I want to preface this by stating, for the record, I am not particularly a comic book fan. Comic books were something I occasionally dipped into on holidays or other long journeys as a child, something my parents bought to keep me quiet, so with two major exceptions I never regularly read any one comic book series particularly. So whilst I am culturally aware of Batman, Superman, Spider man, X men and all the rest their deep and varied, complicated history is something of a mystery to me.
However regardless of your knowledge of deep Marvel lore (of which there is a lot) I wanted to write about Jonathan Hickman’s run on the Avengers, and New Avengers, and special event series Infinity and Secret Wars from 2013 to 16. These comics redefined the Marvel Universe, featuring almost every character and location in mega-event story that took years to build up. Yet through Jonathan Hickman’s tight plotting, setting things in place early on that he would refer back to later, this is a science fiction masterpiece of epic proportions
Whether you start the series with the Avengers (first published) or New Avengers (first chronologically) the story starts with the grand conflict between Tony Stark and Steve Rodgers. These two men, these two heroes, these two friends follow two very different paths through the two comic books, one reflecting the hope and optimism inherent to comic books, and the other a much darker, much more cynical and terrible exploration of making decisions and facing terrible consequences. This is a comic book about men in super-powered armour and spandex but it explores some very high-concept, very dark and very troubling issues with the consequent breakdown of friendships and some very interesting betrayals.
It explores this using pretty much the entire cast of the marvel franchise, with Thor, Dr Strange, Black Panther, Namor the Sub Mariner, Thanos, Beast from X Men, Hulk playing particularly prominent roles. The most significant other ‘main’ characters however are Reed Richards and Dr Doom from the Fantastic Four, who are ‘present’ early in in the story but slowly become the dominant characters once Tony and Steve’s arc comes to an end and the comic shifts from an Avengers comic through to the Secret Wars finale. Reed and Doom are presented with a kind of sibling rivalry, the long-burning enmity and sometimes-friendship the two men have stretching back almost to the very beginning of the Marvel Universe. The story features cosmic, reality bending science fiction but boils down to what people will sacrifice to save their families.
It is strange, writing a comic book featuring super heroes who can punch, kick, strike, shoot and beat down on their foes with all kind of super-strong and technologically enhanced powers, face a concept as nebulous as the inevitable death of everything. This story shines because although it features multiple villains, ultimately there is no mustache twirling mastermind behind the scenes. The threat is a consequence of the bizarre natural workings of the universe, the danger is real and the storyline follows multiple ways characters react to the situation. Some heroes (Captain America) struggle on unable to comprehend the threat, other (Iron Man) plan and work behind the scenes, searching desperately for a magic fix but who can ultimately only delay the inevitable. Villains (like Thanos) revel in the chance to wreak havoc and destruction whilst others (Dr Doom) tread a fine line between selfless sacrifice to protect others whilst inevitably twisting the situation to his own advantage. Greed and jealousy have rarely been better explored and when the inevitable consequences of these characters decision hit home the results are devastating.
Hickman introduces some very interesting new characters, most notably the femme fatale Black Swan who has dual honor of explaining much of the plot via exposition dump, plays an important role in the early stages of the adventure and has an extremely interesting back story that is only partially explained. Unfortunately besides Black Swan herself there are few particularly interesting female characters of note, but this is a criticism that could be made of the old Marvel roster generally.
Though the storyline is spread across multiple volumes (Avengers, New Avengers, Infinity and Secret Wars) and the reading order is far from simple, I can heartily recommend hunting this story down. This isn’t just a great comic book, it stands up as great science fiction literature. Ambitious, epic, enormous but also deeply personal, the only criticism of this run are the changes made in service to other Marvel comics happening at the same time. Thor looses his hammer and becomes unworthy, which is explored but never explained, Captain America ages thirty years without note and Iron Man dons a white suit and goes a little stir crazy, all changes informed by other comics, but ignoring these small critiques this is a nearly note perfect run.
How do powerful people with massive egos respond when they are finally put in a situation in which they cannot win. What happens to the ‘good guys’ when ultimately they can’t save anyone. What happens when everyone dies… Jonathan Hickman shows just how messy things really get when super-massive egos shatter.