Big things were promised for the issues contained within this volume, and Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley deliver on that promise in a way that I really didn’t expect. In fact, they do some stuff here that I’ve never seen done before in a superhero comic. Though a lot of it is played up for drama, the part that will likely stick with you the most after everything’s over is the moment of sexual violence perpetrated against the title’s main character, Mark Grayson.
Before we get to that, things pick up in the tight spot that Mark was left off in at the end of the previous volume. He was stranded in another dimension after his partner, Robot a.k.a. Rex, killed off the Evil Invincible that was ruling the world as well as the title’s longest-running villain Angstrom Levy. While having Mark find his way back to his own dimension would normally be a volume-length story in the hands of another writer, Kirkman skillfully burns through it in the course of an issue as Invincible recruits counterparts of characters he knows for a clever body-swapping scheme. We also get to see what Monster Girl would’ve wound up as had her condition not been stabilized, and that’s a sight to see as well.
Having made his way home, Mark finds out that six months have passed in his dimension and Atom Eve is beyond angry with him about effectively abandoning her and her unborn child to go chase down the potential threat of Angstrom Levy. She lets him know in no uncertain terms that they are through, and our protagonist is heartbroken by this news. It’s a moment of real high drama as Eve’s reasoning and anger are grounded in real concerns. Even if Angstrom had gone back on his promise to reform, is dealing with that more important than being with your partner while she’s pregnant with your child? I would think not.
Then things get worse. After leaving Eve, Mark is confronted by Anissa, the female Viltrumite (that’s her on the right column of this volume’s cover). While the Vilturmites have an ongoing order to covertly re-populate their species by breeding with humans on the planet, Anissa has been disgusted by the quality of the human males she’s encountered. As it turns out, the only male she has found to be worthy of breeding with her is Mark. Our protagonist is really not interested in doing that with her, but she’s having none of it.
There’s no other way to describe what happens next: Anissa rapes Mark. He tries to fight her off, but the full-blooded Viltrumite has none of that and uses her greater strength to subdue him. It’s a disturbing scene, made even more so by the fact that Anissa keeps taunting him with the kind of dialogue that we’re used to seeing from a male rapist. “Do you honestly think I don’t realize how much you’d enjoy this?” “This is happening whether you want it or not.” “I don’t care what you want!” The whole encounter is skin-crawling in its depiction of sexual violence, which is undoubtedly what Kirkman and Ottley were trying to convey here.
Rape is an ugly act regardless of who it’s happening to and who is perpetrating it. If you didn’t think that something like this could happen to a man, then prepare for a real shock to your system here. Anissa’s dialogue alone robs the scene of any obvious sexual gratification and the bloody violence only makes the scene more disturbing. The scene is also groundbreaking in its own way as I’m not aware of any other male lead in a superhero comic that has experienced a situation like this. Some might argue that it makes Mark look vulnerable and weak, but that’s part of the point here. Yes, there’s a message here about the insidiousness of rape and if it takes something like this to get more people to realize it then the choice to do it here was a worthy one.
However, after the act comes the follow-through and that’s where I can see people having issues with it. The narrative shifts gears almost immediately afterwards to focus on Robot’s plan to take over the world and the chaos that results from that. It’s high-energy “Invincible” action with lots of death and plenty of surprises along the way. Kirkman also gives the conventions of the superhero genre a few solid kicks along the way as this is the kind of story that could never be done in a Marvel or DC comic. All of the buildup from the previous volume? It really pays off in a significant fashion here.
The problem is that there’s very little focus given to Mark’s mental state after Anissa’s assault. There are a few key moments that stand out: When he stumbles over what to say to Cecil after returning to his home dimension. Pulling away from Eve when she touches him after he hands her their baby. Clenching his fist when Anissa is nearby and displaying visible anger at her whispered “Missed you.” If you were expecting this to be a central issue in the series from here on out, then you’re going to be disappointed. Yet these little moments still hit home and give the impression that seeing how Mark deals with this is going to be a long-term concern for this title.
In all honesty, the most disappointing part of how this is dealt with in the volume is in the commentary section in the back. While the banter between Kirkman and Ottley has always been generally very entertaining as they discuss their creative processes, the fact that Mark’s rape isn’t mentioned at all comes off as disingenuous. By any standard, this is a very big deal and you’d think that’d be reflected in the creators’ discussion. It’s not; so, we’ll have to see if their actions speak louder about Mark’s character going forward from here.
“Friends” was the most difficult volume of this series I’ve had to write about. While all of the superhero action of the title is handled in typically exciting fashion, it’s the sexual violence perpetrated against Mark that defines the story here. Kirkman and Ottley deserve credit for having the guts to do this kind of story and for not shying away from its ugly aspects. Now the question becomes how will Mark deal with this, and that’s just as compelling a question as what will be done about Robot in the volumes to come. At this point, there’s no way that I’d consider giving up on this title when questions like that are being asked.