Cool Things: Insufferable

Imagine, just for a moment, that there was a man driven to fight crime. Although he has no special powers he still dons a cape and dark clothing, goes out every night and pummels injustice. In time he takes a grieving boy under his wing and they fight crime together. Sounds familiar, right?

Except this caped crusader isn’t Batman, he’s called Nocturnus. And his crime fighting companion isn’t an orphaned boy who takes the name Robin, it’s Nocturnus’ son and he takes the name Galahad. And he’s not exactly easy to get along with. In fact, Galahad and Nocturnus eventually split ways when Galahad unexpectedly reveals his identity in front of the press and things get ugly. Galahad becomes a grandstanding, glory mongering ingrate more concerned with building his own image than actually fighting the good fight. Nocturnus continues to do things his own way, working on his own once again, until someone finds just the right button to push in order to get the two of them to work together again.

When the urns each man keeps containing ashes of the woman who was wife to one and mother to the other mysteriously explode leaving the message “help me” behind differences will be set aside to find the culprit. While neither man ever seems to indulge the idea that a ghost could be at work they both know there are people out there who wish them harm and both loved the woman who’s remains have been desecrated. So, like it or not, Nocturnus and Galahad are together once again.

Insufferable is a variation on themes for author Mark Waid. He’s looked at what it means to be a hero in many of his previous works, contrasting modern notions of the antihero and the protagonist with the heroic archetypes more common in the early days of comic books. He did this in his DC Elseworld series Kingdom Come and then again in longer form with the twin series Irredeemable and Incorruptible. However, where those books were concerned with notions like accountability, justice vs. revenge and the dangers of power Insufferable is all about humility.

Simply put, Nocturnus has it and Galahad doesn’t.

The fact that neither man has traditional “superpowers” and must rely on his wits and training to solve problems really lets the difference in attitude shine through. While Nocturnus is verging on obsolescence – he’s not as strong or fast as he used to be and he doesn’t get the electronic side of crime fighting at all – he still outperforms his son almost every time because he’s willing to listen, ask for assistance when he needs it and always takes people seriously, be they friends or enemies. Galahad gets technology and uses Twitter to help collect tips but he gets too caught up in himself and his image to stay on top of what’s happening in the real world and he abuses those around him to the point that very few of his staff can stand to help him out when he really needs it.

And this series is funny. Galahad’s the only one in the series that seems to lack a sense of humor, or if he has one it falls so flat as to be effectively invisible, but better yet the comic seems to be aware of it’s own absurdities and revels in them. There’s a piranha tank sequence for crying out loud – you only do those for laughs these days. Most of the humor hangs on the characters themselves, particularly the weird relationship between Nocturnus, Galahad and Meg, Galahad’s assistant and the only person who can tolerate him for any length of time. This well written, character based humor is timeless and will appeal to most everyone, except for all the real Galahads out there, and it’s one of the things that has always set Waid’s writing above most of his peers in the industry.

If you like your comics to be serious, well written examinations of human nature without being self-important handled then Insufferable might be right up your alley. You can read it as part of the subscription portion of Waid’s publishing website, Thrillbent.com, or you can buy it off of that same website. Either one will give you a great story although the comic is formatted for the website reader and the PDF layouts are a bit wonky.

But seriously, layout wonkiness is the one thing against it I can think of. Check this thing out, it’s well worth the price.

Cool Things: Potter’s Field

“There’s a cemetery on Hart Island at the western end of Long Island Sound. Unidentified corpses are buried here under plain stone markers at the rate of around 125 a week…” 

-Jordan Halpert, Potter’s Field 

Kind of chilling, isn’t it? In the city of New York, 125 people die nameless and friendless every week. That’s about 500 a month. 6,500 a year.

Who are they? How did they die? Does anyone really care about them?

I’m not sure how accurate that statistic is, but by opening his comic noir tour de force Potter’s Field with it, Mark Waid manages to ensure that he has our attention from minute one. After all, who want’s to die nameless and forgotten? The least dignity we could be offered is a tombstone with a name on it. Yet to the people of the Hart Island cemetery, the only indication of who they might be is a cold, impersonal number.

But there is a man. A man who hates that fact, who cannot stand to just walk away from those empty stones. So he walks the length and breadth of the city, piecing together the clues no one else has the time or the resources to find, and finding the names for these people and recording them in stone for all to see.

Like the people he serves, this man has no name to give to others, so they call him John Doe. To us, and to the people who help him, he is as much an enigma as the corpses he names. He seems to have no family, no friends, no history at all. And yet, there must be something that drives him to live alone, in abandoned buildings, eating canned food and sleeping on cots. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the real mystery is – John or the people of in the potter’s field.

