March 23, 2010

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Incredible Hercules Volume 3: Love and War

Written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Illustrated by Clayton Henry and Salva Espin
Marvel

Sometimes an adventurer just needs a break, especially after smashing alien gods and watching your peers die. Hanging out on an island with Namora from Agents of Atlas, Herc and Cho run afoul of the Amazons, who are out to change the world in a Cosmic Cube sort of way.

With both of our heroes feeling their oats while trying to save the day, will the Amazons rule the day? Or can a few level-headed heroes--one from an unlikely place--keep things in order? And just what is Hera up to, anyway, while all this goes on?

Deftly avoiding getting stuck in post-crossover wrap up, Pak and Van Lente move the Prince of Power and his pal right into a new adventure that features a fun guest appearance by another hot tempered hero and an awful lot of jokes about Herc's legendary appetite for women. Meanwhile, Amadeus Cho is hoping to start a few legends of his own, only to be blocked at every turn by circumstances beyond his control.

Athena, who is used perfectly as a cautionary voice heeded just about as often as Cassandra, warns them about thinking beyond the obvious, which they end up ignoring at the world's peril. The key to taking down Hercules is clearly to just make sure your agents are women.

There's quite a bit of mythology in this trade, with Poseidon getting linked to both the Atlanteans and the Greeks, the wrangling of Hera in her never-ending quest to kill Hercules, and good old Atlas himself lends a hand (see the great Bob Layton illustration above) to the proceedings. I don't think I'll ever stop being impressed by how well Pak and Van Lente bring the Marvel Universe and the Greek myths together in a way that might even top Simonson's use of the Norse.

Best of all, however, is the clever way that the two writers make this a story of Hercules versus Wonder Woman. She's never mentioned by name, of course, but the main villain turns out to be Hippolyta's daughter, who is conveniently made out of clay. You do the math.

The story itself is perfect for Hercules. The stakes are high, which befits his power. His past deeds are tied into the modern narrative, via the links to the Amazons and Atlas. He may not be the perfect person to save the day, a common theme in these trades, but he will try his best. The idea of Hercules as a very human god who can make mistakes occurs again in this story, and it's a theme that works well for me. Herc may be a god, but his batting average for making the right call is no better than, say, Peter Parker's.

In fact, the only real problem I had is that this story arc seemed to be cut off a bit too early. Reality-changing stories need room to breathe, and five issues just didn't do it justice, in my opinion. The ending in particular felt rushed, as though they had to wrap the narrative up because it was time to make a new trade friendly story. I would not have minded seeing this go another few issues to make the climax have more punch.

Speaking of punches, there are all kinds of fun battles in here, with the usual crazy sound effects. Herc battles Amazons, the guest star, and of course, Atlas. Part of what makes this comic so good is that it has all the action you need but combines it with a strong story and characters who aren't sitting around waiting to be used (or misused) as the author sees fit. They have personalities that impact on the direction of the story and the Pak/Van Lente team use those quirks to make the story, rather than ignore them.

It's why this is really the best capes comic series I've read that's in continuity in some time. After all, no only are the plots good, but you get inside references like Cho reading a Marvel comic (someone clearly remembered that the company exists in the 616 universe) or Herc teasing Namora because her team is named after one of the few people dumb enough to be tricked by the Prince of Power. Those are just two of the neat little tricks you'll see here. I'll let you read the rest for yourself.

The art team on Incredible Hercules seems to be different every time, which is one of the more annoying features of modern comics. (Can anyone imagine keeping a run the way Sal Buscema did on Spectacular Spider-Man?) Luckily they've done pretty well with picking people who can tell a story visually. Henry and Espin don't do anything spectacular, but they're solid and give us pages that link together and shifting camera angles to keep the reader engaged. That's good enough for me.

I love Incredible Hercules, and you should, too. The best part is that you can pretty much pick it up anywhere along the line, so feel free to start here if you'd like and work your way backwards. Regardless of where you start, you'll be glad you did.