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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: New Avengers #5

Over at Marvel, the word on everyone's lips seems to be "Avengers."  Not only was the film based on the comic property a huge hit, but Marvel has launched quite a few Avengers titles in the wake of the Marvel NOW Initiative:  Avengers, Young Avengers, New Avengers, and Secret Avengers were rebooted; Avengers Arena (formerly Avengers Academy); and the upcoming Avengers A.I.  Yes, it would seem the good old folks at Marvel are doing just about anything they can to capitalize on the resurgence of interest in the Avengers.  Many were distressed that the titles rebooted for Marvel NOW were barely able to get started (the main book had less than 40 issues under its belt), causing fans like this reviewer to completely give up on Avengers books altogether.  Then along came New Avengers...the book which, thus far, has been easily one of the best Marvel books currently being published.  So how does the latest issue stack up to the first four?  Read on to find out!

In this issue of New Avengers, Reed Richards continues to plead for help from the Black Swan to save Earth from being destroyed by an alternate Earth (it makes a lot more sense if you're reading the book).  After doing battle with the servant of the Galactus of that world, Terrax, the team holds him hostage as well for potential answers.  Black Swan has answers for the Avengers, but their options may not be suitable to their liking...and they may not have much time to try anything else.

There are two things which made New Avengers an attractive read when it was announced: 1. The team; 2. The writer.  This team of Avengers is made up of a group in the Marvel Universe known as the Illuminati: Iron Man, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange, Namor, Beast, Reed Richards, and Black Panther.  When originally formed, the Illuminati was meant to be a secret group of the greatest minds in the Marvel U to make the major, world-changing decisions for the rest of the world.  Despite being met with many a challenge, and basically falling apart about two years ago when their existence was discovered by the Avengers, the Illuminati has come back together for this book to deal with the threats that the rest of the superhero community just would not be able to handle.  Perhaps it is because such an idea requires a staggering amount of arrogance (which most of the members of this team willingly provide), or maybe it is just the fact that each of these characters are awesome in their own right, but the concept has worked particularly well thus far for the comic.  The other reason this book is such an attractive read would be the writing of Jonathan Hickman who has a great eye for narrative and is able to craft expansive tales which may not fully see their conclusion for 10-30 issues.

If you are looking for an Avengers book which comes with the type of superhero action seen in the movie, you may be disappointed with New Avengers.  There is very little action in this issue, but it does not really cause the story to be too bogged down in exposition; everything flows quite nicely.  Despite the previous issue ending with the promise of a giant fight scene between the Illuminati and Terrax, the fighting is reduced to a flashback in this issue that takes up only five pages.  This is an interesting move on Hickman's part, as it almost seems to be a clear avoidance of traditional superhero fair in favor of a more enlightened story, which actually blends quite perfectly when one considers the members of this team.  Even though the action in this issue is quite brief, it is so well done.  There is absolutely no dialogue on those pages, with Hickman opting instead for artist Steve Epting to display how the Illuminati were able to defeat Terrax.  Such a move makes for some beautiful artwork that is very easy to follow and is still a satisfying sequence despite its minor role in the overall story.

As this issue features very little action, the pace of the story is left to the dialogue, with much of that dialogue coming from Black Swan.  While there is quite a bit of exposition within this issue, none of it feels like too much, or ever an over-explanation of what is going on.  Instead, the very tense characterization of all of these characters makes for a plot where the pivotal decision to be made by the Illuminati is a heavy burden to bare.  Since this is an Avengers book, having to make huge decisions which could potentially destroy the Earth is nothing new, but somehow Hickman is able to make the situation this team faces feel quite massive.  Perhaps it is that the Illuminati, by their very name, is meant to be a secret organization, so the stakes are inevitably raised if this group does not do everything it can to save the world.  Call it desperation, but it is quite fascinating to see the lengths to which the Illuminati are willing to go to accomplish their task.  The questionable motives on the part of this Avengers team are something which could potentially come back to bite them in a big way, and it will be interesting to see if this takes place.

While Jonathan Hickman certainly has a great sense of narrative, it has been a complaint lodged before that he does not really do a good job of developing characters.  This is perhaps a fair point.  Throughout this entire issue of New Avengers, only one character really receives any development: Black Swan.  Black Swan has been a rather mysterious character thus far in the series, with not much really being known about her.  Any lingering questions about her motivations are somewhat answered this time around as she tells the Illuminati about her horrible past that has lead her to becoming the being she is today.  It is an interesting enough story, but one does not really empathize with Black Swan in any way as the situation at hand is much more entertaining.  What really makes Black Swan such a great character is the fact that she is able to stand face-to-face with the likes of Reed Richards and Tony Stark, and have their intelligence be dwarfed by her own.  On this front, Hickman does an excellent job of making her a bit of a snarky character and that makes her a lot more intriguing than any run of the mill origin story.

Though they may not be billed as such, it would seem that perhaps Avengers and New Avengers are meant to be sister books.  If this is the case, it would not seem that there is much being done to make this clear as it is a bit confusing as to when, exactly, New Avengers is taking place.  The comic is obviously a bit of a prequel to what is currently going on in many of the Marvel NOW titles as Iron Man is still sporting the black and gold armor (something not worn since the first issue of his own series) and Reed Richards is on the team (he is currently time traveling with his family in Fantastic Four).  While the two books may not clearly match up in terms of setting at the moment, the two are clearly sister books.  Jonathan Hickman has taken on writing duties for both books since their launch, and he seems to be setting them up to be two very different takes on superhero fair.  Avengers is the book for those who are fans of big, fun superhero action with a roster of about 30 members, while New Avengers is the more methodical, intellectual book.  Both have their merits, but it will be quite fun to see these two books collide at some point.  This is comics after all, so do not be surprised if some sort of crossover were to take place in the near distant future.  If you were to only pick up one of these books, however, New Avengers would be the obvious choice.

One reason New Avengers trumps its sister is in the art of Steve Epting.  Epting does a beautiful job on this book, with his shadowy art seemingly destined for the words of Hickman.  In the aforementioned action scene, Epting does a beautiful job of portraying the struggle between the Avengers and Terrax.  This scene ends with a completely badass move by Black Bolt that is drawn excellently.  At the moment, there are a lot of blacks and reds in this book, with most of the art having very little color and a lot of shadow.  It will be interesting to see if Hickman's story in the comic continues to be best suited to the artistic qualities of Epting.  For the moment, though, Epting's art and Hickman's writing are as Forrest Gump put it: "like peas and carrots."

Overall, this is yet another solid issue for New Avengers.  The sheer amount of exposition in this issue may be a bit much for some readers, but the comic has a very steady pace.  Even when there is nothing going on, the well-written characters of this book still make it a worthwhile read.  Hickman is known for crafting stories that can be a bit drawn out, so it will be interesting to see how his inaugural arc on New Avengers continues.  If the cliffhanger at the end of this issue is any indication, the only direction this comic can go is up.

Rating: A

Summary: New Avengers #5 avoids becoming a traditional superhero book by skipping the action and going straight into the dialogue, a move that benefits the more intellectual nature of the title.  Great writing coupled with excellent artwork help to make this book an Avengers title worth keeping on your pull list.
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