“The Collective: Prologue”
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Steve McNiven (p), Dexter Vines(i)
An Avengers comic in which the Avengers don’t appear.
A superhero comic in which all the fights occur off-panel.
A comic book which takes nine full-page splashes in a row to show a single event.
Yet, for all its faults, New Avengers #16 isn’t quite the absolute train wreck that you might expect.
Kicking off with the aforementioned long string of splash pages wasn’t the best way to start Bendis’ first “big” Avengers story, as although McNiven’s pencils are solid and well-rendered - giving an strong sense of motion and conveying the huge impact made as an otherworldly being crashes to earth – the effect of so many splashpages in a row actually acts to make the sequence feel very flat and indulgent. If everything is urgent then nothing is urgent, and the misunderstanding of such a basic premise of graphic storytelling is surprising for such an experienced writer. Then again, I’m still not convinced that Bendis actually has the writing skills to pull-off a large-scale superhero book, as he seems unshakeable in his obsession with exploring small character moments and dialogue at the expense of showing anything exciting actually happening. A good example of this comes later in the book, when the unidentified space-being actually comes into contact with its first two waves of earth-based heroes. The action is observed from a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier via a video display, giving Bendis the opportunity to cut away from the action to fuzzy white noise at both of the key moments during which our heroes are taken out of the picture. Admittedly, this technique makes some kind of storytelling sense when it’s a bunch of faceless military types facing the chop and Bendis wants to build some tension, but when he pulls the exact same trick at the issue’s end – only this time, during the decimation of the Canadian super-group Alpha Flight – you could be forgiven for feeling a little short-changed.
As if to add insult to injury, this issue only barely justifies being called an Avengers book, as the only member of the team to appear (in civilian guise) is Tony Stark. His dialogue with the new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. is interesting, adding depth to the political side of relationship between the New Avengers and the government, but I can’t help but feel that when their conversation ended we should have followed what Stark did next instead of having the story served up to us through the eyes of the new S.H.I.E.L.D. commander. However, Bendis seems more keen to explore the character of Nick Fury’s female replacement than to devote any time to the Avengers themselves – a fact which seems especially self-indulgent when you remember that this new character only exists due to the events of Bendis’ own Secret War series. It’s yet another in a long line of Marvel comics in which Bendis employs an incestuous approach to continuity, tying all of his books into their own micro-universe instead of making them part of the greater fabric of Marvel continuity.
However, I did indicate earlier that the book isn’t completely without merit, the lion’s share of which is due to the welcome re-appearance of Steve McNiven as penciller. McNiven has a style which combines the best excesses of superhero comics with a realistic amount of detail and a good eye for composition, and even if his characters can look a little plastic at times, it’s a style which suits a slick team book well. It’s a shame he doesn’t have more action to illustrate (or even the Avengers themselves to render!) but he works well with the script he’s been given to wring the maximum amount of drama out of Bendis’ story. His depiction of the aftermath of Alpha Flight’s encounter with the space-being only makes me long for what might have been, had Bendis decided to show us the fight itself. Still, he saves the book from total mediocrity thanks to his strong visuals, ably enhanced by the strong atmospheric work of the uncredited colourist.
(Oh, and the weird and wacky NewUniverse backup strip doesn’t do the book any favours either.)
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