Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week it’s New Avengers #17. Written by Jonathan Hickman (The Manhattan Projects, East Of West) with art by Rags Morales (Identity Crisis, Action Comics) and Frank Martin (Avengers, East Of West), this issue continues the book’s trend of reinterpreting DC Comics stories through a Marvel point of view by introducing a Justice League analog to serve as a future opponent for the Illuminati.
Every issue of New Avengers begins with a “Previously in…” page that recaps events with a comic-book page instead of a chunk of text (a format also used on Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers), but there’s something different on the first page of New Avengers #17. With a banner that reads “Previously In The Great Society,” this recap doesn’t show this book’s regular cast until the very last panel, instead spotlighting a group of six heroes that bares an awfully close resemblance to a certain superhero team at Marvel’s rival publisher. To illustrate The Great Society’s more traditional nature, the narration is written in bold Times New Roman to give it a more retro feel; the recap page does more than fill readers in on what came before, it sets a tone for the issue that is a heavy contrast to what this book has been in the past.
Boundless (The Flash), Dr. Spectrum (Green Lantern), Sun God (Superman), The Rider (Batman), The Jovian (Martian Manhunter), and The Norn (Dr. Fate) are six heroes on Earth-4,290,001, and they’ve just survived an attack from the Mapmakers. So what does that mean? The first thing to know is that the multiverse is dying. A current theme in the Marvel universe is that the systems that keep the various universes running are shutting down, primarily because of all the damage caused by Earthling superheroes messing with time and traveling to alternate dimensions and all that comic-book goodness.
Brian Michael Bendis has been handling the collapse of the timestream in books like All-New X-Men and Guardians Of The Galaxy, while Hickman details the breakdown of the barriers between dimensions in New Avengers, and he’s been using that central concept to riff on major DC storylines of the past 30 years, specifically the idea of the Crisis that effects multiple (infinite?) Earths. In every universe, Earth is the focal point of the deterioration, and the weakness of those dimensional borders has resulted in different Earths slipping into other realities in cataclysmic events called incursions. During an incursion, there are two options: Either both Earths die, or one Earth can be destroyed to end the incursion and save the other.
New Avengers is about the people who make that choice, a superhero horror comic about seven men who destroy worlds to protect their own. At its best, the series is a fascinating exploration of the personal cost of using power that can obliterate planets, but the issues following last summer’s Infinity crossover event meandered as Hickman spent time looking at how other Earths have dealt with incursions (they died) and delving into the backstory of the Black Priests, one of two multiversal threats that use incursions to pursue their own agenda. The book was becoming unfocused as it devoted too much attention to meaningless technobabble and the dense mythology of the Black Priests, but it’s experienced a huge upswing in quality by introducing The Great Society and casting the DC analogue as a foil to the Illuminati.
The most interesting thing about Hickman’s New Avengers is the way it offers a fresh take on stories that are very heavily reminiscent of former works at DC Comics. All this multiple Earth business immediately calls to mind Crisis On Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis, and the Illuminati mind-wiped Steve Rogers early in the series, a moment very similar to the Justice League’s mind-wipe of Batman in Identity Crisis. The Great Society is an overt homage to the DC universe, and the title of this two-part storyline, “A Perfect World,” comments on the idealism that is at the root of DC’s characters.
Heroes like Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern embody specific ideals in a way that makes them feel more like gods than humans, and the characters aren’t as complex as Marvel’s for that very reason. Superman represents the power and potential of the individual, Batman is the spirit of justice, Green Lantern imparts the importance of willpower in overcoming fear. Writers have worked to build up the humanity of these characters over the years, but these heroes have become broader in recent years thanks to the New 52 revamp, which eliminated years of history that brought substance to these figures.
No character in DC’s current stable has the rich history of someone like Peter Parker or Tony Stark or Reed Richards, characters that have gone through major life experiences that revealed new aspects of their personalities over the years. All of this business with the collapse of the timestream and the multiverse feels like it’s building up to a reboot of the Marvel universe once those systems are completely demolished, but hopefully it’s all just a fake-out to set up huge stakes for this storyline. If it feels like everything is legitimately about to fall apart, then it’s an even bigger relief when the characters pull through.
The threat of losing years of history that longtime readers have invested in, financially and emotionally, is a way of making them feel the weight of the stakes that the characters are dealing with: Readers don’t want this universe to end as much as the heroes don’t. It would be a shame for Marvel to erase all the work done by past creators to build this massive universe, especially when the publisher is in the middle of a creative renaissance. There are ways to make these characters accessible to a larger audience without completely undoing what came before, and while that might take extra work on the part of creators and editors, it’s worth putting in the effort if it means maintaining the roots of this universe.
