December 23, 2009

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Incredible Hercules Volume 1 Against the World

Written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Illustrated by Khoi Pham, Paul Neary, Danny Miki, and Bob Layton, amongst others
Marvel

Obviously towards the end of 2009, my reading habits have changed a bit. However, I am still reading capes comics, just not as many as I used to.

After all, if I stopped reading them all together, not only would my Mighty Marvel Marching Society card get revoked, but I'd also miss out on gems like Pak and Van Lente's Incredible Hercules, a book that did something I never thought possible--made me identify someone other than Bob Layton with the character.

(For those not in the know, Layton did some really cool minis in the 1980s that are worth grabbing if you can find them. I'm a little surprised they didn't get the trade treatment due to the new ongoing.)

This trade picks up the story of Amadeus Cho and Hercules shortly after their misguided attempt to help the Hulk fails rather miserably. (If you want to see my review of those issues, click here.) Herc and Cho are brought in by S.H.I.E.L.D. to become part of the Initiative. At first Herc is okay with this, trying to keep Cho out of trouble. But when he realizes his brother and nemesis Ares is part of the new program, and intends to use his power to abuse the Prince of Power, Hercules takes it on the lam with Cho.

Two against S.H.I.E.L.D leads to a wonderful blending of ancient myth and modern Marvel, as Pak and Van Lente weave the bad blood between the brothers and Herc's own troubled mythological continuity to turn Hercules into a raving lunatic, not unlike the savage Hulk of old. The only thing that can stop him? A old ally now working for the other side.

Once again, Pak, this time with Van Lente, shows his ability to use old Marvel stories to help him tell a new story. He does this in such a way that compliments the old work rather than stomp all over it. There seem to be very few writers capable of that these days, which is a shame. The writing pair show here how to use continuity as a strength, not a straight jacket.

The fight is not over just yet, as Herc and his brother must have one final confrontation as Cho decides the fate of S.H.I.E.L.D. There's an amazingly good conversation between Ares and Hercules here, about their relative popularity, followed closely by Hercules using his foibles to try and stop Cho from making a potentially fatal mistake. In the end, they seek solace and shelter from Athena, who warns them of more crossovers to come. (Damn it, Marvel, can I please read my cool comics in peace?)

A one-shot about a previously unrecorded adventure of the mindless Hulk (circa Hulk 300, when Mike Mignola was doing the art!) ends this trade, as Athena tries to warn Cho that he may have simply changed reckless allies. It features a lovely 2-page interlude by Layton that's absolutely gorgeous to look at and guest stars the Ever-Wrestlin' Blue Eyed Thing. Why? Because that's what was going on at the time this story is set. (See, Marvel/DC? This whole not stepping on the past thing isn't hard at all, is it?)

Herc and the Hulk fight against each other, then together, in the mighty Marvel manner, but in the end, Hulk is no happier than usual at this time, so he drifts back to the crossroads. His unhappiness stems from the unthinking actions of Hercules, which is Athena's point. Will Cho get the lesson in time? Probably not, because that would be boring. Only time and future volumes will tell.

I love everything about Incredible Hercules. Pak and Van Lente seemlessly weave everything from obscure Marvel Books (I love the editor's note acknowledging this) to every part of the Hercules myth they can mine for story material. The parallels between Herc's current life and mistakes he made in his past both give him depth we've never seen (not even from Layton) and ground these stories in Greco-Roman history the same way that Simonson grounded Thor in Norse myth.

Normally I'd be unhappy at the precocious child angle, but they even manage to make that work. Cho is wise in book smarts but lacking in experience. That's what Herc brings to the table, and what Cho must begin to grasp before it's too late.

There's also the fact that this is the most action I've seen going on in a little over 100 pages in a long time. Pak and Van Lente keep the story moving, giving only the briefest moments for the reader to breathe before going off and pounding you with more fight scenes between Herc and Ares. I'm not sure how they're going to keep that up over the course of more issues.

But just because it's action-packed doesn't mean they skimp on the dialog. I already mentioned Ares' speech about Herc's popularity, which hinges on the idea of the man behind the myth. There's also Black Widow's discussion of her awe for Hercules, and Herc's plea for a stop to vengeance. Those are the serious ones. I also love the comic bits, such as when Cho predicts Herc's eventual escape or the idea of a well-timed visit from a galactic defense lawyer or when Herc discusses Athena's birth. It all reads so very well it's almost a crime this is on a comic that probably doesn't have half the audience its other Hulk family books possess.

My only problem is that this is a book strongly tied to events in the rest of the Marvel Universe. Once upon a time, I'd be happy for that, but now I feel like I'll have to read most of the rest of the crossovers to get the background for the Hercules stories. I know world building is nice but I would have preferred this series get a bit further away from things, not closer.

But hey, if there's anyone who can make a crossover work, I think it's this team. If you haven't tried Incredible Hercules yet, and you have any love at all for mythology, clever writing, or Marvel Comics, you need to be picking this up in trade. I only wish I'd have started reading it sooner. Start reading it now so you don't feel worse than me!