Here’s the first real superhero book I’ve read for this mission, and it sets the bar high. Agents is tightly plotted with plenty of room for characterization, and while it leaves the door open for future stories, it’s also almost entirely self-contained.
I’m never sure how I feel about plot versus realism. The path towards pure realism can be boring and self-indulgent, or it can be Ulysses. Plot exercised flawlessly can be predictable or lack characterization, or it can be, I don’t know, whatever your favorite detective story is. Plot and realism always feel opposed to me, since the more realistic something is (i.e. as things like bathroom breaks and long, meaningless silences are narrated), the harder it gets to stick to the rising and falling of a plot. It takes a talented writer to craft a plot that mirrors life while staying engaging.
Given that Agents of Atlas is about six heroes from the 1950s (“the secret agent, the goddess, the robot, the gorilla, the mermaid, the spaceman” — a great tagline) getting the band back together to go after their old nemesis across six issues, there’s not a whole lot of room for realism. Parker puts the team through a great adventure, though, where mysteries appear and are solved and characters change and grow, and then ending is surprising and avoids cliche without coming out of left field.
Leonard Kirk helps with the twists and turns immensely. At one point, there’s a traitor to the team, and the villain literally sees through the traitor’s eyes. If you go back through the book, you’ll see that Kirk often gives an establishing shot of the whole team and follows it with a “spying” panel of the villain watching his spy screen. The scene on the screen is exactly what the traitor would be seeing given his/her/its position, which is a great detail once you know who’s doing the spying.
Maybe saying that the series is plot-driven is wrong, though, because the book has a lot of character. Even though the members are ultra-powerful (they regularly toss tanks, control the minds of armies, and do just about anything with high-tech Uranian flying saucer technology), Parker & Kirk take time to develop each member of the team (and the antagonists), giving them all secrets, regrets, fears, and desires. The characters show the chumminess of old friends even in the midst of giving requisite expository dialogue. Parker’s words aren’t wasted, always serving at least two purposes, and Kirk’s expressive lines are similar; everyone has their own posture and expressions, whether they’re fighting killer plants or chatting in a diner. They even manage to redeem “The Yellow Claw,” a Yellow Threat villain from the ’50s.
I also just want to say that the collected edition, as a physical object, is really great. It reprints the six beautiful Tomm Coker covers. After the main story, there’s a section of sketchbook pages, interviews, and an excerpt of prose from an AR game that Parker ran when the issues were coming out. This is followed by reprints of each individual first appearance from the 1950s and the totally weird What If? comic that teamed them up in the ’70s which was maybe meant to be imaginary but maybe not and had a guy named 3D-Man.