Bringing on artist Rags Morales, formerly a DC-exclusive creator, to work on a Justice League-influenced storyline for his first major Marvel work is a brilliant editorial decision by Tom Brevoort and Wil Moss, and Morales’ artwork is a natural fit for the more grounded Marvel universe. The pairing of Morales with colorist Frank Martin elevates his artwork to another level, and Martin’s work in this issue reveals why he earned himself an Eisner nomination this year, adding texture to the artwork while amplifying the rhythm of the art by switching between warm and cool shades during The Great Society’s explosive opening action sequence.
Morales’ understanding of anatomy and body language gives his characters a legitimate sense of weight, and his skill with depicting a wide array of expressions on people that have different facial bone structure (a big element of design that goes ignored by many superhero artists) makes him an exceptional emotional storyteller. The Great Society storyline gives Morales the opportunity to showcase the action staging he sharpened on titles like Grant Morrison’s Action Comics, and it’s certainly beautiful, but the issue’s closing conversation between Namor and Black Panther is where Morales’ talent really shines. A lot of artists can deliver a thrilling action sequence, but not many can navigate the complicated subtext of a scene shared between two men who have cost each other their kingdoms, yet feel the need to reconcile as they face inevitable doom.
Namor is an invaluable part of this book’s cast, providing much-needed humor to balance the interdimensional drama. Usually it’s a crack about the absurdity of the situation the Illuminati has found itself in, but Namor’s major role in this week’s issue is lightening the mood by sharing the finest Atlantean wine with T’Challa and repairing their fractured relationship before the multiverse collapses. You know it’s the end of the world when Namor is putting his pride aside to seek absolution for his past sins, and the loss of his kingdom has resolved Namor to one of this book’s major themes: “Everything dies.”
The difference in Namor and T’Challa’s characters is immediately clear in their body language; Namor is very animated, while T’Challa stands stoically with his hands at his sides or crossed across the chest. Namor is trying to keep up his typical flamboyance as he start swigging wine and talking about goodness and nobility and mortality, but his energy drops once he confronts the harsh truth that he’s done some really horrible things to T’Challa and his people.
After Namor’s musings, T’Challa stares him down and says, “I suppose at least you can take comfort in the fact that you have no regrets,” and the next panel shows a silent close-up of Namor with his head down, eyes closed, brows furrowed, an expression that reveals Namor is more deeply affected by his actions than he would have the world believe. With his head still lowered in shame, Namor opens his eyes to meet T’Challa’s. “I regret…,” he begins, “…many things.” This admission and an offering of wine is the closest thing T’Challa is going to get to an apology, and he understands the weight of this moment and admits that he has his fair share of regrets as well.
In a Reddit AMA, Hickman announced that he’s slated to stay on the Avengers through May 2015, and all three of Hickman’s Avengers titles this week start to come together as his epic storyline enters its last year. Avengers World #5, which Hickman co-writes with Nick Spencer, introduces the team’s Aboriginal teleporter Manifold to the incursions, and continues to build up the threat level of A.I.M., which Hickman has set up as the evil counterpart to the Avengers over the course of his run. Avengers World has been a pleasant surprise, telling self-contained stories that focus on the supporting characters of Hickman’s sprawling Avengers line-up, and taking a very Justice League Unlimited approach that includes incorporating the animated series’ sense of humor and fun.
New Avengers #17 features a disclaimer that people should read Avengers #28 before this issue, which is an integral chapter of the Illuminati’s narrative that brings a new member into its ranks. The issue is essentially an extended conversation between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, who has learned about the collapse of the multiverse and has started to piece together Tony’s secret intentions for building his giant Avengers machine. It’s a wonderfully intense issue that shows off artist Salvador Larroca’s impressive ability to make talking heads engaging, and he should always be paired with colorists Frank Martin and Andres Mossa, who do fantastic work adding dimension to his linework while dictating shifts in the story’s tone.
The major event in Avengers #28 involves Tony Stark bringing Banner into the Illuminati, but there’s another intriguing development regarding the Mapmakers, the other big multiversal threat of Hickman’s New Avengers that The Great Society fights in this issue. Following Banner’s induction to the team, an epilogue shows a group of rogue A.I.M. Adaptoids, mechanical beings that have the ability to adapt to any given situation, continue their journey across the multiverse and make a surprising discovery when they find the Mapmakers and notice similarities in their make-up. The Mapmakers are evolved versions of the Adaptoids, a new wrinkle in their story that gives them a connection to Marvel continuity and also makes A.I.M. indirectly responsible for the devastation caused by their liberated creations.
All the separate threads in Hickman’s Avengers titles are beginning to converge, and his overall storyline is benefiting by revealing the connections that have been there since the start. (If anyone questions Hickman’s long-term planning, take a look at this plot breakdown from his Fantastic Four run.) His introduction to The Great Society in New Avengers has given the book new momentum as it sets up a brawl between the Justice League and eight of the Marvel universe’s strongest, smartest characters, and this unexpected development proves that Hickman still has plenty of surprises up his sleeve for the final year of his story.