DC ME?! Comics’ Oldest Publisher Re-Invents Itself (Again)


I do my best not to talk about publishers around here. I just don’t get the fascination comics fans have with them. Nobody cares who publishes the new Stephen King novel, after all. So why should I care who publishes the new Alan Moore? Just because it’s comics? That’s a terrible reason. It’s the writers and artists who make the things worth reading, so it’s the writers and artists that I focus on.

Every once in a while, though, a publisher does something that’s actually worth talking about. A change in philosophy, or a new line of books with an interesting perspective. Something that gets my attention. DC Comics is in the midst of something like that now, with their “DC YOU” campaign. It’s a terrible name, I’ll admit. The worst kind of smarmy marketing-speak, aimed (I assume) at a Millennial readership they may or may not have. It’s an easy thing to be cynical about, and an even easier thing to mock.

(They're right, of course. Don't believe for a second that this is ever anything more than one Superman Robot away from being erased.)

(They’re right, of course. Don’t believe for a second that this is ever anything more than one Superman Robot away from being erased.)

The idea behind DC YOU, though, is something I’m all for: fresh perspectives and creative freedom. Shocking the things a company will try when they’re desperate.

Now, not everything under the “DC YOU” banner is fresh and exciting, of course. It’s giving us the single worst Batman costume in history, for instance:

(Commissioner Gordon's evidently seen Night of the Lepus one too many times.)

(Commissioner Gordon’s evidently seen Night of the Lepus one too many times.)

Plus, it’s written and drawn by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, the same guys who’ve been turning out all those Batman comics I haven’t wanted to read over the last few years. So, bleah.

But, hey! At least they’re finally letting Wonder Woman put some pants on.

(Even if they are covering them up with thigh-highs.)

(Even if they are covering them up with thigh-highs.)

And I’m all for the direction Gene Yang’s going in with Superman. Not necessarily the revealing of the secret identity; I’m not inherently offended by that, but I also don’t really care about it one way or the other. It’s the gimmick, the flashy attention-getter they’re using to get people in the door. But I’m a lot more interested in some of the other stuff he’s delving into. Because it looks like he’s actually going to pick up the ball from Grant Morrison’s Action Comics and deal with the idea of Superman as a hero to the common man. That tension between his desire to help on the small scale, while having a responsibility to focus instead on the large, is a great dramatic hook. Can’t believe they haven’t done more with it before now. Add in the “alien among us” paranoia (which is admittedly cribbed from the current film series), and it sounds like a potent starting point for a fresh take on the original super hero. I might even give this a try for an issue or two, once the digital price drops to something I’m willing to pay.

But we’re still talking about the funnybooks-as-usual stuff here. The big, splashy, headline-grabbing comics that obviously have a bit of editorial dictate behind them. What’s far more interesting to me are the smaller books. The second and third tier books, where DC’s actually taking some chances, and doing some things that are *gasp* kind of interesting. This is where the “fresh take” and “creative freedom” come in. I’m seeing a lot of series announcements that look fun. Smart. And maybe most importantly, things that feel like they might have been created in the current century.

Not all of it appeals to me as a reader, of course, but that’s okay. I’m a 46-year-old white male with rather rarified tastes. But DC’s putting out books with appeal for women, teenagers, and mainstream dork fiction fans. The kind of people who’ve made Joss Whedon a major Hollywood player, and who keep shows like Supernatural and its ilk on the air. That’s a big audience, and one that I’m really happy to see a major comics publisher trying to attract.

I’m also happy that a lot of this stuff, even the stuff I’m not personally interested in, looks like it’s really well done. Take Heath Corson and Gustavo Duarte’s Bizarro, for instance:

Duarte Bizarro

Heh. Looks like fun. The book as a whole (or, rather, the preview story that panel’s taken from) was a little cute for my taste (Dork Farm Rule Numba One: Can’t Abide Cute). But it’s well-done. Some nice cartooning, and a few moments like the one above that made me laugh. This is another one I might pick up when the digital price drops a bit.

But I’m still talking about books I like the idea of, rather than books I actually decided to spend money on. Of those, there are two I thought worth a proper review…

Prez 1
by Mark Russell, Ben Caldwell, and John Lucas

Caldwell Prez 1

For my money, the best of the lot. This is a revival of an early-70s Joe Simon series, about the first teen president. That one was well-intentioned, but felt a like something written by an out-of-touch old guy. This one feels a bit more of its time. But it’s also not trying to tap into youth culture so much as it’s offering up social satire.

Set in a near-future world of holographic interwebs and a society even more steeped in electronic culture, it’s about the major parties’ cynical attempts to find an electable candidate…

Caldwell Prez Satire…and how an Anonymous-backed joke candidate winds up taking the election. It’s funny, if not especially dangerous, satire. It’s nothing that’s going to have John Oliver looking back over his shoulder, at any rate. But it made me laugh, and had a few surprisingly dark moments.

Caldwell Prez Game Show

All in all, a pleasant way to blow three dollars on digital ephemera. The jury’s still out on whether I’ll pay that much for the rest, or wait for the price to drop. But one way or another, I will be coming back for more.

Grade: B

Black Canary 1
by Brenden Fletcher and Annie Wu

Wu Black Canary 1

A sorta-kinda spin-off of the revamped Batgirl. That book’s success is what sparked DC’s willingness to offer these fresher, lighter takes on things, and this one is written by its co-writer, Brenden Fletcher. As such, I wasn’t surprised to find that it had some of that book’s shortcomings: it’s a little too glib, a little too cute, and it has a preposterous plot element or two that we’re supposed to take at least somewhat seriously. It puts me in mind of a certain brand of serio-comic anime, mixed with some of the sensibilities of Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye. Except not as sharp.

