February 20, 2010

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Incredible Hercules Volume 2: Secret Invasion

Written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Illustrated by Rafa Sandoval, Roger Bonet, and Greg Adams
Marvel

Incredible Hercules is part of why I don't stop reading superhero comics. Born out of a crossover event, the series has managed to keep going despite the odds. I picked up on this one rather late, much to my chagrin, and am trying to catch up on it now.

This second volume finds Herc and Cho (with pup in tow) crossing the country with wise Athena to convince the other pantheon of gods that they must do all they can to stop the Secret Invasion of earth. Despite her sweet tongue, they can only get a paltry force together, made up mostly of people who aren't real sure about Hercules as leader.

The God Squad, as it gets named, must seek out Nightmare for help,and if they can manage to get past him, they must take on the two most powerful Skrull Gods to put a crimp in the Invasion plans. But how can they do that, when they can't even get along together?

With allusions to mythology placed everywhere, Pak and Van Lente put the Prince of Power and his young companion through every test possible, and even if they save the day--what will be the cost?

As I mentioned at the end of my last review, I was a bit worried about this one because of my desire not to have to read all of Secret Invasion. Wisely, Pak and Van Lente merly skirt the edges of the main series and concentrate on an idea that we don't see much of in the Marvel Universe--the gods of the other races. As a result, about the only thing you need to know is that the Skrulls are trying to take over earth, they've been trying this for quite some time now, and they're doing it by replacing humans with Skrulls, just like they did way back in Fantastic Four number 2.

Beyond that, you don't really need to know anything else to enjoy this story, although a knowledge of past Marvel history is helpful. As they've been doing all along, the writing team uses but never abuses Marvel continuity. We have references to Nightmare's dealings with the Hulk, Gaiman's forgettable Eternals series (I was impressed with that inclusion), some old Thor references, and even right down to how Avengers Disassembled gave us Ragnarok. Pak and Van Lente tell you what you need to know, just in case, but I continue to be astounded by how they are telling their stories within the complexity of Marvel's never-rebooted past instead of rejecting it.

It probably also doesn't hurt to have a solid grounding in mythology, particularly that of the Greeks. There are allusions to Jason and the Argonauts all over the place, as Herc's love of a boy then mirrors his devotion to Cho now. There's also the Twelve Labors, Zeus's infidelities, and even some mention of other myths, like Atum's connection to the Egyptian gods. The vanquished gods that litter the Skrull world probably have a few snuck in as well that I couldn't recognize. (I know there's a shout out to the New Gods of Kirby in there!)

Pak and Van Lente give Hercules a depth we've never seen before and do it in a way that's true to his character. Here he wants to be a leader, but by his own admission, the only thing he knows how to do is fight with his fists. He uses brawn to win the day, and so far that's worked--but look at the cost by the end of this trade. He can be jocular one moment and maudlin the next, experiencing human emotions without any filter. It brings the reader in closer to him than he's ever been before, regardless of the story. He is a fuller person here than in the myths that spawned him!

Cho grows up a bit, too, as he learns that being the smartest person in the room doesn't always help. No matter how smart you are, there are things that thinking can't solve, especially if you have a blind spot. Athena seems to want to mold him (makes sense, being the goddess of wisdom), but are her motives pure? With a god, that never seems to be the case, especially as this story progresses.

Speaking of progress, I liked the artwork of Rafa Sandoval much better than his predecessor on the last story arc. While not doing anything flashy, he does a nice job with the Kirby characters and gives the whole story an epic feel. These are not just any superheroic characters--they are gods. Sandoval draws them that way, and it shows, particularly when compared to Cho. He also adds some great nods in a few crowd scenes, such as the fear of a Rubik's Cube or your mother-in-law. His pacing fits the story very well, alternating between small closeups and longer spreads of grand battles. Best of all, even the battle scenes do more than just take up pages. We can follow the fight along, and it looks like they are fighting, not posing.

Filled with humor, myth, and great characters, Incredible Hercules is everything a superhero comic should be. There's respect for the past without copying and at no time does a character feel like they are being changed to fit the writer's needs. Instead, Pak and Van Lente use the characters they need that fit the story by looking at what that character brings to the table, instead of forcing them into uncomfortable roles based on a reader's knowledge of them.

Not even a crossover (the second one) slows this team down! I can recommend Incredible Hercules to anyone, and if you're not already reading this one yet, those who love good stories in their comics really need to give it a try.