Earth's Mightiest Heroes, Finally: A Hard Look at "Avengers #1"
After the success of Joss Whedon's summer blockbuster the Avengers, there needs to be a title that captures the essence of the movies while retaining the force and the intricacies of the comicbooks. Jonathan Hickman's Avengers is that series.
If nothing else, Marvel NOW! has been serving to thrust the Marvel universe into a new era after the eight-year long age that started with Avengers: Disassembled and House of M, then wrapped up in October with the conclusion to Avengers vs. X-Men. Since the start of the whole Marvel NOW! initiative, Uncanny Avengers has been touted as the flagship title, the one series that can assuredly unite Avengers and X-Men fans above all else. With classic X-Men like Wolverine and Rogue partnered with Avengers mainstays like Captain America and Thor, Rick Remender's vision for an Avengers team dedicated to human-mutant relations is astounding. And the series does very much lives up to it's label and hype.
Ultimately, though, Avengers is going to take the title and be your favorite new Marvel series.
For the past eight years, Brian Michael Bendis told stories about Earth’s Mightiest Heroes through inter-personal relationships between the various team members. It was fun, but after a half a dozen new titles with 'Avengers' in the name, and with constantly rotating rosters in each of those books, any attempt to pierce the Bendis-controlled mini-verse of the Avengers was difficult for new readers. You had to know that Luke Cage and Jessica Jones were once Power Man and Jewel, respectively, before retiring for a while and developing a romantic relationship. You had to accept the Sentry's awkward introduction and subsequent contradiction-ridden existence. You had to remember what team Spider-Woman, Ronin, or Moon Knight was currently attached to, and if there were any plans for them to jump ship to another group or go solo (in the case of Bendis’ weird obsession with Moon Knight.) It became a task of navigating thick backstory instead of enjoying the larger-than-life exploits for which the Avengers are supposed to be known.
Jonathan Hickman is a hard writer to invest in. His runs are known for being challenging, expansive, and complex, amongst other. But if you persevere and make it past the initial few issues, the payoff is astounding. Hickman's work on Fantastic Four and FF is already stuff of legend and he literally just released his final issue for each series in October. If Avengers #1 is any indication, the man's going to revolutionize the way we see Earth's Mightiest.
In a big way, this is what needed to happen. With Avengers #1, Hickman is making the biggest team in the Marvel universe even bigger. Instead of shuffling around a few core characters while including random tertiaries for finite arcs, Hickman is looking at a much larger picture, one that might finally stand up to the juggernaut of the pre-New 52 Justice League in terms of breadth and mission statement.
Even before Bendis disassembled the original incarnation of the Avengers--the one that operated out of a mansion, included two members of the Brotherhood of Mutants, and still retained a lot of the classic comicbook capers Marvel is known for--Earth’s Mightiest were never as popular as the Justice League. Part of that came from simple brand recognition and the fact that the X-Men and Fantastic Four were always far more popular franchises. Just this summer, The Avengers was Marvel's most successful movie ever, and they need an eponymous series that captures the grandeur of the film. This is not to say that Marvel needs to force the issue, as was the case with the new Nick Fury, but instead take cues from the movie-verse; play around with ‘spectacles’, make each scene worth investing in, create a situation that doesn’t feel contrived or hammed-up. There needs to be a title that captures the essence of the movies while retaining the force and the intricacies of the comicbooks. This is that series.
Even the structure of the issue is cinematic in tone. There's an enigmatic introduction that introduces the idea that the Avengers--as an actual team and an idea--needs to be bigger. Cut to two-page title, including roster and credits, and already this feels like a very good movie. Throughout the issue, Jeremy Opeña's art not only reinforces the overall tone of the writing, but also magnifies it--his style is realistic without seeming awkward (I'm looking at you, David Finch!), yet has an air of messiness that seems intentional. Hickman's decision to use a narrator in Avengers--a classic movie technique--is a poignant one that makes the entire endeavor feel more consequential as a result. Kieron Gillen proved with Journey Into Mystery that omniscient narration could be a stunning technique in comicbooks when done correctly.
Sidebar: Yes, I understand that omniscient narrators have been around for decades, but it was always in the shallowest sense. While “Here comes Thor! Savior of the city! He’s out on a quest to defeat evil!” might not be an actual line from a real comicbook, it conveys how narration was treated back in the Golden Age of comicbooks when stories didn’t need to be complex or multi-faceted to be interesting. Here, Hickman takes the idea of a proverbial narrator and grounds it by making the speaker one of the Avengers, though we don't yet know which one, or even if it's meant to be just one of them. Perhaps the narrator is a metaphor for the entire team, or maybe it's one of them in far-flung future recalling exploits for a grandson or a niece. That's really the beauty of Hickman's style--you don't need to know exactly what's going on to have a great time.
The story in Avengers #1 itself is already enigmatic, larger than life, and totally engrossing. Ex Nihilo (‘from nothing’ for all you Latin buffs) isn’t a cosmic supervillain bent on Earth’s destruction as much as he resembles a greedy businessman from a 1980’s movie who was interested in buying the local community center and turning it into a state-of-the-art (because they loved that phrase in the 80s) office building/mall/condo complex/parking lot/whatever at the expense of the unloved, wayward youths who frequent the center and utilize its services to better their lives. In this metaphor, we are the wayward youths and the Earth is our community center. The only problem is, we sent in the coolest kids in town--the ones with leather jackets and cool Flock of Seagulls haircuts--to “work things out”, and the greedy businessman literally beat them all down singlehandedly before sending the leader back to us, bruised and broken from the encounter, to remind us who’s in charge.
This is not going to be your typical Avengers series. The final few pages of Avengers #1 prove that everything that we know is being discarded. Just as with Fantastic Four and FF, Jonathan Hickman is looking to the future of the Avengers. In a sense, Hickman's vision for the Avengers is rooted in Marvel's own insatiable 'crisis cycle' that constantly throws its characters into Earth-shattering situations. Tony Stark says it best when he explains, "how the world is ever more dangerous, how threats are more frequent...how our enemies seem endless..." These days, a series can barely get through ten or twelve sequential issues without being subjected to crossover tie-in treatment--there's never not something happening. Hickman sees this and instead of criticizing the reason, has utilized the situation to justify his grandiose plans for Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Already I've read Avengers #1 twice as much as I wo