Marvel Ends Its 18-Year Brian Michael Bender (Sorry)

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Marvel Comics is waking up today, hungover after an 18-year Brian Michael Bender (sorry, couldn’t help it). Just imagine, there Marvel is in NYC, blinds drawn and AC up, shaking off cobwebs and trying to piece together the fog. It started innocently enough, a few rounds of a modern take on Spider-Man, then there was a Daredevil run everyone seemed to love, chased by Jessica Jones in Alias (which brought the Bender to a sloppy place in a good way), and, finally, shots of Avengers, X-Men, and Guardians of the Galaxy, plus an Iron Man nightcap.

Now, here we are.

Okay, Bender gimmick over. Thanks for indulging me. Anyway, Brian Michael Bendis’ 18-year tenure as a Marvel-exclusive writer ended Wednesday with Invincible Iron Man #600. For comic fans, it’s not that sad, mostly because next week Bendis will be back with Man of Steel #1 for DC. But for Marvel, the publisher loses a defining voice, a writer who co-created some of its best new characters in years (Miles Morales, Jessica Jones), who enticed talented friends to work there (Jonathan Hickman, Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, plus artists), and whose contributions to movies and TV are evident to anyone deeply-versed in his work.

Yes, Bendis is gone and Marvel has a new reality. Online there has been a bit of negative chatter (shocker!), with some folks saying Bendis will wreck Superman while others insist Marvel has lost all its big talent. I’m a perpetual optimist, admittedly, but I don’t think either of those things are true and here’s why.

My official take is that in a deadline-driven business like corporate superhero comics, it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day, to only see right in front of your cursor, to lose the creative joy central to storytelling. I’ve spent the past decade writing for three media companies, producing content for newspapers, websites, magazines. Believe me, I know.

Was Bendis burned out at Marvel? He’s a consummate pro and would never say, but all parties seem to realize that Civil War II (2016), which he helmed, was a bit of a dud, and some of his mid-tenure runs at Marvel—X-Men and Guardians—aren’t cited by many as favorites. To my outside eyes, it looked like Bendis over-extended himself in late 2015 and well into 2016, trying to fill the MASSIVE gap left by Jonathan Hickman. Then in the wake of criticism, he stepped his game up and put out some brief-but-excellent work for the publisher, including Infamous Iron Man, The Defenders, and another go around on Jessica Jones.

 Brian Michael Bendis

Brian Michael Bendis

Then there’s Marvel. Was it leaning on Bendis? Knowing full-well sales of his books would probably always be stable? Was having ol’ Bendis a crutch? Maybe so. But that said, Bendis departure comes amid a wave of similar exits, including Fraction, DeConnick, Rick Remender, Jonathan Hickman, Kieron Gillen (almost), and Jeff Lemire (almost again). This has all forced Marvel to elevate newer writers perhaps faster than it otherwise would have.

To that end, the whole bye-bye Bendis business has resulted in a spike in creativity, like for example when Donny Cates got Thanos just before Infinity War and told one of my all-time favorite stories with the character, Thanos Wins. It’s led to Kelly Thompson’s relationship-defining mini-series Rogue and Gambit, and to Matthew Rosenberg writing Phoenix Resurrection, firmly in the top tier of X-Men stories of recent years. Oh, and Tom Taylor has turned X-Men: Red into the best mutant book I can remember.  

Going back to the goofy bender metaphor from my lede, it’s a bit like a newly-sober drunk making major life changes because they skimmed rock bottom.

And there’s a lot to like at Marvel now. Here’s a quick rundown of five writers at Marvel I’m looking forward to reading (alphabetically):

  1. Dan Slott on Fantastic Four: I know, Slott is polarizing and (I’ve been told) had some poor moments on social media, but his take on Silver Surfer with Mike Allred is among my all-time favorite superhero stories. I hope he brings the same deeply-personal sensibilities to the first family.

  2. All Things Donny Cates: I loved what Donny Cates did with both Thanos and Doctor Strange, and the new books on his docket look great too, especially the Cosmic Ghost Rider, which grew from Thanos Wins.

  3. More Jason Aaron: Jason Aaron’s Thor run is now Marvel’s best uninterrupted take on any character, and Marvel has now given Aaron the keys to its biggest franchise, The Avengers. More about why I like that here.

