Welcome back to Stew’s Reviews! I’m your host Rob “Yes Rob, Not Rod” Stewart. When last we met, I was reviewing one of my absolute favorite comic book stories of all time, Kingdom Come. Hopefully you’ve read and enjoyed KC as much as I always have, and you haven’t read it… rectify that quickly! Jeez, what do I have to do, hold your hand?
This week we’re taking a look at what is essentially “That Other Robert Kirkman Book”, Invincible (specifically, The Viltrumite War saga that took place from Invincible #71 to #78). Now, that moniker is not entirely fair; Invincible has always had a relatively healthy fanbase, even if it wasn’t the Kirkman book that was deemed worthy of being made into an awful, repetitive television show on AMC. Invincible follows the life of teenage superhero Mark Grayson as he discovers that he has inherited the super powers of his father, the globally-revered hero Omni-Man, and carves out a life in heroism for himself. It features a robust cast of supporting characters (such as Marks’s half-brother Oliver, his girlfriend Atom Eve, his best friend Rick, government liaison Cecil, and his buddy Allen the Alien), and it is… quite a bit bloodier than your typical superhero fare. With that in mind…
The Viltrumite War is a cosmic battle story of the highest order; very little of the action in this arc takes place on, or near, Earth. The Viltrumites, for those uninitiated, are a nigh-extinct race from a dead planet, blessed with godly strength, speed, and the ability to fly. They have spread themselves across the stars to take over other planets in an attempt to maintain their glory… so they are essentially Saiyans. Huh. Invincible’s father is a full-blooded Viltrumite who grew attached to his life and family and has betrayed the Viltrimute way (though not immediately, as he almost kills Mark early in the series trying to convince his son to help him conquer Earth). A coalition of alien races have banded together in an attempt to free the universe of the plague of the Viltrumites, and with Omni-Man, Invincible, and Oliver ready to aid them, the Viltrumite War begins.
This war is a bloodbath. That’s not entirely unique to The Viltrumite War; Invincible is downright gratuitous in its joy of showing people get their innards ripped out, their jaws punched clean off, and their chests caved in. If the art wasn’t soft and colorful as it is, it might be hard to stomach. There is a line between “gritty realism” and “cartoonishly vulgar”, and while Invincible as a series generally manages to stay in the former by a hair’s breadth, there are times where it just does The Macarena right on the line. There gets to a point in The Viltrumite War where I thought “I’ve seen so many of the heroes’ intestines this series”. And, credit where it’s due, that’s absolutely not a thought I’ve ever had about a comic before. Never read a Spider-Man book and got turned off by the ubiquitous presence of entrails, nope.
It’s not all war and death, though. Invincible does manage to put the “funny” back in “funnybooks” between its more tense moments. The friendship between Allen and Tech Jacket (an armored Earthling hero) is amusing, with Allen constantly growing weary of Tech Jacket going on about growing a beard. Oliver is generally an entertaining character when he’s around; his high point for such moments during the war might be when he’s discussing human attraction. Oliver, whose mother was not human but the queen of an insectoid race, talks about how Mark’s mother took him to a restaurant with a lobster tank once, giving us the line “I mean, I still ate one… but I thought it was beautiful”.
The war itself ends in an interesting stalemate of sorts, The coalition destroys what is left of Viltrum (guess whose homeworld that is), and reduces the population of the space-faring race to 37. Still, those 37 that are left are all uber mensch who pose a huge threat, including their apparently-unstoppable leader, Thragg. As the heroes take a powder from direct conflict—their endgame at the moment had been to destroy the homeworld and turn the imperialistic race’s network of conquered planets against them—the Viltrumites abscond to Earth. Fearing the worst as they travel through space, Invincible and Omni-Man find Earth unscathed and Thragg offering a compromise: a truce that sees an end to the fighting while the Viltrumites rebuild their race on Earthling by intermingling with humans like Omni-Man had. On its surface, it’s a HORRIBLE deal, and I really didn’t like that the war would come to that non-resolution, but it’s one of those good comic book no-win situations for a hero to confront. If the heroes resist, the remaining Viltrimutes will destroy their planet and loved ones, so… what choice do they have?
+Beyond even the overly graphic, blood-soaked brawls, there are some really epic moments, none more so than the scene where Omni-Man, Invincible, and Thaedus (the leader of the coalition) fly full-boar through Viltrum. The planet explodes, and there is a series of double-page splashes showing the destruction and chaos of its annihilation.
+There are a lot of genuinely enjoyable character interactions throughout the series. The dynamics between characters like Omni-Man and Oliver, or Allen and Tech Jacket really break up the dire feel of everything else going on when the war feels like it’s getting a bit too dour.
-I referenced Dragon Ball Z earlier, and this arc has another similarity to that series that kinda bugged me. After finally pushing himself to his limits to become powerful and forceful enough to defeat Conquest—the most legendary warrior in Viltrumite history—Invincible then runs smack into Thragg… an EVEN MORE POWERFUL enemy. It felt like that moment when, after having Frieza pushed as The Most Powerful Force In The Universe, Cell just comes along and dwarfed his might after he was vanquished. It really cheapened what Conquest was, I don’t know, “supposed” to be.
-This series being so space-bound, a lot of the great Invincible regular characters from Earth get left behind. There’s very few moments with Robot, Atom Eve, Cecil, the Guardians of the Globe, etc. For an arc that the series felt like it had been building to for 70 issues, it stunk that so many of the developed characters were dropped from it.
There are better Invincible arcs. There’s no morality struggle here the likes of which Invincible had usually done so well. It’s just a barrage of nigh-identical evil aliens that need punched until they stop breathing. That is balanced out by some of the more brutal fights in the series and the standard Invincible humor, but there are earlier arcs that I tended to enjoy a bit more because there was more to struggle against than just “Oh, my intestines have been ripped out again”. And… that’s still a really odd thing to say, I guess. So whereas I am a big fan of Invincible, this arc actually marks a turning point for me where the quality started dipping somewhat and everything went a bit absurd and wonky.