While Jonathan Hickman’s “Avengers” is meant to represent the action-oriented superhero side of the franchise, this is something much different. You see, “New Avengers,” isn’t really about a separate team of Avengers as it was under Bendis’ tenure, it’s about the Illuminati. To recap: the Illuminati are a secret cabal of the most prominent minds and rulers of the Marvel Universe who were formed with the original intent of sharing information to help ward off future threats to the world. They’ve shown up infrequently meddling in things behind of and in front of the scenes with their intentions and methodology usually falling under the “morally dubious” end of the spectrum. It’s this group that Hickman is writing about in “New Avengers,” and he has found a great “morally dubious” threat for them to take on. Make no mistake, even though this is a superhero comic, it’s also the kind where they stand around and discuss the implications of the threat being faced as opposed to engaging in action themselves. Under Hickman’s watch, though, all that talking turns out to be pretty compelling.
The Illuminati has traditionally been made up of six individuals representing different aspects of the Marvel Universe. Until recently, the group consisted of Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Namor, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange, and Charles Xavier. However, at the group’s inception, T’challa (a.k.a. the Black Panther) refused to join as he found the thought that these men would place themselves above all others reprehensible and urged them to disband before their actions started ruining lives. It’s now to this group that T’challa comes after he encounters a strange woman vaporizing another Earth, and some of his country’s brightest young leaders, in his land.
This woman, who identifies herself only as a “Black Swan,” lets the group in on some dire news. Yes, that was another Earth she destroyed, but that was only to stave off the impending destruction of the multiverse. Something known only as Rabum Alal, the “great destroyer,” is causing parallel universes to collide and hasten the destruction of everything in existence. These universes all come into contact with each other at a certain point and only by destroying it can the incursion be staved off. As you’ve probably guessed by now, the access point for these multiversal incursions is Earth. Now, the Illuminati aren’t just in the world-saving business, they’re in the Earth-destroying business as well.
Though this is very much an ensemble piece with all of the Illuminati members getting their moment in the spotlight, T’challa is first amongst equals here. It’s his encounter with the Black Swan that provides the inciting incident that gets the narrative rolling and many of the group’s members are defined by his initial takes on them. Most interesting is his interaction with Namor in the beginning as those of you who read “Avengers vs. X-Men” will remember that the King of Atlantis wrought epic destruction on Wakanda during the event. T’challa establishes himself as a man of his word throughout the story and one who is willing to make the big decisions to get things done. Based on this, I have no doubt that their final reckoning, should it be allowed to happen, will be one for the ages.
As for the story itself, the nature of these incursions and the limited amount of time with which the team has to act when they occur lends itself to some interesting debates regarding the necessity of expediency in these matters versus doing what’s right at all costs. It’s the latter position to which Captain America clings to and leads to what is the most surprising/disturbing moments in the volume (and a callback to Hickman’s first issue of “Avengers” for those of you paying close attention). The question of how far these men will go in order to save their world proves to be an engaging concept that draws the reader into the narrative and has the potential to provide some really interesting story opportunities down the line. Particularly when complications like Dr. Doom and the Mapmakers show up towards the end.
Overall, the book has a very unsettling tone to it as the feeling that whatever these heroes do, it’s not going to be enough to stave off the collapse of the multiverse (or leave them feeling very heroic in the process). That feeling is underscored through their interactions with the Black Swan. Throughout the volume, she remains their captive while providing them with bits of information about the threat they face. Having one woman be kept under lock and key by six men does not make for a comfortable thought, but this isn’t meant to be a reassuring story. There’s also the fact that it’s clear from her interactions with them that she’s leading them on and whatever measures they’ve taken to ensure her complicity aren’t going to be nearly enough when she decides that she wants out of this relationship. Again, that’s just one more thing to look forward to seeing in this title’s future.
Hickman’s “Fantastic Four/FF” collaborator Steve Epting provides the art for this volume and he proves to be a very good fit for the story being told here. I’ve harped in the past about how his style is best suited for grounded stories that don’t involve lots of epic, awe-inspiring action. He did get better at that stuff during his tenure on those titles, but the man is in his element for much of this volume. Nearly all of the “action” here comes from the characters talking to each other and an artist that can nail the emotions present in each scene is absolutely necessary to this title’s success. Epting is that kind of artist and he does an excellent job of it throughout the volume, with the high point coming in Cap’s monologue/argument with the team halfway through which is rendered in two pages of 13 and 16 panels each, respectively. Conversations have rarely been more compelling in the Marvel Universe than they have here.
I can imagine that being the main sticking point for some readers as if you’re looking for a traditional superhero title with lots of action and characters acting heroic, this is definitely not for you. Hickman’s “New Avengers” is a dense, somewhat disturbing, plot-and-story-driven read that takes the “characters sitting around and talking” approach that Bendis started on the title (and was also criticized for) and takes it to the next level. Based on what I’ve read here, I’m perfectly fine with that. The moral arguments and character interactions really drew me in as did the “big ideas” behind the threat that the team faces. Yes, this volume is only available in hardcover now, but I’m glad that I said “To hell with it,” and decided to pick it up now.