Or perhaps, as his name suggests, John Doe is just another one of the nameless dead who hasn’t given up on moving around just yet.

Potter’s Field is the polar opposite of the last Mark Waid titles I mentioned. Where Irredeemable and Incorruptible are quite possibly the greatest superhero titles ever written, Potter’s Field is a tribute to the mortal man. John’s not superhuman in anything but his ambition. He scrabbles about for clues, risks his life every time he crosses with the criminal underworld and very nearly becomes a real John Doe on more than one occasion.

But, as Greg Rucka says in his introduction to the first collection, he still shows us Waid’s favorite kind of struggle. That of a man who stands on the side of what’s Right , opposing what is Wrong. The fact that he does it without spandex, superpowers or a second thought from the press and public only makes him more of a hero, not less of one.

And it gives one new hope in the potential of funnybooks to tell stories. For that alone it’s worth your time. Pick up your copy now and maybe someday you’ll be able to show it to your children one day, and say, “This is one of the titles that started the revolution. This is what made comics a force in our culture.” And really, how cool is that?

Cool Things: Irredeemable and Incorruptible

In keeping with what I started last week, I think I’ll mention another cool thing that helped lead to the creation of Project Sumter and all its attending strangeness. So this week’s cool thing is actually two things that are, in some ways, inseparable. They are Mark Waid’s comic book powerhouses, Irredeemable and Incorruptible.

If you ever want to sit down and read something that will totally redefine your perceptions of comic books I cannot recommend these two series too highly. Waid does everything right that the “Big Two” publishers so often do wrong. There are no implausible resurrections of dead characters, no apologies for unpopular plot twists and, perhaps most important, no attempts made to stretch the story out longer simply to milk the success of the franchise. In fact, both Irredeemable and Incorruptible have ended their publishing runs.

Thematically, the two series are incredibly dark. Irredeemable asks the question what would happen if the greatest hero in the world suddenly became its greatest villain. It’s protagonist, The Plutonian (Tony to his friends) was as powerful and as benevolent as Superman. He led a team of do-gooders known as the Paradigm who held back the tides of crazy, evil-doing superpowered wackos and let the public live in peace. In fact, as Waid’s characters point out several times, the public almost worshiped him as a god.

But like all pagan gods, Tony is little more than a bundle of human frailties writ large and, when the breaking point is finally reached, the people who had come to take their safety for granted receive a rude shock. In the devastation that follows, as Tony slips farther and farther out of touch with humanity and his friends in the Paradigm struggle to understand what went wrong with the man who had led them for three years, Irredeemable asks us the question: Is a person ever really irredeemable?

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Plutonian’s descent into wrath and genocide, the FBI’s former most-wanted, a superhuman known as Max Damage, comes out of hiding and does something most people find inexplicable. He destroys his arsenal of illegal weapons, his car and all his illegally obtained cash and reforms. With no obvious hesitation or remorse he abandons everything that made him one of the world’s most dangerous supervillains and turns his incredible powers to restoring peace and order to his home town of Coalville. He seeks to become Incorruptible. Why he does it is almost as much of a riddle as if he will succeed.

Unlike the Plutonian, with his almost mind boggling slew of abilities, Max has only one thing going for him: the longer he stays awake, the stronger and more indestructible he becomes. This enhanced strength costs him his sense of taste, touch and smell but, on the bright side, it also helps him avoid the physical side effects of sleep deprivation. After a long time awake he still gets a little loopy, though. And when he sleeps, he returns to normal and awakens a regular mortal once again.

Max’s struggles are much different than those of the Plutonian and those who seek to oppose him. Unlike the purpose driven characters of Irredeemable, Max has a much more open-ended and daunting task. He feels he must somehow restore hope and peace to a world where those things have been almost systematically eradicated. And every time he wakes up, his senses fade to two, and he shoulders the powers that sometimes seem as much burden as blessing, he faces a choice: Do I still want to try to do this? In spite of all the bad things in my past, in spite of all the nay sayers and all the people who have given up, in spite of the renegade who we thought was the gold standard of right behavior and who betrayed us in the end? Can a person ever be incorruptible?

In the end, both Tony and Max find their answers, though maybe not the ones they were looking for. And in that, by giving his characters an ending (yes, a real ending!) that fits who they are and what they need, not what they want, Mark Waid makes Irredeemable and Incorruptible more than just about anything else you’ll find in comics these days.

That alone would make it pretty cool. But there’s a lot of other things in there, too. Grim humor, great artwork and neat ideas abound as well. Check it out and I’m willing to bet you won’t be disappointed.