  4. Kelly Thompson on West Coast Avengers: I live in California (Sacramento, the most underrated city in that state), and I know the sensibilities here well. The aesthetic of this book and the team lineup is right in line with them, somewhere between madcap fun and social responsibility. Her voice is also perfect. So, big expectations for her here.

  5. Ta-Nehisi Coates on Captain America: This seems like a critical and commercial home run. I’ve had comics out when non-comic guests come over, and Coates' Black Panther is the only one that’s sparked conversation. His name alone is huge. Also, given current social and political climates in the country, Coates as a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction writer should have a relevant and important take on a character long functioning as an analog for the nation, its values, or both.

In terms of Bendis’ future, look—I’ve been reading Bendis’ work since I was 15 and Ultimate Spider-Man #1 hit my local shop with a take on the character I was desperate for then...a modern take that reflected my world. As I went to college, got a job, and met my wife, I kept up with this title throughout, watching Bendis grow as a writer, too. Spider-Man #240 was emotional for me, but the sting was short-lived because I’m following Bendis to his new publisher.

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He’s written two teasers for Superman so far, which put together total roughly one issue. I liked the fight scene in Action Comics #1000. It had a modern yet classic feel to it, as his best Ultimate Spider-Man work did. I was lukewarm on his depiction of the Daily Planet. My wife and I work in print media (I know, scary), and his newsroom was anachronistic, which took me out of the story. It’s nit picky, and your mileage may vary. There’s also been clamoring online for him to clarify what his plans for Lois Lane (one of my favorite characters in comics). He seems to be dancing around clarifying a narrative twist in interviews. So, here’s hoping months from now we hardly remember this concern.

Overall, I’m bullish on Bendis at DC. I expect the new universe to challenge and rejuvenate him. He may not convert his harshest critics, but I think fans who keep an open mind will find much to appreciate, although isn’t that always the case with comics?

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

ADVANCED REVIEW: Harbinger Wars 2 #1 by Matt Kindt, Tomas Giorello, & Diego Rodriguez

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I’ve always thought of Harbinger as Valiant’s answer to X-Men, which is, admittedly, a fairly obvious comparison to draw. Harbinger Wars 2 #1, however, was actually a really nice reminder that this franchise’s significantly more under-the-radar status allows it a degree of agility the now-hulking X-Men behemoth no longer has, and it uses that degree expertly in this issue to play upon current societal woes and concerns. Essentially, the first part of this summer’s Harbinger Wars 2 event is a poignant and engaging story, involving nearly all of Valiant’s best characters (where’s the Eternal Warrior at these days, btw?).

As it should. The Harbinger concept to me is the center of Valiant’s universe (or was until Divinity showed up, anyway), and this event is poised to treat it as such. It’s yet another tale of superheros turning against each, and as common as that has become these days, doing it convincingly is still tricky business. Without giving anything away, I’ll say this book handles it better than most in recent memory, rich as it with solid and believable motivations for the involved heroes to take their respective sides. The action of the shadowy government types here are a little harder to fathom, as they almost always are, but I digress.

But let’s keep it abstract, seeing as this is an advanced review (this book drops May 30) and I don’t go in for spoilers. Let’s get away from details and talk about the commentary. In a sense, the themes in Matt Kindt’s script are nothing we haven’t seen done or attempted by X-Men several times over the years: an outcast population, children on the run because of who they are, a government acting out of fear, a debate over what constitutes proper methods of resistance.

Kindt, however, is an incredibly nuanced writer who doesn’t need to hit us over the end with any of that to make this story compelling. He puts all those questions and themes in here seemingly as a mechanism for understanding the reasons our characters have for fighting, then he gives them all plans that start to pull them together. Each page pulls our opposed characters closer, revealing more about their motivations as it does so and setting the stage for a massive rumble to come.

There’s a cinematic quality to this story, in both its structure and scope, as well as in the way characters from various Valiant franchises are introduced, presented in big splashy panels as if they were leaving room for an applause break. Tomas Giorello hits the artwork here out of the park, as he has during previous collaborations with Kindt in Valiant’s best ongoing right now, XO Manowar.

