Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Invincible #127, written by Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Outcast) with art by Cory Walker (Science Dog, Destroyer) and colorist Nathan Fairbairn (Wonder Woman: Earth One, Nameless). This issue begins a new status quo for the series by bringing the central hero’s turbulent emotions to the surface. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
One of the big surprises in this week’s generally surprising list of Eisner Award nominations is the presence of Invincible in the Best Continuing Series category, and while the Eisners have recognized writer Robert Kirkman’s work on The Walking Dead, his long-running superhero series hasn’t gotten any Eisner attention since it was nominated for Best New Series 12 years ago. Southern Bastards is nominated for its second year in a row, but Invincible replaces last year’s other Image nominees The Walking Dead and Saga, the latter of which has won the category three years in a row. It’s an unexpected development, but an earned one for the series, which had an especially strong 2015.
I fell off of Invincible back around issue #50, and found it difficult to get back on despite Kirkman’s many attempts at creating accessible jumping-on points. Kirkman’s tendency to put his characters through never-ending hell can make his stories tedious and unpleasant. The urge to spend time in this world lessened as it became bleaker, despite the allure of Ryan Ottley’s dynamic, detailed artwork. But then that world changed. The status quo of Invincible is constantly shifting, and last year, the book left Earth behind and relocated Mark Grayson, his girlfriend Eve, and their daughter Terra to Talescria, a change in scenery that helped restore much of the book’s charm and got me hooked again.
Kirkman followed that off-planet move by reconnecting with the spirit of the book’s earliest issues during the “Reboot?” arc, sending Mark to his past and giving him the chance to rewrite his continuity. The arc was a fascinating exploration of superhero comics’ obsession with returning to the recognizable past versions of its characters rather than pushing them into the future. It also allowed Ottley to offer his distinct take on moments that were drawn by original Invincible artist/co-creator Cory Walker. “Reboot?” ended with Mark deciding not to reset the timeline, and Kirkman made the most of Mark’s decision to keep things as they are by once again delivering a seismic status quo shift when Mark returned to the present and discovered that five years had gone by during his few weeks in the past.
Mark has missed the first years of his daughter’s life in his time away, and he’s devastated when he sees Terra and she doesn’t know if he’s her father. It’s the first display of Mark’s vulnerability in Invincible #127, but not the last, and Mark spends most of this issue in tears as he struggles to deal with all he’s missed. Mark’s emotional vulnerability has been a part of this book’s concept from the start, and despite his superhero name, Mark isn’t invincible. The pain began when he learned the truth about his supervillain father, and it only got worse over time as death and betrayal governed Mark’s life. Those aren’t the things responsible for Mark’s pain in this week’s issue, though, and Kirkman takes a new approach to Mark’s suffering by rooting it in the good things he’s missed, like Terra’s growth and Eve’s acclimation to her new surroundings.
The time shift makes this an especially accessible jumping-on point for new readers, and while there’s still a lot of history behind the drama, Mark’s experience in this issue is easy for new readers to connect with because they are going through the same introduction to this new landscape. All the necessary backstory is provided to catch people up on the overarching space war narrative, but Kirkman and Walker’s primary focus in on Mark’s emotional journey. There are no fights in this issue, but the story has intense power in how it depicts Mark’s uneasy homecoming, and it’s impossible for him to keep his composure when he’s constantly reminded of how much he missed in those five years. Each new interaction reveals a different aspect of Mark’s turmoil, and by the end of the issue, Kirkman has given the reader a comprehensive outline of the emotional trials Mark has to overcome in this new status quo.
Cory Walker has drawn flashbacks and a few standalone issues of Invincible since departing the book, but he’s back for a full six issues with this current arc. Bringing back the series’ original artist for this new beginning is a clever move, and Walker does phenomenal work conveying the full emotional weight of Kirkman’s story while creating an immersive alien world that highlights how far this book has come since its first issues in the suburbs. Walker is an outstanding designer, and while his work on the first issues of Invincible spotlighted his deep understanding of classic superhero design (his original costume for Invincible is one of the best of the new millennium), this new arc showcases his talent for alien landscapes and characters. Walker creates a lush world full of imaginative sci-fi designs, giving this issue an especially Saga-like feel when combined with the time-jump in the narrative.
The expressive range of Walker’s characters makes each emotional beat of Kirkman’s script clear on the page. Many of this issue’s strongest moments are silent panels where the characters’ bodies and faces express their inner feelings and define their interpersonal dynamics: Terra hugging her weeping parents even though she’s not quite sure what is happening; Eve’s remorseful stare as Mark cries into her shoulder, teasing her bombshell revelation at the end of the issue; Mark covering his crying face with his hands while his brother Oliver wonder how he should engage.
These moments all punctuate scenes of dialogue, but there are two standout sequences toward the end of the issue that rely entirely on Walker and colorist Nathan Fairbairn. The first shows Mark waking up in an empty bed to find Eve sleeping on a bench, and rather than wake her up he just goes back to bed alone. The emotional distance between the two is accentuated by the cold blue coloring, but Fairbairn incorporates warmer shades for the following silent page, a tender moment showing Eve and Terra falling asleep on Mark while he’s reading.
Colorist Nathan Fairbairn is a new addition to the Invincible team, and these silent sequences show how his smooth rendering and evocative palettes enrich Walker’s linework. The final scene between Mark and Eve is given a romantic atmosphere thanks to the pink sky over their vacation destination. But the autumnal quality in how that sky interacts with the greens, browns, and yellows of the countryside visually indicates that Mark and Eve’s relationship is withering rather than blossoming.
Invincible #127 is full of these kinds of smart artistic decisions, and one of the most exciting things about this new arc is the prospect of having Walker and Fairbairn together for six issues. They’re an exceptional art team, and their commitment to capturing the full scope of the emotion in Kirkman’s script makes them ideal collaborators for this deeply personal story. In a superhero comics industry that is constantly backtracking, it’s refreshing to have a title like Invincible that is dedicated to moving forward. That willingness to change gives this week’s issue its emotional punch, and the creative team shows the value of letting superheroes evolve with their poignant introduction to the series’ new status quo.