Friday, April 24, 2009

Gauntlet (Marvel)
Incredible Hercules #128 When: June 2009
Why: Greg Pak & Fred Van Lente How: Dietrich Smith

The Story So Far...
Rising to power off the back of a smear campaign against former Director of SHIELD, Tony Stark; Norman Osborn becomes the new lynchpin of an American whose trust in heroes has been replaced by paranoia and fear.
Pursuing his own sinister lust for power, Osborn recreates himself as the Iron Pariot to lead a team of Dark Avengers against the very evil he was once, and still is, a part of.

After seizing control of Olympus Group - the corporate identity of the gods - from Zeus; Hera earns the attentions of Osborn, and his agents of HAMMER, with a product called Continuum®. Despite the makings of a perfect match, the two powers are unable to reach a mutually beneficial business agreement, leading their respective groups into a head-long collision!

The events turn Athena, Hercules, and Amadeus Cho into unlikely allies of the Olympus Group, despite Hera's bitter jealousy over a prophecy of Athena's ascension to greatness, and her disdain for Zeus' son. Thus, the great heroes join Olympus Group in a battle against the Dark Avengers!

Tale of the Tape...
Strength: Sentry 6 (Invincible)
Intelligence: Iron Patriot 5 (Professor)
Speed: Sentry 6 (Superhuman)
Stamina: Pluto 7 (Unstoppable)
Agility: Captain Marvel 5 (Cat-like)
Fighting: Ares 7 (Living Weapon)
Energy: Sentry 7 (Cosmic)

- The Dark Avengers are: Iron Patriot, Ms. Marvel, Ares, Sentry, Captain Marvel, Hawkeye, Wolverine, and Spider-man.

When several individuals within the superhero community were revealed as Skrull impostors, a battle of paranoia forced heroes previously divided by their own civil war, to battle together against a Secret Invasion. Though the heroes emerged victorious, the mass corruption incurred within SHIELD allowed then Director for the Commission on Superhuman Activities, Norman Osborn, to stage a coup.

After branding Tony Stark a traitor and coward, Osborn set about rearranging his world as a dark reflection of Stark's. His reign quickly began with the disbanding of SHIELD, in favour of his own organization, HAMMER, before attentions were turned to the Avengers. Incorporating members of his Thunderbolts team, Osborn reimagines their public face as palatable identities associated with heroics.

Mac Gargan becomes Spider-man; Daken adopts Wolverine; Bullseye is Hawkeye; Noh-Varr upgrades to Captain Marvel; Moonstone becomes Ms. Marvel; and Osborn himself creates an iconic identity to fill the void typically filled by a symbol, utilizing Stark's armor designs and a motiff inspired by Captain America, to become the Iron Patriot. Existing members of the team, Ares and Sentry, remain on this newly formed incarnation of Dark Avengers.

- The Olympus Group are: Hera, Typhon, Pluto, and Delphyne Gorgon, who are accompanied by Hercules, Amadeus Cho, and Athena.

Founded by Zeus; the Olympus Group was designed to maintain contact between the gods of Olympus, and the human world. The corporation represents a modern redefinition of the power and influence of the gods. Prominent membership is held by Hebe, Huntsman, Typhon, Pluto, and Hera, who usurped control of the corporation upon Zeus' death. She manipulates the group to her own ends, in particular, in pursuit of her son by marriage to Zeus, Hercules.

Hercules is the demigod spawn of king of the Olympian gods, Zeus, and Alcmena; the mortal daughter of the king of Mycenae. Despite a conspiracy perpetrated by Hera and Luciana to prevent the birth; Hercules was born after seven days of labor, to rule those around him, by the decree of Zeus. The mammoth child would indeed traverse many perils to grow into a mighty leader of men, whose strength became the stuff of legends.

Math: Dark Avengers Ranking: The Sentry (#91)

What Went Down...
When the Dark Avengers descend upon the Olympus Group, Hercules and his fellows become unlikely allies to their godly enemies. They have little choice, quickly thrown into the fray against their Dark Avengers counterparts.

Confronted by the on-coming blur of the Sentry, Hercules is quick to enact an offensive-defensive by catching his opponent's cape on the fly-by, only to toss him through the levels above like a blonde olympic hammer!

Ares; half-brother to Hercules and god of war; enters the battle to defeat his brother, disappointed to unexpectedly find Olympus Group alongside his familial nemesis. With promise of reprimand for his deceptive team leader, Ares topples Hercules and Athena with a grenade, unaware of Typhon's looming presence.

The giant clutches Ares by the skull amidst a swarm of serpents.
Remembering his slain brethren from ancient battles waged by Olympus, Typhon vengefully dominates the god of war, driving his head into the Earth beneath.

