February 18, 2011

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Irredeemable Volume 1

Written by Mark Waid
Illustrated by Peter Krause
Boom! Studios

Once upon a time there was a writer named Mark Waid. Mark was considered to be a pretty good comic book writer, but there was a knock on him--he just wasn't able to write stories that were relevant. He was too mired in the inherent goodness of the heroic idea. Even when he varied off that path, crafting dystopias where existing characters we knew and loved were buffeted by the darkening of the world, people felt like he still clung to the idea that there was a better way.

Mark was old fashioned. Mark didn't get it. Mark might have Doctor Doom kill his lost love, found again, but if you weren't ripping people in half or having them do shocking crimes for a pre-teen audience, you just weren't hip. Go hang out with Stan Lee in the retirement home for God's sake.

Well, Mark decided to show them. Mark created his own character, one that was familiar but didn't have the heroic history that Mark felt should be preserved (how quaint of you, Mark). This character went down a path that was as dark as anything on the market, and promised to get darker still before it was done. The biggest difference? This darkness made sense within the context of the character and the world, and showed that the key to a good dark story is to be well-written, no splattered in as much gore and shock value as possible.

Good job, Mark!

Perhaps I'm laying it on a bit thick, but I get tired of solid comic book writers being attacked because they refuse to try and create the grosses, most vile stories they can with characters familiar to even the most casual fan. Mark Waid's worst stories are better than Mark Millar's best, and just because he refuses to try and bring "the real world" to comic books or refuses to do stupid things with existing characters, he's thrown in the rejects bin.

Well maybe I'm old fashioned, but I like a good story better than a shocking one. And I like writers who recognize that while you can bring modern *ideas* to the table, there is no way possible to bring the real *world* along for the ride. There's a reason why DC designated the earth they published on as Earth Prime, where no heroes stayed for long. As soon as you try to put real-world issues into your comics, the magic is gone.

Waid realizes this, and keeps the action moving so fast you can hardly keep your eye on Krause's pencils. We're dumped in media res and barely give the time to catch up. The Plutonian is a being of unimaginable power, and he's decided that the human race doesn't matter to him anymore. We're not quite sure why, and there's a definite hint that we may never know. What we know is that he's killing thousands of people at a time, seemingly for the pure joy of the kill, and his former friends and enemies are scrambling just to stay alive, let alone look for a way to stop his rampages.

What realism we get in this story is comic-book realism, with villains coming together yet having no ability to marshal their forces. The United Nations gathers, but recognizes that it's in way over its head, while weak-kneed leaders try to grovel for projection (a gesture that is rewarded in quite a clever way by Waid that's both perfect for the situation and extremely horrific--all without showing a single drop of blood). Heroes try to react to the threat with the type of ideas that heroes always have--the trouble is, those ideas just aren't going to work. About the only thing missing was a set of tanks trying to shoot him out of the sky. Maybe we'll get them in the next trade.

I love the way that this story plays out perfectly logically. Everyone does just what you'd expect them to do, from the Lois Lane stand-in to the noble heroes who only want to save lives to the cannon fodder who plead for their lives. Only thing is, the Plutonian isn't playing by the same rules everyone else is used to. He's decided to play chess without obeying the movement rules. He's using the entire bank as his war chest in Monopoly while others are still trying to pass go for their two hundred dollars. The Plutonian won't accept what the others come to think of as the currency of the realm, and this change is the action that drives Irredeemable.

Rather than try to drag ideas of domestic terrorism or other bits of reality that destroy the illusion of fantasy necessary to make a superhero comic work, Waid opts to make a few subtle changes in the narrative. People snark on the Plutonian, which eats at him. He's rejected by the love of his life for perpetuating a fraud. He's even got some weird kinks. These are modern ideas that can easily be integrated to make the story darker without shattering the suspension of disbelief needed to keep the whole concept going in the first place. This is how you write a comic book with modern ideas, people, not suddenly deciding that Homeland Security might want a list of people with powers.

Then there's the issue of darkness. This comic is full of dark points. People are incinerated, blown up, and drowned, from heroes to villains to innocent children. An arm is ripped off by a piece of a coffee cup. Yet at no point in time is this violence either gratuitous or gory. Waid places each horrible act within a context that necessitates it and Peter Krause dignifies that script by showing these terrible deeds in such a way that presents the action with trying to see what new levels of depravity he can get away with on the page. The story, not the shock value, is the key.

This is the way a good dark comic should be done. Make original characters who can echo familiar names, but don't have the history of that name. Make your story reflect the peculiar standards of a superheroic world. Use modern ideas to tweak that world ("What if...") but don't try to make it look like the reality we live in daily. Most importantly, use violence to drive home the plot instead of abusing the plot to see how badly you can shock people.

Put simply, Mark Waid gets it. His description of this being a story of slow betrayal, of a Conradian march to the bottom, is spot on. And just like Joseph Conrad, this is a dark story done right. I just wish other creators, instead of taking potshots, would start taking notes. We'd all be better for it.