This is not to say that it’s terrible, however. I like the premise quite a bit: Black Canary fronts a band, in hope of making enough money to get her geared up and back in the super hero game. Trouble follows her around, though, and she’s starting to get a reputation:

Wu Black Canary Zine

As an old punk rocker, I really appreciate the way they captured the feel of the music zine there. That’s not the best drawing Annie Wu turns in for the issue, I’ll grant you. But the stiff angularity of it fits the design aesthetic perfectly. And Wu gets to shine on other pages. That kick-ass cover up above is one example of that. But with her later pitch-perfect look at Canary’s band…

Wu Black Canary Band

…or in the dynamic, pop-art-flavored fight scenes…

Wu Black Canary Fight

…Annie Wu is the business. Delicate and rough-edged, all at the same time. Capable of pulling off both the comedy and the drama. She’s gotten better since her issues of Fraction’s (previously-mentioned) Hawkeye. And I liked her on that quite a bit, especially by the end of her tenure. It feels like she’s really cutting loose here, though, and that’s fun to see. She’s pretty great.

So great that I wish I liked the story more. It’s not bad, per se. I really, REALLY want to like it, and there is a lot to like in it. There’s just maybe not enough to like that I’m going to find it worth the money in the long run. But, man. I dig the visual aesthetic Wu’s creating here, so we’ll see. Between that, and the story beats I do like, that might be enough to bring me back once the price drops. Time will tell.

Grade: B-

So! DC YOU! Not the most ringing endorsement, I suppose. But like I said, I don’t think all these comics are aimed at me. They’re aimed at a younger, more female, more mainstream audience. We need that kind of diversity in comics, so I hope they find their readership. But even if they don’t, it’ll be a refreshing change while it lasts.

A Month of Wednesdays


So while I’ve been off writing about Avengers comics for the the past four weeks, the funnybook industry had the temerity to continue releasing books! Da noive a some peeple!

But, ah well. What’s a reviewer to do, except take a deep breath and bear up under their pulpy weight? So here you go: all the funnybooks for a month of Wednesdays. Or the highlights thereof, anyway…

Nameless 4
by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham

Burnham Nameless 4

The careers of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore continue to intersect in such intricate and never-ending ways that it’s starting to look deliberate. Alan Moore, for instance, recently released the debut issue of Providence, his study of the works of HP Lovecraft (it’s the one non-Jonathan-Hickman comic I’ve written about in the last month). So of course (of course!) Grant Morrison’s in the middle of a Lovecraft exploration of his own. Moore’s take is deep and considered, heavily researched and long in the planning. While Morrison’s, though every bit as affecting and intricately-written, feels kinda tossed off, a chaotic mixture of pop fiction and stream-of-consciousness horror.

Business as usual, then.

I joke. Lovecraft has long influenced both writers, and we’re reaching a sort of cultural singularity in regards to Lovecraft’s work, a point at which (nearly 100 years after his first publications) this obscure and xenophobic pulp writer’s ideas have been thoroughly woven into the zeitgeist. So I found neither of these projects particularly surprising. But I have been enjoying the hell out of them. Both Moore and Morrison are out to reclaim the real horror of Lovecraft, to remind everyone that his sense of existential dread is perhaps not something we should laugh off with stuffed animal versions of his monsters. The monsters were just the glossy surface of it anyway, the rubbery lure to reel unsuspecting readers in to the contemplation of their own insignificance in the face of the vast uncaring universe.

But there, I’m reducing Lovecraft’s work to academic summary, just as guilty of pastiche as the purveyors of Cthulhu Claus…

(The horror! The horror!)

(The horror! The horror!)

…and every bit as un-scary. Morrison and Burnham are dealing in the real deal:

Burnham Nameless What is Human

Gah, I say! Gah! For Morrison, the horror of the Outer Things comes down to a familiar theme for him: the negation of the self. Or, perhaps, the surrender to negativity, the inability to see the positive in the face of overwhelming darkness. That’s always been part of Lovecraft’s appeal, I think: his ultimate existential pessimism is strangely seductive. There’s an undeniable truth to it, a sense that our own lack of importance is part of the spiritual firmament. That might be why we find Lovecraft’s horror speaking so strongly to modern audiences: it cuts contrary to American exceptionalism, and the pervasive idea in our culture that everyone is special.

Now, I think that Morrison might argue that the loss of self is nothing to be afraid of, in the end. That it’s the key to true ascension, and all that Eastern philosophical stuff. But in speaking to our culture, a culture that’s more about the self than ever, he’s dealing in images we understand. There’s an emphasis on being watched (as you can see from the cover above), and that conjures up thoughts of the surveillance culture. But Morrison and Burnham have terrorist horrors and fascist kink covered, too:

(Pardon the awkward cropping. It's like somebody tossed some fascist tarot cards all over my funnybook.)

(Pardon the awkward cropping. It’s like somebody tossed some fascist tarot cards all over my funnybook.)

It’s disjointed and disturbing, this issue, a relentless assault on sanity and basic human decency, all to a purpose we don’t know or perhaps can’t understand. I have no idea where it’s going next, whether we’ll get the cathartic release of human victory, or the devastating blow of spiritual extinction. I suspect that it’ll be a bit of both, with Our Hero’s “Nameless” status indicating a path to salvation through self-negation. Very Eastern. Very Morrison. Regardless, I’ll be on hand to find out.

Grade: A-

Optic Nerve 14, by Adrian Tomine

Optic Nerve 14

And speaking of existential horror… We’ve got a new book by Adrian Tomine! I joke, of course. Tomine doesn’t write horror. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. But I often find his depressing, self-defeating slice of life stories far more distressing than most horror fiction. And also a lot more boring. Lovecraft’s rubbery monster lure is half the fun of reading him, after all, and Tomine gives you none of that. Still, though, he sometimes finds a great hook, some odd behavior or strange dramatic situation, that makes his work compelling.

He’s also damn talented, which is what got me through the lead story in this issue. It’s about a teenage girl who gets interested in doing stand-up comedy, and the way her parents both encourage and caution her. The story itself is rather dull, the sort of “unlovable loser” stuff Tomine often trades in. The interest lies in what he doesn’t show you, the way the family’s lives unfold off-camera and impact the things we do see. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, but I do admire his craft.