Meanwhile, Typhon's ally and Olympian god of the Underworld, Pluto, descends upon the impostor Wolverine with a macabre glee. He taunts the clawed mutant with "December 27th," a unique insight into the destined date of Daken's death. In retaliation, he drives his claws through Pluto's body, successful in amusing the immortal god. The dead rise at Pluto's command to join the fight on his behalf.

Pluto's presence stirs a plot in wise Athena, who recognises an opportunity to obtain power to rival Hera in her uncle's absence from the Underworld. While Hercules sends Noh-Varr flying with a left hook, she beckons for a strategic retreat, made difficult by a spray of webbing from the symbiote Spider-man.

While Athena grapples with the tangled goop, Hercules snatches who he believes to be his former ally. Sending his fist toward the web-slinger's face, he soon learns the truth as Venom manifests a familiar toothy gape to catch the punch.

When the Sentry attempts to reenter the fight, the symbiote's unwieldy grip gives the prince of power a convenient weapon to defeat two Avengers with one blow. He clubs the Sentry out of the air, following with a devestating uppercut through Venom's skull to Sentry's!

Across the warehouse, Delphyne Gorgon battles valiantly against the phony Ms. Marvel with a machine gun. The weapon proves useless against the powers of a Kree Moonstone that deflects the bullets and retorts with a powerful energy blast. Concerned for his crush's safety, Amadeus Cho retrieves the enchanted Aegis chestplate from Athena's recently deceased warrior, Trey Rollins.

Descending to finish the job, Ms. Marvel failed to notice Amadeus sneaking up behind her. With the chestplate clasped to her body, the Kree gravity stone causes a massive feedback of energy.

Cho failed to receive the kudos he might have anticipated, but while he and Delphyne are able to share a moment, it's quickly cut short by the arrival of "Hawkeye."

Summoned to retreat by Athena, the boy genius leaves his Amazon girlfriend to fight her own battle. The gorgon succeeds in cutting Bullseye's arrow from the air, finding opportunity for a close quarters exchange with the range marksman.

Outside the warehouse, Hercules continues his battle with Sentry and Venom.
The symbiote chomps the top of his head, while Sentry sends the trio airborne with a flying tackle. Driving Hercules into the ground, he inadvertently frees the prince of power of Venom's mouth whilst doing his damage.

The Olympian enters into a test of wills with Sentry, grappling with "the power of a million exploding suns." Hercules succeeds in breaking the stalemate with a swift knee to Sentry's groin, giving him the edge necessary to toss Sentry into a collision course with the airborne Venom!

Amadeus Cho reconvenes with his partner in adventure, delivering Athena's plan for evacuation to the reticent warrior. Despite his objections, Hercules sees reason in their plan, agreeing to leap into the surrounding waters with the intent of sinking a nearby ship. It is a feat all too easy for the Olympian powerhouse.

In the Olympus Group warehouse, the tides begin to turn when Hera uses her magics to restrain Typhon who is still grappling with her son, Ares. Norman Osborn seizes the opportunity, swooping in to fire Iron Man-esque plasts into the unsuspecting woman's back. Despite impending victory, the cries of innocent citizens draw Osborn's attention, forcing him to live up to the Iron Patriot ID.

In the interest of maintaining their public facade, Iron Patriot orders the other members of his "Avengers" to assemble to rescue the drowning patrons. While the Avengers earn their promotional support, Ares negotiates a truce between the two groups he holds allegiance to. It's an offer Osborn cannot refuse as the god of war threatens to join his mother should the battle continue.

The Hammer...
The only conundrum bigger than deciding what tense I'm writing in, is the question of who emerged victorious in this issue! It gets a little tricky when the context of these reviews becomes about the efforts of a team. Sentry and Venom certainly weren't particularly successful against Hercules, but then, the Avengers did redeem themselves toward the end of the fight.

To avoid complication, I think the best interpretation for our much beloved records is the literal conclusion of a draw.

Despite recently making some ground in our updating deficit, we're once again falling spectacularly behind schedule.
After enthusiastically choosing Incredible Herc' over a couple of other options, I thought we might've been on a role, but on reflection, I suppose there's a comment in these recent delays.

Hercules fell unfortunately under represented in last year's competition, failing to accurately capture the exciting rise of both the character and his titular role as usurper of Incredible Hulk, in 2008.

This late visitation to the series really doesn't adequately represent what made it great in the last year. Ironically, since deviating into more specific storyarcs, the title appears to have lost some of it's fun-loving lustre, pursuing structural concepts that threaten to bog Hercules down in tiresome mythology derivations, over the more accessible format of superhero fisticuffs. I say that with a hint of reserve, not wanting to be mischaracterized as a foam drooling neanderthal interested exclusively in the violence central to the site concept.

