Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Avengers #2. Written by Jonathan Hickman (The Manhattan Projects, FF) and drawn by Jerome Opeña (Fear Agent, Uncanny X-Force), it’s an impressive second issue that spotlights this book’s large cast while laying the groundwork for the future of Marvel’s premier superhero team.
Uncanny Avengers may have been launched as the flagship Marvel Now! title, but after two issues of Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opeña’s Avengers, it’s clear which superteam title reigns supreme. (And not just because the wait between Avengers issues was two weeks rather than a month and a half.) Uncanny Avengers is the follow-up to Avengers Vs. X-Men, dealing with event fallout that prevents it from being as progressive as it could be. That’s not the case with Hickman’s title, which skyrockets the Avengers into the future by dramatically expanding the team’s roster and introducing a new threat that demands the added superhero force.
Hickman’s first issue of Avengers began with a teaser foreshadowing future cataclysmic events, immediately establishing that the writer has big plans for this title. The fall of the Shi’Ar Imperial Guard, the introduction of Squadron Supreme’s Hyperion into the 616 Marvel universe, and a massive armada of alien warships preparing for battle are just a few of the widescreen images presented in the opening pages of Avengers #1, with Opeña’s cinematic pencils making each panel look like a storyboard from an incredibly expensive superhero film. Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four and FF proved that he’s one of the strongest long-term plotters working in the business, and with his first Avengers issue, Hickman builds confidence that there’s a plan here.
The first issue reads a lot like Giant Size X-Men #1, turning a core group of heroes into prisoners and leaving one survivor to lead a new team to save the day. In that classic X-issue, Professor X has to create a new team on a timetable, but when Captain America is shot back to Earth after the Avengers’ defeat on Mars, he already has his team chosen; he just needs them to assemble. The final page of that first issue, showing a battle-ready Captain America standing before a huge group of new and established Avengers, was an incredibly rousing cliffhanger, and #2 shows how Tony Stark and Steve Rogers got the gang together. It’s an issue with almost no action except for a brief flashback detailing the origin of antagonists Ex Nihilo, Abyss, and Aleph, but that doesn’t mean it sacrifices any momentum or tension. Avengers #2 is the calm before the storm, but it also creates a strong idea of what this series will be like moving forward.
As they begin the expansion of the Avengers, Tony Stark explains to Steve Rogers the differences in the way they approach team-building. “You’ll see this as a state of mind,” Tony says. “An attitude to be adopted and spread to others through words invoking deeds.” That attitude is clear in how Steve is portrayed in Uncanny Avengers, building a team that will help the public accept mutants by connecting them to more popular Avengers ideology. Steve jokes that Tony looks at the new team as a math problem, but Tony corrects him, “An engineering one, actually—we’re tearing down what we had and building a new machine to achieve our expanded goals.” The characters’ contrasting philosophies align with the strengths of their respective writers: Uncanny Avengers writer Rick Remender excels when he explores the internal philosophical dilemmas faced by superheroes, while Hickman is a master of superhero engineering, taking the fundamental characteristics of each hero and applying them in new ways.
The new team begins with the Big Three—Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor—plus anyone that was in The Avengers film: Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Hulk. Hawkeye and Black Widow may not have been the most effective characters on-screen, but they are longtime Avengers, and putting Hulk on the team works well with the new status quo Mark Waid has laid out in The Indestructible Hulk. As Captain America explains, the new Avengers roster should have a core group of veterans, especially if they’re going to be approaching unconventional recruits. #2 shows Tony and Steve as they approach old friends and try to convince new prospective members, providing rapid introductions to the book’s new cast and showing each character’s motivation for the team. For Wolverine, it’s as simple as the promise of beer, but for some of the newcomers, joining the Avengers is a harder sell.
Hickman has stated that he wants his Avengers lineup to more accurately reflect the world’s diversity, and he’s gathered a group of heroes from across the globe/galaxy to join the team. There’s Manifold, a time- and space-bending Aboriginal Australian; Shang-Chi, the Chinese master of kung fu; Sunspot, a Brazilian former New Mutant who is graduating to the big leagues (with his best friend Cannonball); and Falcon, a black man from Harlem who turned away from a life of crime to become a high-flying superhero. On the female front, there’s Black Widow, along with former Avengers Captain Marvel and Spider-Woman and new recruits Smasher of the Shi’Ar Imperial Guard and a mysterious new Captain Universe. That last one is particularly interesting, as preview pages for Avengers #3 reveal Captain Universe to be a black female who looks a lot like former Captain Marvel/Photon/Pulsar Monica Rambeau.
