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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Panel Vision - Invasion!

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The week I’m writing this marks a significant milestone for the shared television universe of DC Comics.  The CWniverse, as I call it, started out in 2012 with the show Arrow, a Green Arrow adaptation that leaned way too heavily on Batman for its identity.  

However, when they introduced Flash as a spin-off series in 2014 things started to improve, even if the first half of Flash season 1 was pretty weak.  The real turning point, for this entire endeavor, was the 2014 Flash/Arrow crossover, a blockbuster event that finally managed to inject light, fun, and weirdness into the CWniverse. 

It also brought in some serious ratings as ever since then crossovers and multi-hero universes.  All of that now culminates in an epic 4-night crossover between Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow adapting the 1989 event comic Invasion.  In honor of the occasion, I’m looking back on the original Invasion! Comics, which is nice because they’re also one of my favorite event comics of all time. 

To understand Invasion! you need to understand the thinking that inspired it, which is good because the actual comic is simplicity itself.  At the time, DC had just recently undergone its first major company reboot with Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986.  Prior to 1986 the very idea of “event comics” was kind of a nebulous concept, only really materializing thanks to the toy tie-ins of Secret Wars and Super Powers. 

The first independent event DC ever did in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths was Legends, by John Byrne, about a propaganda war waged against Earth’s heroes by Darkseid.  That was a decent comic but it mainly served to close off loose ends from the pre-Crisis, either fully ending characters or re-introducing old ones to show they do exist in this new continuity.  It was basically universe management wrapped up in event clothing, which held it back.  Invasion! picks up those same threads but excels where Legends faltered. 

In the case of Invasion! they looked to address the question of DC’s space faring properties.  DC had long had a ton of alien races and concepts floating around but never did much to solidify them into the kind of hierarchy and canon that Marvel had started fooling around with much earlier on. 

As a result, where Marvel had a firm segmented cosmic community of Kree, Skrull, and Shiar DC was a wash in anti-matter weaponers, man hawks, future aliens, and all manner of other things.  Thus the mandate of Invasion! was to hammer out a workable cosmic cosmology for the DC universe under the watchful eye of DC’s new architect of the age- Keith Giffen. 

Now Keith Giffen and the era of DC he presided over are one of my favorite periods in comic history.  It’s basically the first time old comics’ mythology from the Silver Age become more serious and applied to the universe at large, a trick Giffen picked up from his mentor Paul Levitz while cutting his teeth with the Legion of Superheroes.  I mention the Legion because a ton of Invasion!’s alien races come from that neglected corner of the DCU. 

If you don’t know, the Legion of Superheroes is a group of super teens from the far future, each from a different alien race, that were friends of Superman while he was a boy.  They were like the X-Men before there were X-Men and Giffen leans hard on their collection of aliens to fill up the races for Invasion!, starting with the leading group- the Dominators. 

The Dominators are the freaky, red dot alien race that is showcased on the cover of this comic and will be appearing in the CW adaptation of the series.  It’s never been confirmed by the underlying design of the Dominators is most often sighted as going back to the Golden Age villain the Claw.  Claw was a racist stereotype of Japanese people during World War2, which comes across in the Dominators’ design given their big red sun dot, long fingernails, and yellow skin. 

The idea with them was to try and keep the menacing design of the original caricature while also excising the racial undertones.  I’m not sure a full success was ever totally possible, but the much more inhuman bent to the Dominators (large mouth, no nose or eyes) helps.  What’s more, the race is portrayed as more than just pure evil or barbaric savages; they’re written as an advanced alien power rather than racist yellow peril stereotypes. 

As to the plot, it’s pretty simple- the Dominators are afraid that Earth’s superhuman population might cause a problem as they expand into space, so they round up a bunch of allies to burn Earth to the core before that happens.  There’s really nothing more to the story than that, it’s only 3 stand alone issues long, and I couldn’t be happier for it. 

Far too often event comics are packed to the gills with circuitous plotting or deflated plot points they end up tedious slogs; not invasion.  It’s a proto-version of Independence Day with nothing more complicated than “aliens bad, humans good- let them fight.”  That’s not to say there aren’t ups and downs, feints, betrayals, counter-attacks, etc., it’s just that the war is decided entirely through the battle of Earth. 

The simple set-up was designed to allow the event to spill over into ongoing comics without repeating plot points while also providing a clear framework for Giffen to introduce his various alien races.  As I mentioned, each of the alien races predates the comic; this is just the first time they ever all met up in the same room.  

Also coming from the Legion of Superheroes continuity are the Durlans, a race of shapeshifters, the Daxamites, a sister race to the Kryptonians with equal power but a weakness to led, and the Khunds, big hulking solider people. 

There’s also the Thanagarians, the winged alien race that Hawkman belongs to, and the Citadel, a race of big black monsters that are tied to Starfire of the Teen Titans’ origin.  There are also the Psions, lizard scientists, and the Warlords of Okaara, both from the Green Lantern mythos, but my favorite is the Gil’Dishpan.  They’re an old Aquaman villain race who are a flap of colon in a jar that floats around and shoots lasers.

Todd McFarlane, who you might know as the creator of Spawn, renders all of the alien races and their technology in gorgeous detail.  This is one of the few comics he did for DC and it so makes me wish there had been more.  His work can tend to be a little cluttered, and while that’s true here his designs for the alien species and ships are always unique and strikingly memorable. 

A lot of that comes down to the unsung hero of the comic medium- the colorist, here being Carl Gafford.  Gafford does a tremendous job with definition, though he gets some help from the 5 inkers working on the comic too.  Together they manage to keep the substantial detail of McFarlane’s style confined so the visuals avoid blending into each other. 

It’s relatively straight forward stuff beyond the alien weirdness- heroes battle them across the globe (DC was very big into international heroes at this time) with the aliens eventually going down when their allies the Daxamites turn on them.  There’s a third issue where the Dominators use a “dark energy” device to rob Earth’s heroes of their powers, but it’s not terribly exciting.  

It is where the term and concept of ‘metahumans’ entered the superhero vernacular but it feels a lot like an unnecessary coda and only exists to set-up some follow-up comics that weren’t all that interesting or engaging. 

So that’s Invasion!, I wouldn’t say it was a great comic book, but it’s by far and away one of the best event comics and easily the best version of what it wants to be.  It’s alien invasion storytelling at its purest with all the boom and bombast that implies, right down to the title dispensing with any pomp or circumstance and just saying, point blank, “INVASION!”  I mentioned earlier that it’s the comic version of Independence Day and I stand by that, though maybe with a slightly more cynical and self-aware twist. 

Much like Independence Day Invasion! is all about Earth coming together to fight the aliens, only now it’s loaded with even more weight given the Cold War time period.  We see Russia and the USA putting aside their differences and joining forces alongside China, the EU, even Cuba.  

What’s more, one of the last scenes is an impassioned plea that this unity doesn’t need to end with the invasion, that it can be how we are always…and then immediately there’s a news story about feuding Middle Eastern nations using the invasion as a cover for war.  It’s a bitter sweet ending but a decidedly honest one at that, after all as the comic itself concludes- some things, it seems, never change. 

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