I wanted to write this review a few months ago, but I realized then that I did not have the frame of reference to even begin talking about such topics as comic books and superheroes/villains. However, armed with a comic book reader, access to digital comic files (from a procurement method of which I can only advocate be done with care), I set out to read some of the best comic arcs in the last thirty years. I would spend hours going through trade paperback editions in PDF form, or hopping around various individual issues to get a sense of the storyline. It took a lot of time and battery life of my Mac, but I had a lot of fun surrounding myself with good reads and dynamic characters. Along the way, I noticed that I related the most to stories of heroes in everyday situations. It was a microcosm of why I prefer Batman to Superman—he’s “realer.”
The “realism” within comic books and graphic novels has had its share of doubters throughout the runs of DC and Marvel, along with different independent companies throughout the years. Yet two of the seminal works in comic lore fly in the face of the glamorized and glossed-over hero, and focus on heroes and villains succumbing to something much worse than gamma rays, kryptonite, or bullets—the mundaneness of everyday life. Those works are: the underrated and far too often forgotten Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, and the perfectly rated, incomparable Watchmen, from the mad genius, Alan Moore.
However, those two arcs cover specific groups of heroes. I’ll apologize in advance for being a bit broad in my brush strokes, but Astro City shows heroes in their own environment, mostly away from the peril of the citizens they defend, while The Watchmen, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, have no real superpowers to speak of, just agility or speed. What had been missing from my comic reading was a work that blends the esotericism of Astro City with the grittiness and humanity of Watchmen. Granted, there are probably a thousand of those types of storylines, given that comics have their own safe for work. comics version of Rule 34 (or maybe Aristotle’s decree that there was “nothing new under the sun” would be better fitting here), but I had never experienced it until I sat down for Neil Connelly’s The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible. Get ready for some allusion-filled action in this review! POW!
Want to talk about some duality? Oh boy! Does Connelly have a Taoist poster child for you! Commander Invincible is virtually indestructible, the “Undefeatable Man”; on the other side, his alter ego Vince Shepherd is a hot mess: a distant father and husband, as well as an aging guy dealing with the inescapable villain of time. So what if he can still run a forty-yard dash faster than any other normal forty-something? In the world of his powerful friends, CI is a soon to be (if not already is) a has-been, a relic of the old generation of heroes. The new group has to battle with your run-of-the mill villains, while at the same time combatting the overarching constraints of the government, run by civilians, who are naturally afraid of the potential of the heroes, and run the nefarious Tucker Commission that will hinder heroes by strapping them financially, should their merit prove financially unworthy.
As far as the heroes go, they’re shockingly…normal. The entire crew takes Vince to Chili’s for his 40th. Anybody who’s been to a Chili’s can tell you that there’s nothing amazing about it, excepting maybe the prices. Villains get old, alliances break apart because of trivialities, and heroes die. There’s infidelity, general backstabbing, and mental depreciation. Even with all of the bells and whistles of superpower, the heroes also realize how much their strengths are trappings, too.
Connelly does something that surprised me: he makes Vince a sympathetic character without beating the reader of the head with tragic backstory, a la Bruce Wayne’s rise to Batman, or Krypton being destroyed to strand Clark Kent as the strongest illegal alien in American history. He doesn’t even make Commander Invincible an initially essential hero—the other members of the Guardians could do a good enough job without him—but that feeling of uselessness stings for anybody, the feeling of being replaced. Being insignificant can oftentimes be worse than dying in battle.
Furthermore, Vince is human in the purest sense. He loves with reservations, and he skirts responsibility for two sons, one of who can barely stand to be in his presence after years of broken promises. Sure, he has a number of adoring fans, but there’s hollowness about the line of work, and Connelly taps into that more by showing characters, like Titan, who live just for the almighty dollar. Even his teammates are looking for ways to further their own careers. These impersonal interactions set the backdrop for Vince’s disillusionment with the job, but, more importantly, his life. Vince is a broken guy looking for redemption. No lie—if this movie were cast, you would have to beg for Mickey Rourke to semi-reprise his role in The Wrestler to fully illustrate the schmuck/proud peacock bravado at work here.
The exposition is solid in the book. Comic writers who draw are a rarity, since most have illustrators to help convey setting, body language, and mood, while the wordsmiths construct the background and origin stories. In Commander Invincible, I can see Connelly’s world, as if he is a comic creator operating without a safety net. He has to work overtime to get us the full story, but there is a power in having a lean story with detail, rather than pure dialogue and random smatterings of internal monologue readers encounter in comics. Connelly sets himself up to fall with his aging star, but he emerges victorious.
I’m especially fond of the politics at work in the book. For a budding comics nerd like myself, I think Connelly really immersed himself in the lore of superheroes. Sure, there are real threats to their vigilante enterprises—being unmasked is chief among them—but Connelly adds a beautiful layer of “boring” to their lives by having heroes be licensed. It’s like the IRS getting Capone—the romance of good and evil exists more here as systemic and manufactured. There’s grayness to the world in which Vince and company work, and it’s delightfully done.
Maybe Connelly does not break the comic mold here (which I hope I’ve stressed is virtually impossible), but he pays homage in a reverent way. The conventions of the medium are at work here, and, like the strain of a marriage, or homesickness, or disease, Connelly takes his time in dragging out the real problems that plague our lives, no matter what emblem we emblazon across our chests.