"Irredeemable": When Superheroes Go Bad

Mark Waid explores what it is inside a hero that could turn him to the dark side. "It's not about violence," he says. "It's about evil."

Mark Waid is not evil.

In spite of a recent and well-received marketing campaign to the contrary, the prolific writer is actually a very nice guy. Since leaving his gig as an editor at DC Comics in 1990 to pursue a career as a freelance writer, Waid has scripted titles featuring an impressive list of comic book heavyweights, including Captain America, The Flash, and Superman. Now editor-in-chief at Boom! Studios, Waid has shifted his creative focus to heroes—and villains—of his own invention.

Which brings us to Waid's new ongoing series, Irredeemable. The disturbingly dark take on the superhero archetype has enjoyed an enthusiastic reception, with the first issue scoring a same-day sell-out and the second issue selling out before it even reached stores.

Waid's grim and compelling tale explores what might happen if the world's greatest superhero went bad. We're not talking Watchmen's brand of ends-justify-the-means bad; we're talking full-fledged, baby-torching evil. But unlike the proliferation of flawed-hero titles that has seen print in recent years, Irredeemable doesn't have an ounce of cynicism.

"‘Superhero becomes jerk' is too easy and too one-note to write," Waid says. "The real story is how one becomes a villain when he was originally the world's most admired hero—what's inside that hero that eats away at him and slowly turns him to the dark side? That's what Irredeemable is all about. It's not about violence. That's too easy. It's about evil."

What led Waid to take on such a dark variant of the superhero story?

"As a kid, you take for granted that your superheroes are emotionally pretty well-adjusted," he says. "But as you become an adult and start to realize how truly complex the world is and how hard it can be to make decisions in a non-black-and-white world, you begin to appreciate how scary it would be to see the powers of a god in the hands of someone with ordinary character flaws, and how that power would magnify [those flaws.]"

Citing an interest in our current climate of "celebrity voyeurism," Waid wanted to examine the effects that constant public scrutiny might have on someone so powerful. "We've seen how it can destroy famous people who can lash out only in tabloid-headline-inducing rage or with petty lawsuits," he explains. "What happens when someone with the power to move mountains gets angry?"

The superhero in question is the Plutonian, and "angry" doesn't begin to describe what he has become. In the opening pages of the series launch, Irredeemable's version of Superman uses his heat vision to incinerate an entire family, including an infant. His primary target is fellow superhero Hornet; the deaths of Hornet's wife and children are just bonuses to the newly evil Plutonian.

We soon learn that the Plutonian is cutting a bloody swath through the membership directory of the Paradigm, a team of superheroes that, until recently, counted the Plutonian as its most distinguished member. The plot unfolds in two interwoven storylines: One follows surviving Paradigm members as they frantically search for a way to stop the Plutonian, while the other plays out in flashbacks that hint at reasons for the once-beloved champion's terrible fall. The transitions between the two arcs are clumsy at times, but that problem seems to diminish with each new issue as Waid finds the title's rhythm.

In spite of the huge amount of exposition necessary to lay the groundwork for such a complex tale, Waid keeps the story moving along at breakneck speed. Without the luxury of the pre-existing, richly developed comics universes he's worked with in the past, Waid has his work cut out for him in these early issues. He's challenged to quickly familiarize readers with a large cast of superheroes and villains, and to create an entirely new universe. He makes things easier on himself by using conventions and character types that comic book readers will instantly recognize.

Waid is quick to attribute the success of Irredeemable to his collaborators, particularly artist Peter Krause and colorist Andrew Dalhouse. Krause's solid pencil work, which gets better with each issue, is reminiscent of Golden Age art—an impression that is furthered by Dalhouse's vibrant colors.

Waid isn't concerned that his series will spark comparisons to other titles that offer a less-than-flattering take on superheroes, like Garth Ennis' The Boys or Boom! Studios' own Caped. "I think I've stumbled onto that very thin tightrope that no one else seems to be walking—how to tell a story about villains without it being cynical and hopeless."

Waid offers a glimpse of what's in store for future issues. "It only gets darker," he says. "Eventually, his former teammates will have to begin making their own fateful ethical decisions as to how to cope with Plutonian's madness. At least one more will die. And issue four is important in that we get to see the Plutonian cut loose to the full extent of his power for the first time as we begin revealing exactly what it was that drove him over into darkness."

Issue #3 is in comic shops now; the fourth issue is set for release in July.