Agents of Atlas: Pandemonium Review
The subject of this review marks the first Agents of Atlas storyline to contain material from both Jeff Parker – whose Agents of Atlas miniseries launched the team with a ‘50s-themed roster – and Greg Pak – whose New Agents of Atlas comics added several members of Asian descent. Unfortunately, it also marks the first Atlas trade I own to end on a cliffhanger, resolved in Pak’s Atlantis Attacks. However, since it contains the longest storyline I’ve ever read from Greg Pak, I’ve found a lot to discuss even before finishing Atlantis Attacks.
Parker’s backup runs shorter than the main story, so I’ll review it first.
Behind the Veil
Published: August 2019
Writer: Jeff Parker
Artist: Carlo Pagulayan
An ancient conflict is coming to a head… and I may have kicked it off.
– Jimmy Woo/Woo Yen Jet
Jimmy Woo’s original Agents of Atlas, along with later recruit Delroy “3D Man” Garrett, embark on a mission to recruit former Avenger Cressida into Woo’s Pan-Asian School for the Unusually Gifted. In Thailand, Atlas rescues Cressida from General Lek Nurong. Afterwards, the general’s dragon commander, Mr. Thong, warns the Agents that Atlas’ dragon advisor, Mr. Lao, has involved the Agents in a war between dragons.
At 10 pages, this comic has the shortest length of any I have about the OG Agents of Atlas, even including the What If? Story that inspired Parker’s first miniseries. Regardless, it delivers excitement and intrigue. Text boxes succinctly describe each Agent’s abilities and backstory for new readers, although 3D Man’s box leaves out his backstory. Still, the team’s personalities and abilities remain consistent with what I read of them before. The references to the war between dragons help connect this adventure to that of the New Agents of Atlas, without taking any pages away from the latter team.
If I had to find a qualm with this story, I’d lament not learning much about Cressida. Without any description of her past or powers, she just seems like a living MacGuffin. However, if she appears in future Agents of Atlas comics, she’ll likely receive more development then. “Behind the Veil” provides a brief, but thrilling, introduction/re-introduction to Jimmy Woo’s original Agents of Atlas.
The Portal City of Pan
Published: August 2019-December 2019
Writer: Greg Pak
Artist: Nico Leon
We’re disrupting politics and borders and fear and prejudice… and we’re opening the door to prosperity and fun.
– Mike Nguyen, issue #1
Big Nguyen Company combines sections of various Asian or Asian-American communities into a new city, Pan. With Brawn leading the New Agents of Atlas in Jimmy Woo’s absence, the New Agents – including their latest member, size-shifting computer programmer Raz “Giant-Man” Malhotra – help out the people of Pan, and defend the city from surprisingly frequent dragon attacks. Meanwhile, Mike Nguyen draws suspicion for violating international policies. Brawn’s suspicions extend to Pan’s secretive, sword-swinging “Protector” Isaac Ikeda, despite how often Isaac assists the New Agents in fighting reptilian monsters. As Pan grows into both a tourist destination and a haven for impoverished Asians, Brawn’s order for an investigation of the Big Nguyen Company creates a moral dilemma for the New Agents.
While previous comics I’ve read from Greg Pak divide focus between plot and character interactions, Portal City places more emphasis on the latter. Most of these do flesh out New Agents I previously dismissed as distinguishable mainly by abilities and appearance. Among others, Luna Snow receives extra privilege from her fame, yet strives to act humble around her fans and new friends. Regarding Asian-American Agents, Brawn confides his concerns as the New Agents’ leader to Silk, while their relationship remains platonic rather than romantic. (However, Brawn experiences some dashed romantic tension with Luna Snow, whom I’d rather see paired with Silk.) As Marvel continues to groom Shang-Chi into an A-list superhero, this story lets him demonstrate intellectual and stealth skills in addition to martial arts. Pak continues to use mealtime as an opportunity for Amadeus Cho to bond with other Asian-descended superheroes, and with Asian-descended readers; an especially relatable scene from Portal City has the New Agents and Isaac drink boba tea while wearing bedroom slippers, with their crimefighting footwear piled up beside the bunker doorway.
Raz and Isaac share especially compelling interactions, forming the first same-sex couple I could find in Agents of Atlas. Homosexual Raz doesn’t seem to adhere to any degrading gay stereotypes, acting shy about his sudden induction into Atlas rather than flamboyant or cowardly. (Computer programming also doesn’t sound like a skill I associate with degrading gay stereotypes, but Portal City never lets Raz demonstrate it.) His affection for bisexual Isaac helps the latter form an alliance with the New Agents, despite Brawn’s suspicions of him. When Brawn and Silk learn about Raz and Isaac dating, Silk – whose Spider-Sense doesn’t give her any reason to suspect Isaac of evil – demonstrates support of their potential romance, while Brawn doesn’t seem embarrassed at hiring a homosexual into Atlas; although he privately worries to Silk that Isaac might break Raz’s heart. The strongest demonstrations of Raz’s and Isaac’s chemistry come when Raz saves Isaac from an unexpected tank attack, exchanging amorous compliments with him. The reader even gets to see some of the couple’s physical demonstrations of love, but only when Big Nguyen’s efforts to promote romance in Pan invade the duo’s privacy. Ironically, the only issue to show Raz on the cover – issue #5 – also marks the only one not to have him inside.
Regarding the new environment provided for Atlas’ adventures, Pan seems appealing as a tourist destination, but less utopian when it turns out classism still exists in the city. The bonds that Brawn and the formerly cash-strapped Wave and Sword Master (among others) form with the lower-class help raise the emotional stakes, by giving names, faces, and backstories to the people the New Agents need to protect. I’ve found some irony in Big Nguyen financially exploiting public fascination with Asian cultures, by combining multiple in one place; that sounds similar to what Marvel does whenever they publish one of these team-ups. However, I’d need to know more about Mike Nguyen’s motivations to decide what to make of this irony.
As evidenced by how long it took me to finish writing this review, the main story felt less engaging than that of the New Agents’ previous adventure did. Until Brawn orders an investigation of Big Nguyen in issue #4, the plot meanders through various character interactions, often seeming nonexistent. Mike Nguyen seems more smarmy than downright evil, depriving Atlas of a worthy adversary for most of the arc. The action feels less exciting when linework and shading look less detailed than before, and when not everyone gets a chance to show off. I find most of the New Agents, and eventually Isaac, compelling enough to overlook these, but not all readers might agree. Overall, The Portal City of Pan delivers some intrigue, but functions better as a bridge between The War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas and Atlantis Attacks, than as a standalone story.