From the stack: Agents of Atlas

February 5, 2009

Not too long ago, writer Dan Slott mused on fun in super-hero comics. I have to give Slott credit for endorsing the concept, and he certainly does try. I found his first issue of Mighty Avengers more queasy-quasi-nostalgic than actually fun, but I appreciated the attempt. (I buy maybe two super-hero floppies a year, mostly out of morbid curiosity. In this case, it was to see if someone would actually write my longtime favorite super-heroine, the Scarlet With, without any post-partum, crazed-with-power drool running down her chin.) The intent for fun is there, though it reads more like an all-star season of a competitive reality show where you spend more time remembering the previous seasons you enjoyed and wondering how the producers defined “all-star.” (The comic did make me realize that I’ve never much cared about Hank Pym one way or the other, from his moments of sanity and competence to his stretches of toxic neurosis.)

But it did trigger a bit more desire to see if there was any actual fun to be found in Marvel Comics. After weighing the preponderance of critical evidence, I settled on a comic written by Jeff Parker as a likely vein of this rare and mysterious substance.

Agents of Atlas (Marvel) has a good beat and you could conceivably dance to it. It’s about a group of 1950s super-heroes reunited in the current day to help their former secret-agent leader. Writer Jeff Parker declines the premise’s invitation to ruefully ponder How Things Have Changed, and Not for the Better. (One character even tactfully neglects to tell another about her former protégé’s gruesome demise, not wanting to spoil the genial mood.)

Parker decides to let the cast bring their period’s offbeat sense of play with it. He tells a lightweight, fast-paced story about likeable characters doing reasonably interesting things, letting lots of throw-away fun compensate for an only serviceable plot.

The book strongly resembles The Umbrella Academy (Dark Horse), but The Umbrella Academy (which I liked a lot) resembles a lot of things. There’s less baggage in Agents of Atlas; there was no gruesome catalyst for the cast’s original separation, and they all view their reunion as fortuitous. Their lives didn’t stop when they were apart, but they fondly remember their brief time together, and their easy, amiable camaraderie clicks back into place without much fuss. Even their old arch-nemesis seems delighted at the turn of events.

If Parker doesn’t do a whole lot to move the characters past archetypes (the lug trapped in a monster’s body, the space orphan, the love goddess, etc.), he certainly knows how to orchestrate their familiar voices in endearing ways. Even the Marilyn Munster character, Wakandan S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Derek Kanata, is a pleasant, contributing presence, though the role of “the normal one” is almost always thankless.

Art by Leonard Kirk (inked by Kris Justice with Terry Pallot, colors by Michelle Madsen) is very much to my tastes. Staging is generally clear, there are some nifty page compositions, and there’s nothing egregiously cheesy. (Venus, the love goddess, is actually beautiful instead of tawdry, even when she’s walking around topless.) Kirk’s pencils remind me of those of Stuart Immonen, and Immonen was one of my favorite contemporary super-hero artists when I still read them regularly.

Marvel adds a fair amount of value to the collection, which comes in at a seems-high price tag of $24.99. In addition to the six issues of the original mini-series, there are lots of text pieces and some classic reprints of the character’s first appearances. (There’s also the deeply awful issue of What If that provided the inspiration for Agents of Atlas, which is oddly about a thousand times more meta-textual than the contemporary mini-series.)

I think the advantage here is that, instead of cherry-picking from any actual continuity, or at least any continuity that anyone knows offhand, Parker is inventing it as he goes along. He can control the tone and maintain a level of coherence with the narrative. Since nothing’s really happened with these characters in five decades, Parker can re-imagine them in a few contemporary ways while sticking with their original weirdness and charm. And he can do it without sneering at any of his neighbors. Instead of reading as a retaliatory measure or a satire, it’s just a pleasant, stand-alone alternative.