Crabcake Confidential: Insufferable
“Lifetime pass” is one of those terms that I have, over the years, grown to hate. It’s overused, and it’s usually attributed to people who hardly have done anything artistically to deserve it. (Seriously, I’ve heard it applied to Zack Snyder. Really, people? Really?)
However, if I were the sort of person to give anyone a lifetime pass, it would be Mark Waid.
The guy just loves superhero comics. He loves the history, the symbolism, and the potential. But he does more than just worship at the Altar of Superman. Mark Waid also writes great stories.
Take his most famous work, Kingdom Come. He’s paired with Alex Ross, a guy whose painterly style emphasizes the power and mythical grandeur of his superhero subjects. That alone made it a can’t-miss proposition. Waid, though, brought things down to a personal level. Our heroes weren’t approachable demigods but regular folks with fears and anxieties. Superman is haunted by a world that seems to find him obselete. Bruce Wayne has become a (strangely happy) creepy recluse. Oliver Queen is paranoid, but with strong connections to his family. (He is also responsible for one of my favorite comic book lines of all time after he shoots an arrow in a crowded bar filled with superheroes who’ve just been enlisted by Superman: “So you heard Big Blue’s pitch … now for the democratic response.”) These guys come across as real characters that aren’t at odds with the icons we already know them as.
Then there’s all the homages that Waid squeezes into the comic. He reaches into the forgotten histories of the DC Universe — one that they often like to bury as being too corny or too unhip — and brushes it off for a new audience… all before guys like Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns would make it a regular thing. If you look in the rafters, you can spot all heroes named The Red Tornado, including a fun update to Ma Hunkel. Look in a crowded bar scene, and you may be able to see Marvin from the Superfriends show curiously dressed like Lobo.
Even more impressive — to me at least — was Waid’s run on Impulse. There was the respect for comics history with the inclusion of forgotten characters like Max Mercury. There was also a great sense of fun, something that was a precious commodity in the 90′s where grim and gritty was a corporate-mandated requirement for all superhero comics. The fun, though, radiated not from silly situations and silly villains but from the personalities and the interactions. (Seriously, I would recommend tracking down old issues of Impulse even if you’re not a superhero fan. Especially if you’re not a superhero fan.)
However, that doesn’t mean that Mark Waid only writes kids’ stuff. He’s gone to some disturbing places with his recent material at Boom Comics. There, he imagined a superhero universe where the Superman-archetype goes insane and becomes the world’s greatest villain (Irredeemable). They’re alternate takes of the superhero mythos that feel natural, not transgressive … like, say, much of Mark Millar’s works. Waid’s stuff may go to dark places, but storytelling and character — not shock value and the cool factor — comes first.
It should be no surprise that his recent foray into digital comics, the Thrillbent site, is mainly about guys in colorful tights who punch things. It’s also a logical extension of his recent trend in telling stories of truly morally compromised superheroes. Irredeemable was about a hero who becomes a villain. Incorruptible was about a villain who becomes good. And his latest entry into the genre with artist Peter Krause, the phonetically similar Insufferable, is about the kind of heroes who just cannot stand each other, framed in the context of fathers and sons.
Let’s start this off with little bit of context. Unsurprisingly, it’s related to Rob Liefeld. When Youngblood came out, the hype machine was in full force and publications like Hero and Wizard were trying to get you excited about superheroes that were new and had no cultural cache like the ones established at the Big Two. One of the biggest selling points was how the superheroes were analogous to celebrities. The press releases and magazine articles made a big deal how the heroes were showing up on late night shows and getting action figures. It seemed like a new and refreshing idea… only it appeared rarely in the comic itself. Since then, though, other creators have followed up, and soon we have scenes where Tony Stark is partying with Shannon Elizabeth in space.
Insufferable takes the same concept of the celebrity hero but updates it for the online age. The hero, Galahad, stages publicity events and discloses his activities to the press. But that’s a throwback of the old school methods of popularity. Galahad is also a product of the internet age, which means that he blogs. He posts images, captured from a hidden camera in his mask, so his viewers can follow along with his adventures and he can get all the “Likes”. Also, in an unheroic breach of internet etiquette, by the way, Galahad also longs into his blog as an anonymous commenter. Post a thread he doesn’t agree with? Well, he’s gonna get all up in your grill with a post that practically screams “tl;dr”.
Galahad, though, doesn’t find any of this behavior inappropriate. He has a built in excuse that this is the new way to conduct superheroics. Social media lets his followers do the research for him. If there’s a murderer spotted somewhere in the city, he immediately gets a report on his cellphone and he’s on the scene. This puts him immediately at odds with his father, an old-school hero named Nocturnus. And that’s not the only thing they disagree about.
The story of an estranged father and son thing has been done before. James Robinson handled it spectacularly well with his highly praised run on Starman. Heck, Nocturnus and Galahad are basically just twisted versions of Batman and Robin, who are treated in most stories as a father and son (moreso now that the current Robin, Damian Wayne, really is Bruce’s son).
The difference there, though, is that there was respect between Jack and Ted Knight even before Jack decided to take up the mantle. There’s little of that here. The relationship between Galahad and Nocturnus is poisonous. Nocturnus is a broken man who can’t communicate to his son. He seems more at ease when the mask is on and he at least projects a threatening visual presence.
With Galahad, though, there’s nothing but bitterness. It only escalated after his mother’s death, which he blames completely on his father. It’s an angry, resentful relationship that feels shockingly real. Other comics will throw hints here and there of mutual admiration. There’s no such thing in Insufferable. There are scenes where it seems like the two are going to kill each other, and you have a feeling that they’ll actually go all the way and do it.
You’re inclined to take Nocturnus’ side of the argument. He seems so sad. So broken. But you can also see things from Galahad’s point of view as well. Nocturnus is a man so committed to his mission that he has no time for love or family bonds. It’s a relationship you see everyday, from military dads who are far too strict to businessmen who seem more at ease traveling than they are at home. When Galahad finally snaps, it’s over the top … but not difficult to understand when you realize that same neglect of family led to the death of his mother.
The two are forced to team up when they get an ominous message from Nocturnus’ wife/Galahad’s mother: “HELP ME.” And so they have to temporarily put aside their hate to try to find out what happened to the only thing in the world that either of them ever had in common beyond, you know, the masked crusader thing.
I’m not going to give Insufferable a rating, mainly because it’s only been up for two months. But … wow, Waid accomplishes more in two months than many webcomics do in half a year. He gets you right in the action with economic storytelling that manages to flesh out the characters at the same time. In fact, the storytelling is so tight that it’s easy to overlook that Insufferable uses a webcomic technique that some people might see as gimmicky.
As you click page by page through Insufferable, panels will appear one after the other in a limited form of animation. I’ve seen this done before with Turbo Defiant Kimecan and Power Play. Here, though, it comes across effortlessly, and without the need to download a Flash player. (I assume that some sort of application is needed, but I think it’s using a program that’s common with all browsers. However, if that’s not the case, Insufferable does include a handy, zero-animation PDF file.) Waid has been importing his techniques into the digital comics world, notably a back-up story to Avengers Vs. X-Men #6 that’s getting quite a bit of praise.
Like, I said, though, the limited page animation is easy to ignore due to the strength of storytelling. If Insufferable were available in print format, it would be one of those comics making the Pick of the Day on a regular basis. As it is, it’s great to see one of mainstream comics’ best writers be so committed to writing a high-quality webcomic that’s free of charge.