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“What Will You Have After 500 Years?” A Look Back at “Invincible” and How I Got into Comics

By | April 10th, 2018
Posted in Longform | % Comments

With the final issue of “Invincible” having come out earlier this year, and the final trade paperback being released a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to look back on the series. “Invincible” is, without hyperbole, the reason that I read comics. Like many things that people find in their early adolescence, “Invincible” shaped my tastes and is something that, after all these years, I have a hard time looking at critically. What I can do, instead, is look at how “Invincible” affected me and got me involved in the world of comics.

Three warnings before we get started. The way that I’m grouping these issues to talk about them is silly, arbitrary and makes sense only in the context of my life. Second, there are going to be a number of spoilers for pretty much the entire run of “Invincible” in this essay. If that’s something you’d like to avoid, please watch out. Last, but not least, I’m going to be talking about the book in a way very personal to me, so if you don’t like reading anything that gets mushy or nostalgic, I’d suggest just skipping over this one. If you think you can handle all of that, then let’s dive in.

“Invincible” #1-13 – End of junior high, beginning of high school

When I was 14, in the last half of my 8th grade year, I moved. It was just me and my mom, and this wasn’t the first time we had moved. I went to a total of three different elementary schools and three different junior highs, all of which were in different states. This move was from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, and it was the last serious move we would make while I was living with my mom.

None of these moves were much fun for me. I was a quiet kid that had a hard time making friends. That last move was from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, just as I was about to transition from junior high to high school, and it was one of the hardest. I was shy, but on top of that, I had a hair cut and a build which left me with an unfortunate resemblance to Shaggy from Scooby Doo, though without the peach fuzz. I was close to a total of one person in Wisconsin during the back half of eighth grade, and that person was my mother.

I never made friends easily, but the ones that I did make I hung onto. One of the few close friends I made over the course of my moves was Dalton. We had gone to elementary school together in Wyoming and he moved around a lot too. He was one of the few people I was still friends with no matter where I lived. We talked on the phone almost every day. It was in these conversations that I learned about “Invincible.”

My first experience with “Invincible” was vicarious. To say that I learned about it is a bit too light, really. What actually happened was that Dalton, who owned the first three volumes of the series at the time, took me through a stunningly detailed outline of what happened in those issues, walking me through Mark getting his powers, meeting the Teen Team, his confrontation with his father. I’m not sure why I held onto these details so closely. Probably because I was very lonely, and just sitting around talking to someone was better than sitting around by myself.

That summer, after the end of my eighth-grade year, I was able to go out to visit Dalton. While it was awesome to spend time with one of my closest friends, I also was able to spend part of my time there devouring those first three volumes of “Invincible,” finally getting to actually read the book that I had heard so much about.

Of course, the experience of reading a comic versus having it described to you is incomparable. Cory Walker’s art on the first two volumes and Ryan Ottley’s in the next brought the world I’d heard described to me to life in stunning detail. The dynamic action of both artists, the way the characters moved across the page and Bill Crabtree’s bright, simple colors had me hooked. It was everything I never knew I wanted, exactly the kind of super hero action I had been missing from my life.

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Even more than that, in those early issues, “Invincible” was special. The characters, ones that would be important for the entire 144 issue run, were all introduced in these first couple volumes. There was Mark Grayson, the titular Invincible who was born with his powers because of his alien, Viltrumite heritage. His father, Nolan Grayson alias Omni-Man, a Superman analogue. His mother, Debbie, a regular human woman. And there were some of Mark’s peers who were on the Teen team, Atom Eve, who could create pink constructs, Robot, a super smart, if slightly sinister leader. All of these characters started the series almost fully formed and are just a few of the many introduced.

The second volume has Omni-Man killing a Justice League analogue called the Guardians of the Globe, just ripping through them like paper. The third volume spends much of its time in a drag out, beat down fight between Mark and his father. As Nolan is about to kill him, he asks Mark, “What will you have after 500 years?” and Mark replies, “You.” Mark is left broken and alone, and Nolan flies off into space with tears in his eyes.

That fight is one of the defining moments of “Invincible.” It pulled the book away from its basic premise of Superman’s teenage son, allowing it to branch off into something entirely its own. It also includes brutal violence outside of what the reader had come to expect in the regular series. While most of the fights in “Invincible” for these first couple volumes keep things at a standard super hero level of blood and gore (i.e. not much of either) for big fights in the series, punches actually leave a mark. When I reached the page where Omni-Man and Invincible fought and Mark is beaten to a pulp, the amount of blood and violence compared to what came before made those moment so much more impactful. After this fight, with his father gone, Mark had a lot of growing up to do.

