Phil Hester and Todd Nauck's "Invincible Universe" goes small again, telling a single-issue story about a single character striking off on his own. The Guardians of the Globe barely have a cameo at the end. This is El Chupacabra's story, and it's an entertaining done-in-one that's well told.
El Chupacabra is up to stage nine of his alcoholism recovery program: making apologies to those he's harmed. This means trekking to Serbia to apologize to the family of Cast Iron, who took an axe to the chest meant for El Chupacabra when he was too drunk to fight properly. What should have been a simple trip to Eastern Europe turns into something more complicated quickly. The hero's family is feared in town. They're running a cartel. And they're not accepting El Chupacabra's apology, even though they had no respect for their son. Then things go straight to hell. Pigs, bombs and a dam go boom.
Phil Hester's story is a small one on the relative scale of things that happen in the Invincible universe. This cast of characters could use more such focus, but there's only so many pages to burn up in a month. "Invincible Universe" #3 shows that Hester's capable of a well-plotted one-off as much as a multi-issue rambling arc. But in the midst of a series with a much more sprawling feel to it, it feels almost like a fill-in issue. Three issues in -- and with another spotlight issue with Best Tiger next month -- the series is starting to look more like an anthology than a team book. That's a difference from the "Guarding the Globe" book this series replaced, though still just as interesting and important for the characters.
Hester puts all the pieces together nicely and includes some well-placed bits of humor, from the truck driver who gives El Chupacabra a lift to the rocking chair-bound grandmother with a surprise of her own. While there is a fair amount of talking heads in the issue, once the main characters get in a room together, the fireworks fly and things happen quickly. The momentum is not lost, and the little victories add up. Credit to Hester for the plot mechanics, which work well even when telegraphed from a mile away. (When a man named El Chupacabra lands at a farm in the middle of nowhere and its owner freely admits to raising hogs for no reason, you don't have to be Chekhov to see the gun being put on the wall.)
Todd Nauck's art is as strong as ever. Being able to focus on the smaller cast gives him more room to add more detailed backgrounds, and character movements and expressions are perfectly in sync with the script. It's an issue with far fewer superhero costumes than Nauck usually draws, so it's a great example of how broader his skills are than the usual monthly superhero book. The inks in the new title have worked much better than the straight-from-pencil look previously.
Gabe Eltaeb's colors are strong. They don't overwhelm the art, but they use a wide color palette and have bold color choices. He knows how to use brighter colors to separate foreground characters from darker and more faded backgrounds. Even when pages are staged in darker areas at night, his color choices never overwhelm the art or hide the lines.
"Invincible Universe" is a much different book from its previous incarnation than we might have expected, but if it continues to tell solid stories with strong art like this, it has a good chance to be around for a long time.