This issue’s back-up, though, is the sort of Tomine story I do enjoy. It’s about a disaffected veteran who comes across a key to the apartment he shared with his wife before his life went to shit. Somebody else lives there now, but the locks haven’t been changed, so he goes in while the current occupant is at work, just to… I don’t know… recapture something of a time in his life when he was happy. Now, that’s a great short story hook, one in which Tomine’s trademark distant tone is put to good use.

The back-up is an older story, I believe, and it’s not as well-crafted as the lead piece. But I enjoyed reading it more. It is, in fact, the sort of story that made me start picking up Optic Nerve in the first place. So it’s kind of hard for me to grade this one. I enjoyed half of it, and admired all of it. We’ll let that be the grade, then, and just move on…

Crossed +100 5
by Alan Moore and Gabriel Andrade

Crossed Plus 100 5

This series has, to date, seemed to be as much an outline of post-apocalyptic anarchist society as anything else. But with this issue, it’s suddenly taken a rather horrifying twist, and in the process revealed itself to be instead a zombie mystery story with massive stakes. It’s also taken the whole Crossed concept of Zombies From the Id and turned it into something I find far more compelling. I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers here, so I won’t say exactly what Moore does, or how he does it. But it involves a lot of pieces from previous issues falling into place, and it’s pretty brilliant.

It’s also got a lengthy excerpt from the diary of a serial killer who lived through the initial Crossed outbreak, which is great reading. Or at least, a mental relief from all the post-apocalyptic future-slang…

Grade: A-

Fight Club 2 #1
by Chuck Palahniuk and Cameron Stewart

Mack Fight Club 2

So I really enjoyed this book. I wasn’t sure I was gonna, to be honest. I love the novel, love the movie, but I had questions. Is a sequel really necessary? Does Tyler Durden still make sense in 2015? Can Palahniuk even write decent comics? Hmm…

Well, I’m not so sure how necessary this is, but Palahniuk’s turned in a fine funnybook script. There are some missteps. There’s an early scene, for instance, in which the babysitter mistakes Our Hero for an intruder, and it either doesn’t make any sense at all, or is a kind of comedy so broad and absurd that it doesn’t fit the tone. But he is using the medium well to pull off the kind of storytelling tricks the book and movie are famous for. I’m particularly fond of the various inanimate objects…

(rose petals in this case)

(rose petals in this case)

…spilled over the pages that obscure important details.

Now, as for whether Tyler Durden is still relevant in 2015… I have heard some criticism that the book’s political message is kind of silly. But that’s not a criticism I have much patience for. It sounds like most of the people saying that are people who first came across Fight Club as teenagers, and got really into Durden’s philosophy. But I don’t think anyone was really supposed to buy that stuff. I mean (like Lovecraft), it’s seductive because there’s an element of truth to it. Sometimes you do feel trapped by life and numbed by modern society. Possessions don’t necessarily make you happy. But, as someone who came to Fight Club as an adult, it just struck me as satire. A cleverly-told story about a charismatic madman. His spiel struck a chord, but I could also see that falling for it was a shade or two past ridiculous.

Which makes it great stuff for Palahniuk to revisit with a middle-aged Tyler Durden. Because, much as you might outgrow a teenage fascination with “feeling something real,” you never feel more trapped by life than when you hit middle age and realize that your youth is behind you, and you squandered it on silly things like job security and dental insurance. The whole Fight Club thing seems tailor-made for middle-aged men, in fact, much moreso than the jaded yuppies who bought into it in the novel.

I Am John’s Mid-Life Crisis.

So, yeah. I think Tyler Durden IS pretty relevant in 2015. Maybe this sequel has potential, after all…

Grade: A-

And as long as we’re talking about mid-life crisis and excessive lifestyle choices…

Airboy 1
by James Robinson and Greg Hinkle

Hinkle Airboy 1

This was the best surprise of the last month. I mean, I haven’t enjoyed a James Robinson comic since he returned to the industry after a stint in Hollywood. He penned a Freddy vs Jason movie while he was there, I think, and is the screenwriter responsible for adapting Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in such a spectacularly awful fashion. His comics work since then hasn’t been a whole lot better, and I very nearly wrote this off. But Greg Hinkle’s cover caught my eye, and when I gave it a flip-through, I was greeted with scenes like this one, that’s so very Not Safe For Work that I’m hiding it behind the jump…

Continue reading

I Hate It When You Guys Fight: Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers, Part Four


Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers
by Jonathan Hickman (duh!) and a Great Many Artists

Alright. So this time, we’re gonna finish this bitch.

So far, we’ve discussed crisis, betrayal, and set-up (PART ONE); art and foreshadowing (PART TWO); and (in PART THREE) escalation, doppelgangers, and doing the unthinkable. Now we move on to conflict, fascism, and the end of all things. And doesn’t that sound like fun?

Last time, if you’ll recall, we left off with this:

Yu Cap vs Stark

That’s what happens when Captain American remembers what Iron Man and the Illuminati did to him. But before we get to the ramifications of that punch (and they are huge, let me tell you), I wanted to take a moment to praise an artist I kind of crapped on in a previous chapter: Leinil Francis Yu. He drew that panel up above, and it’s a nice piece of modern super hero art. It has its problems, sure, but it’s dynamic, it’s composed well, and that “action blur” he’s drawn at the edge of Tony Stark’s head is really nice, an interesting alternative to traditional funnybook speed lines.

And as long as I’m praising artists I previously slammed, I should also take a moment to praise Mike Deodato’s work on the run’s final year. It’s got some of the problems his work always has, but alongside that, he was turning in some really great stuff on close-ups. Great, cartoony, craggy faces, with maybe the best use of 90s-style texture lines I’ve ever seen. We’ll see more of his work later, but for now, here’s a great shot of the Hulk. Playing chess.

Deodato Chess Hulk

Anyway. That punch.

