By Don Alsafi. Last September, in an effort to forestall declining sales, Marvel Comics unleashed its latest relaunch, named Marvel Legacy. For the most part, it failed to connect with readers, having intimated a back-to-basics approach, and yet in many ways seemed to be just business-as-usual. The inescapable sense was that the relaunch had been hastily pushed forth by sales and marketing, without the requisite lead time for the creators to truly reflect on what wasn’t working, and reconfigure the approach of Marvel’s previously best-selling titles.
But it’s never too late to course-correct. This week sees the debut of a new volume – and new team – of The Avengers. And, despite their missteps, Marvel is sometimes nothing short of stellar in their canny sense of timing. To wit: This weekend, countless potential new readers will be flocking to comic shops nationwide for Free Comic Book Day, many of them having just seen the latest Marvel blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War, on the silver screen.
Will this latest comic book depiction of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes connect with readers in the same way the last decade of Marvel films has won over its now-massive movie audience? Let’s take a look…
Written by Jason Aaron.
Pencils by Ed McGuinness.
Inks by Mark Morales.
Colors by David Curiel.
Letters by VC’s Cory Petit.
An all-new saga across time and space. Writer Jason Aaron has clearly become one of Marvel’s go-to writers. He’s been chronicling the adventures of Thor for the past five years (with no sign of letting up), and in 2015 successfully launched a new Doctor Strange series that re-established the title as a true must-read for possibly the first time since the 1970s.
Artist Ed McGuinness, meanwhile, has been illustrating comics since the late 1990s, initially coming to prominence when he launched the first Deadpool ongoing series with writer Joe Kelly. Since then he’s drawn most of the major icons, from Superman to the Hulk, to the Joker and Wolverine. Seeing him on The Avengers really does feel like coming home.
The comic begins with a prologue set in 1,000,000 BC, featuring the prehistoric Avengers analogue first glimpsed in last fall’s Marvel Legacy one-shot. Odin, Agamotto, Phoenix and the rest are preparing to go into battle with the first visitation of The Celestials – ancient, powerful, and vastly unknowable space gods, who roam the cosmos and pass judgment on the various worlds they come to. From there, the scene jumps to present-day Earth, where Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Thor Odinson are drinking in a neighborhood bar, debating whether or not they should re-start the Avengers. But all their arguments instantly become moot when gargantuan dead space gods start falling from the sky…
A measured approach. Interestingly enough, for all the cosmic events and world-shaking threats depicted within, the pace of the comic is surprisingly slower than one might expect. The 1,000,000 BC prologue starts this trend, which is furthered by the story’s subsequent checking-in with all the various heroes who – based on the cover – will soon be a part of this new team of Avengers. (Even when, as with She-Hulk, they’re not involved in anything particularly earth-shattering.) There’s a sense that Aaron is carefully setting up all his chess pieces at the outset, which is certainly a fine approach for the beginning of what looks to be an epic of mammoth proportions.
But that does require a certain amount of patience on the part of the readers, and faith in where the story will be going. Contrast this approach, for instance, with that employed by last year’s relaunch of Runaways, which reintroduced only two members of the team in its first issue – but as a result was able to focus on its deadly-serious inciting incident and the gripping reactions of its characters, choosing to only later introduce the other members of the team in subsequent issues.
This isn’t really a criticism, as this more deliberate beginning won’t detract in the slightest in its eventual graphic novel collection. In a 150-page story, the separate prelude and a slower-paced introduction of all eight main characters isn’t going to affect the reading experience all that much. It’s only in the single issue, with its 32 story pages, that the 7-page prologue seems to stand out for just how many pages the main story isn’t getting, and where the slower pacing loses out a little in its ability to completely grip the reader with a first issue that’s both emotionally engaging and action-packed.
A reemphasized focus on the characters we love. But let’s be honest: That’s really just a quibble about different (and wholly valid) storytelling approaches. It doesn’t distract from how very much this new volume of Avengers gets everything else right – and perhaps the first time it’s felt so in a long while! After the prehistoric prelude, the scene with the Big Three in the bar really shines in showing us Tony, Steve & Thor together again for the first time in years. The Odinson hasn’t been Thor for quite a while (following the events of 2014’s Original Sin); Steve Rogers was that weird Hydra Cap (in the leadup to, and during, Secret Empire); and Tony Stark was in a coma for the past year (following the end of Civil War II).
So it’s undeniably great to see these characters back on the scene once again, and relating to each other as the old friends and coworkers they’ve always been. But it’s also perhaps a commentary on the crossover events that took these heroes off the table for so long, and ended up overshadowing and occluding any new stories for the characters while they were gone. (Even if they are somewhat changed from these recent events; for instance, Thor not only has a golden hammer, but a golden arm too.)
Talented creators with love for what they do. It’s clear that the success of this book has everything to do with the care and skill of the creators involved, and their genuine affection for the characters within. Jason Aaron incontestably has the voices down, in a way which should absolutely resonate with moviegoers who might wander into comic shops this weekend for Free Comic Book Day. In fact, the only note that’s slightly off-key is that Thor sounds occasionally a bit too fish-out-of-water on Earth. (Which is the characterization of the MCU version, for sure, but feels strange when reading one of the founding Avengers from 1963 naively ask if he can pay their bar tab with rune stones.) But that’s a minor complaint; for a first issue re-establishing the presence of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Aaron gives readers a (long-absent) classic Marvel feel with the Big Three, as well as including more unusual team members like Doctor Strange and the Ghost Rider.
Ed McGuinness likewise acquits himself admirably, taking everything Aaron throws in his direction and rising to the challenge: from the opening depiction of the prehistoric Avengers; to the character-rich focus of three old friends getting a drink; to the varied subsequent settings like deep space, Los Angeles, and steaming caverns miles beneath the surface of the Earth. It takes a great deal of work, and no small amount of skill, to easily establish so many characters, and locations, and plot points, and threats, in the space of a single opening issue. McGuinness, inker Mark Morales, colorist David Curiel, and letterer Cory Petit not only accomplish this ambitious task, they excel at it.
A synthesis of old and new. The key to long-running superhero comics has often been said to be, in a quote usually attributed to Stan Lee, not change so much as the illusion of change. On the one hand, the readership of these long-running dramas want to be surprised, and see their heroes go through ordeals they perhaps haven’t seen before. On the other hand, though, there’s a reason that these icons have stayed as relevant, and consistently compelling, as they have for five decades and more.
The past several years significantly ramped up the changes we saw in these heroes, and gave us not only such memorable sagas as Jane Foster’s tenure as Thor, but also the unprecedented foregrounding of numerous new or notably elevated heroes such as Moon Girl and the Black Panther. The only misstep came in perhaps reconfiguring too many of these icons all at once so that, despite the refreshing changes brought about, the Marvel Universe no longer felt entirely recognizable.
With this new volume of The Avengers, Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness (et al.) have accomplished nothing less than a fusion of classic Marvel and a modern, more inclusive approach. Even though this comic is just the beginning of this newest iteration’s origin story, there’s no doubt by issue’s end that this is once again the flagship team of the Marvel Universe. It’s the beginning of something new and exciting, while at the same time familiar and warm.
As is ever the case, of course, the future remains to be written. But this first all-new outing of The Avengers represents a massive step forward – and that’s exactly what we want to see.
8.5 out of 10