn't like Agents of Atlas. Jeff Parker's work on this title is outstanding. Go out and find a copy of this right away! (And then buy more Agents stuff in single issue form when it starts up again!) This definitely makes my "Top of 2009 list" and if you haven't read it yet, but read it in the next 3 months, I bet it will make yours, too.