Overall: Come for the incredibly tense and entertaining story, stay for the subtle commentary on our times—exactly as a book about outcasts persecuted by vast governmental power structures should be. This issue is all rising action, bringing in power players and stopping just short of slamming together. I can’t wait for No. 2. 9.3/10

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

Dark Horse Comics’ Black Hammer and Ether: Two Beautiful Stories of Sacrifice

 From  Ether  by Matt Kindt and David Rubin.

From Ether by Matt Kindt and David Rubin.

I recently read one of the best graphic stories to come my way in some time: Ether Vol. 1 by writer Matt Kindt and artist David Rubin. It was about a man who discovers a scientific realm beyond our own, seemingly inhabited by humanity’s notions of mythology. It is a land of living beings, all of whom firmly believe in magic. Our protagonist begins to visit the land and use his knowledge of science to debunk those beliefs and solve crimes there.

This land of mythology is so beautifully-rendered by Rubin. Many panels in this story could stand on their own as independent works of art. Ether, however, is not unique in this way, as many comics these days have a similarly-striking and imaginative visual quality (this is to take nothing away from Ether). Where Ether really stands apart is through the emotional depth Rubin and Kindt aspire to with its story.

That magical land—known to our characters as the titular Ether—moves through time differently, with months in the real world passing for every minute one spends there. When our protagonist first discovers it and begins to visit, he is happily married with a young family. Each of his visits, however, progresses the lives of his wife and daughters by several years past his own. He becomes addicted, their lives slip away from him—heartbreak.

I read this as a metaphor for the plight of anyone who is similarly driven, and as Kindt and Rubin are artists, I presume this metaphor was drawn through their own time lost at the keyboard or the drawing table, travelling through imaginative worlds grown from their own ideas as their families went on without them. As a writer myself, this gave the book—which stands on its own wonderfully as an engaging story rife with heroes and villains and mystery—a haunting undertow as I read, bringing me to tears somewhere during the fourth chapter.

That metaphor, while gorgeous, is not what this piece is about. I assume I’m far from the only one to pick up on it, as critically lauded as Ether has been in comics circles. What I want to unpack today is how another successful Dark Horse Comics property—Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, and Dave Stewart—could be looked at as a companion piece to Ether, another side of the same artistic sacrifice coin.

  Black Hammer  by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, and Dave Stewart. 

Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, and Dave Stewart. 

Whereas Ether examines the loss of one’s family as a price for spending life engrossed in work, Black Hammer depicts a different sort of creative sacrifice, one that has to do with being lost in the mystique of a craft, a professional culture, a niche artistic medium driven by nostalgia. Black Hammer is the story of a group of superheroes, all of whom are analogs for various characters from the Silver Age of comics. These heroes face down a global threat and find themselves confined to a mysterious farm for their troubles, lost to the world they were defending and stuck in a small rural area that doesn’t seem to be on any map.

It is, quite clearly, a paean by Lemire, Ormston, and Stewart to superhero comics, which all of them have spent parts of their careers within. It’s more than just a reimagining of a classic superhero mythos. See, there is sinister business afoot in Black Hammer, a mournfulness to the plight of the heroes on that farm, only one of whom seems satisfied with life there (and even then, who's to say he’s not deluding himself?).

Read a certain way it almost seems like the question underlying Black Hammer is what do we give up when we fall so fully into our nostalgia for superhero comics, how much of a risk are we at of being swallowed whole by it? It’s a poignant question in an era when vicious battles are waged online about the future of many pop culture properties, battles in which nostalgia is often held as a causation. I can only suppose the question is more poignant for the creators, whose lives work is being given over in part to these characters.

Lemire’s work is always somewhat obtuse in origin, difficult to figure out thematically (in the best possible way), but let's think about the timeline during which he may have conceptualized Black Hammer, which was in all probability near the tail end of his time writing exclusively for Marvel. When Marvel’s All New All Different initiative launched, Lemire was one of the central writers, taking on some of the publisher’s most prominent characters, including one of the central X-Men team books, Old Man Logan, and All New Hawkeye, which was a followup to the immensely successful run on that character by David Aja and Matt Fraction.

Throughout 2016, however, Lemire slowly began drifting off those titles, reducing his Big 2 superhero output to a mere two books today, one of which is yet to be released. It’s not a stretch, in my opinion, to suppose Black Hammer was a manifestation of Lemire feeling creatively trapped, a sense that maybe he was drawn into this work by nostalgia and had professionally been stuck on a farm. I’m not saying I know any of this to be a fact, but I think there’s a case to be made.