There are a lot of questions surrounding this new lineup, and Hickman has plenty of time to address things like how Hyperion and Smasher found their way on the team. Even more questions arise when looking at the infographic for the team’s roster, which is only two-thirds completed, so there are still six team members Hickman has yet to introduce. Each known team member is assigned an icon, and characters like Manifold and Hyperion have extra detailing around their images, perhaps to signify their status as extra-dimensional travelers. Dotted lines connect characters like Hawkeye and Hulk, and while these relationships aren’t explicitly detailed in the issue, they help give an idea of how this massive cast will be dealt with moving forward. Tony and Steve have designed an Avengers machine with specific parts to deal with specific threats, and it will be interesting to see how each team member’s specialty will be applied in the future. From a storytelling standpoint, Hickman has assembled a cast of rich personalities who represent different corners of the Marvel universe (although there’s a noticeable lack of a magic character), giving the writer plenty of material to work with down the line.
The best villains are the ones who don’t think they’re villains at all, and the three beings that the Avengers are faced with see themselves as agents of universal evolution who help deserving planets reach their full potential. Earth can either succumb to Ex Nihilo’s origin bombs and experience billions of years of evolution in moments, or it can reject these gifts and burn at the hands of the robotic Aleph. In two issues, Hickman has given the Avengers a seemingly impossible challenge that justifies the need for expansion, and after spending the middle act of this three-part storyline building the tension, next issue’s big fight is sure to be an explosion of blockbuster action.
Jerome Opeña’s work on Uncanny X-Force established him as one of the most exciting artistic talents in the industry, combining the best elements of creators like Leinil Yu, Steve McNiven, and Bryan Hitch for a style that is detailed and realistic but never stiff. He’s also not the fastest penciller, so giving him only three issues to illustrate is a smart way of making sure this book comes out on time without losing any quality. Opeña will be rotating art duties with Adam Kubert and Dustin Weaver, two artists that fit into a more traditional superhero mold, but starting the series with Opeña establishes a visual language for this book that will hopefully be carried over by the rest of the art team. (This was essentially how Opeña worked on Uncanny X-Force, rotating art duties but coming back to pencil landmark issues.)
There’s been a revival of Jack Kirby-styled imagery at Marvel with Matt Fraction and Michael Allred’s delightful FF and Rick Remender and John Romita Jr.’s exhilarating Captain America, and Opeña embraces the King’s legacy with his design work on this series. Opeña’s Hulk has the cro-magnon brow and hunched posture of Jack Kirby’s original design, while Ex Nihilo’s naked gold body with a black Omega sign across the chest is a look that could have easily been pulled from a lost Kirby sketchbook. The gold pops on the page, while the Omega sign adds a signature graphic component to the villain. The horns bring a satanic element that works in contrast with the bright coloring, and the asymmetry of the horns creates an unbalance that makes the character even more unnerving.
Avengers #2 doesn’t give Opeña the opportunity to show off his strengths with fight choreography, but it does highlight his ability to create nuanced, distinguishable characters who are engaging conversationalists. There are going to be four white guys with short blonde hair on this Avengers lineup, but Opeña is able to differentiate between Captain America, Hawkeye, Hyperion, and Cannonball by modifying their hair, nose, eyes, and jawlines. In an industry where most artists have a few stock face and body types, Opeña’s ability to give each character a distinct look and personality is remarkable.
Opeña’s work has the same epic scope as Hickman’s writing, and he’s found the perfect colorist in Dean White (with help from Justin Ponsor and Morry Hollowell this issue). Using white lines to add dimension to the artwork has become one of the defining characteristics of White’s work, allowing him to create different textures based on how light hits the figures in the environment. The result is beautifully atmospheric artwork that makes even the most mundane conversation a visual feast. Marvel couldn’t have picked a better art team to launch one of its biggest new titles, and even though Opeña will be taking a break after #3, with Hickman at the helm, Avengers is sure to remain one of the Marvel Now! standouts.