Originally, I was thinking about reviewing Avengers Assemble #1 under a pseudonym pretending to be a nonreader who's excited enough for the movie to read the comics. I opted not to — not because that's totally dishonest, or because the book is actually readable enough for a newbie to appreciate it to some extent, but rather because Avengers Assemble #1 infuriated me in the worst way.
Marvel's tendency to release a new series just in time to cash in on relevant blockbuster film adaptations is a smart move — interested moviegoers may venture into the comic shop and find a brand new first issue to make them potential devotees to the medium, and that's pretty exciting. Invincible Iron Man was the first Marvel book to do this, and it paid off because the creative team delivered a book that kind of resembled the movie and offered a compelling narrative for new readers and fans alike.
Avengers Assemble #1 kind of does the same, featuring the superhero lineup of the film, at least — sans honky Nick Fury; that would be confusing. As such, every character gets their brief moment to shine, be it speechifying or shooting lasers or smashing things. We get a sense of who these people are, what their relationships are to some extent and even who pays for Avengers Tower. Sure, people are going to wonder why Spider-Man and Wolverine are there or why the Hulk is colored red in one panel, but those are minor quibbles.
Rather than Skrulls or Lokis or Orcs or whatever the Earth's Mightiest Heroes will battle a couple of months from now, the big threat in this opening story arc appears to be a revamped Zodiac, who's decided to follow the Avengers' lead and assemble his own team of superhumans to work together for a common goal, which we can assume is world domination and general wrongdoing. Not the most original plan a villain's ever had, but there's enough work done to make his plan fairly compelling and feel like a bold new effort — even if their costumes are awful.
Drawing the book is Mark Bagley, who will always be Mark Bagley, for better or worse. His capable but workmanlike pencils have never quite been my speed, but Avengers Assemble he's actually pretty on-point compared to some of his other work, possibly thanks to Danny Miki's inks and Paul Mounts' colors. But the art's not the issue here.
Tapping Brian Michael Bendis to script the book is, on paper, a fine idea, too. He's the guy responsible for making the comic book franchise Marvel's flagship book and he's one of the biggest writers in comics. His name on the cover says that there's a legit grasp for quality in what could have be a completely shameless cash-in. Unlike a lot of my peers and the faceless gaggle of angry yahoos on the Internet, I don't hate Brian Michael Bendis no matter how much he dismissively slags off comics critics on Twitter. His penchant for patter-as-character-interaction may sometimes grate, but in the right context it works, and the writer does his best to stifle that particular tendency in this first issue except where appropriate, so as not to drown the potential casual reader in excess word balloons.
But here's Avengers Assemble fails as both a first issue and a comic meant to entice new readers coming out of the movie theatre: there's absolutely nothing compelling to make someone want to buy Avengers Assemble #2.
The scenes themselves are decent enough — perfectly average, unironic superheroics if that's your thing. Zodiac assembles the bad guys, the Avengers debut their newly rebuilt tower, Hulk gets bothered by both the army and a weird water monster, Hawkeye and Black Widow get chased by a minotaur and Iron Man and Thor show up. Then we get to the final two pages, in which a minotaur punches Thor really hard and then we get this final panel:
Who's pumped up for the next issue? What's the high concept here? Hell, what's the implication of this cliffhanger? This is single-issue superheroics in a nutshell — glorified cold open first issues that do the bare minimum to justify themselves, non-cliffhangers that just kind of expect you to continue reading because HEY NERDS CAPES. At a four dollar price point, this is egregious. I rarely feel "ripped off" because I understand that paying money for entertainment is a risk — you're paying for the opportunity to experience this piece of entertainment, and nothing in that contract demands that you have to like what you're paying for. However, with Avengers Assemble #1, I actually wish there was a refund button on ComiXology.
Y'know what? I can live with that. Marvel publishes a lot of books I like and I don't need to dwell on things I dislike beyond, y'know, a review here and there because I'm interested in how these kinds of mass-appealing comics present themselves. And on that note, Avengers Assemble makes a real bad assumption about its readers because its intended audience ain't gonna stand for this kind of storytelling. They're going to read this one issue and decide that they'll just stick to video games or TV or just watch the movies because they offer complete stories in one digestible whole. Even I — a regular comics reader — finished this first issue and thought, "That's it?" And when you've disappointed the lowered expectations of a longtime reader, you've really failed.
Obviously the single issue format is in a sorry state. Sales on floppies are wretched and everybody writes for the trade anyway — and the Avengers Assemble collection will probably do pretty well in hardcover. But here's the thing — if you're still choosing to sell and market single issues, make them worthwhile. Realize that people are paying four dollars for this stuff, and if the material doesn't work that much work to earn that money then there simply won't be readers anymore.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012.