In Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point, David Lipsky examines how the concept of professionalism has reshaped the U.S. Military Academy: the famed Harvard brain Samuel P. Huntington (of Clash of Civilizations fame) sold West Point brass on the idea that, by conducting themselves as professionals akin to doctors and lawyers, soldiers could close the culture gap separating civil society from the military. Thus, cleaning your bunk and watching your language now had an official rationale.
Professionalism is also the watchword for the Marvel Universe’s Fifty States Initiative, Tony Stark’s program of official superhuman accountability. Following public outcry over the destruction of Stamford in Civil War, government training and oversight became mandated for all superhumans, whom the Marvel public had come to see less as stalwart protectors and more a pack of caped rogues: less Man of Tomorrow, more Seduction of the Innocent. Such is the House of Ideas’ new status quo following its biggest crossover event in years.
Originally only planned as a miniseries, Dan Slott’s Avengers: The Initiative should be your first stop in getting acquainted with the Marvel U’s brave new world. Not only is it a glimpse into The Initiative’s guts—the training and deployment of the next generation of superheroes at Camp Hammond, built on the ruins of Stamford and named after the original, government-sanctioned Human Torch—it’s also one of the best series to emerge from Civil War‘s gnarled wreckage. Despite the general disgust of many Marvel diehards (to whom the series’ stellar sales mattered little), some real good did come out of Civil War, like Matt Fraction’s gnarly Punisher: War Journal and Warren Ellis’ deliciously ugly Thunderbolts. But Avengers: The Initiative is more bursting with personality and life than either book, and to be honest it’s the only current Avengers title really worth buying.
Marvel now puts out three Avengers books a month, with Mighty and New as the flagships while The Initiative scampers behind like an unwanted stepbrother. Both Mighty and New are penned by the venerable Brian Michael Bendis, an admittedly talented writer nonetheless famed for his superhuman ability to make an exchange between Iron Man and Ms. Marvel seem like a scene from Dawson’s Creek. Both books also suffer from a surplus of superhumans with little to do; New is currently occupied with setting up some vague and cosmically boring-sounding mega-event featuring undercover Skrulls, although Bendis has promised not to simply unmask Tony Stark as a Skrull double-agent—the comic book equivalent of an “it was all a dream” coda. (Seriously though, how rad is that New Avengers lineup? Where was that team when I was a kid?)
But The Initiative features actual flesh-and-blood teenagers instead of hackneyed plots and idle A-listers, coming across like a fresh-faced gene-splicing of Runaways (albeit with less of Brian K. Vaughan’s namedrop artistry) and a hormonal, teenage Ender’s Game. Like any good ensemble book, a big part of Initiative‘s success comes from its colorful cast, a mix of grizzled veterans and lily-white teen heroes in training. The brass at Camp Hammond consists of clever choices like Marvel’s most lovable wife-beater, Hank Pym, and the all-business War Machine Jim Rhodes, as well as super creeps like steely G-Man Peter Gyrich and the cadaverous ex-Nazi scientist Baron von Blitzschag. But the real stars are the kids: bashful flyer Cloud 9, rogue Lizard Komodo (one of Curt Connors’ grad students!), fratty ballslinger Hardball, and teen angst poster-child Trauma, with a few others waiting in the wings. The Initiative also slyly sets up one character (the grandson of Super Soldier chemist Abraham Erskine) as a potential successor to Captain America, only to write him off at the end of the first issue like an unpopular sitcom sibling.
The book is filled with the kind of character flourishes that bring out the human reality behind government-backed super-teens. Cloud 9 gets intimidated by all the svelte figures in the ladies’ locker room, and Komodo goes shamefaced after being caught without her scales on, lamenting of her secret identity, “she’s nobody” (those positions with Dr. Connors have to be competitive though, right?). Even Trauma, the character most at risk of becoming a hoary cliché (mall-goth X-Man/My Chemical Romance with a cape) deepens as Slott pays less attention to his dreary couture and more to his role as a kid with scary powers he can’t control. The whole book has a strong X-Men vibe (bolstered by cameos from Beast and Mirage): a public that hates and fears, young superheroes coming to grips with their place in the world, etc.
The future for Avengers: The Initiative looks bright, assuming it doesn’t get cancelled. But sales figures look robust (respect the mighty Avengers brand!), and new challenges are already on the horizon—the first being Marvel’s newest and most exhausting blockbuster saga, World War Hulk. But if anything can give this latest smash-fest some vitality, it’s these particular Avengers. Make mine Initiative.