Shiny Shelf

h/b sauce

By Mark Clapham on 17 August 2005

When it comes to prose, I never buy hardback books any more. The format just seems wilfully inconvenient – hardback novels are generally the size and weight of a breezeblock, making to carry around for reading while commuting or at some other convenient time. I’m the kind of reader who lives with the books I’m reading, dragging them around with me over the extended periods I’m reading them. Hardbacks are no good for this, and pall for convenience compared to compact, durable paperbacks.

On the other hand, when it comes to comics, I’m really beginning to warm to the hardback format. Comics, even those written by verbose writers, lend themselves to short reading sessions, and in single-issue format are vulnerable to being crumpled, crushed or otherwise destroyed. They’re also a nightmare to store, requiring boxes rather than shelves. By comparison, nice hefty hardback collection or graphic novel can sit around happily on a shelf, waiting to be picked up and dipped into at a convenient moment. Comic book art also benefits from glossy pages between solid covers, and the high standard of reproduction these books often have.

While blowing twenty quid on a fat hardback of a comic you’ve never read may seem a risk, I was confident that Invincible Ultimate Collection 1 was about as safe a bet as I could get. After all, if you flick through previous Shelf references to writer Robert Kirkman you’ll find that his other Image series ‘The Walking Dead’ is one of my favourite books, with his Marvel ongoing ‘Marvel Team-Up’ generally favourably received around these parts. Where Kirkman seems to fall flat is when he’s been restricted to a tight canvas, such as in those ‘2099′ one-shots or whichever minor X character he wrote a short-lived book about (Jubilee, I think, but who can keep track these days?).

What Kirkman needs is a big picture, and time to develop it properly (that’s enough horrible photography metaphors). The sales of ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Invincible’ demonstrate this, both titles building an audience over time, with the readership jumping up when a new trade paperback has allowed people to get a substantial part of the story in one go. As sales figure spods will know, most comics start high and see their sales chipped away as time goes on, only getting boosted by special events and stunts. Kirkman’s tendency to grow books over time is an unfamiliar one.

(As a sidenote by allowing ‘Marvel Team-Up’ a second full year, Marvel seem to be acknowledging that Kirkman needs this kind of space, and isn’t going to create a megahit from poor X-cloth straight out of the gate. Good to see such surprising wisdom from a company that’s recently been throwing doomed spin-offs into a crowded market to get cut down before they even start.)

Anyway, ‘Invincible’ started small as a struggling title in one of Image’s periodic attempts to launch a new superhero line. From the very early issues it’s easy to see why – there’s no obvious gimmick to ‘Invincible’, and while it’s very nicely written and beautifully drawn from day one, the early installments are ‘charming’ rather than ‘addictive’.

This is where a big collection comes in handy, as the reader gets to see a series develop in time-lapse, zooming through difficult early months. While there’s a lot going on as the series begins, and the book never feels overly decompressed, reading them all in one go prevents any difficulty in remembering where the plot was, and allows issues that focus on one plot thread alone to fit neatly with only a few pages until the other threads re-emerge.

‘Invincible’ works well as a cumulative experience, as lead character Mark Grayson develops superpowers, and is introduced to the world of heroes by his father, also a superhero. This is clean superhero storytelling at its best, with a homely charm to it. It’s when the series begins to gradually change direction, and Kirkman’s agenda proves more complex and interesting than we thought, that the book really gets interesting. That it does this without losing the spirit of those original, relatively straightforward stories is remarkable. This consistency extends to the art – the handover between artists Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley is pretty seamless, colourist Bill Crabtree’s distinctive tones helping the transition no end.

‘Invincible’ is a great book, well worth sitting down and reading in a well-presented volume, with a large selection of extras. The only problem with a hardcover like this is that the next volume will probably be the best part of a year away, and it’s going to take a lot of patience to not buy either the paperbacks or the individual issues in the meantime.

Speaking of long waits, Alan Moore and Gene Ha’s original hardback graphic novel Top 10: The Forty-Niners was announced years ago, around the time the original run of the ABC title ended. ‘Top 10′ was great, combining the iconography of the superhero comic with the storytelling of a police precinct procedural. ‘The Forty-Niners’ is even better, a prequel set in the early days of Neopolis, a city where all the superheroes, science heroes, robots, supernatural creatures and other wild characters have been relocated by the US government.

Moore’s story combines real history with the history of pulp fiction in a similar way to his ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ series, but leaning further towards social commentary than meta-fiction. As the title suggests, the book is about the spirit of 1949, and the predicament of those who lived through those times, and rings true even when the characters are unwanted superheroes rather than demobbed soldiers. Those characters are all dealing with their own problems: prejudice, denial, dislocation.

Gene Ha’s ‘Top 10′ art was always notable for its busy detail and endless clever background in jokes. Here, working without inker Zander Cannon (who himself spent quite a while illustrating the ‘Smax’ mini-series, another ‘Top 10′ spin-off), Ha’s art is even more lavish and detailed than before, with period sepia tones from colourist Art Lyon. The golden age has never looked so good.

In the case of ‘The Forty-Niners’, the quality of presentation matches the quality of the material. This is a lovely book in form and content, the pages of which deserve poring over. Well worth the wait, and every penny of the price.

Buy ‘Invincible Ultimate Collection 1′ or ‘Top 10: The Forty-Niners’ from Amazon.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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