Paul O’Brien over at “The X-Axis” has made it clear that while he likes the overall direction of Jonathan Hickman’s “X-Men,” it stumbles along the way when telling individual stories on a month-to-month basis. I feel that the series is in better shape than that, but when I read this volume of Aaron’s “Avengers,” I finally got what he was feeling. With this volume it becomes clear that the writer has a cool idea behind his run as the team finds out who their real enemy is. I just wish that its big centerpiece story was as interesting.
Vol. 7 starts off with “The Temptation of Anthony Stark” as Aaron and a half-dozen artists tell the story of what happened to Iron Man after he was sent back to the Ice Age. He winds up back in a cave after an encounter with this era’s Avengers with his suit mostly totaled. Though he may have enough power to deal with the local cavemen and women, there’s another visitor coming to visit him every night to collect on something that he hasn’t been promised yet, but eventually will be: Tony Stark’s soul.
Doing the collecting is none other than Marvel’s answer to Satan himself, Mephisto. He does the usual bit of bargaining along with some dead animal reanimation and taking the face of Stark’s father Howard to tighten the screws a bit. While we all know what the Avenger’s answer is going to be, his struggle is livened up with the craziness that Aaron loves to throw into his Marvel stories: Wait until you see the new suit Stark creates for himself here. Though this story showcases Mephisto’s interesting approach to long-term planning, the real shocker comes when we find out who his right-hand-man is. While I can’t believe that the writer is planning to majorly retcon this character’s history to the extent seen here, he commits to it in a way that leaves me intrigued as to seeing where he plans to go with it.
Which isn’t into the next issue, “Earth’s Mightiest Villains,” illustrated by Ed McGuinness and Francesco Manna, who try their best to liven up an issue that is mostly just talking heads. Fortunately for us, they’re saying interesting things as we check in with the major adversaries the team has been butting heads with over the course of Aaron’s run. Namor, Dracula and his Kingdom of Vampires, the Winter Guard, Agent Coulson and the Squadron Supreme of America don’t have much love for the Avengers. The thing is that they’re not at the point where they’re about to start working together to take the team down.
That is, unless there was someone behind them all who was pulling their strings. You can probably see where I’m going with this. While I might normally have issue with how easily things look to be falling into place for Mephisto, Aaron actually does a good job of showing how the devil is putting in the work to make his plan come to fruition. Plus, it’s hard to tell who in this issue is actually acting according to his plan, pursuing their own agenda independent of his plan, or reluctantly advancing his plan because they have no choice. There’s the potential for struggle and things to go wrong with what Mephisto is doing and I can appreciate that.
Harder to enjoy is the main story, “The Age of Khonshu.” It does feature some impressively detailed art from Javier Garron as he runs with the idea of an Egyptian-themed takeover of the world, but it’s that last part that’s the problem here. The tile of this arc refers to Khonshu’s plan to save the world from Mephisto. He’s been tormented by visions of the devil and his plans for all of reality and his cries have summoned his Fist, otherwise known as Moon Knight, to help him put an end to this. All he needs are the Earth’s primary magical forces. Forces which happen to be wielded by some of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
Which is why we get an opening issue that’s chock-full of betrayal followed by four more where Moon Knight slowly warms up to the idea that maybe giving Khonshu all this power wasn’t the best idea. It’s a story we’ve all read before, even though I have to admit that all of the fisticuffs that lead to the beating of sense into the main antagonist of the arc are all very nice-looking. Still, it’s only the Mephisto-centric stuff which brings the intrigue throughout the arc. Things like seeing Moon Knight’s “final” confrontation with the villain in Vegas and realizing what’s actually happening. Stark finally getting the big picture when Spector tells him who’s really behind this. As well as the cavalcade of multidimensional Mephistoes whose appealing wackiness makes the awful truth of what they represent go down easier.
In case you miss it, Stark will spell it out for you in the final issue, “The Fly That Laid a Billion Maggotts.” McGuinness illustrates the whole issue this time and while the big stuff is more impressive than the small stuff, it’s a solid effort all around. Mainly because this issue is all about showing the reader just how far back (and forward) Mephisto’s plan has stretched. Some retcons are involved that either change everything you know about certain villains/antagonists or nothing at all. It would be a depressing issue if it weren’t for the fact that it’s mostly about showing us how Mephisto has put in actual work regarding his plan and that his success isn’t being dictated by the obvious needs of the plot. Plus, it’s nice to see the heroes getting wise to his master plan before it’s sprung upon them. Well, as nice as realizing that you’re playing fourth-dimensional chess against the devil and he’s got a head start of a few billion years on you.
Even if the title arc can be described as merely “alright,” I’m still interested in the larger story that Aaron is telling within the pages of “Avengers.” Mainly because this is the first time I’ve seen Mephisto as the main villain in a storyline central to the ongoing narrative of the Marvel Universe. Usually he’s off to the side, egging the primary bad guy on, or the “fate worse than death” the protagonist(s) will face if they fail. So while I’m definitely interested in seeing what an “Avengers vs. Mephisto” title match will look like, it’d be nice if the undercard bouts were a little more inspiring.