Sunday, June 16, 2013

Agents of Atlas (2006) review

 Sorry I’ve been away for so long. It’s just that I’ve been having some problems lately. Thankfully they aren’t work-related, but dietary-related. I, and a lot of others, recently were forced to consume two things which shouldn’t mix together:
However, now that I’m recovered, I have my first real review to post for the first time in several months! Enjoy.


 One of the great things you can say about comics that you really can’t say about any other medium is that there are no ideas that aren’t crazy enough to work (The cover of Action Comics #1, which started the whole comics biz rolling, was almost vetoed because the publisher thought the sight of a man in tights lifting a car was too unbelievable). Agents of Atlas by Jeff Parker and Leonard Kirk might prove this point better than anything else. Now, conceptually, AOA may not seem too out of the ordinary; it’s about a group of superheroes who disbanded years ago getting back together to solve a mystery. But there are two things that push this particular series into “You gotta be fucking kidding me! They actually tried that?!!!?” territory.

 One is where exactly these particular heroes came from and what the impetus behind the creation of this series was. The leads of Agents of Atlas are all obscure characters from the 40’s and 50’s who weren’t necessarily superheroes (Or in two cases, even heroes) or even necessarily recurring characters that had been grouped together for an old issue of What If? (from 1978) to serve as members of an alternate universe Avengers team, and barring cameos during several crossover events involving alternate realities, had never been used since.
  And then they got their own prestige format limited series with lots of hype, a computer game available on the company website that offered clues to the mystery, and even ‘treasure hunts’ at several comic shops.

 Let me repeat that, minor characters from the 50’s, most of them not even superheroes, whose first (and last) big appearance had been in an out-of-continuity  story from the late 70s, were suddenly given their own mini-series with top talent and heavy promotion that even ‘events’ like Civil War never had. How could something like that get pitched, let alone made? Let alone given that much hype? Forget things like One More Day and Superior Spider-Man; green lighting this series must surely count as the ballsiest move Marvel has made in the past decade.

 But here’s the second thing about Agents of Atlas that truly makes it the supreme example of seemingly insane concepts succeeding in comics that could succeed in no other medium; it’s actually a very, very good series.

 Now I’m not saying Agents of Atlas is some modern classic or genre-redefining masterpiece like Watchmen, in fact, based off of the sporadic appearances since then of the characters, I’d say it probably underperformed in Marvel’s eyes, and based off of the general dismissal most mainstream comics fans have had towards the series (the word ‘boring’ is flung around a lot) I’d actually call it underrated. But for an idea that has ‘disaster’ written all over it, AOA succeeds astonishingly well, and as a high-flying adventure, succeeds better at capturing a Silver Age feel of innocent fun better than almost anything I can think of. For older comics fans who want to read something a bit more like the optimistic, fun-filled stories of their youth, this is for you.

 Years ago during the 50’s, Jimmy Woo was a Chinese-American FBI agent who opposed the forces of The Yellow Claw; a Fu Manchu-type super villain who was head of some sort of cult (The Claw and Woo were stars of a short-lived 50’s series which used the Dracula/Fu Manchu format of being named after the villain but focusing on the heroes opposing him. Of these characters, Woo has had the most visibility since the 50’s, appearing in Steranko’s Nick Fury run). During one of the Claw’s more ambitious schemes which involved kidnapping the president, Woo assembled a team of heroes called the G-Men to aid him in defeating the Claw. They consisted of Venus the Goddess of Love (who had her own comic in the late 40’s and early 50’s, which ranged from humor, to romance, to superheroics, to horror all at the drop of a hat. I’ve read the first Masterwork, and believe me, it’s craaaazy, and totally deserving of a review here someday), Marvel Boy (an earth boy who had been raised on Uranus and then returned to fight crime on earth for two issues of his own comic and several truly awful back-up stories in Astonishing), Gorilla-Man (A man transformed into a gorilla by a curse who originally appeared in a one-off horror story in Men’s Adventures) and The Human Robot (A killer robot from a one-off horror story in Menace #11, rehabilitated to be a hero. Rather amusingly, he’s referred to as M11 in this series). Eventually however, they all went their separate ways, with Woo eventually taking a desk job with S.H.I.E.L.D.
  Flash forward to modern times, desperate to retain some of his old glory, an aging Woo undertakes an unauthorized mission to investigate a mysterious organization called Atlas, which ends with all of his men dead and himself disfigured and in a coma. However, he then ends up being rescued by the combination of Marvel Boy, M11 and Gorilla Man (who has been acting as an inside man for the other two). Marvel Boy rehabilitates Woo to full-health using his alien technology, but because his machines only remember Woo from the 50’s, they end up restoring his youth as well. This would be a great thing if not for the fact that it also wipes out all of Woo’s memories after the 50’s, so our heroes have to start from scratch trying to solve the mystery behind the Atlas foundation. Meanwhile, they end up pursued both by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Derek Khanata (The narrator of the series, who ends up becoming both the ‘hostage’ of the group and a de facto member) and the Yellow Claw, while Venus and Namora (Cousin of Namor the Sub-Mariner) join up. But can they all trust each other?
How could you hate a team like this?

