Post-Superhero Fear Parade: Jog checks in on a 2/6 ongoing

Infinity Inc. #6: I can't say this has been the smoothest-launching series of recent DC history, having debuted to divided reviews, and unfolded through several visual hiccups. The initial penciller/inker was Max Fiumara, of the above cover, who hasn't had the best of luck with DC - he was also involved in the publisher's ill-fated attempt at a new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series about half a decade back.

Fiumara is an appealing artist, but he's typically at his best in b&w. As such, his original art for this project exhibited some dramatic flair, with a sharp balance between shadow and white. However, Fiumara's lines did not mix especially well with colorist Dom Regan's flare-speckled palette, often washing the visual whole into drabness (comparisons here). Issue #3 then suddenly saw the addition of a second penciller, Travel Foreman, and an inker, Matthew Southworth, the result being a mess. Fiumara then provided pencils only for most of issues #4-5, with Southworth's inks. At the same time, certain plot threads for issues #3-5 were pulled off from the main work and presented as backup stories, with Southworth on pencils, and Stefano Gaudiano on inks. Perhaps some of the jumpy visual pacing of those issues was due to that cordoning, although it could have been a function of Peter Milligan's script.

Funny, though; Milligan's writing on this title, a 52 spinoff filled with mainly new or hazily-defined characters, has proved to be the most 'Peter Milligan' work he's done in a long while, possessed of a thematic outlook that places it at the logical end of a series of prior comics. I've gone into this a little bit before, but more detail will help.

In the beginning, there was Paradax, a superhero project from Milligan and Brendan McCarthy, which ran as a serial in the seminal 1984-85 Eclipse series Strange Days, then moved to a two-issue Vortex series of its own in 1987 (although issue #2 only collected and recolored the Eclipse stuff). It was a light, but subversive thing, presenting the young superhero as a debauched media star who operates for personal gain. That may not seem very subversive -- hell, it was an element of Spider-Man's origin -- except that's it. Paradax learns nothing of moral value, declines to grow as a character, and encounters no lessons about being a 'true' hero. He's vain, promotional, capitalistic, but still navigates McCarthy's surreal landscapes; the story's provocation is that there's nothing wrong with that, a notion that still cuts against the superhero idea today.

Beginning in 2001, Milligan revisited many of the same ideas with Mike Allred in X-Statix (formerly the revised X-Force), which explicitly defined the Marvel mutant superhero team as adored-loathed public idols, as opposed to hated/feared/etc. Despite this poking, it was a more conservative series than Paradax, for any number of possible reasons -- it was much longer, Milligan was older, it was published by Marvel -- seeing its heroes agonize over their state of affairs, struggle against the mechanisms of fame, and ultimately pay the price for their sins, to the extent that anyone 'pays' any 'price' in Marvel superhero comics, where anything is liable to be reversed.

Now comes Infinity Inc., which deals with what I'll call 'post-superheroes.' For all its faults, I don't think the series has gotten quite the credit it deserves as a clever, natural follow-up to the Infinity Inc. segments of 52, which saw Lex Luthor attempt to flood the DCU's 'market' with disposable, overhyped, literally short-lived superhero creations in an effort to undermine the superhero concept in the public eye. The story's execution was disappointing, but its oddball self-criticism of superhero publishing did have some underlying bite.

Milligan's work follows several of those disposable concepts, including Natasha Irons, niece of the superhero Steel, who have lost their powers and are trying to adjust to life away from the spotlight. All of them seek out different forms of therapy, none of which quite address their problems. But then, gradually, they begin to manifest 'secondary mutations' of a sort, an unexpected aftershock of the procedure that gave them their 52 powers. New abilities spring up, this time not merely reflecting their anxieties, but existing wholly because of them. For example, a young man with a fixation on ladies' clothing, who used to have huge claws (all the better for castration anxiety!), develops the ability to transform into a strong, confident young woman. And... er, that's all. They're not always the most useful superpowers.

Longtime Milligan readers will also pick up shades of his 1993 Vertigo superhero project Enigma (with Duncan Fegredo), but it's really all about how these kids are so burned by having been popular superheroes, their very bodies revolt so as to return to that place. They wear no costumes as of yet (even Steel, for the most part, despite DC's best efforts at misleading covers); after all, having a costume to embody aspects of their interior states might imply that they're at lease pretending to have some control over their desires, which they really don't. Their adventures deal exclusively with preventing similar post-superheroes from hurting themselves or others, like a guy whose self-pity sucks the energy right out of others ("Dale isn't a goth vampire creature! He's an existentialist."), eventually causing him to become addicted to suckling on people like him.

I think this is a fine concept, with a lot of potential, although I couldn't blame readers for getting spooked away from the opening storyline; aside from the above-mentioned visual problems, it was a long-winded thing, taking five issues to present the full concept while repeating certain thematic details over and over.

But this issue starts a new storyline, which will only last two issues. The next will last three. The artist for this one is Matt Camp, whose thick outlines and solid blacks seem to have prompted a different approach from colorist Regan, now working in a brighter, somewhat flatter style; the total look is somewhat similar to Jamie McKelvie's and Guy Major's work on Suburban Glamour, to name a recent example.

It's not perfect -- Camp's heavily posed style becomes stiff in the action panels, and his character expressions rarely convey hotter emotion than 'perturbed,' even when someone's jumping out a window -- but it cleanly conveys the non-muscular, understated oddness of the book's concept. The story sees the team struggling with the evil influence of television and video games, or at least a young man who's using them as conduits in a quest to relieve everyone of their desires by forcing them to act 'em out. Beauty queens, nasty parents and questionable medicine all figure in, while Superman and Batman stand around for a page discussing the plot. I expect to see Ultimates 3 sales immediately.

I realize I'm going on a lot about background and stuff here, but that's because I haven't read much about the potential this series has. It's gotten OKAY as of now, but what interests me is that there's a lot of room to expand, now that the series seems to be working through its narrative problems. Give it a look, if you've been reluctant so far.