Monday, September 01, 2014

Review: Infinity

This is, however, a terrible cover, saying nothing about the book other than that Thanos is in it, and that he takes excellent care of his teeth for someone obsessed with death.
I really rather enjoyed Infinity, the Jonathan Hickman masterminded and written Marvel crossover/event series.

At least in the form in which I read it, the form of a gigantic, 630-page hardcover collection with the size and scope to truly deserve being called "a graphic novel." Even though it is a collection of serially-published comics: A half-dozen issues each of New Avengers and Infinity and 10 issues of Avengers.

The thing about the modern Marvel event series—DC has temporarily abandoned the field after The New 52, only offering one true big event in favor of smaller, franchise-sized crossovers and line-wide theme months—is that while the publisher does lay out a buffet of comics under the umbrella title of the event, it's up to the reader to basically curate their own experience. If you want to read it monthly, then you can choose to just read Infinity. Or just Infinity and its more important tie-ins (Here, Hickman's two Avengers books). Or everything with the word "Infinity" in the title. Or just the books featuring characters, creators or premises you like with the word "Infinity" in the title. Or some other configuration.

You could also wait for the collection, in which Marvel more-or-less pre-curates your Infinity experience for you. That's what I did with this book; I waited long enough for the dust to settle and the important parts of the story to emerge and get put together between a single set of covers (Yes, it costs a $75 fucking dollars, but that's what public libraries are for, if you feel no particular compulsion to own the book, and you probably shouldn't).

(One could also follow along by simply reading Andrew Wheeler's amusing summaries at Comics Alliance.)

I mention that merely because I suspect my experience of reading it in this particular form—one big, continuous narrative only occasionally broken up by the need to eat or sleep or go to work—made it a much more enjoyable one than it would have been were I reading it in 20-80-page installments once a week or once a month, over the course of half a year or so, likely picking up all sorts of puzzle pieces that I would only later find didn't really have anything to do with the final story (I ran across the Guardians of the Galaxy tie-in issue in the collection Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Angela, for example; that had almost nothing to do with the story of Infinity, it turns out, and was so insignificant to the story that it merits a two or three-panel dramatization within this collection).

Also, the not paying for it has got to help a lot. I know from reading Secret Invasion and Civil War how frustrating it is to pay too much money for a branded tie-in that has no real import or no real pay-off in the story itself. I suspect that if I had attempted to read Infinity the good old-fashioned, Wednesday Crowd reading way, I would have hated what little I made it through before giving up entirely.

But 600 pages of curated comics, for the free? Yeah, that's a good way to read the story.

The presentation here is pretty unique too, I think. There are two byzantine credits pages at the beginning, saying who did what in which comic book collected—Hickman wrote almost all of it, with Nick Spencer-co-writing a handful of Avengers issues; artists included Mike Deodato, Stefano Caselli, Jim Cheung, Jerome Opena, Dustin Weaver, Leinil Francis Yu and others—but unless you're very diligent, and, for some reason, decide to keep referring back to those credits pages while reading, it's difficult to tell which comic book the section you're reading originated in.

That is, there are no individual covers and story titles and credits demarcating the end of one issue and the beginning of the next. Rather, it's presented like a novel. There will be an all-white page with a chapter title on it—"Orbital," "The Last Lesson," "Plans and Intentions"—and then a few pages of comics before the next chapter. It's all rather seamless.

The artwork, if you're familiar with the names of the above artists, changes noticeably, but also changes so often that a sort of baseline aesthetic is established, and even an experienced reader will likely go a few pages before noticing a different artist is drawing, and generally only, say, when you see the way Yu draws an eyeball, or the way Deodato abuses his computer to drop blurry photos into the backgrounds in the most unnecessary of ways (For example, one panel had a photo of the moon in the back. Just draw a fucking circle! Use a compass if it's too hard! If we see a large, luminous circle in a black sky, we'll figure out it's the moon; we don't need to see all the craters).

The surprisingly seamless (or seam-lite) feel of the artwork may have something to do with the fact that the cast is largely an unfamiliar one. Well, it's large for one thing, and while most of the names are familiar, there are a lot characters in here who aren't exactly Spider-Man and Wolverine (both of whom appear briefly in the opening, and then disappear); there are a lot of Inhumans and space guys and new Hickman creations and Thanos' "The Black Order/Cull Obsidian" (almost none of whom are dark in color or where much black, oddly enough) that I didn't know if they were new or not, because the extremities of the Marvel Universe isn't my bag.