Yu Cap vs Stark

This is really the point of no return for Our Heroes, the point at which their ideological differences place them in unavoidable conflict. Cap is understandably pissed off here. The Illuminati not only messed with his memory, they obviously did it so they could do the one thing he told them he would absolutely not stand for: destroying a planet. Stark’s arrogance in the face of his friend’s anger is a lot less defensible. And that’s the Illuminati’s real sin, ultimately: arrogance. They’ve kept the Incursions a secret that they deal with only amongst themselves. And while their personal sacrifices in taking that responsibility on are great, they’re proving themselves to be elitists of the first order. The arrogance of kings, rearing its ugly head again.

So it’s on. But before the real conflict begins, Cap gets pulled off on a journey through time. The details of that story are too complicated to get into here, but the result of it is something I wanted to mention. At the end of time, Cap is confronted by three different incarnations of Kang the Conqueror, who tell him that, on the subject of the Incursions, he’s wrong and Stark’s right. Actually, they go a bit further than that:

Ouch.

Ouch.

This leads to maybe the greatest Captain America speech of all time. Seriously, Hickman knocks it out of the park with this one. It’s so good, in fact, that I’m just going to post it here in its entirety:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Boom. That’s Cap, perfectly summed up in just one page. Of course, there’s also something dark lurking in the middle of all that heroic awesomeness. Something jarring. It’s that phrase again:

“You people.”

This, then, is Captain America’s greatest sin: self-righteousness. And this speech crystallizes it. Not in Cap’s mind, of course. No, for Cap, that speech steels him to follow his principles to the bitter end. He gets back to his own time, and rallies the Avengers to take down the Illuminati. Speaking of whom…

Over in New Avengers, the Illuminati have learned the error of their ways in the aftermath of Namor destroying the world of the Great Society. They’ve realized the horror of what they’ve been planning, and know that they can’t go through with it. So they each retire back to their own lives, resolved to perish with their souls intact, and await the end of the world. But when the time comes… Nothing happens. The Incursion point passes, and they’re still there. Is it a miracle? No. Of course not. It’s Namor.

Walker Cabal

He’s freed the Illuminati’s prisoners, and engaged them in saving their world by destroying someone else’s. They call themselves the Cabal, and they are eager to get to work.

So there’s our status quo as we enter the final act: Cap wants to bring down the Illuminati, the Illuminati have gotten out of the planet-busting business, and Namor’s founded the Cabal to do it for them. At this point, Hickman does something really interesting: he jumps ahead 8 months.

I did something really interesting, too: I paid cover price. I was so deep in at this point, and so taken with the story, that I bit back the bile that rose in my throat at the prospect, and actually paid four freaking dollars apiece for the rest of Hickman’s run. It’s roughly a year’s worth of comics, and it cost me twice as much as the rest of the series combined. My one thought as I gritted my teeth and paid up was, “This had better be worth it.”

Thankfully, it was. Because the final year of Hickman’s Avengers is easily the best. A lot changes in that 8 months Hickman skips. Captain America is suddenly old, for instance.

(And angry.)

(And angry.)

When things pick back up, the Illuminati have gone underground, wanted criminals still trying to find a peaceful way to solve the Incursion problem. The Cabal has approached the UN, and the world’s leaders have given them sanction to continue what they’re doing. And Cap? Well, Cap’s now leading an Avengers team that’s operating as part of SHIELD, and essentially serves as the world’s super-police. How does he reconcile his mission to bring the Illuminati to justice, while Namor’s gang of homicidal maniacs is out there doing what Stark, Reed, and the rest couldn’t bring themselves to do? Well, mostly, he just gets bitter.

Deodato Bitter Cap

He brought what he knew about Incursions to the world, and his high principles were betrayed by its leaders. But that’s how democracy works sometimes. So he abides by the law, no matter how much it chafes, and channels his anger into bringing down the architects of the technology that’s saving the planet on a distressingly regular basis. The fact that he’s got a personal grudge against these men isn’t lost on him. But the unfairness of the situation kind of is. He’s so angry that he’s not entirely aware of how very much he and his military Avengers come off like jack-booted thugs. I mean, even their costumes are forbidding:

Cheung Jackboot Avengers

The propaganda art doesn’t help, either:

Avengers 37

Oh, and then there’s this shit again:

Cheung These People

“These people.” Nice, Hawkeye. Real nice.

Now, I’m making them out to be fascists (I believe I even used that very word in my intro), and that’s really not fair. If they were fascists, for instance, Cap probably wouldn’t have let the majority of the team walk away. But that’s what they did. Alienated by the new agenda, most of that giant team he was leading has scattered to the four winds.

So it seems that the Avengers are lost. One team’s driven the other into hiding, rendering both far less effective at solving the Incursion problem, and leaving a bunch of homicidal maniacs to save the world via genocide. But that’s one of the nicer touches of Hickman’s run: just when you think the heroic ideal has utterly perished, it falls to the supposed junior members of the team to keep the true spirit of the Avengers alive. It falls, in fact, to the single most unlikely character:

Deodato Sunspot

Roberto da Costa, aka Sunspot. This guy has served mostly as comic relief in this book, one half of a seemingly shallow Millennial comedy team with fellow New Mutant Cannonball. But now, when the chips are down, the fabulously wealthy Sunspot has gotten serious, attacking the Incursion problem from his own angle (via hostile takeover of AIM), and rallying everyone who left to form (dare I say it?) the New Avengers.

So yes, that’s yet another faction in play now. Cap’s Avengers, the Illuminati, the Cabal, and Sunspot’s really truly New Avengers. Then there’s Dr. Doom, and the team Sunspot sends out into the multiverse to find the source of the Incursions, and… You know what? I kept all these various allegiances straight pretty easily while I was reading, but for purposes of review, you really need a score card. And of course, this being a Hickman comic, there actually is one:

click to embiggen the multitudes

click to embiggen the multitudes

The interplay between these groups makes for great reading. The cast is huge and the stakes are high. There are twists and turns galore. Drama. Betrayal. Violence. Love. Even a little light comedy. It’s just flat-out fantastic funnybooks. Not traditional good guys vs bad guys funnybooks, mind you. It’s not even really good guys vs good guys. It’s more morally complex than that, a world of people with differing ideologies, none of whom are perfect, each of them making bad decisions right alongside the good ones. And yet, Hickman doesn’t sacrifice anyone’s inherent heroism here. Not even Namor’s. From a certain point of view, in fact, he might be the most heroic character in the bunch. It all depends on the reader’s own perspective. We’re left to pick our own side in all this, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that “sides” are pointless and stupid and wrong.

