‘The New Avengers’, by Jonathan Hickman and Steve Epting (Marvel Now) – Review by James Taylor, University of Warwick

New Avengers begins with a desire to build a brighter future. On Wakanda, the country that Black Panther rules over, a group of youths pass a series of trials that prove them the most intellectually and physically capable of their generation. Upon completion of these, Black Panther informs them that their next task is to travel to the stars and forge a new path for their society. Suddenly, there’s a disruption in the atmosphere, and as Black Panther steps through an invisible wall, represented as a gutter between two panels, he witnesses another earth looming in the sky, from which a group of strangers descend. This mysterious group, led by a woman named Black Swan, proceed to kill the Wakandan youths and destroy the second earth.

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After detaining Black Swan, Black Panther gathers the Illuminati, a secret and exclusive group of superheroes who have deemed it their duty to make tough decisions that ensure humanity’s survival. Upon investigation they discover that earths from parallel universes are being pulled towards each other, and upon collision the universes they belong to are destroyed. Black Swan’s destruction of the second earth was her way of ensuring that only one universe, rather than two, died. The Illuminati are left with a dilemma: the next time an earth threatens to collide with theirs do they destroy it, and the universe to which it belongs? What started with a desire to build a brighter future therefore soon becomes an exploration of whether the supposed heroes are willing to destroy the future of others to secure their own.

This is not a simple gateway into the Marvel Universe for new readers. Fans of Marvel’s films will recognise Iron Man, Captain America and Mr Fantastic, but will be less familiar with Black Panther, Black Bolt, Namor and Doctor Strange. Together, these seven form the Illuminati, and are later joined by Beast of X-Men fame. Furthermore, rather than have heroes assemble to perform unequivocally noble and inspirational deeds, here we have a secretive group of powerful men contemplating shameful actions. Hickman’s sister comic, simply titled Avengers, presents a more familiar dynamic where the Avengers from the recent film act as the team’s core and gather more heroes. The exclusive team and ominous tone of New Avengers therefore provides a striking counterpoint to the breadth and heroics of the team in Avengers. This contrast is conveyed by the covers for the first issue of each series. New Avengers shows its cast standing apart from each other, silhouetted against a murky red sky, while the team in Avengers marches forward together, a bright light beaming from behind illuminating their grandeur.

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However, both comics feature science fiction narratives of great magnitude, with the Illuminati facing destruction on a multiversal scale, and the public team engaging in intergalactic battles. At the time of writing this review the first four issues of New Avengers have been released, and each one builds on the multidimensional concepts that are central to the story.

The complexity of the storyline is multiplied by elliptical narrative devices. Initially, Black Swan seems to speak in riddles, but when her dialogue is repeated later it gains new meanings. The repetition of dialogue, panels and whole pages becomes a key feature, these elements acting like threads of a tapestry. Each time they recur a larger, clearer picture is woven. However, this occurs throughout the whole series, meaning that the relevance of a panel in one issue may not be properly understood until a subsequent issue, when it reappears in a more fitting context. For example, the first issue opens with a page on which Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic) seemingly stares out of the fourth wall, morosely telling the reader about the inevitable death of all things. Surrounded only by darkness and shrouded in shadow, any sense of location is absent and all that is left is Richards and the reader.

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It is only in the second issue, when the page is repeated, that a diegetic context is provided. Here the proceeding page gives us a perspective from behind Richards, revealing that his is addressing the Illuminati. He continues by asserting that he will not tolerate the end of all life being accelerated through unnatural means. What initially seemed to be a solemn acceptance of impending death therefore becomes a call to arms to prevent the universe’s destruction.

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The fact you have to wait between issues for this context means that single issues of New Avengers may provide more loose ends and riddles than clear narrative developments. From following some of Hickman’s other work, I’ve come to revel in his sophisticated, if initially confusing, structures. There’s much satisfaction to be found in anticipating how contextually marooned panels and sequences will later slot into the story, and generally your patience will be rewarded as the intricate narrative weaves together. It also gives the comics great re-readability, as often reading a new issue will make you return to those that came previously to see where it fills in the gaps.

