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:
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.
Anyway. That punch.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
The propaganda art doesn’t help, either:
Oh, and then there’s this shit again:
“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:
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:
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 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…
…the Avengers fight the Ultimates…
…and in the end…
Really, it’s for the best.
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.