“Invincible” #14-59 – Fall and Winter, Freshman year

Of course, I was also growing older, and now that I had actually read the series, I wanted to keep going. Second hand plot descriptions didn’t cut it for me anymore. I wanted the full experience. As I’m sure you could already tell, this is a very sizable chunk of issues. I group them all together is mostly because of the way I read them, which took place over the course of about four months in the form of hardcover Ultimate Collections. Over the course of my birthday that fall, and Christmas later that year, I received the Ultimate Collection volumes 2-6.

The first of these collections was all about Mark coming into his own as a super hero. Dealing with the world that his father had left behind, Mark was now the most powerful person on the planet. Just as important, if not more, we see Mark start dating Amber, who becomes his long-time girlfriend. Mark graduates from high school and decides on what college he wants to attend. These issues dealt with Mark taking up his father’s mantle, trying to be a better man than he was, and growing into his own person.

The third Ultimate Collection is out of this chunk of issues the one most important to me. While I’ve read through all of these collections numerous times over the years, my copy of the Ultimate Collection Volume 3 is practically falling apart from use. In one of the stories collected there, Mark is taken off Earth to help save an unknown planet. Unbeknownst to him, the person calling for his help is his father, Nolan. And what’s more, he finds out his father has had another son. They are attacked by a pair of Viltrumites, who destroy the planet and take Nolan captive. Mark is then left with his new, younger half-brother that he takes back with him to Earth.

This story, where Mark is able to see his father again, affected me more than it probably had any right to. That’s not to say that when Mark and Nolan reconnect it isn’t a beautiful moment in the story. I’ve included a few of the pages here to show it. The clenched fists, the anger in both their eyes, that moment of embrace. These two characters coming back together hit me in a way I never expected this series to hit me.
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I was raised mostly by my mom. My parents divorced when I was two years old, and just by facts of life there has always been distance between me and my dad. In all senses of the word, but especially physically, as my mom and I ended up living on opposite ends of the country from him. Like many children of divorce, there were issues between me and my Dad. I won’t get into specifics, but it’s safe to say that in comparison to the issues that Mark and Nolan dealt with, they were nothing. Reading this when I did helped me form a relationship with my dad. If Mark could forgive Nolan for almost taking over Earth and murdering him, I could probably let whatever slights I thought my father had committed against me slide. No necessarily ignoring our problems but moving past them and giving him the chance to change. At fifteen years old, these two coming back together and the addition of another son to the mix, was something that connected to me on an almost spiritual level.

Of course, there are more than forty issues worth of material I’ve lumped together in this time period. Of all my categories, this one is definitely the most arbitrary. While those first three volumes work to set up the entire series and some of my later categories fit pretty nicely into the structure of the series as a whole, this is really just a lumping together of a bunch of issues I read in very quick succession, all in the same format.

That isn’t to say that these issues are bad. I think that on a pure super hero, storytelling level, this era is some of the best super hero story telling out there. The Viltrumite influence on the plot is still in the background. The super villains Mark fights, whether they be pastiches of villains from the Big 2 or more original creations, are all inventive and exciting. Even more importantly, the human drama in these issues is fantastic. Mark’s connection with Amber and the slow drifting apart leading to a split between them is well done. The way his relationship with Eve afterward is completely different from his relationship with Amber is a great look at the way people and their relationships change over time. This isn’t even getting into the plots for side characters. Pound for pound, pure super hero action and drama, these forty issues are some of the most fun that the book ever is.

It also includes Mark moving away from the structures that his father existed in. It turned out, a giant government agency that Nolan was working for and that Mark took up his mantle in, is actually bad. Mark tears himself free from this agency’s clutches, though not without a fight. These stories show Mark gaining independence. Between my birthday in September of my freshman year and Christmas a few months later, this was probably when I was at peak “Invincible” reading. I had such a wealth of content to tear through, and I would read it over and over again. But that spring, when I was dying for more “Invincible” content, I ran into a problem. The next Ultimate Collection, the sixth volume, didn’t come out until April of that year.

Invincible #60-78 – Spring, Freshman year

I couldn’t wait until April for my next dose of “Invincible.” And I certainly couldn’t wait until my next birthday in September to continue the story. Dalton, who I still talked to almost every day and was still ahead of me in the story, had told me what was up next, and I couldn’t contain my excitement. A war of alternate dimension Invincibles. The attack of Conquest. The Viltrumite War. The series was about to take a turn for the dark, and dark was exactly what I was looking for, as spring of my Freshman year was peak Edgy Teen for me.