It grips me, this kind of conflict. It gets me deep down. I’m reminded of reading Civil War (almost ten years ago now), the little kid inside me watching all his favorite super heroes come to blows and getting very upset. “Don’t fight!” he was yelling. “I hate it when you guys fight!” But of course… I love it, too. Conflict is the soul of drama, and there’s nothing better (to me, anyway) than conflict between people who think they’re right. That’s the good stuff, the juicy stuff. And Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers delivers on it, in spades. That’s what makes it, to my way of thinking, the defining super hero comic of the decade.

So that’s the review, everybody! Thanks for sticking around through all that, and hope you’ll join us again next week as–

What’s that?

What happens next?

How does it all end?

Well… I was going to go into a long, drawn-out explanation of how all of Hickman’s various threads of plot and character dovetail at the end. How he draws on pretty much every series he’s ever written for Marvel Comics and turns this finale into the culmination of all his corporate spandex work. And how Dr. Doom fits into the whole picture. But you know… I really don’t want to spoil any of that for anyone who hasn’t read these books. Go out there and experience them for yourselves, I say. So for our purposes here today, all you really need to know is…

Things get pretty cosmic…

Deodato Avengers Cosmic

…the Avengers fight the Ultimates…

(Dig that lettering! Lower-case defines the dimensional divide!)

(Dig that lettering! Lower-case defines the dimensional divide!)

…and in the end…

Everything Dies

Really, it’s for the best.

Hickman Marvel RIP

Well, okay. As you no doubt know if you’re actually reading this, the story continues on past the end of all reality. Because of course it does. OF COURSE. This is funnybooks.

But that’s a review for another day.

Cool Air and Yellow Kings: Alan Moore’s Providence Debuts in Style


Taking a quick detour from our magnum opus on Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers to talk about something that’s more along the lines of our usual fare…

Providence 1, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

Burrows Providence 1

Any new book by The Wizard of Northhampton is kind of a big deal, but here we have what may constitute a major publishing event: the beginning of a new Alan Moore series of a depth and structure we haven’t seen since From Hell. That’s what he’s saying about it, anyway:

So, yeah. Providence is Alan Moore’s final word on HP Lovecraft, exhaustively researched and, if this first issue is any indication, meticulously planned. His publishers are touting it as “The Watchmen of Horror,” which is great ad copy to be sure. But there are real parallels to be drawn between that series’ near-obsessive structuralism and what we get here. This is one of the tighter pieces of writing I’ve read from Moore in quite some time. Since he announced his semi-retirement from monthly comics almost a decade ago, he’s mostly just been having fun. Writing pulp pastiche with the on-going League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books, or working some jet-black bitterness out of his system with his last Lovecraft book, Neonomicon. Good as those books were (and they were very good indeed), that’s just Moore taking it easy. On Providence, it feels like he means business.

This first issue, for instance, feels as much like a thesis statement as anything else. I mean, it’s still an effective piece of fiction. It’s engaging, carefully structured, and could almost stand on its own. But, knowing what Moore’s attempting here on the large scale, and knowing Lovecraft’s own work as well as I do, it’s also obviously just the set-up for something much grander in scope.

But I’m being vague. The story itself is about Robert Black, a young reporter in 1919 New York. He’s smart and talented. Ambitious. Well-read. And he looks a bit like HP Lovecraft:

(A Lovecraftalike, if you will.)

(A Lovecraftalike, if you will.)

He’s also gay. Which, if you know much about Lovecraft, is a fascinating choice. The man was an avowed homophobe whose best friend was nonetheless gay. He was also an anti-Semitic racist who married a Jew. Lovecraft’s xenophobia was, it seems, mostly theoretical. Which is to say, he hated people different from himself… as long as he didn’t get to know them. Individual people, he liked just fine. Mostly.

(An aside on reading HP Lovecraft in the 21st Century: all of the above is true, to the best of my knowledge. It’s also rather abhorrent. I won’t apologize or make excuses for him, though. You don’t have to like the man to like his work. And I like his work quite a bit.)

Anyway. Our Hero / Lovecraft Stand-In finds himself at a crossroads in life. He’s recently estranged from his lover, and looking for something meaningful to write about. He finds it via his own life, and a doctor he interviews who has a most peculiar illness. His solution is very much in the spirit of Lovecraft’s own work: he wants to write about the outsiders, the people with secret lives. But he wants to encode the reality of that behind a mask of fiction. Not that I think Lovecraft was encoding anything specific. But he most definitely wrote a lot about outsiders. Initially, about the horrors of being one. And later, about understanding (even embracing) the other.

It’s interesting, then, that in this first issue, Moore is mostly referencing Robert W. Chambers. Specifically, he’s referencing Chambers’ book The King in Yellow, which is discussed here as a work of fiction, even though the story seems to be taking place in the future world Chambers created in that book’s pages. But of course, The King in Yellow was a big influence on Lovecraft, as well. Some would say, in fact, that we wouldn’t know the book at all today if Lovecraft hadn’t referenced it so heavily in his own work. So referencing Chambers kind of IS referencing Lovecraft. In a weird sort of sideways, non-Euclidean manner.

That said, you don’t have to know anything about Lovecraft, or Chambers, to enjoy Providence. If you do, there are some great Easter eggs. That doctor Our Hero interviews, for instance, is sure to seem familiar to anyone who’s read much Lovecraft.

