Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers
by Jonathan Hickman (duh) and A Multitude of Artists
So I’m finally getting around to the defining super hero comic of the decade: Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers. Modern comics being modern comics, of course, his run’s not confined to just one book, but two: the core Avengers title, and New Avengers. The former book deals in themes of evolution and growth, while the latter trades on apocalypse and moral dilemmas. While Avengers has lots of spandex punch-ups…
…New Avengers is its dark twin, a sci-fi noir in tights.
It’s remarkable stuff in some ways, a super hero epic of surprising subtlety and depth. I won’t call it the best spandex comic I’ve read this decade, but it’s still pretty damn good.
At first, though, I didn’t think it was going to turn out that way. My reaction to the first year of Hickman’s run confused me. I felt compelled to keep reading it, but I wasn’t actually enjoying it all that much. Or rather, I wasn’t enjoying Avengers. New Avengers (as longtime readers should not be surprised to hear) was more my sort of thing. I live for stories about people making hard decisions, and that book delivered on those in spades. Avengers, on the other hand… I got what Hickman was doing with it, but something seemed lacking. Maybe it was just that it was the more traditional super hero comic, and my patience for those is a bit limited these days. Whatever the problem, I thought Avengers okay, but ONLY okay. Then I hit the Infinity crossover…
…and everything went to hell.
Which, now that I think of it, is exactly what happened when I tried to read these books monthly. Because I did give them a shot when they first came out. I gave Avengers two or three issues before deciding that it wasn’t worth four bucks. Or rather, eight. Because it was coming out twice a month. I stuck with the monthly New Avengers four or five months longer, up through the first Infinity crossover issue. But then I realized that the two series were really one big story, weaving its way through both titles and the crossover mini-series. That brought the monthly bill for the story up to a whopping 17 dollars a month, and… Look. This book’s pretty good. But it ain’t 17-dollars-a-month good. So it had to go.
I might not have gone back to it even now, in fact, if I hadn’t found the majority of the run for 99 cents an issue. It’s worth that much. In fact, I’d say that the first year of this thing is worth exactly that much, and not a penny more. Well, okay. I did have to pay twice that for Infinity. Which I did, since I’d already dropped something on the order of fifty bucks on the rest of the cheap issues. But I wasn’t real happy about it. That may have increased my dissatisfaction with the back half of Hickman’s first year, in fact. Much, as I said, like it did when it came out originally.
But I’ve been talking in generalities here, so before I launch off into why I hated Infinity so much, I should probably explain what the story’s about. Hickman’s Avengers run is defined by one major crisis: the destruction of the multiverse. This is caused by Earths from different dimensions crashing into each other, and… Actually, you know what? This being a Hickman comic, there’s a handy info-graphic explaining the whole thing. So just read that:
Got it? Good. That’s the focus of New Avengers, and the moral dilemma it causes is what gives that book its punch: to save their Earth, are these men willing to destroy another? It’s a hell of a decision to make, and it’s being made by the big thinkers, the masterminds and kings who once made up a group called The Illuminati: Iron Man, Black Panther, Reed Richards, Namor, Black Bolt, and Dr. Strange.
Over in Avengers, meanwhile, we follow Iron Man and Captain America as they expand the main Avengers roster to handle escalating threats. There’s an info-graphic for that, too:
Among the new members they recruit are new versions of three characters originally from other realities: Hyperion, Starbrand, and Nightmask. Significant, considering the multiversal threat at the heart of everything. Anyway. This evolved Avengers squad initially faces off against the threat of the Builders, an alien race that travels the universe forcing evolutionary advancement on planets they deem worthy. Which is cool stuff, and thematically pleasing to boot.
But why isn’t this larger team concerned about the imminent death of the multiverse, you ask? Well, that’s because Iron Man’s keeping them blissfully ignorant of the Incursion problem. He’s expanding the Avengers roster, in fact, so that this bigger, more powerful team can handle any other threats that crop up while the Illuminati concentrates on figuring out how to save the multiverse.
But wait, you may be thinking. Wasn’t Captain America in that group Reed Richards showed the info-graphic to? Why, yes. Yes, he was. But that partnership… didn’t go very well:
Ouch. Yeah, see… Cap was in on the whole thing initially, but when he resolutely refused to consider the destruction of another Earth as even a backup contingency plan… The Illuminati decided that he had to be removed from the equation. So it’s memory wipe, and off to ride herd over the massive new Avengers squad for him. Which is pretty harsh, but when you’re contemplating killing an entire Earth… even if it is in the name of saving your own… erasing something from a friend’s memory to prevent him from stopping you really doesn’t seem all that extreme.
And make no mistake, Cap would have stopped them. His argument is pretty absolute:
It’s also really interesting. He’s right, of course. Morally, what they’re contemplating is abhorrent. It’s something he will not, cannot, allow. But he’s also a little naïve. While no one in the room wants to kill a planet, and in fact will strive to find a solution that doesn’t involve killing a planet… They have to consider it, just in case they fail. So Cap doesn’t rally the troops for once, and the argument gets heated. As tempers flare, he becomes more hard-nosed about it, and eventually gets kind of insulting, acting as if the other men in the room don’t understand the moral weight of the decisions ahead of them. Then he delivers the line that, in my mind at least, damns him:
Jesus, Cap, really? “You people.” That’s the classic turn of phrase for anyone trying to demonize another group. Cap’s setting himself apart from his friends here, making them “the other,” building up a head of steam that’s only going to end in him taking them down before they do what they think they have to do. Now normally, I might not put so much weight on that line. But we’ll hear it again later on in the story, more than once and from more than one person. So I’ve got to think it’s intentional.
