In it’s debut issue, Marvels’s new Hercules series attempts to create a dichotomy between traditional ideas and modern ways of thinking and it works overall. Yet in light of it’s recent controversy over the character’s sexuality, it’s real world parallel’s inadvertently add another layer to it’s themes, for better or worst.
In Hercules, writer Dan Abnett tries to make the hero a study in contrast, the classical hero is adjusting to the world around him with his peers like Gilgamesh or foe’s, like the ancient spiritual monster of Greek mythology that Hercules spars with for the majority of the issue. And that’s really fun, Hercules wears a man bun, Gilgamesh crashes on his couch, they live in an apartment in traditional Greek neighborhood Astoria, Queens and for his services, Hercules has accepted as varied of tributes as a Hulk action figure to a Kaiju trading card. Abnett gives the story a goofy charm with his fun character work that carries the plot past what is basically your standard hero fights villain in New York City Marvel fare and some exposition that at times can feel almost too on the nose. But it’s never not fun and that goes a long way in keep the writing engaging. Artist Luke Ross may being doing his best work as a story teller yet in Hercules debut. He does a fantastic job of doing the general acting work of the the people inside the story that is especially sharp for background characters reacting to Hercules. There’s a scene of the character walking past one of those classic outer boro brownstones with the residents noticing the protagonist with a variety of unique expressions ranging astonished to indifference. While Ross’s work here is sound in all the ways needed for a superhero comic, it’s his background work like the aforementioned page above or the decorations in Hercules apartment that adds a liveliness to the story. Guru FX color work smooths out Ross’s art and gives the work a bright sheen. While Ross’s line work often benefits from a more rough line, it doesn’t take anything away from the story and it’s still distinctive enough not to feel generic.
Here’s the thing about Marvel’s latest soft relaunch, they’ve mastered the art of debuting a new book with a distinctive voice and hook that is true to the properties concept but unique from everything else. There is no other book like Hercules right now and it’s a great blend of high concept while embracing the inherent goofiness of a superhero comic. In that way, it’s not all that different from debut’s like Young Avengers, Thor: God Of Thunder, Kot’s Secret Avengers or even Marvel films like the Iron Man trilogy or Guardians Of The Galaxy. With that said, it’s still very much a Dan Abnett comic which mean it’s exploring a deeper thematic idea within the narrative that creates a through line between the protagonist, the fictional universe as a whole and whats happening in our world at large. With Hercules, that’s the idea of the traditional versus the modern, how different actors react to those ideologies and how the two relate to one another. In and of itself it’s successful at that but theirs also a strong irony that this is the comic that would end up being regressive in the culture at large in the books treatment of the main characters sexuality.
The concept of hetronormative sexuality is only a construct of Judeo Christian theologies influence on modern western culture but at this point, it’s become a destructive one. When Marvel editor in chief insists on Hercules hetrosexuality, it showed a lack of sophistication with both the rapidly changing world at large and knowledge of the subject matter. And there is something interesting in the way that Hercules explores the nature of tradition and time in the context of it’s larger place in comics culture. While it’s a book that clearly wants to say something about the nature of change in the context of history, by actions that are completely out of the hands of it’s creators, that idea can’t help but feel undermined by it’s controversy. It doesn’t ruin the book but it does hurt it. The hope is that Abnett & Ross can pivot from Axel’s own position with Hercules sexuality at their own discretion but that’s assuming that the initial definitive declaration of the characters sexuality wasn’t at least partially motivated by the flexibility of the property for it’s potential usage in film, television or other media. And while that’s a valid reason from a corporate standpoint, it’s not any good for comics.
This ultimately goes back to the limitations of corporate comics. Hercules is an enjoyable debut that is technically proficient and trying a lot of smart and singular ideas in it’s own way that still feel true to the character’s core. And this has been true for a lot of Marvel books since Marvel Now but the rigidness with Herules sexuality has exposed that ceiling in a way that feels kind of unsettling. Marvel knows how to make great comics and that’s been proven over the last three years but how great they could be will only be contingent on the series own limitations and it’s hard for a book not to be a little bit of a let down not matter how great it is in the abstract once those limitations are laid bare.