Burrows Cool Air

But the story stands on its own, with Lovecraft’s oeuvre serving as inspiration rather than essential reading. So don’t go into this expecting tentacles and whatnot. I mean, we might get to those eventually. But if not, that’s okay. Those things are just the entertaining surface of Lovecraft’s work. The real horror of it is existential and nihilistic. Which is an apt description of how this story works. There aren’t even many outright horror elements to it, per se. There’s something distressing at the edges, certainly, and there is one truly horrifying moment of realization in which several disparate elements suddenly click. But it’s really just a clever, well-crafted piece about a gay man in early 20th Century New York. I might not even label it “horror” if I didn’t have some idea of where it’s headed.

(And, you know, if they hadn't slapped that “Watchmen of Horror” label on it...)

(And, you know, if they hadn’t slapped that “Watchmen of Horror” label on it…)

At any rate. There’s so much more to say, but I’m trying desperately not to spoil the reading experience for anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure. But if I go into much more detail about any of it, I will. So I’ll shut up now.

Just read it. It’s good. The best thing Alan Moore’s written in quite some time. If that doesn’t get you through the door… Then what the hell’s wrong with ya?!

Grade: A+

To Erase All Our Legacies: Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers, Part Three


 

Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers
by Jonathan Hickman (duh!) and a Multitude of Artists

And we’re back again to continue our discussion of what I’ve called the defining super hero comic of the decade (and don’t think I’ve forgotten that bold claim, either; I’ll be coming back to it before we’re done). Part One of our discussion can be found HERE, and Part Two is HERE.

Alright. Last time, I got so distracted talking about the artwork in the first year of this run that I never got around to talking about the second year at all. So let’s move right along with that now. If you’ll recall, I finished reading that first year thinking that I’d made a dreadful mistake. I hated the Infinity crossover so much that, even at 99 cents an issue, I was afraid I’d wasted my money on these books. I stopped reading entirely for a full week, in fact, before diving back in.

But I’m glad I did go back. Because after Infinity, the run really takes off. All his basics established, Hickman is free to explore and play for a while before moving into his end-game. So we get to see a few of these alternate realities the series is dealing in, which is fun, and which adds a bit more sting to the idea of universes ending. It’s one thing to imagine an other-world apocalypse, after all. But it’s quite another to see Reed Richards sacrifice his life for Dr. Doom before their world is reduced to dust.

Bianchi Reed Doom

We get most of this in New Avengers, of course, but both series have key storylines in this vein. The Avengers face off against evil doppelgangers, and the Illuminati come into conflict with… the opposite of that. Which is one hell of a tease, I know, but I think I’ll discuss the Avengers story first.

At this point, that series has backed off to a monthly publishing schedule (it had been bi-weekly), and I think it benefits from the lightened workload. I like this part of the run a lot better than I did the first year, anyway. Hickman’s scripts are relaxed and more fun, and the book’s not burning through artists as badly, either. The quality of the art still varies, as Big-Time Corporate Funnybook Art tm will unfortunately tend to do. But you get some nice work from Kev Walker, the best Salvador Larocca stuff I’ve ever seen, and some hysterically metal stylings from Simone Bianchi:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

All in all, it’s just a more satisfying package. And the most satisfying part of it, for my money, is that story with the evil doppelgangers. It all starts when AIM opens up a dimensional portal and brings through a group of fascist Avengers who look a lot like Our Heroes did in the early 60s:

Larocca Avengers 25

They’re escaping a dying world that’s being destroyed by an Incursion, of course, but beyond that tie to the meta-plot, this is just fun Mirror Universe kind of stuff, with our modern gung-ho military efficiency Avengers tackling their doppelgangers, who are formidable but ultimately (in the style of great pro-wrestling villains) cowardly. I love these characters, especially the wholesomely fascist Evil Captain America.

Larocca Evil Cap

I’m also rather fond of Evil Hulk, who’s had a device planted in his brain that keeps Banner from turning into the Hulk, except when triggered by the implant. The other Evil Avengers take turns holding the controller, and thus controlling the Hulk. Which, it’s implied, is just as kinky as it sounds.

Anyway. Before it’s all said and done, we’ve got big dumb super-fights, team members masquerading as their own evil duplicates, Super Adaptoids running around… It’s great. What makes this story so significant in the grand scheme, though, is the Hulk. Evil Hulk gets away from the other Evil Avengers and has a nice long talk with Regular Hulk, which leads to Bruce Banner finding out about the Incursions. Putting the pieces of the Avengers puzzle together and wanting answers, he gets himself a suitcase full of tranquilizers and confronts Tony Stark:

Larocca Bruce Banner

So what does Banner do? He chooses to help with the problem. He and Stark set up Evil Hulk as a patsy, placing him under SHIELD custody to take the fall for a very public Hulk attack, while the real Banner goes underground and joins the Illuminati.

But that’s down the road a bit. While all that’s going on in Avengers, New Avengers concerns itself with cosmic voyeurism. Using a device Reed Richards comes up with, they’re able to look into other dimensions, hoping to get some fresh ideas on how to deal with Incursions. This includes that previously-mentioned world with Dr. Doom. Speaking of whom… I should probably talk about Doom a bit. He’s all over Hickman’s run. One of the earlier Incursions took place in Latveria, so he knows something’s up, but the Illuminati won’t let him in on it. This infuriates him, of course, but Doom being Doom… He starts digging on his own. He has an artifact of the Mapmakers, and–

It occurs to me that I haven’t discussed the Mapmakers, either, or the Black Priests, or…

You know, the problem with trying to review this run in the macrocosm is that its brilliance often lies in the details. To understand the ending, or at least to appreciate its impact, you need to know about Evil Hulk. And Doom. And the other forces out there in the Multiverse who are dealing with Incursion. So before I get to the New Avengers alternate reality story, I should talk about those forces a bit. First are the afore-mentioned Black Priests and Mapmakers, who…

Bianchi New Avengers

…are pretty well summed up by that panel.

