One of the things that’s nice about “Agents of Atlas” is that it’s deeply connected to the “Dark Reign” status quo, but it’s so far on the periphery of the Marvel Universe that it can take part in the company-wide non-event and still comment upon it with a bit of detached wit. In other words, Jimmy Woo and the gang can pretend to work for Norman Osborn but they can mock him as well, and that ironic distance gives this comic its unique tone. This isn’t a funny comic in the mode of a Keith Giffen “JLI” series, but it’s also not a super-serious melodrama in which heavily-shadowed characters whisper to one another about the importance of what it is they’re doing.
No, this is a comic about an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, a gun-toting gorilla, a killer retro-robot, a mermaid, a spaceman with a bubble helmet, and a goddess. It can’t possibly take itself all that seriously.
Yet, that might be the reason this comic hasn’t yet achieved greatness. It straddles the line between ridiculous absurdity and dramatic conflict. It seems to want to be a gee-whiz fun time in the Marvel Universe, but it wants to be a comic that matters, too. Jeff Parker is good at straddling that line, but that line is a dangerous place to be, since every attempt at lightness or absurdity undercuts the seriousness of the drama, and every attempt at serious drama becomes forced and therefore silly when you’re dealing with talking gorillas and spacemen with bubble helmets. The ideal balance for a superhero comic that tries to walk the fine line between humor and pathos would probably have to be the best issues of “Amazing Spider-Man” (whatever issues you happen to think those are). But with Spider-Man, the humor comes from the character reacting with jokes in response to grave danger. In “Agents of Atlas” the characters look like jokes, but play it straight. It’s a bit like trying to prove that you can do Arthur Miller with Pokemon characters. Yes, Psyduck might be an interesting Biff, but does he really have the range to pull it off?
“Agents of Atlas” #5 is a good comic, of course, since Parker knows how to write an entertaining 22 pages even if the characters haven’t exactly found their footing yet. And Carlo Pagulayan is a superstar. It doesn’t make much sense to put a Billy Tan cover on a Pagulayan-drawn comic, because Pagulayan is the superior superhero artist by far. Billy Tan comics should have Pagulayan covers. They should have Pagulayan interiors, too, now that I think about it. The guy is good.
You’ll notice that I’ve nearly reached the end of my review and I haven’t discussed the plot of issue #5 at all. That’s because there isn’t really much of one — it’s a fight between the New Avengers and the Agents of Atlas. The New Avengers think the Agents are working for Norman Osborn, and the Agents kind of are, except they want the New Avengers to blow stuff up so they don’t really have to complete their Osborn-appointed task. Because the Agents are only pretending to be bad guys, after all.
So, yup, a big long fight scene, sparked by that age-old trope of the superhero misunderstanding. That’s what you get here, and it’s done well, but it’s still that same old story.
For all the technical quality and nice individual moments in this issue, we still don’t have much of a handle on who these Agents of Atlas are and why they do the things they do. We know why they say they’re doing it, but what’s Gorilla-Man really in it for? What does Venus really want from this team? Why does the Uranian (the former Marvel Boy) put his life on the line for this elaborate ruse of a fake criminal syndicate?
Until the characters become more than quirky concepts, mashed together, I won’t be able to call this series anything more than very good. Very good is often enough, though.