Luckily, I was able to move pretty smoothly into the regular trade paperbacks. These only cost half the price of an ultimate collection, and over the course of that spring, I was able to scrounge together the 16.99 twice to buy volumes 12 and 13 and again just in time for volume 14, ‘The Viltrumite War’ to be released.
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As I said before, this period had some of the most serious battles yet for Mark and his family. With these new battles, the series also switched to a new colorist. The colorist for the first 50 issues, Bill Crabtree left the series, to be replaced by FCO Plascencia. While Crabtree’s brought a bright, simplicity to the colors, Plascencia added a depth to Ryan Ottley’s artwork. It pulled the series away from the pop art sensibility that define Crabtree’s run on the title and toward a style that felt a little more serious. What’s more, Plascencia was especially talented at coloring blood, a useful skill for the stories to come.

There was a group of alternate dimension Invincibles brutally attacking Earth. And while still cleaning up the mess that these alternate versions of him had left, Mark is attacked by a Viltrumite named Conquest, whose only goal was to cause as much destruction as possible and kill Mark. After these fights, which Mark barely survived, the series transitions into the build up to and culmination of all the problems with the Viltrumites the series had been dealing with so far.

With a group of his strongest allies, including his father, Mark wages war on the Viltrumites, destroying what was left of their civilization. In this space epic of an arc, Mark confronts the danger that had loomed over his head from the beginning of the series, going out into space to face the Viltrumites and Thragg, their leader.

Over the course of almost an entire year, Mark fights them, even going so far as to destroy the planet Vilturm. While it seems like the grand battle was won, the Viltrumites and Thragg, escape and come to live on Earth. Mark and his greatest enemy enter into a kind of détente.

None of these issues affected me in quite the same way that Mark meeting his father again had. But that didn’t stop Dalton and I still talking about them excessively. I became a little obsessed with the fact that Thragg, the leader of the Viltrumites, was the spitting image of Freddy Mercury. I started listening to Queen because of it. I would walk around the halls of my high school, greatest hits playing on my Zune, creating my own super heroes and stories while I should have been listening in class. Of course, while this seemed like the climax of the story, “Invincible” wasn’t anywhere close to finished.

Invincible #79-114, High School

After I got ‘The Viltrumite War,’ the wait for the next trade was almost eight months. If I was unwilling to wait a few months that spring for the next Ultimate Collection, waiting until the new year was going to be an eternity. With that in mind, I took the only action that I could and started visiting my local comic book shop.

This was the summer after my freshman year, and as an awkward teen I had absolutely no idea how to talk to strangers. My anxiety being what it was, I actually visited my local shop three or four times before I bought what I wanted. The variety of different books and shelves left me almost unable to operate. And while the owner of my local shop was a nice man trying his best to be helpful, actually interacting with me was the quickest way to send my heart racing and make me want to bolt out of the store.

Those first couple visits I would walk in and look around for a minute or two before he asked me what I was looking for. Panicking, I’d either mutter, “Just looking” and runaway, or grab something at random off one of the shelves and buy it. Eventually I worked up the courage to actually ask him where he kept the Image comics and was able to buy the two or three back issues I needed to be current with “Invincible.”

Over that summer, I started following “Invincible” month to month. I started a pull list just to make sure I didn’t miss “Invincible.” The owner of my local comic book shop was a nice guy that almost certainly would have been willing to only sell me a single issue a month. But, through a combination of social awkwardness and curiosity, I started buying other books.

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This was the Summer and Fall of 2011 and as far as times to become a comic reader went, it was a pretty good one. I started by dipping my toes into Marvel’s revamped Ultimate line that had just launched, and soon all four titles were added to my pull list. This was also pretty close to the beginning of the New 52 at DC, and I was easily able to catch up on back issues of Batman and a few other series. A year later, with the Marvel Now relaunch, I made my way into the Marvel universe proper. At that point, I was in my local comic book shop every Wednesday after school, spending more money than my mom wanted on comics, and leaving them in ridiculous stacks all over my room. Organized stacks, of course, but a stiff breeze through my bedroom would have turned it into a disaster zone.

Somehow, I’d managed to time my reading of “Invincible” to catch up with individual issues right after the climax 75 issues in the making. When the story took a breather and slowed down, my reading slowed down too as I was only able to consume a single chapter per month, or less considering delays. Looking back on this point in the series, the book feels like it was meandering. With the main plot the book had been building toward at least partially resolved, the series moved around aimlessly, trying to find a new footing.