Another group is the Black Swans…

Epting Black Swans

…who actively seek the destruction of Earths caught up in Incursions, offering them as sacrifices to a mysterious death-god they call Rabum Alal. The interesting thing about the Swans, to me, is how my perception of them changes over time. Initially, they seem like outright villains. I mean, they destroy inhabited planets with zero remorse. But they’re also serving a greater good. By destroying Earths at the point of Incursion, they’re saving two whole universes and slowing the ultimate end of all reality. They’re doing it via unthinkable, horrible means, of course. But Our Heroes are contemplating the same thing, albeit with more noble (or perhaps just less crazy) motivations.

Anyway. The Black Panther defeats a Swan in the first issue, and as the Illuminati’s captive, she becomes their primary source of information on the Incursions. In addition to explaining the whole process to them, she also gives them one piece of very important information:

Epting Rabum Alal

So the multiverse started collapsing when Rabum Alal was born. That’s pretty huge. When the Swan dropped that bombshell, I figured that was where the story was going next: finding out when and where Rabum Alal was born, and stopping it before it happens. I mean… Reed has already invented a device to travel between universes, and I can think of several different means of time travel they could use just off the top of my head. I think Dr. Doom’s Time Platform is still in the Baxter Building, just for one.

But that doesn’t happen. Why not? Well, because the multiverse is vast, and the task of scouring all of reality to find out what they need to know is incredibly daunting. It would take more resources than the Illuminati have. But I can’t help thinking that, if Captain America were still involved in the problem, or if the Illuminati had been more open about what was happening, they’d have what they need to launch an all-out investigation into the multiverse to stop the event that’s destroying all reality. That’s not how it goes down, though, and so the Illuminati are left scrambling just to save their own world. Speaking of which, I suppose it’s finally time to get to their doppelganger story…

They’ve been incredibly lucky up to this point. Several Incursions have occurred, and due to various and sundry circumstances, they haven’t had to destroy a planet. Their options finally run out, however, when they meet these guys:

Morales Great Society

The Great Society! Who, yes, are an alternate version of the Justice League. Or, really, their Golden Age predecessors the Justice Society. “Society” is in the name, after all, and there IS a barely-disguised variation on Dr. Fate on the team. The story’s also drawn by Rags Morales, who made his name with his years-long run on that very book. But now I’m getting bogged down in dork minutia.

(Yeah, like that’s just happening NOW…)

The Great Society are super heroes in the classic mode, bold and noble heroes finding a way to save their universe from Incursion that doesn’t… you know… involve destroying planets. Their philosophy of hope is best summed up by Sun God’s opening speech, in which he echoes Reed Richards’ oft-repeated “Everything dies” with “Everything lives.” Which, yeah… That’s how Captain America would have had Our Heroes thinking about it, too. Fortunately for him, though, the Illuminati are much bigger bastards than that. Or rather, Dr. Strange is:

Weaver New Avengers 20

Well, okay. Really, all Strange does is defeat the Great Society with vile necromancy. He sold his soul for ultimate power, and he could have used it to stop the Incursion, too. But the rest of the team ends his conjuration before he’s able to feed the Society’s Earth to the Great Old Ones. It’s just too horrible, and in the end the rest of the team is just too heroic. So heroic that they also can’t bring themselves to pull the trigger on their own device to destroy the Society’s world. Reed tries, but can’t. Stark, Banner, and the Beast refuse outright. Even the Panther can’t bring himself to do it. Namor, though?

Boom.

Boom.

He doesn’t have a problem with it.

Well… Actually, that’s not entirely true. He knows it’s wrong. He’s just philosophical about it.

Walker Namor

This action tears the Illuminati apart. It’s what they’ve been preparing for all this time, of course. They built a machine to do it. But when push came to shove, they learned that Cap was right all along. And wrong, of course. Because if Namor hadn’t been as bad a man as he is… They’d all be dead.

And that right there is what makes Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run so very good: he’s presented his heroes with a moral dilemma that’s split them down the middle, a situation in which men of good will have disagreed so violently that they’ve turned on each other like wolves. Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. That’s a level of moral complexity you don’t often see in super hero comics. And that is marvelous.

Things are only going to get worse from here, though, because next…

Yu Cap vs Stark

Cap remembers what they did to him.

But we’ll talk about that, and the end of all reality… Next time.

The Art of Corporate Funnybooks: Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers, Part Two


So last week, we discussed the first year of Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run. You can GO HERE to check that out, or just jump in below…

Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers
by Jonathan Hickman (duh) and A Variety of Artists

I believe I left off last time by saying that the first year of Hickman’s run was all set-up. And I spent an awful lot of time discussing that set-up, at the expense of some of the finer points of the storytelling. So before I move on to the second year, I should probably discuss those finer points in a bit more detail.

Mostly, I want to talk about the art, which is extremely hit and miss. Both series started strong, especially New Avengers, which had classic Steve Epting art anchoring its first six issues. Epting is just as much at home drawing a bunch of guys standing around…

(which happens a lot in this book)

(which happens a lot in this book)

…as he is with outbursts of HUGE COSMIC POWER!

(which happen less frequently, but are all the more powerful because of it)

(which happen less frequently, but are all the more powerful because of it)

Avengers, meanwhile, initially featured the art of Jerome Opena, whose slightly weird, meaty style gave the series a fresh look…

Opena Avengers 1

…while still handling dynamic action with aplomb:

(click to embiggen)

(click to embiggen)

With Avengers‘ bi-weekly schedule, of course, it went through more artists than New Avengers. So Opena was followed after three issues with pretty decent work from Adam Kubert and Dustin Weaver, the latter of whom (though very different) kept the book looking fresh:

Weaver Starbrand

(An aside: That’s the new Starbrand there, in his first appearance, terrified of his deadly new powers and lashing out at the Avengers without understanding how. It’s a great moment early in the run that I’ll come back to in a bit…)

But as the run heads into Infinity, unfortunately, we start getting issues drawn by the likes of Mike Deodato and Leinil Francis Yu. Which…

Deodato

Deodato

Yu Avengers Infinity

Yu

Just, ugh.