The comic is not designed to be wholly confounding though, and when required the storytelling can be impeccably clear and concise. The best example of this occurs when Richards explains the nature of the multiverse, and how the death of one universe triggers that of others. This vital piece of exposition takes advantage of a tool available to sequential storytelling that is rarely utilised in mainstream comic books; diagrams. Cleanly defined circles representing the birth and death of earths and universes, with lines connecting them indicating the timespan between these points, are presented alongside Richards’ dialogue. The panels these appear in are evenly shaped and their interiors mapped by gridlines. All of this provides a geometrically precise symbolic representation of a relatively complex concept, making it simple to understand.

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While conveying the problem they face, these diagrams also reflect how Richards’ thoughts are reasoned through logic. For example, his statement regarding the death of all things is not pessimism, but an acknowledgment of scientific certainty. The only concession to emotion is the fact that his opinion regarding the lengths to which they should go to protect their universe is motivated by love for his family.

However, familial relations, and the characters’ ties to anybody outside of the Illuminati, are rarely depicted. We are primarily shown the tense interactions between the Illuminati, with Epting’s art imbuing their facial expressions with pronounced definition, while a sense of claustrophobia is conveyed in the deep shadows that envelop them. It is often through disagreements that their characterisations are marked out. Black Panther becomes a central voice after initially calling together the Illuminati, whose very existence he once scorned. The fact he abides working alongside Namor, after Namor’s recent assault on Wakanda in Avengers vs. X-Men, reveals his newfound desperation to protect what remains of his civilisation.

While Namor is yet to play as central a role as Richards or Black Panther, he frequently obnoxiously mocks the other characters’ attempts to maintain a sense of morality. To assert himself as the most self-assured among this group of alpha males he laughs in the face of death.

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The frosty relations between the central characters provide a platform on which moral issues can be debated. The key question here is whether anything ever warrants the building of a WMD, let alone if a small governing body should have to power to make this decision. This resonates in Richards’ statement that if all else fails, they will need to learn how to destroy a world, a direct allusion to Robert Oppenheimer quoting from Hindu scripture as he reflected on the creation of the atomic bomb: “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.

The discomforting implications of this group of men self-electing themselves as secret rulers of the world are potently conveyed by the fact that they keep the only recurring female character, Black Swan, imprisoned. The conditions of her incarceration, contained in a transparent cell that is constantly monitored by security cameras, are notably inhumane. I don’t think that this is the comic itself being misogynistic. Rather, it reinforces how the Illuminati aren’t an admirable team, but an unsettling representation of the kind of discriminatory, backroom politics to which those aspiring to, or seeking to retain, power often resort.

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Many may argue that while comics exploring the ethics of superhumans granting themselves authority over society were mature and exciting in the eighties, this has now been overdone, and grown middle-aged and tiresome. However, I feel that when presented in such a structurally assured comic as New Avengers, and entwined with its array of finely tuned science fiction ideas, this approach can still seem fresh. New Avengers’ deployment of an array of tools available to sequential storytelling, and plotting that takes advantage of serialised form to entice readers, make it a smart and rewarding read. As such, I think it’s perfectly possible to dislike all the characters but enjoy the comic. However, as the characters wrestle with the dilemmas they face, they might yet redeem themselves. One quibble is that the dialogue can seem cold and detached, although this is mostly justified by the emphasis on scientific reasoning. The odd witty quip from Iron Man can momentarily lighten the mood, while Namor’s pigheadedness spices up the dynamic, but as the series progresses I hope to see more nuanced relations develop between the characters.

Whether New Avengers will continue to focus solely on the Illuminati remains to be seen, and original characters will need to be introduced at some point if the prefix ‘New’ is anything other than arbitrary. Hickman and Epting have made a strong start though, challenging their small cast with gigantic threats and dilemmas. If things continue at this rate, the Illuminati’s problems are only just beginning.

ABOUT

James Taylor is in the first year of his PhD at the University of Warwick’s Film and Television department. His doctoral thesis studies the adaptation of the superhero genre from comic book to film. Other academic interests include comic studies, media convergence and science fiction cinema/TV.