I’ll conclude by saying I find both Black Hammer and Ether to be among the most intriguing titles coming to comic book stores each month, and I find important questions for us all within them, specifically: what must aspiring creators be willing to sacrifice for our crafts?; and is there danger or risk of stagnation that could kneecap our futures buried within the warm fuzzy feelings of nostalgia?

I really doubt either book will provide clear or concrete answers for such tough questions—great art is rarely so neat—but I trust there will continue to be a beautiful journey in the asking.

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

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REVIEW: Crude #2 by Steve Orlando, Garry Brown, & Lee Loughridge

Crude No. 2 by Steve Orlando, Garry Brown, and Lee Loughridge is a rare second issue that builds expertly on its predecessor while also standing alone as a rewarding read. On the surface, this issue is the story of a turf war between a dominant oil company in a far-flung industrial Russian city and an upstart rival, with an old man who has a history of violence  interjecting himself into the fray.

I’m not doing the plot justice (read this book for yourself—I strongly recommend it), but it’s equal parts bleak and compelling, heavy on ethos and fast-paced, graphic storytelling. It's very good. When evaluated as a continuation of Crude No. 1, however, this issue becomes a deeper and more rewarding part of a larger narrative about a man solving a mystery, seeking revenge, and potentially atoning for his life's chief mistake.

One of the qualities to Orlando’s work that puts him among my favorite comic book writers (dating back to his excellent 2015 Midnighter) is how he refuses to dumb anything down for readers. There’s a promise I’ve found made by Orlando comics, something along the lines of If you work to immerse yourself in this story, to really focus and engage with what I’m doing here, I will greatly reward you for your efforts.

And this new creator-owned book from Image Comics is his strongest work to date. In the first issue, Crude showed itself to be a story of juxtapositions of two lives, one of violence and another of domestic bliss, all within its first four pages: two of which showed our protagonist, Piotr, at breakfast with his family, and two of which showed him violently thrashing enemies.

One problem I see at times within modern comics is a somewhat gratuitous use of time jumps: Then. Now. Five Minutes Past Then. Next Thursday, etc., but Crude uses non-linear storytelling to great effect, thereby justifying every time jump. Crude is a story that must incorporate mistakes made through time—not so much the violence of Piotr’s past but rather his decision to keep it hidden from his son—and it uses juxtaposition to make those mistakes all the more powerful. The non-linear time elements in this book are, in other words, essential.

 There two panels, which appear in both  Crude #1  and  #2 , are at the crux of its story.

There two panels, which appear in both Crude #1 and #2, are at the crux of its story.

Crude's artwork also bears mention. The nature of our plot is such that there’s a significant amount of interiority. It’s basically a story of a man grappling with regret, which is a difficult conflict to convey in comics, but Brown and Loughridge’s art does an incredibly effective job working in tandem with Orlando’s scripting. In issue No. 1, when Piotr first sees the body of his son, the book excels at showing rather than telling, deploying panels that alternate between the body and the man’s reaction as he hears earlier dialogue echo in his mind, asking “this your son?” and we realize he’s weeping not only for his loss but because his own life of secrets prevented him from ever truly knowing his only boy. Powerful stuff.

Overall: Crude No. 2 introduces a framework for the challenges and mystery our protagonist must fight to overcome, and it does so in a suspenseful way that doesn’t sacrifice any of the interiority that made No. 1 so compelling. Orlando, Brown, and Loughridge are really building something special here, something that feels powerful as well as painstakingly deliberate. 9.3/10

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

Batman's Booster Gold Arc: The Good, The Bad, & The Sanctuary

 Booster Gold in happier times.

Booster Gold in happier times.

Let me just start by saying Tom King is one of my favorite writers in comics. I bought all the single issues plus also hardcover copies of both The Vision and Sheriff of Babylon, and I’d do the same for Omega Men if a hardcover was available. I’ve loved this Batman run overall (Kite Man!), and King’s Mister Miracle maxi-series has gotten a ton of ink (or whatever the digital equivalent is) on this very site. I love Tom King’s work, which is part of why I feel obligated to apply a critical lens to his latest arc in Batman, “The Gift,” which centered on Booster Gold.