 Obviously, AOA owes a bit to Watchmen in its plot about retired superheroes coming together to solve a mystery, with one of them being a traitor, but it works better here than countless other stories that have copied Watchmen because, in essence, Agents has much of the same going for it in terms of story structure that Watchmen had, mainly being that these characters don’t have the continuity restraints that bog down established characters and series that try to imitate it. The lead characters of Agents are all, to most readers, new characters, some having not appeared since the What If? story, and thus, there’s a great opportunity to play around with them, just as how the characters in Watchmen were all new (Well okay, extensively inspired by old Charlton characters, but you get my point). And after all, since these characters are going to need updating and character establishing moments anyway, what with this being their first real appearance in the Marvel Universe (The What If? story is followed very loosely and presumably it takes place in another alternate universe), why not have the revelations made here about the heroes be shocking and bizarre? It really works and manages to feel organic, rather than all of the other times obscure characters are brought back simply for a “shock” revelation to be made about them before they get killed off or become evil (Like that Invaders mini-series where a bunch of public domain super-heroes were brought back and revealed to be Nazi sympathizers).

 Mostly though, Agents of Atlas succeeds because all of the characters are likeable and complex. Just about every character gets a chance to shine and turns out to not quite be what they seem. Jimmy Woo is an archetypal spy hero from just about every Cold War thriller ever (Except for the fact that he’s half-Chinese, of course), but here he has to deal with the dilemma of being a man out of his time twice over. He peaked in the 50’s and spent the rest of his life pathetically longing for his glory days commanding superheroes and battling the Yellow Claw, but upon being returned to his youthful state and surrounded by all his old friends as he battles the Yellow Claw once more, he finds he can’t adjust to things any better and has lost all of the knowledge that came with age; knowledge he desperately needs. It’s a fascinating twist on the Rip Van Winkle theme, and also leads to some very funny moments such as when he realizes how much prices have changed since the 50’s. Venus, apparently the goddess of love and beauty and whose powers involves making people reject violence and feel only love, could apparently do all sorts of great things with her powers, but why doesn’t she? The answer is both frightening and strangely poignant for a character whose function is basically to be the most stereotypically girly-girl imaginable. Marvel Boy, who was never much of a super-hero on earth, came to embrace his adopted alien home world only to be rejected by them when he chose to return to earth for this latest mission, and when he finds out that he’s basically being used as a pawn, not belonging to either world, it drives him almost to madness.
 Gorilla-Man  is the stand-out though; he has grown so resigned to his condition that he views everything with a sense of humor and has even come to embrace his curse (His wife left him when he became a gorilla, but rather than wish he could be human so they could get back together, he wishes that she was a gorilla). It’s a pretty stark contrast to his surly, self-loathing personality seen in the What If? story, as well as to the character he’s obviously patterned after; Ben Grimm. He gets many of the book’s funniest lines.
  The other characters aren’t so well-defined, but they work well in context. Khanata is a cipher, coming from the fictitious African nation of Wakanda (Where blacks are dominant and which is also the most technologically advanced place on Earth. Basically, it’s Marvel’s apology for every time they do something that offends black readers), he’s characterized as a do-no-wrong good guy who is smarter than everyone else except for the heroes,, who consistently call him a narc. However, since it’s his eyes who the reader sees the story through as all these characters are introduced, well; I guess it’s okay for him to be a cipher. After all, these are some very obscure characters here and someone needs to be around for exposition to be fed through. Namora is basically a female version of her cousin, just like the name implies. Heroic one minute, then going full-on murderous vengeful super-villain(ess) at the slightest provocation. Namora only had a brief cameo in the original What If? story and wasn’t a team member, but this works because, problems aside, she’s a heck of a lot more interesting than the other member of the team in that story, 3D-Man, a retcon character whose adventures were set in the 50’s but wasn’t actually created in that era. The biggest problem with Namora isn’t really her characterization, but just that she feels somewhat clumsily inserted into the plot. She’s barely been with the team at all before the inevitable “big fight” when everyone turns on each other, so her anger at her teammates has less resonance. As for the Human Robot, well, he’s a robot. Non-speaking, possibly non-thinking, he’s an enigmatic figure, but like Venus, he has a surprisingly poignant sub-plot, and the revelation of why exactly he’s called “The Human Robot” brilliantly turns the Menace story on its head.

