[23 August 2013]
In the Shadows
For the most part, the Avengers are in the public eye. Captain America is the most iconic hero to the people in the Marvel universe, and he’s the leader of a clandestine group of superhumans who work closely with an international espionage and peacekeeping military force that owns multiple flying aircraft carriers. You’d have to be living under a rock not to know who the Avengers are if you’re a resident of the Marvel universe. Then again, to be an average, ordinary human citizen trying to live life with the constant threat of alien incursions, mutant uprisings, actual mythological gods, or even mole people led by a deranged scientist would be a daily tribulation in it’s own right. It’s a wonder psychiatry isn’t the number one profession on Earth-616.
But sometimes, something comes along that the Avengers can’t defeat with strength or technology or charm. Political crossfire, universe-shattering ethical dilemmas, murder: these are just a few of the situations the Avengers cannot find themselves stuck within because every time it happens, everything goes terribly, terribly wrong. Mark Millar’s Civil War is the ultimate example of what happens when you mix politics and superheroes; you get one of the most electric and truly meaningful event stories in a long, long time, but within the narrative universe, turmoil is all these characters knew for years. Of course, these problems still exist, so there has to be someone to fix them.
The Avengers are about more than just public displays of heroism because that’s not the only way to do good. More than ever, Marvel is using the Avengers moniker to advance certain ideas and concepts instead of solely plot-driven stories. Titles like New Avengers and Secret Avengers prove this much as they sit well outside the traditional boundaries of an Avengers title, yet still find their place in the franchise at large.
Originally, The New Avengers was simply the series that took over when The Avengers ended in 2004 with “Avengers: Disassembled”. Even through Brian Michael Bendis’ expansion of the Avengers franchise, New Avengers staid as the flagship title, featuring Bendis’ core team for a number of years. Even when a new volume of the singularly titled Avengers launched, Bendis established a connection between the two books that stayed strong and strong and consistent. For a long time, New Avengers was synonymous with Brian Michael Bendis and his overall revamp of the Avengers concept. In the Marvel NOW! era, Jonathan Hickman transplants the Marvel Illuminati into New Avengers, giving the title a whole new dynamic and focus.
The Illuminati has been around for a while. Bendis retconned the group’s creation as happening right after the Kree-Skrull War in the early 70s. The smartest men on the planet—Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Professor Charles Xavier, Black Bolt, Doctor Strange, and King Namor—decided they would take it upon themselves to attempt to solve the unsolvable problems and find the solutions that no one else could or would. Since it’s inception, the Illuminati have made some very bad decisions for very good reasons. Much like the Guardians of the Universe in the DC universe—though not nearly as malevolent or evil…yet—the Illuminati make decisions that they believe they have the right to make. Shoot Hulk into space because he’s too much trouble? Why not? That’s just one of the terrible acts they’ve committed in the name of the greater good.
Yeats wrote, in “The Second Coming”, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” In a way, we see this exact line fleshed out as a comicbook narrative within New Avengers. Marvel has never shied away from the idea of an active multiverse the way DC started to in the mid 80s. In fact, having a rich pantheon of multiple dimensions helped the company introduce What If? series, dystopian characters, and even entire new comicbook lines. Now, the multiverse is falling apart and Earth-616 seems to be a focal point.
The Illuminati re-converge because their universe is the place where other universes are coming to die. If the best of us cannot stop the dimensions from crashing into one another, what hope is there for anything? Hickman plays with heady concepts in this title as the Illuminati’s actions are technically more integral to the Marvel universe than almost anyone else. Stopping the universal incursions means they’ve saved the planet more times since this series started than some heroes ever do. But still, it’s not enough. To save their world, they’ve had to make even bigger sacrifices. These men are haunted by their past actions and in a very real way, those ghosts may never disappear because there is always something else that needs to be dealt with, always something more grave, more dire to defend against. This is reality for these men; that their world is constantly on the brink of destruction and they are the only ones who know.
Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers is about making the Illuminati accountable to themselves. These are the smartest, most advanced, least narrow-minded men on the entire planet, yet the fatal flaw of the former incarnations of the Illuminati was that they had no accountability. Their actions came from a pretentious place where they believed they could hold destiny in their hands. Now, they have to prove to each other that they’re worthy of making the tough decisions by making some of the toughest we’ve seen in the Marvel universe.
The main focus of this series of articles is to answer why each title bearing the name ‘Avengers’ has earned that title, or, to what ends does the Avengers name mean something? In the case of Nick Spencer’s Secret Avengers, the answer is surprisingly simple, yet deceptively deep upon closer examination. After the wild success of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers in theaters across the world, Marvel needed a facsimile title in their comicbook universe.
But, as evidenced by the high anticipation for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC this fall, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division became popular when Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury lit up the screen and made us believe a clandestine organization like this could exist. By proxy, Jackson gave the tactical military organization some well-deserved recognition as one of the coolest secret agencies in the modern sci-fi/comicbook sphere. Secret Avengers is all about S.H.I.E.L.D. Unlike the Avengers of the movie, the comicbook versions of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes do not work for Nick Fury or Maria Hill; they stand as an autonomous entity that works with S.H.I.E.L.D. But just because they can’t have Captain America or Thor doesn’t mean S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t have their own team of Avengers.
Secret Avengers isn’t called S.H.I.E.L.D. because it’s as much about the ethically dubious spy and peacekeeping agency as it is about the grittiest of the Avengers they recruit to be part of a strike team whose memories are erased post-op. This series is for fans of the movie that are trying to jump into comics but have no idea where to start. Well, why not try a title that features Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, Maria Hill, Hawkeye, and Black Widow: all integral characters in The Avengers? Add to the star power a politically charged espionage narrative about A.I.M., an organization heavily featured in this year’s Iron Man Three, and you’ve got a perfect introduction into the Marvel universe for new readers. So why aren’t more people reading it?
The House of Ideas regularly promotes and advertises for it’s other Avengers titles, but Secret Avengers often only gets a cover preview or nothing at all. This series is an instance where Marvel utilized the Avengers moniker, yet surprisingly, hasn’t taken advantage of that brand name exposure. Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury was a major part of what made The Avengers successful, and he’s a main character in Secret Avengers. It seems like a no-brainer that Marvel would pump up this series as a bridge between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the main comic universe.
Finding Something in the Shadows
Secrecy—for all it does as a tool to advance plot, strain relationships, motivate characters, or destroy nations—is often hard to write when it’s a core tenant of the premise of a story. Marvel has tried many times in the past to support series highlighting the ‘secret agent’ or ‘hidden agenda’ side of their comicbook universe, but more often than not, the effort isn’t well received and the project fizzles. In the Marvel NOW! era, though, we’ve seen a lot more though going into how the lesser-seen side of things is presented. In a universe where the world’s mightiest heroes are held responsible for their actions, how do the most powerful among them keep the world spinning? In that same universe filled with superhumans ranging from gamma-irradiated monsters to alien raccoons and talking trees, how does an international peacekeeping force make a real difference? And while the Avengers might serve as the framework for these ideas, it’s their execution that makes them worth reading.
Jay Mattson is a comic book critic and cupcake shop manager living in Greensboro, North Carolina. He has a BA in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and he was a Staff Writer for two years at ObscureSound.com before heading over to PopMatters. Jay's interests include music (The Mars Volta, Beirut, Black Mountain, Death From Above 1979, Ratatat, and Led Zeppelin), quality television ( Community, Parks and Recreation, Louie, Modern Family, The Inbetweeners, etc.), good reads ("House of Leaves", "Cloud Atlas", "Disgrace"), attending live music shows and festivals (Shakori Hills 2008, Coachella 2009, Jisan Valley Rock Festival 2010, Bonnaroo 2012), and learning more about what makes the world turn. He keeps a blog called 'The Endless Reel' at http://theendlessreel.blogspot.com