For my part, reading it at the time, I didn’t notice it was moving so slowly. I thought this was just what reading a book month to month was like. When you move from being able to read six chapter at a time to having only one, I just assumed the pacing would be a bit off.

Re-reading though, I can say this portion of the series is my least favorite. It was clear that after ‘The Viltrumite War,’ Mark as a character and “Invincible” as a series couldn’t go back to being a regular super hero book. But for a little while, that’s what it tried being. On top of that, FCO Plascencia left the book after issue #78, and the colorists that followed were fine, the next long-term colorist, John Rauch, never quite captured the feeling Plascencia and Crabtree brought in their runs.

The plots in this period of the book felt forced to me in ways they hadn’t previously. Many of them felt like the kind of “events” that currently plague Marvel’s line of books. Eve was pregnant, but gotten an abortion while the Viltrumite war happened, but would get pregnant again a little later. It turned out that Mark and his father were part of the royal line of the Viltrumite empire, and the rightful heir to its throne. Nolan took over as leader of the Viltrumites, and Thragg went off into space to plot his revenge. For an arc, because of an encounter with a dangerous virus, Mark was out of commission and a different super hero took his place. After that, there was ‘The Death of Everyone,’ which had a recent ally of Mark’s kill huge swaths of the population. Then there was the ill-advised rape issue, where Mark is attacked by a female Viltrumite, so she can have his child. These events all touted long-lasting ramifications and death in a series that had both of those things from the beginning. All in all, it seemed like the series was stumbling, trying to find a new direction.

I took all of this in stride. I was reading a lot of comics, and “Invincible” was now just one of them. While it was a pretty big part of who I was, I’d moved from someone who read “Invincible” almost exclusively to someone who read comics in general. I had an “Invincible” t-shirt, but mostly because I thought it was cool to know about an independent super hero book that other people didn’t. That was pretty much how I felt about the series most of my way through high school. If in my freshman year I was at peak Edgy Teen, this period over the rest of high school was when I was at my most gatekeeping of nerd culture.

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During my senior year, “Invincible” went through an arc where Robot, one of Mark’s long-time allies that had always been a bit sinister, tried to take over the world. With an army of robots built to withstand even the most powerful of the super heroes on Earth and a plan to get Mark out-of-the-way, Robot was able to. Genuinely thinking that he was doing the right thing, and seemingly making the world a better place, Mark is stuck with the fact that Robot now controlled the world. With Eve and their new-born daughter, Mark decided his best choice was to leave Earth.

Invincible #115-126, College

As Mark was leaving Earth to live on an alien world, I was leaving home for college. College would help me come out of my shell a little bit, but at first, I was just as closed off when I came to college as I was during any of my previous moves. Part of my unwillingness to make new friends led to me being unwilling to find a new comic shop in the city. Instead, I had the owner of the store in my home town keep my pull list. During those first couple years, I visited home about once a month, and in those visits I would stop by to pick up my comics.

It seemed Kirkman had realized that post-Viltrumite War, “Invincible” couldn’t quite work as a normal super hero comic. So, it transitioned into something else. For a little while, the book became about Mark and Eve living on this alien world, trying to raise their daughter the best they could.

In college, I started drifting away from super hero comics. Partially because I was actually starting to make friends, dorms worked well as a way to force me into socializing, and because like many people when they first come to college, I was a bit pretentious. I wanted to read things that would challenge me, not books about men in tights. Indie comics, graphic novels. The kind of stuff that might have been taught in an English class if people would think of comic books as literature. Not to knock these types of books, as I do think those kinds of creators are still doing some of the most interesting work in comic. But, every time I visited home, I took a couple more books off my pull list.

I still enjoyed “Invincible,” when I got around to reading it. It had turned into an alien slice of life book, interspersed with an intense fight between Thragg and a character called Battle Beast. The book was not quite a super hero book, but it still followed all the characters that I had grown close to and cared so much about.

Then two things happened. First, I moved out of the dorms and into an apartment I was renting with one of my close friends. For the first time in my life I was actually paying bills, worrying about cash, making sure that I actually bought food for myself. That meant, as far as spending money went, I had close to zero. Second, my mom moved away from the town she’d been living. When visited her, I was no longer visiting my local comic book shop.

I canceled my pull list. It had whittled down to only a few comics at that point anyway, but it was a strange step away from something I’d had for years. And at that same time, “Invincible” had just finished an arc called ‘Reboot?’ where Mark was taken back in time to decide whether he wanted to change his decisions. Even after seeing that the world would be a better place if he changed things, Mark realized that to do so would mean he’d lose his family and wasn’t willing to take that step.