It may also have something to do with the fact that while I named some of the artists who contribute the most work, there are quite a few more, and those weren't counting the inkers and colorists. The book has the look of a studio work; not in the sort of uniform, page-to-page look that a manga studio might be able to produce, sure, but neither in the sort of "All hands on deck! Deadline's in six hours, guys!" look of some of the rougher DC Comics with more than three artists involved.

As for the story, it is appropriately big for a book called Infinity, but also, once it gets going, rather simple.

It involves a convergence of the two plot-lines in Hickman's two ongoing Avengers books, both of which I like quite a bit, from what I've read to them previous to this.

The simpler of the two would seem to be New Avengers, which should really be called The Illuminati, as it features the Brian Michael Bendis-created concept of a cabal of the smartest and most influential Marvel Universe leaders secretly meeting and pulling strings behind the scenes. The current incarnation—Doctor Strange, Namor, The Black Panther, Mister Fantastic, Black Bolt, Iron Man and the X-Men's Beast, the latter of whom is in for the temporarily dead Charles Xavier—are currently trying to secretly deal with a fantastic problem with mind-boggling moral implications.

Apparently, alternate Earths from neighboring dimensions keep appearing close to their own Earth (the one we call 616) and, with no Spectre to push the world's apart, Gardner Fox-style, they have to come up with a solution to save their world. The best they've been able to come up with is to destroy the alternate Earths, before they collide into their own Earth, destroying both.

Namor, who is, remember, a dick, and Black Panther, whose little sister now rules Wakanda as queen and is advised by a bunch of dicks, find their countries at war on account of the events of Avengers Vs. X-Men, which makes playing nicely on the same team somewhat difficult for the pair.

In Hickman's Avengers book, he's introduced the biggest and most powerful Avengers line-up I've seen, in a book that is probably the closest thing to Grant Morrison's '90s run on JLA with Howard Porter, John Dell and occasional fill-in creators that I've yet found. Iron Man invents a sort of Avengers machine to recruit members, and the huge line-up has swelled to include Captain America, Captain Marvel, Thor, Hyperion, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Black Widow, The Falcon, Shang-Chi, Hawkeye, Wolverine, former X-Men Sunspot and Cannonball (who have taken the Wally West/Kyle Rayner comic relief/POV character role from JLA), Manifold, a new Smasher, a weird new take on Captain Universe and new characters—or new versions of old characters, in perhaps one case—Abyss, Nightmask, Ex Nihilo and Starbrand. Whew!

Those last four were later additions, and the earlier books of the series have dealt with the already pretty huge Avengers line-up dealing with them, as they showered Earth with "origin bombs" and pulled all kinds of crazy cosmic bullshit.

As for that simple plot that powers Infinity, it goes like this. An ancient race known as The Builders, whom Abyss and Ex Nihilo were kinda sorta in the employ of at one time, are destroying the galaxy, wheat thresher style, on their way to Earth, which they would also like to destroy. "The Galactic Council" (i.e. The Illuminati...but in space!) rally all kinds of Marvel alien races and band together to try to stop The Builders in Star Wars-dwarfing space battle after Star Wars dwarfing space battle, and The Avengers recruit their most powerful recent antagonists (Ex Nihilo, et al) and head into space to join the fight.

Meanwhile, learning that Earth is currently Avengers-free, Thanos decides to attack, with a somewhat ambiguous goal (looking for an Infinity Gem, and/or collecting bags of heads) masking his true goal—to find and kill his son, who is hidden on Earth among the Inhumans.

So it's a war on two fronts, with the away team pretty outmatched, despite entire space empires worth of cosmic help, and the home team dealing with Thanos' armies, lead by the five super-powerful members of the Black Order (this bit actually reminded me a bit of the also decidedly simple, and better than most stories in its class, Fear Itself, at least in the way Thanos' Obsidian generals mirrored the hammer-wielding Worthy).

The remaining Earth heroes and The Illuminati have to deal with the Thanos mess, and hope to hold him off long enough for the space war to wrap up and the other Avengers come back to help beat-up Thanos. Meanwhile, Blackbolt is up to something. And of course, an alternate Earth could materialize at any moment and obliterate the world...or compel the Illuminati to commit planetary genocide.

So lot of big ideas thrown about at machine gun pacing, with clever uses for powers and comic book science being employed as tactics in the course of the wars.

