Like almost every issue of “Incredible Hercules,” this is a good one, and I have mostly praise for it. But I’ll begin with the criticism: this issue looks like one of the lesser Marvel Adventures comics. Ryan Stegman and Terry Pallot give this comic a hammy, often ugly appearance, and their over-exaggerated facial expressions turn this issue into something that’s a bit too on-the-nose. The Greg Pak/Fred Van Lente wit (and gags) work better with an artist who draws everything as if it were a straight action comic. When the characters look like they’re trying to accentuate the humor, than it becomes cringeworthy, not clever. And colorist Raul Trevino brings that garish-to-murky color palate from the Marvel Adventures line into this comic, and it doesn’t work at all. The giant establishing shot of the dead heroes inside the casino is one of the least-attractive comic book images of the month, largely because of the coloring.
So that’s that.
But Pak and Van Lente continue to do excellent work on “Incredible Hercules,” telling a story in this issue about the heroes descent into the Underworld — visualized by a casino filled with the Marvel Universe dead — and their journey to find the missing Zeus. One of the best things about this series, besides the blustering and often dim-witted arrogance of the title character, is the way Pak and Van Lente have developed the supporting cast. Amadeus Cho is a great foil for Hercules, and Hera is wonderful at stating her position and cutting everyone down a few notches. And even the bit players in this issue are well-developed, from Charon — the sarcastic skeletal sailor — to Aegis — who acts as our guide through Erebus and injects some personality into his presentation.
This issue is also about the Marvel geekdom easter eggs, like seeing the dead X-man Banshee playing roulette with Darkstar, while Puck and Goliath linger in the background. Janet Van Dyne is there, playing slots in an attempt to win the “jackpot,” which in the Underworld amounts to resurrection. “They let Bucky out. Bucky!” says the Wasp. “The odds for me have got to be good, right?” Pak and Van Lente even explain the constant resurrection of Marvel characters as a story point — Hades has lost interest as Lord of the Dead ever since Olympus was destroyed. With Zeus out of the picture, there’s no one to keep Hades in line anymore.
The issue ends with a fun (or shocking or entertaining or disturbing, depending on your attitude) cliffhanger, and the art looks better on the final pages as Stegman and Pallot cut down on the Robin Williams-style mugging and present iconic characters in threatening poses. But it’s not quite enough to make up for the forced overacting in the rest of the comic.
This is really the Pak and Van Lente show, however, and they continue to deliver excellent characterization set firmly inside the Marvel mythology. And unlike many superhero comics that focus on characterization, Pak and Van Lente don’t skimp on the plot, either. This is a comic about grand adventures and epic battles, and based on the spash page at the end of issue #129, the epic grandeur is just getting started.