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Agents of Atlas
posted May 11, 2007
 

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Creators: Jeff Parker, Leonard Kirk
Publishing Information: Marvel, hardcover, 256 pages, April 2007 $24.99
Ordering Numbers: 0785127127 (ISBN10), 9780785127123 (ISBN13)

imageAt its best, Jeff Parker and Leonard Kirk's Agents of Atlas satisfies the reader in both the cheap thrills and self-reflective commentary departments, a feat worth noting in this day where superhero comics read like tenth generation copies of pay-TV crime series. The story of a band of 1950s superheroes brought together for a brand-new mission in Marvel Comics' modern day universe, the characters are drawn from the company's less successful action-adventure and superhero titles of the 1950s, when the comic book company presented itself for a period as Atlas. There are funny, character-based moments galore, such as a few outlandish encounters between Jimmy Woo and the Yellow Claw, or the sight of Gorilla Man operating guns with hands and feet. At its most subtle, Parker and Kirk assemble a critique of old comics worship, suggesting that old comics concepts may have been much less than we pretend they are. I like best those moments when the characters resist pushing forward on their adventures for more quotidian activities like taking a dump or hanging out at the beach. In most Marvel Comics such moments suggest, "Hey, occasionally we're people, too, and sort of act that way." In Agents of Atlas, the message feels more like, "We'd totally rather be doing something like this." On the loopiest pages, the Agents of Atlas story feels less like a cadre of superheroes reassembled to solve mysteries than a community theater company reunited to do King Lear; it's more Seacaucus 7 than Magnificent 7.

imageIt's the middle expanse between satire and pulp verve where the book bogs down a bit. If I understand the supporting material correctly, Agents of Atlas started not just as a revamp of the '50s characters, but in part as a refashioning of a 1970's take on the Eisenhower Era superheroes that appeared in an issue of What If...?. This seems to me sort of like trying to say something of value about the popular music of 50 years ago through Sha-Na-Na or Lenny and the Squigtones, the kind of task I wouldn't wish on anyone. Because they're reprinted in the same lovely hardcover, readers will see 1950s work that's crude but also vibrant and nutty and sincere. Under Parker and Kirk's guidance, the Agents assume not just modern dress but many of the expectations superhero comics readers have for what that kind of story entails. The gorilla wisecracks. The alien is less connected to the physical world. Jimmy Woo's older adventures appeared like they were one thing but may have meant something else entirely. No character moment surprises.

This could be more commentary. Superheroes in the 1950s frequently lost their personalities and interior pages to more popular genres, like it or lump it, and there's nothing better received in the modern era than the revamped superhero. There's also a mournful quality to Agents of Atlas that's odd for a superhero comic book of any era, that feels a bit like self-awareness. Intentional or not, the adherence to modern tropes makes the drama and texture of the work duller than it has to be. There are moments in the main plot's resolution as well as the potentially terrifying reveal behind the most benign character's identity that seem drawn from some of the more gonzo aspects of the original comics. Unfortunately, playing these situations out through the stand and emote interplay of today's superhero dramas saps these developments of their energy. In the end, this is a perfectly fine comic book, adroitly written in several places and drawn with aplomb. It's a nice package of comics that should hold any fan's attention, and Agents exudes another rare quality in that it feels like it could be read and enjoyed by younger fans. For those of us not naturally inclined to read and enjoy one of today's superhero efforts despite its pedigree, it's the comic we see in the margins or hinted at in a dropped line of dialogue that we wish were given center stage.