I do hate to keep bringing up Grant Morrison—or at least, Grant Morrison circa the turn of the century—as I get the feeling Hickman gets unfairly compared to him far too often already, but Hickman's take on the various super-characters reminded me quite a bit of Morrison's take on the JLA, in which the characters are very remote and, a few jokes or a single character trait apiece aside, don't have all that much in the form of personalities, but rather are interchangeable soldiers, functionaries who are so caught up in the escalating scales of the threats they face that there's no real need to concern ourselves with any personal conflicts they might be facing.

Are Captains Marvel and America confident, or do they feel out of place fighting among god-like aliens in battles in which worlds live and die? Who cares? They're kinda wrapped up in the fighting of those battles at the moment.

This isn't the case with the Thano/Illuinati side of the plot. Many of the characters have semi-silly magnetic poetry names, and speak in florid pronouncements, but there is a much (relatively) smaller scale to plots like the invasion of a single planet by a single invasion force, for example, or Thanos wanting to kill his son, or Black Bolt not wanting to let Thanos kill a bunch of his people, and so forth. The motivations and conflicts among m any of these characters are still quite grand, but things like wars between nations and geo-political rivals are at least human in scale.

For all of the talk one hears about the unlimited special effects budget of the comics page, I found the art somewhat ill-suited for depicted space battles between armadas of huge space ship. At their best, we get a sense of scale in large drawings of huge numbers of ships, but they don't move, and the artists rarely give us more than establishing shots—there are no dogfights or anything akin to that. The scale here dwarf that of your biggest Star Wars battle, but it doesn't move or sing and thus doesn't thrill like even the most dryly staged and unimaginative Star Wars battle scene.

At best, the space ship fights work in extreme long shot, as we see chunks of gray and white metal in the background, laser beams like Christmas tree lights between them.
The supehero battles are a lot more successful, of course, and Hickman and his collaborators do some weird and strange things with the space team of Avengers. They are outnumbered by their many alien allies—Gladiator, Ronan The Accuser, etc—but appear in the fray with odd bits of armor and masks, occasionally astride weird little vehicles. My favorite out-of-place character in this is probably The Falcon, who gets a big, bizarre, vaguely prehistoric bird-shaped helmet that allows him to participate in space fights.
Also note Spider-Woman on a speeder-bike thingee with Hawkweye behind her, fighting alien spaceships with a bow and arrow in space.
It will come as no surprise to learn that the good guys ultimately win, not even losing any token, temporary casualties as is so often the case in these sorts of crossovers (Well, I'm pretty sure thousands died, but no Avengers). What is surprising is all the stuff that Hickman has his good guys try in the course of winning, some things failing horribly (like a last resort to release a new "Annihilation Wave" from the Negative Zone, a threat so dire it once powered it's own galactic-spanning crossover event series) and some things succeeding remarkably well (like Thor having Mjolnir punch a hole in a seemingly unstoppable villain to inspire a planet full of guys who carry big, blunt weapons).

Again, like Morrison's JLA, the story ends with a sort of exciting, sort of depressing note—as bad as all this might have seemed for our heroes, it was nothing compared to what it could have been, and what it will be next time. The end of the world (or galaxy or universe) doesn't just appear and win or lose once, but it's something that's always coming, more persistently and more insistently each time, and requires constant fighting. Entropy is an inevitability, and superhero fights, like life itself, is basically just a stalling tactic.

A cheery thought, I know.

So let's end on a fun note. A Lockjaw note.

Lockjaw is, of course, the giant bulldog with a tuning fork on his head and a handsome mustache that serves as the Inhumans' modes of transportation, given his ability to teleport himself and others. He is awesome.

He appears throughout the book, generally in a seemingly small role, as he helps Black Bolt and Black Bolt's brother Maximus The Mad in their bizarre machinations.
Lockjaw: The only reason an Inhumans movie might be a good idea.

He also gets maybe the single most bad-ass scene in the entire series. Here is Lockjaw taking out one of Thanos' generals, Supergiant, all by his bad-ass bulldog self:

Fuck yeah, Lockjaw!


Hey, is it weird that in a hand-to-hand fight against one of Thanos' generals, the orange guy in gray armor called Blackdwarf, that Black Widow's costume gets torn up a lot more than Shang Chi's?

Ha ha ha ha! No, of course not! He wears spandex and she wears crepe paper. It's a simple matter of the materials they make their costumes out of, and has nothing to do with artists preferring to draw women with their clothes torn off then men with their clothes torn off. Obviously.

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