 It’s a series full of twists and turns, and in yet another similarity to Watchmen, it sometimes becomes so complex that text pieces are used to provide some background (as well as to smooth out  a few continuity holes for the few characters that have been used since the What If? story). I can see why some readers, raised on Image comics and massive crossovers which are little more than slug-fests, might find it boring. But patience is a virtue well-worth having when it comes to this series. Many of the in-jokes are brilliant, such as references to Little Shop of Horrors, Jurassic Park and Village of the Damned, and several throw-away sequences which could have made for entertaining stories all on their own. I do have to admit though that I miss some of the touches the What If? story had, such as all of the obscure villains cribbed from Atlas’s short-lived 50’s hero revival and horror comics that popped up as henchmen for the Claw.
  The biggest problem with Agents of Atlas, however, comes not from pacing, but from the twist.


 It turns out that the Yellow Claw is nothing more than an actor who is a member of a cult led by a dragon that has been a mentor to various Khans throughout the ages, and that their purpose was to set up a stereotypical ‘yellow peril’ menace for Woo to defeat so that he could present a positive image for Asians, and then become the next Khan under their tutelage after he was rewarded with a position of power. While on one hand this comes off as an unexpected twist and turns the title ‘Agents of Atlas” into a fantastically twisted joke, it also makes no sense. The Claw has been shown engaging in criminal practices in the Marvel universe for decades without Woo’s intervention, clearly showing him to be more than just a pawn. Trying to create a positive image for Asians by setting up a ridiculously stereotypical villain for one to defeat also seems incredibly counter-intuitive (and as the story points out, it didn’t work since Woo was never offered a position of power). It may be a thoughtful commentary on the yellow peril aspects of characters like the Yellow Claw, and stories where the villains were secretly trying to support the hero are certainly welcome, but it ultimately comes off as a very forced bid for political correctness and contradicts decades of continuity. This isn’t a problem for the other characters in AOA who have never really been used since the 50’s, but Woo and the Claw have. The attempts to tie in Gorilla-Man’s origin and even Khanata’s family is also weak.
"Our centuries old scheme goofed. My bad."

 Still, Agents is a fun little mystery with very likeable characters, lots of humor, and it never forgets to have fun and play around with its concepts. How could you not have fun with a series starring a Spy, a Spaceman, a Goddess, a Gorilla and a Robot? Comics really would be the hopelessly negative world critics make them out to be if someone couldn’t wring fun out of that, and thankfully, Jeff Parker knows how to have that kind of fun. Kirk also does an admirable job on the art, particularly with little details such as men’s reactions to Venus, a distorted image of Marvel Boy that resembles the alien from the movie The Man from Planet X, or a glance at FBI files showing obscure Timely comics heroes. I've re-read this book several times and noticed new things.

 I also have to give praises to the people who put together the Hardcover edition collecting the series. Not only do they include bonus materials such as sketches, creator interviews, ads, but also reprints of the What If? story and the first appearances of all the key players. The coloring leaves something to be desired, but the art thankfully isn’t obscured except for the Namora story, which looks to have had crappy art anyway. The best of these stories are Gorilla-Man’s “debut”, which was very clearly the inspiration for the Frank Frazetta-illustrated story “Werewolf” in Creepy #1. The debut of the Yellow Claw and Jimmy Woo also has some fantastic Joe Maneely art going for it.
  Agents of Atlas may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s something I personally don’t hesitate to give a full 5/5 to. Even with the ending, because you see, Hollywood has shown me that the plot twist of a stereotypical Asian villain being a decoy could have been executed much, much worse:


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