Looking back on this arc from a distance, it’s a refutation of retcons of the sort that happened to Spider-Man in ‘One More Day.’ Looking at it through that lens, I think it works well enough. But at the time, it seemed like the kind of floundering around that I’d hoped “Invincible” had moved passed. The sort of non-event that had characterized the title while I was in high school. Now that I was older, better read when it came to comics, and pretty short on cash, I wasn’t willing to pay for something I wasn’t sure I wanted to be reading. It was the reason that I dropped off the book.

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Invincible #127-144, Graduation

It was a couple of years before I read “Invincible” again. In fact, I dropped off monthly comic books almost all together. I bought myself a subscription to Marvel Unlimited to read some of their back catalogue. I got a lot of reading done on runs I’d always meant to check out, seriously expanding my knowledge of comics history. The only things I read outside of Marvel Unlimited came from Humble Bundles, one of which would give me months of reading, and my school’s library, which had a small selection of comics.

Of course, like all habits, I eventually, piece by piece, started coming back to comic books. I started picking up on new series as they came to Marvel Unlimited six months after the fact. When the first trade of DC Rebirth came out, they were added pretty quickly to Hoopla. With this, I quickly got current on comics once again. I didn’t have that much more money, but I had gotten better at budgeting. Slowly but surely, I started reading DC comics digitally as they came out, and other independent series that peaked my interest. When my Marvel Unlimited subscription was due, I let it expire, the need to be current on comic books once again an important part of my life.

One book I didn’t go back to reading issue to issue was “Invincible.” It had been announced that the series was going to be ending, so I figured I’d wait. I didn’t come back to “Invincible” until last month, in March, where I picked up the last three trades digitally, and decided to do a full reread of the series, from beginning all the way to freshly published end.

The book’s final confrontation is what it always had to be. Mark finally finishing off Thragg, taking control of the Viltrumite empire. Kirkman, throughout the series, never left a thread dangling. Even when I’d thought he forgot about something, he always circled back to it eventually. We knew that Mark was going to go to space with the Viltrumites from issue 54 of the series, it was foreshadowed that he would rule the Viltrumite empire, and that’s exactly how the book ends.

But the final issue is so much more than that. In interviews and in the backmatter of the collected editions, Kirkman always said that he wanted “Invincible” to continue for forever. That he wanted it to be like a normal super hero book, that when he was done with his run, someone else could take the reins from him. Instead, the ending is almost perfect. We see Olivia, his daughter with Eve and his son Marky, the offspring of Mark and Anissa from Mark being raped, as they grow up. There is the tension between these two, and the tension between Mark and his son. We see Mark take over the Viltrumite empire, making it a force for good. We get hints of stories that could have gone on for years to come. The last page we see Mark and Eve with their daughter, standing together after 500 years, having made the universe a better place. And then it ends.

What will you have after 500 years?

While there were problems with the series, I’m too close to really notice them. I have such an attachment to the characters, I know the series so well, it’s hard for me to look at it critically. But one of the strengths I know is true of “Invincible” is that Kirkman always knew how to bring things back around. And on the final page, it calls back to what is probably the most defining moment in the entire story.

Rereading the entire series, new things hit me. When I was younger, Mark going to college felt like a change of scenery, now it was something real I could relate to. Similarly, the parts where he would fight with his girlfriends, arguments that seemed almost illogical to me when I first read them, now look like something I might have with my long-time girlfriend. And I’m excited to reread the story in the future. I wonder how those issues where Mark and Eve are new parents will affect me when I have kids of my own. I wonder if that ending, the legacy of Mark and his children will be even stronger when I’ve watched my own children grow up.

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A lot of who I am and a lot what I’m interested in is because of “Invincible.” I’m sure that wasn’t meant to happen, I’m sure it’s not what Kirkman, Ottley and Walker were going for while they were creating the series. But for about a third of my life, I’m able break it up into periods based on my relationship to “Invincible.” The call back to what his father said when he was about to kill him, “What will you have in 500 years?” is meant as a nice bow on the end of the series. But when I think about my relationship to “Invincible,” and I think about my future, I know that for the rest of my life I’ll have the things I’ve taken from this series, and the ways I’ve grown because of it.

Anyway, I warned you it was going to get a bit mushy at the end.

//TAGS | longform

Reed Hinckley-Barnes

Despite his name and degree in English, Reed never actually figured out how to read. He has been faking it for the better part of twenty years, and is now too embarrassed to ask for help. Find him on Twitter


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