Saturday, December 8, 2012


Which we've been awaiting for some time now. Writer Jonathan Hickman, who recently reinvented the Fantastic Four to spectacular effect, now writes Avengers, Marvel's flagship title. They are, at least according to Joss Whedon's film: Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Iron Man. While this newly relaunched comic begins with that team to orientate new readers, the threat of quick expansion is the Avengers stock in trade. Anyone, even a villain, can be one of Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

What's so thrilling about Hickman taking the reins from Brian Bendis (who, like an aging hair-metal god, has been writing just the one power-ballad over and over for twenty years) is that he's monstrously inventive. And he thrives with a huge canvas. And he's masterful in characterizing the icons. He wrote Reed and Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four not only as adventurers, but convincingly as parents too. He made Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm best friends with each other and with us.

As a big thinker (who'll go to the Negative Zone, Attilan and Latveria in one issue), Hickman deserves Marvel's boldest team. Illustrating his creative largesse is Jerome Opena, who's been redefining epic since his sublime work on Uncanny X-Force. Coloring Opena's magisterial rendering once more is Dean White, with his deep palette of marine hues (not to mention his nifty habit of adding white filigree to most surfaces).

Avengers has only two ads interrupting its creators' flow, which is a Christmas gift like no other. On the second page of story is a glyph comprised of nodes. The first ring of nodes symbolizes the team's core. The outer nodes are empty... for now. Then, in (somewhat) typical Hickman fashion, the narrative zooms among several heady snapshots, hinting at the sprawling tone of what's ahead. After having seen the cosmos begin, we get Hyperion (a Superman analogue from another dimension) struggling in a machine's clutches, an onrushing space armada, and dozens of ruined Iron Man suits.

Mercifully, things scale down from there, in a scene showing that Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are actually friends (and this is key, because the supposed friction between Iron Man and Captain America is one of THE worst crutches an Avengers writer can use). Stark says his mind is afire with a new idea, and that, "The same exact thing happened the day we found you." Rogers asks, "You remember that?" A panel of old school Iron Man reflected in the ice block carrying his future teammate catches up new readers, tickles old ones. "I remember everything about that day. We started something that mattered. Because of you, the world changed. I changed."

This is beautiful character work, worthy of screens big and small; more importantly, this honors fifty years of Avengers storytelling. Chances are slim that another writer will have to mind-wipe either of them when Hickman's run ends.

The main villain, Ex Nihilo, is a devilish hybrid of Tim Curry in the film Legend and all-powerful Justice Society fiend Gog. That's he's terraformed Mars is a bad sign, though it sure looks exquisite. Our artists return with the otherworldly splendor they brought to Uncanny-Force, expertly combining murderous skies and prehistoric vegetation.

In slick, compressed narrative boxes, we're told that two bombs hit Earth and overwrote local biospheres to match the alien environment. Before disembarking their shuttle for battle on Mars, Iron Man asks, "Bruce you're better at this stuff than I am. Anything that needs to be said?" Stealing the scene, the man about to turn into a Hulk answers, "I think we're done talking."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fight between Ex Nihilo's creatures and our heroes is this comic's main weakness. A woman who controls shadows turns the Hulk against Thor. Iron Man is distracted and has his suit drained of power. Hawkeye and Black Widow are blasted in a single THHOOOM of energy. Finally, Captain America is pounded unconscious by a robot and then sent back to Earth as a warning. In other words, Hickman rushes through a battery of cliches, if only to revel in the last few panels of a determined Steve Rogers assembling more Avengers.

It's a first issue all right. Unfortunately, in the age of endless reboots, what should be intensely dramatic is quite a bit less so. The last page shows the roster glyph again, with nodes filled in for Wolverine, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel and a slew of others. Opposite is a stirring portrait of Captain America's call to arms (featuring some characters I don't honestly recognize). This story is called "Wake the World." Now that we're out of bed, I know you won't dare bore us, Mr. Hickman.

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