In The Gift, Booster and his flying Palm Pilot/best friend Skeet go back in time to prevent the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, trying to create evidence of how awful the world would be without Batman in order to present it to Bruce as a gift for his wedding. I’ve got plenty of nit-picks with this concept—was Booster just going to film it and give Bats a video clip? did he plan on later going back to ensure the murder happened? what about Selina? wedding gifts are supposed to be for both the bride AND groom—but this is comics, and we could nitpick everything all day and still not run out of nits to pick, etc.

My central issue with The Gift is the characterization of Booster Gold. In The Gift, Booster is reckless and—to be blunt—kind of dumb. Even when the world has gone to ash around him and he’s got multiple deaths on his conscience, he’s wisecracking about how he should have just gone with a cheese tray, written closer to Deadpool or Harley Quinn than the character we’ve seen in the past. It’s a far cry from the bleak but tragicomic genius we’ve seen in books like The Vision or Mister Miracle.

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To me, Booster Gold has always been a tragic hero, though, one who is undone more by cutting corners, hubris, and bad luck than his own wanton stupidity. Born in the future as Michael Jon Carter, he was a star quarterback who got caught betting on his own games (at the behest of his lousy and I think also alcoholic father). So, he stole a bunch of super advanced tech and fled to the past, where he re-branded himself as a superhero and used his knowledge of other heroes there to his advantage. Also, he wanted to regain his lost fame, riches and fortune.

None of that is all that stupid. Narcissistic and selfish, perhaps, but also clever and calculating. As a result Booster is often depicted with a mix of daddy issues and imposter syndrome, which making him highly relate-able. A hallmark of his character over the years has also become his respect for the delicacy of the timeline, something that was even depicted well in the last 18 months or so in an Action Comics arc written by Dan Jurgens (the greatest Superman writer of our generation), in which Booster essentially stands up to Superman, who’s trying to save his own parents. It just isn't consistent that a Booster who recently went through that would then turn around and initiate the same idea as a wedding gift for Batman, even if he did intend to undo it.

My first inclination was to chalk this up to rushed writing, to King trying to spin the wheels on Batman for a few issues and bridge the way to No. 50. The more I contemplate this, however, the less I think that was the case. The end of The Gift leaves Booster a broken man, one vigorously cleaning a nigh-invisible splotch of blood left on his golden visor, which is hardly an ending at all. King, however, has shown himself to be expertly adept at ending arcs and story threads with the best in the business, and here there's almost no closure. King leaves us disturbed and a little perplexed, an odd note for a writer who has consistently tugged on reader emotions with subtle and savvy bits of narrative genius.

What I think is far more likely is that this is the start of a King story rather than the end of one. Now, this idea that The Gift is a seed for a larger Booster Gold arc rather than a simple guest spot in Batman isn’t all that original, not at this point. Outlets from Bleeding Cool to CBR have posited much the same, presenting more than enough evidence from King’s Twitter feed to back up their hypothesis. The standard line of thinking has quickly become that Booster Gold will be headed for King’s next concept, a PTSD clinic for superheros dubbed Sanctuary, and I’m on board with that. I certainly trust King—a man who has been to actual war—to tell that story and to tell it well.

What I would caution as a reader, however, is that there is a danger in making nuanced characters a blank slate defined by recent pain and suffering. As we saw in The Gift, it leaves entire plot points open to feeling contrived and insincere. One of the things that worked so well within DC's Rebirth was a strong emphasis on the core concepts of characters. To throw that away—even for an idea as strong as Sanctuary—seems like folly. And really, for an in-continuity, shared universe story like this one, it’s probably on the editor to enforce character growth and consistency from Action Comics to Batman to whatever comes next, etc.

 One of the best Batman variant covers in recent memory.

One of the best Batman variant covers in recent memory.

But hey, enough with the negativity! King's scripts have a high bottom line for quality, and the artwork by Tony S. Daniel and Sandu Florea was great. Overall, King’s batting average is still really high on Batman, a book for which he must produce two scripts a month, no easy task for any writer, and I for one firmly believe that this wedding is going to be fantastic. I recently re-read Batman Annual No. 2, and it's still one of the best Batman stories in years, as well as one of the best Bat-Cat stories period. The Batman/Elmer Fudd Special is also a modern pop art classic, wonderfully-bizarre in conception and pitch perfect in execution, just downright great comic book-ing. Basically, for every Booster Gold fumble, there is an equal or greater Kite Man. King is also pretty busy right now—planning a wedding is never easy.