I think it could be debated as fact that literal mythology has often dragged superhero comics into low selling ruts. My best guess, there's just something about two rights making a wrong. As any mainstream apologist will gladly tell you, these superheroes we flock to are effectively the modern equivalency of the gods and heroes of ancient civilization. It's a fair comparison given the winding fates of individuals well known for their unique abilities, or iconic dressing.

It's a compromise of knowing irony to celebrate Hercules as a Marvel character, while denouncing the surrounding components of his mythology. Perhaps it's the modern familiarity of the character, through television and cinema, that makes Hercules a more palatable facet of the Greek epics. Or, perhaps, it's the ease through which Hercules makes a natural transition into the [now] traditional, simplistic, modern construction of a "superhero," that makes him more successful than more complex legends associated with higher ideals.

What ever the reason for friction between superheroes and mythology, it certainly feels evident here. Despite their distortion through the conventions of the Marvel universe, the other gods feel somehow generic and under developed in this colourful issue. The real attraction is undoubtedly the first opportunity to get the Dark Avengers onto the Infinite Wars -- something important to 2009!

As many of us anticipated, the Dark Avengers stemmed directly from the same concept that gave us the Thunderbolts. In fact, it wouldn't be unreasonable to describe the group as the last crop of T-bolts ('Faith in Monsters') promoted.

It was in 1997 that we were first introduced to this version of the concept of villains diguised as heroes [Incredible Hulk #449]. It began as a plot hatched by Baron Zemo and the former Masters of Evil, coinciding with the apparent deaths of the Avengers and Fantastic Four (via Heroes Reborn), but ended with success enough to propel several pretenders into legitimate heroic roles, and spawned other reinterpretations of the team and it's duplicitous line-up.

It'd be nice to believe the "Dark Reign" "status quo," introduced line-wide by Marvel comics, might actually have some staying power, but one tends to be validated in feeling jaded toward these gimmick-laden high concepts. Just like Tony Stark's stay at the top was ultimately brief, so too does it seem inevitable than the mentally unhinged lynchpin, Norman Osborn, will be overthrown from his position as supreme commander of international intelligence and heroics.

It's not what I'd call a delicate concept, but it has a simplistic brilliance that makes all of these inevitable guest appearances so delicious. It's wonderful to see how these established characters can react en masse to the introduction of new(ish) concepts more forthcoming in-fiction than Thunderbolts.
Pak and Van Lente clearly aren't given a lot of room to contribute to the building mythology of the Dark Avengers, but they play with some enjoyable moments, particularly Hercules' overstated reaction to the villainous turn of the likes of Spider-man (whose true identity, as already noted, is soon revealed).

It's a much more subdued affair than Pak's epic battle in World War Hulk [#5], but there's also the fanboy moment of another heavyhitter clashing with Sentry. It suffers from the typical symptoms of a corporate shared universe, but it's worthy of note, even if only for the inevitable confusion over exactly where the boundaries of Sentry's powers lie. Unrelated, but similarly abbreviated, is Hercules' brief encounter with Ares, who has been a regular sparring partner not just in recent Marvel appearances, but throughout legend (and Kevin Sorbo).

A critical eye could easily look at this issue as an unnecessary deviation.
Honestly, on-going plot progresses at an absolute minimum, stopping briefly to close out tangential sub-plots connecting Olympus Group to the central premise of HAMMER (and Norman Osborn), and offering brief character beats. The big benefit to Incredible Hercules is a set-up for a trip to the Underworld in the next issue. Personally, I think the roadtrip adventuring that led the series through a fun packed series of character-spots and fights, was actually a strength.

The Dark Avengers might be primed for a catalogue of intrusions into other series over the next few months, but the bigger picture is more forgiving. One of the all too often forgotten joys of modern superhero comics is the indulgence in concepts across multiple stages. While we learn very little about the group in this issue, it's none-the-less valuable in building context for their prevelance. You might call it an exercise in economy of reputation, space, and time.

Writing doesn't feel as fluid as it did under the exclusive scripting of Greg Pak, and the art is decidedly less attractive than the likes of Clayton Henry or Jim Cheung. Never the less, it seems this is still a title worth checking out, even if only to make up your own mind. Upcoming storylines promise to entertain a variety of high concept pitches, including what appears to be a Thor-empowered Hercules.
Sure to be an interesting twist on the old rivalry.

The Fight: 4.5 The Issue: 4

While the Infinite Wars plays catch-up, why not find yourself some reading material to keep you busy between updates? The Infinite Wars Amazonian Gift Shoppe contains collections featuring most issues reviewed in the Secret Archives, including issues like Incredible Hercules #128, which is too present to be available at the time of this posting. By using purchase links provided anywhere on the site, you help sponsor future entries, whilst benefitting from the price and service associated with the Amazon name. Not quite a Herculean task!

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