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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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…
…are pretty well summed up by that panel.
Another group is the 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:
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:
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:
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?
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.
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…
Cap remembers what they did to him.
But we’ll talk about that, and the end of all reality… Next time.