Wednesday, September 21, 2011


It is remarkable how powerful a story can be when it seizes upon something that we take for granted and infuses that with a strong dose of reality. Take Superman, for example. Sure, he’s a fictional character, but he is so ingrained into our cultural psyche that we assume certain things about him will always be true. We believe that he will always do good. We take for granted his maturity and his almost father-like regard for the human race. We assume that he will never falter or stray from his path of righteousness, even if it kills him.

Irredeemable is the dark and introspective comic that seeks to subvert those expectations. Its premise is simple, yet deeply disturbing. What if Superman were like you or me? What if powers were given to someone who emotionally couldn’t handle the stress? What if Superman’s childhood wasn’t quite so idyllic? What would be the result?

 Before and after
The Plutonian

Fully knowing that people would not accept such a warped take on an adored character, Mark Waid (the author) decided to go off and create his own Superman, The Plutonian (Tony). He is within his own comic book universe unrelated to that of DC Comics, populated with original and interesting superheroes who all have one thing in common: none of them are as strong as the Plutonian. Just like Superman, the Plutonian’s powers are so far off the charts that it isn’t a far stretch to call him a god. When you are so powerful that you can kill someone with a flick of your fingers, it becomes very clear very fast that you aren’t normal.

What makes the Plutonian’s story so tragic is when you think about how lonely that would be. And how frightening. Irredeemable focuses on Tony’s character, his struggle, and his inevitable failure to handle his powers and the responsibilities that go with them. And the ramifications of a man with that power gone insane.
Physical Trauma

One thing that doesn’t occur to us is how Superman became practiced at using his immense power. Somehow his adopted parents, who have no powers of their own, trained him to have absolute control over his strength? How? Irredeemable seizes upon this and make this an important facet of the Plutonian’s path to insanity. Having no family of his own, he is sent from foster home to foster home, from one adopted family to another, seeking acceptance, seeking someone who can mentor him and teach him how to control his powers.

But the answer is as simple as it is depressing. There is no one like him. We watch spellbound as Tony gains power but, as a child, is unable to understand how to handle it. Imagine lashing out at a friend in anger. As kids, we all did this at least once before we knew that violence was never the best option. For Tony, the result is brutally murdering a friend, breaking his body in half, spraying blood everywhere. Imagine how traumatic that would be.

The result is a childhood where Tony is feared and shunned by every family that takes care of him. And the consequences are both physical and emotional. Forever after making such mistakes, and having no point of reference for how to easily control his powers, the Plutonian spends all of his time in constant fear that he will slip up again, afraid that he’ll lose control, holding back in terror that people will judge him or that he’ll hurt someone dear to him.
Emotional Trauma

Irredeemable delves also into the emotional ordeal of growing up with the powers of a Superman and the expectations that come with it. The result of a childhood without friends or family is a desperate need for acceptance and love. Everything Tony does is fueled by this desire. In a sense, this makes him more selfish than Superman; where Superman saves people because it is the right thing to do, the Plutonian does it in large part because he wants people to adore and accept him. But he finds that even that isn’t truly attainable.

The average Joe looks at him as a celebrity or a god, not a real person. His fellow superheroes thank him for his help, but are as wary as they are uninterested in really knowing him. The demands of saving the world end up feeling like a strain as people take for granted that he will come and save them. What is the point? Tony tries to escape through romance and love, but finds that people only love him for the legend and icon he represents; they are incapable of empathizing with or truly understanding him.

The combination of physical insecurities and fears alongside being emotionally crippled and seemingly the only caring man in a sea of indifferent faces makes it only a matter of time before the Plutonian snaps.

The result is truly terrifying to behold. It is genuinely hard to describe how effective Mark Waid is at creating a sense of palpable fear in the reader. The entire population, superheroes and humans, have no idea how to stop a being so powerful that he can destroy an entire city populated by millions in mere minutes. How can you? This is made even more intense by one’s ability to empathize with Tony. Though you condemn his actions, you can’t help but understand why he has snapped and why he lashes out against those who he once fought for and beside. And it isn’t like the people he faces are incapable of love or emotion, it is just that they were never truly able to reach Tony, to the tragedy of the entire world.

Thus Irredeemable is a character study steeped in horror and sadness. We see the efforts of the Plutonian’s former comrades-in-arms to save him or kill him. We see, through flashbacks, Tony’s life and how it all came to this. And we see how nasty it is to live in a post-apocalyptic world where you can be killed at any minute by a being so powerful and godlike that it seems like there is no hope. No hope at all.

As one can clearly tell, I found Irredeemable to be an immensely powerful, compelling, and almost depressing comic to read. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the psychology of people and fictional characters, as well as anyone looking for a story that is far more mature than what you might expect about superheroes wearing tights. There is a great deal going on in this story that makes it eminently readable; despite my exhaustive review, I didn’t even get the chance to talk about the foils that come up against the Plutonian, how the lives of the superheroes he fights against provide stark mirrors of his own path and personality, and how Tony tries all manner of psychological techniques to hide from and fight the pain that he has caused. But I don’t want to spoil everything. I simply advise you to read and experience it for yourself.

1 comment:

  1. This was elegant and very impressive review. I have not finished the series yet but capture so much of what made this comic book great.