Thursday, 20 December 2012

Hickman and Opeña's Avengers "We have to get bigger"

Avengers by Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opeña is prime real estate for Marvel Comics. As a new title following on from a hit movie that is intended to capitalize on the sudden upsurge of public interest in this showcase book for an assortment of superheroes, it has the greatest chance of capturing this crossover appeal than any previous comics franchise for the past ten years. However, not content with that, Hickman's plot also introduces a host of B-list to Z-list characters from across the Marvel Universe, adding them to his revamped Avengers cast. So what we have is a book intended to create a merger between two audiences - fickle cinema-goers and die-hard Marvel zombies. 

Avengers #1 Hickman Opeña

The first issue opened with a joking 'Previously In Avengers' page that instead of summarizing the history of the book indulges in a parody of creation myths -

There was NOTHING. Followed by EVERYTHING. Swirling, burning specks of creation that circled life-giving suns. And then...we RACED to the LIGHT.

The script then features three panels portraying pivotal events from the immediate past of the plot to follow, which is then succeeded by another page with three panels depicting events that will act as signposts in Hickman's future storylines. In three pages - plus a title card featuring the characters familiar to fans of the movie - Hickman makes a declaration that this run will be a space-age epic of a kind that his predecessor Brian Bendis rarely entered into. 

Avengers Hickman's glimpse of the future

The plot itself, set to conclude in issue #3 of this series, features a trinity of beings that have terraformed Mars into a green and verdant land and are set to re-engineer the human race. Ex Nihilo resembles a golden-skinned Minotaur and speaks in the flowery prose of a 70s cosmic Marvel antagonist. Aleph is a cybernetic organism that remains fixed on the task at hand - the two are introduced bickering over Ex Nihilo's puffed up lyrical mode of speech. His statement at the oncoming approach of the Avengers is also very telling - "Apes. Incoming." Then there is Abyss, who is somewhere between the two.
"Oh, I see things for what they are."
She is the balance between the two extremes of creation and destruction represented by her companions. In an interview with IGN, Hickman made clear the symbolism of his chosen antagonists. 

All of the characters that make up the Garden are like avatars for creation in various mythologies. That’s why one is Aleph, one is Abyss, one is Ex Nihilo… it’s what everything was made out of. That’s kind of what that all is.

These three represent the kind of threat that even a team as powerful as the Avengers are inadequate to face. In short order they dispatch the team of Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hulk, Thor and Hawkeye, beating them senseless and catapulting the wounded super soldier back in to Earth's orbit as a warning that they are coming. As it happens Tony Stark has prepared for just such an eventuality and planned with Cap a new recruitment drive for the team, expanding their ranks to include lesser-known but skilled superhumans and mutants. So these three issues are set-up, showing how the newbies and the old guard work together to defeat this latest threat as a lead in to Hickman's planned epic. 

Avengers Tony's recruitment drive

There is a lot at play here that feels very familiar though. Beyond the parodic speech patterns of Ex Nihilo - even his name is pure Roy Thomas or Steve Englehart - the storyline itself is strongly reminiscent of Giant-Size X-Men #1. There too the original team is defeated by a unguessed at threat, as it happens also with vegetation-based abilities, with leader Cyclops sent back to America wounded, returning later with a motley band of heroes, some previously seen in the book and others original creations. It was amusing to see on the final page of Avengers #1 that Wolverine is once again a member of the rescue party. The nods to the movie are also sparing and subtle, but present nonetheless. Black Widow and Hawkeye indulge in a little Whedon-esque banter with Ex Nihilo, and Bruce - depicted in shadow throughout for some reason - is very much in control of the Hulk, unleashing him when needed.

While the pathos of recruiting the new team is squeezed for all its worth - and needless to say Opeña's work is excellent as always - the storyline is only just a level above the navel-gazing of Brad Meltzer's interminable Justice League of America opening arc. What pips the post is Hickman's sense of scale, which as we learned from Red Wing and The Manhattan Projects, when left unchecked can deliver wonders. My worry is that Marvel is too dominated by editorial fiat to allow him to really cut loose on a key title like Avengers. His future arcs promise to be exciting and concept driven. It is also welcome to see such an ethnically diverse cast that puts these characters to some use as opposed to standing around in group shots.

Put me down as cautiously optimistic for now, but I would really hope to see more and soon.

Avengers cast of characters Jonathan Hickman graphic design


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