It’s great writing, either way. Because if you were ever going to concoct a situation in which Captain freaking America demonizes someone, you couldn’t do a lot better. It plays on his unwavering sense of right and wrong, and it also plays on Civil War. Not in a way that makes it confusing, mind you; nobody brings up specific events at all. But if you know that story the way these characters do… Well. That “you’re going to do this without thinking if you should” bit is a particularly well-chosen jab. It shows that Cap’s never entirely forgiven them. And it’s got to play on their insecurities, too. Because he’s right: they have done some pretty indefensible things in the name of the greater good.
So past ill will comes bubbling to the surface. Cap’s thinking “here we go again,” and the Illuminati are thinking, “Dammit, Cap, why you gotta be like this?” And the whole thing just blows up in their faces.
Arrogance comes into play here, too. It’s arrogant of Cap to think that his friends aren’t as morally conscious as he is. And it’s arrogant of the Illuminati to set themselves up as the guys making this decision in the first place. I mean, they’ve taken it upon themselves to speak for the whole human race. At the very least, this thing should have been put before the leaders of the free world. Of course, three of those leaders are actually in the room here: Black Bolt, Namor and the Black Panther are the kings of not-insignificant nations. Still, though. The point remains: they could have begun looking for solutions while still seeking the world’s opinion for the long term. It’s telling that they didn’t even consider it. But arrogance, especially the arrogance of kings, is a theme we’ll return to down the road. So keep it in mind.
Anyway. All of this probably makes it sound like these books were off to a pretty good start. And it’s not bad. A threat to all reality, juicy moral dilemmas, and thematically interesting (if not entirely satisfying) super hero action. Then Thanos shows up.
Oy. I’ve got so many conflicting emotions about Infinity. Conceptually, it’s brilliant. It draws on all the run’s themes and expands them out onto a much larger stage by confronting both teams with a two-pronged attack from outer space. The Builders, twisted by their knowledge of the on-going death of the multiverse, are destroying everything in their path as they make a beeline for Earth. So Cap leads the main team out into space to join the war against them. Meanwhile, Thanos discovers that the planet’s most powerful defenders are gone and decides that it’s the perfect time to attack, leaving just the Illuminati to deal with him.
So the evolving Avengers team is confronted with the forces of evolution driven mad by the Illuminati’s secret, while the Illuminati deal with a big dumb action-adventure apocalypse of the type the larger Avengers squad was put together to combat. Worlds colliding in every possible way. The space battle side of things feels a bit like The Longest Day, covering the battlefield action on several fronts, and also the strategies of the generals. And the New Avengers side digs down deep into the conflicts and Machiavellian intrigue that define that book. Thanos’ attack offers Black Bolt an opportunity to put a secret plan into motion, and it also plays right into the hands of Namor, who uses Thanos’ armies as a tool in his on-going war against the Black Panther. Before it’s all said and done, Wakanda, Atlantis and Attilan are all in ruins, due in whole or in part to the machinations of their own leaders.
The story even plays up the arrogance angle in its villains, whose insane levels of arrogance make Our Heroes’ arrogance seem pretty benign in comparison. And that, I think, is where Infinity goes wrong. Between the Builders crowing about how unbeatable they are…
…and Thanos… well… pretty much doing exactly the same thing… It gets old real fast. I stopped reading for a week in the middle of the story, because if I’d had to sit through one more bad guy talking about how hopeless it is to even consider thinking about the slightest possibility of the idea of fighting him… I’d have thrown my tablet across the room. And them shits are expensive.
I’m also not real fond of Hickman’s take on Thanos. He writes the character as a sort of petty authoritarian sadist, a guy who gets off on lording it over enemy and ally alike, torturing them before he ultimately kills them. His followers (the “Cull Obsidian”) cross death metal kewl with bad anime, and all of it wrapped up in S&M fantasy. Terrible characters. Though I do have a soft spot for anyone called “Supergiant,” I am considerably less fond of Corvus Glaive, who might have the single most preposterous name in super villain history.
But, Thanos. This petty sadism seems… beneath him, somehow. I remember him being more grandly evil. I mean, his lust for genocide is motivated by LOVE, for god’s sake. That’s some pretty epic shit, and this treatment just seems too base for him. Though I will admit, his reason for attacking Earth is rather thematically pleasing: it’s home to his hidden son, who he wants to kill not because he’s afraid the son will one day rise up and destroy him, but because having created life just offends his sensibilities. HEH. That’s good stuff.
But that’s why I was so split on Infinity, I think, and on this first year of Hickman’s Avengers in general: I like the idea of it, but something’s wrong with the execution. The bad guys are annoying, and the action isn’t quite thrilling enough to make their inevitable defeat satisfying. So I was drawn to the concepts, but found the stories themselves wanting. Thankfully, however, this first year is really all set-up. Things get juicier, and a lot more fun to read, as the story continues.
Which is something to look forward to for next time, I think. Hope to see you then.