Okay, sure. Those guys are talented, and at least have a few interesting quirks. I’ll also admit to picking particularly bad pages from both of them to prove my point. So it could have been worse. But, still. Ugh. Their stuff’s just not to my taste.

I was particularly taken aback at how hyper-sexualized their work is. Deodato’s Namor looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model most of the time, and any woman that appears is all tits & ass. That’s particularly true of Yu, who’s so obviously using porn as a model that I’d have been embarrassed to read his issues in public:

SERIOUSLY?!

SERIOUSLY?!

And keep in mind, I’ve read issues of Sex Criminals in public, so I’m hardly a prude. The difference, I think, is that the sex stuff in that book is, you know, actually about sex. And it’s presented in a way that’s less about titillation and more about entertainment for grown-ass adults. Here? This is super heroes. People in tights punching each other. A kind of story in which images like the one above have the furtive, looking-where-you-ain’t-supposed-to-look air of perverts, adolescent boys, and compulsive masturbators. Terms like “objectification” and “male gaze” get tossed around far too much these days, but… This seems like exactly the sort of stuff those terms were coined for.

Of course, there is a history of cleavage and “headlight” images in the super hero genre, dating back to its origins in the pulps. But I think this stuff takes it a step further. This isn’t ripped clothing on a damsel in distress, or even a generous bosom heaving in the foreground. This is Yu adding a sexual undertone to a scene that I don’t think is supposed to have one. This is a yellow horned alien giant with a tough-love mother complex talking to a captured hero. And into that Yu has injected ghetto booties, circular boobs, and the sort of poses you’d see in bondage porn. It’s kinda creepy.

Doubly so when Jerome Opena, in the first story arc, handles a similar scene far better:

Opena Avengers Captured

Hell, even in a scene that does have an element of seduction to it, Opena handles things in a way that doesn’t seem exploitative:

Opena Avengers Seduction

So, yeah. The artwork on this run goes downhill fast. That, I suppose, is a side effect of it being Big Splashy Corporate Event Comicstm. That bi-weekly schedule on Avengers was bound to burn through art teams pretty fast, and eventually the company was going to have to toss somebody on the book whose style just didn’t fit. I mean, they tried. They kept single artists on for individual stories, at least, and that’s a plus.

But it still leads to real discontinuity, especially if you’re reading it all back-to-back the way I did. Faces change, as do costumes and body language and visual approach. Hickman doesn’t have time to gel with any of his artists, and none of them are able to really make the book visually their own. So it all comes out feeling a bit empty, a bit assembly-line. And a lot like something not worth that four-dollar cover price. So thank god I only paid 99 cents.

The rotating artist thing also exacerbates a problem Hickman was having to deal with plot-wise: his time on Avengers has been one of upheaval across the Marvel Comics line. So many of the characters he’s using here have their own titles, in which their status quo has been changing constantly. Hickman had to reflect that in Avengers, but didn’t have time to stop and explain every sudden alteration.

I first noticed this with Spider-Man. There’s a scene somewhere in that first year in which he’s acting like a complete jerk. At first I thought Hickman just didn’t get the character. Then somebody makes reference to his new costume, and it hit me: this was taking place during that storyline when Doctor Octopus was in control of Peter Parker’s body. So mystery solved! Except…

Kubert Avengers SpiderMan

The artist (Adam Kubert) didn’t draw the new costume. I guess he hadn’t gotten the memo (or maybe just the model sheet), so he drew the standard costume instead. Which, I suddenly realized, was the source of my confusion to begin with. If I’d seen the Spider-Ock costume, my memory would have been jogged, and I wouldn’t have wondered what the hell was going on. Guh!

I’m sure this is all a nightmare to manage, so I’m not taking them to task too harshly for it. But, still. For someone who’s not reading much else in the Avengers shared universe, it periodically makes things very confusing. Like later on, the Hulk is suddenly smarter and wearing some kind of armor, and I still have no idea how that happened. So, gah! Corporate comics!

Anyway. That Starbrand story I mentioned earlier.

Weaver Starbrand

(Yeah, that one.)

This story should have put the lie to my impression that Avengers was a morally simpler book than New Avengers, but at the time it didn’t strike me that way. So before I leave the first year of Hickman’s run behind for good, I should discuss it a bit more thoroughly.

Basically, the story is about a young man getting the power of the Starbrand and not knowing how to handle it. In fact, when the powers are bestowed upon him (by mysterious universal forces operating all through the fabric of Hickman’s run), he accidentally incinerates everyone around him. The Avengers come in and try to calm him down, but the whole thing goes pear-shaped and turns into a massive super-fight.

Which is all well and good. Except that, the way it’s written, I’m on Starbrand’s side the whole time. I understand the need to stop the kid from accidentally killing another large group of people, but Our Heroes go about it with a sort of military efficiency that’s off-putting. There’s no remorse in their actions. They even seem to enjoy it.

click to embiggen the joy!

click to embiggen the joy!

So I kind of blitzed through the story all pissed off at the Avengers. And I was not at all happy with the conclusion, where they win without acknowledging that they were being huge douche-bags. It made me grumpy, and I wrote the whole thing off as being a bit tin-eared. Looking back at it now, though, I see that it’s all foreshadowing for what comes later.

But I’m running out of time again. Don’t worry, though. You can read the next part HERE. Right now, if you want…

Evolution, Apocalypse, and the Arrogance of Kings: Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers, Part One


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…

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

New Avengers is its dark twin, a sci-fi noir in tights.

New Avengers 1

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…

Kubert Infinity 1

…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:

click to embiggen (and render readable)

click to embiggen (and render readable)

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:

Hickman Avengers Roster

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:

Epting Illuminati vs Cap

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:

Epting Avengers Cap

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:

Epting Avengers You People

“You people.”

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.

(Clor, anyone?)

(Clor, anyone?)

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.

Hello!

Hello!

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…

Infinity Builder Arrogance

…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.

(And only slightly better fashion sense.)

(And only slightly better fashion sense.)

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. A story you can read… HERE.