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

REVIEW: Bloodshot Salvation #9 by Jeff Lemire, Ray Fawkes, & Renato Guedes

Under the guidance of writer Jeff Lemire, Valiant’s Bloodshot franchise has grown in recent years from being a revival of another ‘90s heroes who carries big guns (plus also maybe a sword) and can heal from gruesome wounds, into a walking metaphor for the human toll of the military industrial complex. In Lemire's stories, our man Bloodshot has looked for love, found it, and become a dad—only to be dragged back into war and violence.

Lemire’s characterization of the principal Bloodshot—Ray Garrison—is top-tier, just like Lemire’s characterization in most books, but where his work on Bloodshot has really excelled has been in telling the story of the Bloodshot technology over time, bringing in past Bloodshots as metaphors for the military industrial complexes in bygone eras, including Vietnam and World War II. This issue focuses on another recent addition to Bloodshot’s supporting cast, his faithful dog Bloodhound, who we learn here is a veteran of WWI.

It’s a solid issue of Bloodshot, to be sure, and it’s the type of story Lemire, joined on writing duties here by Ray Fawkes, does well: one that fleshes out characters and is so entertaining that readers can forgive a one-month break from our plot (see his work on Descender for more great examples of this). The end result is an issue that both adds to the larger Bloodshot mythos but could also work as a poignant standalone for first-time Bloodshot readers.

All of that is a credit to the plot, which subverts expectations in terms of the roles the two main characters in the narrative seem poised to play at its start. The groundwork is laid for the sensitive doctor, who is seeing his first battle, to be our heart, our humanitarian, our entry point into a violent and savage world of war. Meanwhile, we also get a foil for our assumed protagonist, a seasoned military commander who barely tolerates the doctor’s presence, one I assumed would be a cynical roadblock, complicating the doctor’s efforts to save lives.

This issue, however, just isn’t that neat or simple, and, not to spoil anything, but there ends up being shades of gray throughout. There’s a particularly poignant bit where one character refers to “cost,” and it later becomes unclear if the true cost being referred to was lives or money. It’s a moment that puts the lens back on the reader and asks what are you as a civilian more concerned about: sending soldiers to die or finding more efficient ways to kill enemy soldiers at minimal taxpayer expense? Yikes.  

My only gripe with the issue is a small one, in that some of the commentary is a bit on the nose, with soldiers randomly cursing the war, or describing it as a pointless meat grinder.

Overall: Bloodshot No. 9 is a well-done issue, one that sets out to create an emotional origin story for Bloodshot’s faithful companion Bloodhoud and succeeds, all while paying off one of the better commentaries about the military industrial complex and our role in it as civilians, which is what I’ve long seen as the overarching theme of Lemire’s Bloodshot work. 8.5/10

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

4 Things Jason Aaron Got Right About The Avengers

On Wednesday, Marvel Comics ushered in a new era for its flagship team book The Avengers, releasing a new No. 1 issue from writer Jason Aaron, artist Ed McGuinness, inker Mark Morales, and colorist David Curiel. The book built on plot points Aaron originally dropped in the massive Marvel Legacy one-shot last fall, and it marked the debut of this year’s new Marvel season, Fresh Start (although, no mention of Fresh Start was made by the book’s marketing, which I found interesting...).

Most importantly, however, this comic book was actually really very good. For real. The art team was cohesive and precise, giving the over-sized debut a polished feel, an almost high-budget aesthetic that seemed to declare this is THE Marvel book of the hour. What I found most engaging, however, was that Aaron’s plot and script seem to understand the enduring appeal of The Avengers in a way recent incarnations of the team have at times missed.

And that’s what we’re talking about here today. This book is not a throwback, not exactly—despite the traditional core of the team returning—but it does pay homage to some the most beloved and enduring aspects of The Avengers, without at all feeling dated in the process. Here are four of the major elements Aaron and the team simply get right about The Avengers... 

