Mark Waid’s anti-superhero comic, Irredeemable ran from 2009 and 2012 for 36 issues collected into 10 trades. I’d read most of the series when it was first published in trades but – for some reason I can’t remember – never got round to reading the conclusion to the story. I’ve just finished reading the whole run.

Irredeemable is an exploration of the psychological motivations that would drive super-heroics and follows the fall-out when a Superman-analogue called The Plutonian goes insane and goes on a world-wide killing spree. Plutonian’s former colleagues in The Paradigm, a version of the Justice League, become his targets and are forced to go on the run as they desperately try to stop his carnage.

In his introduction to the first volume, Waid explains that Irredeemable is “a pulp adventure tale of horror about how the lessons we learn about right and wrong as children become warped and twisted when challenged by the realities of the adult world.” Waid calls the story “Conradian” in the way that the comic presents the erosion of idealism and the way that secrets, betrays and mistakes lead to a terribly dark place.

I’m particularly engaged by the way in which Waid presents Plutonian’s nemesis, Modeus, a Lex Author-like scientific genius, as being motivated by a genuine romantic infatuation with Plutonian in which the villain commits crimes in order to be noticed by the hero. Also, it’s interesting that the one character who seems to have a solid sense of morality, Qubit, is non-human and does his best to try and save Plutonian, giving him repeated opportunities to… well… redeem himself.

While its a pretty enjoyable series – Waid is a master at throwing up elements at the bottom of the page that force you to keep reading – many of the secondary heroes and almost all the secondary villains are a little flat. Probably this is because the epic nature of the comic means that there are just so many of them! It’s also a little too long. I imagine Waid sustained the comic until the sales fell away and then there’s a needless four-issue crossover towards the end with the character of Max Damage , a character from the Incorruptible comic set in the same universe.

Grant Morrison calls Irredeemable “a simple, elegant and terrifying concept”. He’s not wrong: it’s a story about how it’s possible for the best of us to be brought down by the worst in us. Despite the genocidal actions of Plutonian, we feel a great sense of sympathy for him as we learn about his upbringing and the effect it has on his self-esteem and morality. He’s brought up without a Ma and Pa Kent to guide him. In a series of adopted parents only one, a dour devoted Christian provides him with any sense of moral agency (and even that’s somewhat damaged). He’s taught to be selfless but actually lacks a sense of selfhood.

Some of the best parts of the comic are when the story takes a cosmic dimension. The Irredeemable universe’s Batman-analogue, Hornet, makes a pre-emptive deal with alien invaders giving them free access to conquer other dimensions in return for dealing with the Plutonian should the need arise. Plutonian ends up in an intergalactic asylum for the criminally insane, where he recruits bloodthirsty villains who help him escape and return to Earth to support him in his carnage. We even discover Plutonian’s non-human parents (which also reveals his origin in an unexpected way).

The final issue is a super-condensed wrap up which adds an unnecessary sub-plot involving the tree of knowledge from the Garden of Eden conveying immortality on all humanity. I can also see why Waid added the denouement of the final page but it was a little awkward (I won’t reveal it.)

I’m not sure that Waid in 2009 was treading any new ground here. Over at Marvel, creators had explored the moral ambiguity of super-heroics in Civil War a couple of years earlier. Waid himself had produced the superlative Kingdom Come for DC in 1996 and Empire in 2003. Tonally, Irredeemable most definitely follows in the footsteps of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and I think it’s no coincidence that Plutonian bears an uncanny resemblance to Marvelman.