While Bendis’ accomplishments with the franchise over the past few years are many, there’s no denying that he set a rather low bar for his successor to overcome with his final volume. Could it have been intentional now that I think about it? Maybe. Now Jonathan Hickman has been given the keys to the “Avengers” castle and is going to put his own distinctive stamp on its cast. Those of you who lamented how Bendis’ take on the team and characters didn’t feel true to its history are likely to have the same kind of issues here, because while this volume is a lot of things it is certainly not a throwback. However, if you’re like me and liked Bendis’ run (and have a big appreciation for all things Hickman) then you’ll want to dive on in.
At the end of the previous volume, Captain America and Iron Man were pondering how to deal with the potential threats the future would bring. The latter had a deceptively simple strategy summed up in three words: “We go bigger.” This led to the formation of a core Avengers group made up of familiar faces like Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and the Hulk in addition to the former two. The idea being that they would serve as a “front line” defense with a sizeable cast in the reserves that could be called upon should the situation demand it.
We see that theory in action with the opening arc “Avengers World” when the core group heads to Mars after several bio-bombs hit Earth and make staggering alterations to the cities that they hit. Behind this act is no malicious intent, save for the creative impulses of a being called Ex Nihilo who wants to re-make humanity into something better. His darker sister Abyss is content to go along with him while their robotic companion Aleph has apparently classified his stance towards Earth as “WORLD RAZING.”
The first three issues represent Hickman’s spin on that old superhero trope of the heroes getting their asses handed to them only to come back with a bigger and stronger team to set things right. People can debate amongst themselves about whether or not all of the new recruits are “Avengers” material, but there’s no doubt that the writer has selected an appealingly diverse array of personalities that will likely clash slightly less often than they work together. Also, the man gets points for putting together an amusing recruitment sequence, the high point being Cannonball and Sunspot’s discussions of the pros of being an Avenger over the cons of being X-Men.
“Avengers World” also has a scope that expands and contracts as necessary. From the larger-than-life opening about the beginning of the universe, to the team’s trip and subsequent defeat on Mars, down to the aforementioned recruitment sequences and up again to the rematch. It’s an impressive shifting of scale as the story demands it, and all of the new members at least get their own moment or two in the spotlight to shine. However, the climax of the story hinges upon one of the newer recruits who I wasn’t all that familiar with. Hickman tries to rectify that later, but even then I had to head online to Wikipedia to find out who this “Captain Universe” character was.
Jerome Opena illustrates this arc, and just as he did on “Uncanny X-Force,” the man shows that he is ready for the A-list. Not only is the amount of detail he puts into his work frankly stunning, his scenes on Mars also show that he’s possessed of a great imagination when it comes to illustrating alien concepts. His work is also given impressive depth from his “X-Force” colorist Dean White, and their work together makes me wish that they could’ve done the entire volume.
That said, the rest of the collection is illustrated by Adam Kubert and he’s no slouch when it comes to superhero action. He also proves to be able enough to handle everything Hickman throws at him in the following three issues from a tussle with A.I.M. and weird biologics in the Savage Land, to a planetary conflict involving the Shi’ar, and a sit-down between Shang-Chi and Captain Universe involving pie. It’s strong work, but not quite up to the standard Opena sets with the first half.
The second half of the volume also dials back the pace somewhat as it consists of three stand-alone stories spotlighting new Avengers members Hyperion, Smasher and Captain Universe. I know that Hyperion’s a member of the “Squadron Supreme,” a superhero team from another universe meant to be an ersatz Justice League for the Marvel Universe, with the character as a Superman analogue. What I don’t know is what version of the team he’s supposed to represent, but Hickman fills us in on his basic backstory and mindset so that it’s not too much of an issue. I’ll also admit that I liked the last scene he had with the new lifeforms in the Savage Land (particularly after I translated the one word they were saying to him upon their emergence) and I’m interested in seeing where that goes.
I can imagine a lot of people having a similar problem with Smasher, if they haven’t read Grant Morrison’s “New X-Men.” In her issue, we find out that Isabel Kane, a rancher with an interest in astronomy found a piece of the former Smasher’s armor in her ranch’s cornfield and put it on later when it asked her to. (Because that’s how people roll in the Marvel Universe.) This not only leads her outer space and the Shi’ar empire, but also to the Avengers and “no more cages.” The outer space scenes and fighting are, as mentioned above, great to look at and Hickman keeps the whole story grounded through Izzy’s relationship with her grandfather.
The last issue is the most eclectic and low key of the bunch, as it centers on Shang-Chi’s efforts to find out what Captain Universe’s deal is. Using pie. We also see Spider-Man being extraordinarily dickish to Cannonball and Sunspot, as well as Ex Nihilo’s Adam. If you think that seems out of character for him, well… there’s a reason for that. Even though there’s no real action in this issue, there’s plenty of suspense as Shang-Chi slowly unravels the mysteries of Captain Universe’s newest host while the universe herself set up the main story for the next volume.
Of course there’s more going on here than just the stories being told here. Hickman is behind Marvel’s latest crossover event, “Infinity,” which springs directly out of his work with this title and “New Avengers” (which I’ll be talking about tomorrow). There’s lots of foreshadowing here, from the opening prologue, to A.I.M.’s plotting, the “attack” on the Shi’ar Empire, and Captain Universe’s constant proclamations that the universe is broken and dying. What does it all mean? I’m guessing that’s going to be the payoff for the crossover. Given his work on the long-term planning for “Fantastic Four, I’m willing to trust the writer that this is all going to be worth it in the end. Those of you not on board with the writer’s work are encouraged to take a retrospective look at everything once the crossover is over.
Now I’m willing to bet that some of you are wondering just why I’m reviewing this volume now. After all, I’m talking about the hardcover edition and you all know that I hate the way Marvel puts just about everything in this edition first. I’ve got an easy answer for you: I found this in one of the half-off bins at Comic-Con. That I’d be paying less for this than the paperback edition when it arrived on Amazon was a powerful incentive to pick it up. I’m glad I did as this turned out to be quite entertaining for what it was. Is it worth paying full price for? Ask yourself how much of an “Avengers” or Hickman fan you are and how involved you are in following the ongoing narrative of the Marvel Universe. If the answer to any of these is “very,” then I’d say yes.