December 21, 2010

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Incredible Hercules: Dark Reign

Written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Illustrated by Rodney Buchemi, Dietrich Smith, Ryan Stegman, Greg Adams, Cory Hamscher, and Terry Pallot
Marvel

Some days, I think about focusing my reading and trying to concentrate on only one or two types of comics. Then I read something so good within a genre of comic that I'm generally moving away from, and I remember why I'm a comic omnivore in the first place. Why limit yourself when there's so much out there to love?

All this brings me to Incredible Hercules, by two men who find a way to mix the Marvel Universe with mythology in a way only a select few (Lee, Kirby, and Simonson) have before them. This collection, set amid the Dark Reign period of Marvel comics (but not really requiring any knowledge of it), shows exactly how to blend two legendary pantheons and even have it make logical sense.

Logical if you're accepting on face value that there are a) gods and b) superheroes, of course, but let's not get too technical, shall we?

As with the other story arcs I've read so far, Pak and Van Lente ground Herc's current story into tales of his past. This time, we're introduced to the Prince of Power's mortal family, as his strained relations between gods and men come into play as the arc goes on. Hercules is a man turned god, after all, and therefore has a foot in both worlds. As we see when Hercules must try to rescue Zeus from Hades, earth and Olympus aren't the only two words he's involved in.

While romping through gleeful battles amongst the other gods and even Osborn's Dark Avengers (who are played perfectly here, I might add), Hercules must once again use his brain rather than just his brawn to try and find a way out of a terrible situation. He's neither as strong as some of other players on the stage or as smart, but he represents the imperfections of man quite well, time and time again. Human emotions drive all of Hercules' actions, from not wanting to leave a battle to using whatever is at hand (even if it's the Scorpion-Venom in a hilarious cameo) to wishing to save a fallen friend. As he says in this volume, this is a man-god who's spent his life trying to atone for all that he's done wrong over the years. It's that kind of serious tone that offsets the silliness and makes Incredible Hercules more than just a one-trick pony, however much fun that one trick is.

I'd read this series (and this book) just for the fun of sound effects such as "Brakkaface" when Ares involuntarily kisses the pavement or "dubbapow" as Hercules hits two opponents at once. Little touches such as Bullseye wanting to both date and kill his Gorgon opponent because she reminds him of Elektra or using dead Marvel villains like Orka as part of jury of Zeus' peers also add to the cool moments. These are clever touches that require both extensive knowledge of Marvel history and appropriate casting to pull off, and Pak and Van Lente manage both quite well. Best of all, while these little touches might make me annoy my wife with "Oh man, that's perfect!" exclamations, none of them are blocks to enjoying the story. You can be a fan of this comic run without knowing every bit of older Marvel history. If you *are* a MMMS member, you can read these updated takes on Herc and others without feeling like they've taken a torch to all that came before it. I wish more writers were able to do this. If they did, I'd certainly read more capes comics.

The thing that makes this issue special, however, is Pak and VanLente's ability to use concepts from Greek mythology to explain Marvel's revolving door death policy. There's a great scene with characters both familiar and obscure that will just blow long-time Marvel fans away and also give them a bit of nod-and-wink moments as Hercules stands in shock. It's almost as great as Cho dissing on the difficulty of winning at Black Jack.

By the end of this trade, there are issues aplenty for Hercules and his companion Cho. What they've seen and done here will change them, possibly forever. When you've been to the land of the dead, complete with a cameo used so well you know the implied meaning without even needing it stated, you've seen a part of things that no amount of brains or jocularity can change. I'm not sure what's next for Hercules and Cho, but I know they're more sober for the experience, and so is the reader.

This might be the best book yet of one of my favorite ongoing series. Even if you're not a fan of capes comics in general, there's a lot to like about Incredible Hercules. It's definitely something that I think any reader can try, and should. This series is more than just what it appears on the surface, and it gets the highest possible recommendation from me.