1. The Threat

The Avengers were formed originally because there was a threat that demanded they exist. In recent years, however, I think the concept has become a bit perfunctory, taking a wink-and-nod attitude that the team exists because the publisher, the fans, or whoever else expects/demands it. This book immediately gets away from that, establishing a convincing and compelling threat that spans millennia and brings our team together, even if some of them would rather not (more on that in a second).

This galvanizing threat is what made Avengers #1 work so well for me as a reader. I enjoyed Mark Waid’s preceding run on the franchise. I mean, he’s Mark Waid, and he just gets superheroes, but under Waid the book always seemed like an auxiliary title, rather than the publisher’s flagship, as that honor seemed to go to whatever event was beginning, middling, or ending (usually middling—boom, roasted!). In summation, Aaron’s run seems to be at the forefront of the publisher, giving it an exciting and dynamic sort of energy.

2. The Reluctance

Reluctance has been part of The Avengers DNA since the early years, when the original lineup minus Steve Rogers quit, leaving Cap to marshal a group that included Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch, all of whom were at that time villains. We get that reluctance here early and often, starting with a great buddy-buddy-buddy scene where Steve Rogers, Tony Stark and Thor Odinson meet in a bar for a beer, a shirley temple, and roughly three giant flagons of mead, respectively.

 Just a few old friends, not wanting to be Avengers while having a drink at a bar called Aaron's.

Just a few old friends, not wanting to be Avengers while having a drink at a bar called Aaron's.

Not only is this reluctance foundational to The Avengers, it is in many ways the heart of Marvel superheroes all together, the main thing separating them from DC, whose heroes mostly run, fly, or grapple-hook eagerly into battle. Marvel heroes by comparison are more real and more flawed, like all of us, and they don’t always rise immediately to the occasion, like all of us again, with, of course, a few exceptions—thinking here of Carol Danvers. Aaron gets that right throughout, and his debut issue of The Avengers is better for it.

3. The Relationships

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All great teams have iconic relationships, be it the antagonistic banter between The Thing and Human Torch in Fantastic Four or the love story between Midnighter and Apollo in The Authority. I think it’s fair to say, however, that The Avengers have slightly more characters with special connections to their teammates, characters like Giant Man and The Wasp, or The Vision and Scarlet Witch, or Wonder Man and The Beast.

Right off in this debut issue, Aaron makes great use of existing bonds, specifically those between Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor, while also laying groundwork for some new ones. My favorite scene in this entire book was actually when T’Challa and Doctor Strange used their individual expertise together to investigate a shared concern. It’s a somewhat odd pairing, I suppose, but it yielded surprising chemistry. I’m really hoping for more of that kind of interaction.

4. The Rotation

My all-time favorite run on The Avengers was by Kurt Busiek and George Perez in the late ‘90s, and part of what I liked about it so much was the feeling that week-to-week the team’s roster was dynamic, that new members could be incoming and existing heroes could be on their way out of the mansion. Mark Waid did a bit of this in his run, although it really amounted to just one big splinter when the younger heroes departed to form The Champions.

Going into this book, however, Aaron has said in interviews that one slot on the team will be essentially reserved for a rotating member, and for this first arc that slot goes to Doctor Strange. I like that idea, although my hope is that the rotating concept is a wider one, not limited to a neat one-in, one-out setup that takes place like clockwork each time we start a new arc. I’d rather see roster churn happen organically (and maybe even surprisingly) as a result of our plot.

Plus, One Minor Complaint

So, I guess everyone—characters, writers, publisher, fans—is just fine now about the whole Hydra Steve business? I know this is comics and change is the only constant and HUGE events one month have little impact the next, but this man was seething with evil to the point he oversaw the destruction of a major American city, like as recently as last year, which is even shorter in comic book time.

Obviously, we have to get this behind us, and Secret Empire did the heavy narrative lifting after its climax to explain what happened and get us moving in a better direction. Plus, we got a brief and rehabilitative Captain America run from Waid and superstar artist Chris Samnee. Still, all I’m saying is a bit more of a grudge held by other heroes might feel cathartic for us all, regardless of what our feelings were toward Secret Empire as a concept. The good news is this is just one issue, and there’s still time to dive deeper into that idea, plus other dynamics. I know I, for one, am looking forward to Aaron unpacking the presumably large baggage between Tony and Carol following the second superhero Civil War.

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at@zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.