Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest – Avengers Initiative #5

Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2007
By: Keith Dallas

"Secret Weapons"

Writer: Dan Slott
Artists: Stefano Caselli, Daniele Rudoni (colors)

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Editor’s Note: Avengers Initiative #5 arrives in stores this Wednesday, August 29.

Average Rating:

Paul Brian McCoy:
Ariel Carmona Jr.:
Bryant Frattalone:
Luke Handley:
Dave Wallace:

SPOILER WARNING: The following reviews address plot developments of the issue.

Paul Brian McCoy:

Last issue, Initiative members were helping maintain security on the edges of the Hulk’s invasion of Manhattan, but feeling a bit underutilized. So, as is the wont of hot-headed young super-adventurers, they broke ranks and entered the combat zone only to come face-to-face with the Hulk and his Warbound allies (who had just beat the snot out of The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, and Iron Man in his new and improved Hulkbuster armor). This month we pick up a little later, as Henry Gyrich puts together a black ops team to go in and get the Initiative members out before anyone finds out they pulled a “New Warriors” and dove into action that they were nowhere near ready for.

The writing in this series is pretty good. It has some weak points, which I will mention in a minute, but so long as the reader can put aside Civil War biases and accept the current status quo in the MU, Slott does a good job in this playground. But the art is what I want to talk about now. Caselli and Rudoni are doing stellar work here. The mechanics of facial expressions and body language, as well as Caselli’s generally impressive take on costuming and setting, make this a joy to look at. Heavier line work sets off the characters from their backgrounds, and the people seem to be inserted into sets illustrated with a softer focus. This lets the backgrounds establish themselves with a fairly high level of detail without overwhelming the scene, letting the characters and their interactions remain the focus of each panel. It’s a nice approach that is enhanced by Rudoni’s use of color to bring each scene to life with shading, lighting, and smoke effects I’ve not seen often in comics. I especially like the Scarlet Spiders’ stealth mode effect. If you pick up this title for no reason but the art, you would be completely justified.

The story, while not groundbreaking, is still pretty solid, with each character having a fairly distinct voice, while the plot moves quickly and effortlessly from the establishing scenes (set two weeks prior to the current action), to the black ops incursion into enemy territory to rescue the captured Initiative members (or bring back their bodies if they’re already dead). Along the way we are introduced to a number of interesting plot developments, including the mystery of Mutant Zero (whose true identity is anybody’s guess at this point), the former villain Constrictor trying to go straight (but questioning whether it’s valid if he’s doing it in secret), Trauma making great progress in his training with Danielle Moonstar (much to Gyrich’s dismay), and some interesting bonding moments in the process. To be honest, there’s a very Thunderbolts feel to this issue, in the ways that the characters interact, and in the way the mission is assigned and carried out. That’s a good thing, by the way (since I’m talking about Warren Ellis’ Thunderbolts).

There are a few missteps in the handling of dialogue, but nothing so distracting as to hamper the enjoyment of the issue. This occurs most notably on the first page, when Gauntlet tells Gyrich he will “rip off your @%$# and @%$# down your @%$#.” I ’m familiar with the phrase (sans sanitations) and I don’t think the first and third @%$# really need to be there. If there’s another variation on the “rip off your head and @%$# down your neck” threat, please let me know via email or the boards. The art also only has a moment or two that faltered for me, most significantly being when, on page 11, we are facing (from left to right) Constrictor, Bengal, and Trauma. The next panel shifts its perspective to behind them, but they are still positioned in the same order left to right, when Constrictor and Trauma should be on the right and left, respectively. It’s not a big deal, but still should have been caught by Caselli.

So overall, another pretty good effort by Slott, Caselli, and Rudoni. The title does a good job managing a large cast of relatively unknowns, maintaining a number of plot threads even in the face of a crossover event, and looks as good as, or better, than most books on the stands. All in all, a superlative effort and an overall enjoyable piece of work. This series hasn’t faltered so far after five issues, and shows no sign of tapering off anytime soon.

Ariel Carmona Jr.

This series has been surprisingly good. Of all the post Civil War titles, this comic has been the most satisfying, having given us enough action in a few issues than a lot of books do in multiple arcs. Writer Dan Slott and artist Stefano Caselli have flown off the radar on this title thus far, and that’s a shame because more readers should be sampling their work.

The Initiative has so far taken on a rogue Spider-Man and now crosses over into “World War Hulk.” What began last issue picks up steam here. I like the idea of a shadow initiative within the Initiative being dispatched to Manhattan to preserve the image of the government’s new super hero team. I also like the fact that the shadow initiative is made up of weaker heroes and wanna be heroes like Constrictor, the old Captain America/Spider-Man villain.

As in most team books, Avengers Initiative is only as interesting as the sum of its parts, and most of the conflict comes from how the government sponsored Avengers deal with their new assignments. Just one example of good storytelling in this title: Very early in the story arc, one of the cadets being trained by the S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers, M.V.P., was killed off and this leads to a cover up. Last issue the reader’s suspense was amped up with the discovery that he was still alive, although this plot point takes a backseat to the clash between the Hulk and this team’s most powerful member: Trauma.

As his name implies, Trauma is able to effect others in a deep psychological way, making their deepest fears become reality. Slott does a great job of building up the suspense leading up to the comic book’s climactic battle with old jade jaws, even though anyone who is reading the main series realizes that similar tactics were employed by Dr. Strange with dubious results. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see how Trauma tries to use his powers which have been dubbed an “Omega Level” threat by Henry Gyrich, Secretary of the Superhuman Armed Forces, to turn Hulk’s fears against him. What can a monster like the Incredible Hulk who boasts of god like power be possibly afraid of?

This comic feels a lot like a modernized take on the old New Mutants title where young mutants were trained by the X-Men to master their powers. Similarly, the cadets in this superhero Initiative are powerful but inexperienced, needing the guidance of more seasoned heroes like Yellowjacket, Justice, and War Machine.

What makes this title unique is the state of post-Civil War affairs in the Marvel universe. By involving the government in the regulation of superhuman affairs, beyond just licensing superheroes like the Avengers, the stories dealings with intrigue, subversion and assaults on civil liberties can become a metaphor of real world issues. Mark Millar got the ball rolling, and now Slott runs with it with precision. Throw in your occasional superhero slugfest, and this book becomes a great read on a regular basis.

Final word: I like the direction this title is taking. Slott is able to manage a large cast with skill, and Caselli and company’s artistic rendition of the proceedings is consistent enough to sustain its structured narrative style. This comic offers a refreshing alternative to Brian Michael Bendis’ use of the two major teams by focusing on lesser known, inexperienced heroes while making the appearance of more established characters like Iron Man and Spider-Man an occasional treat.

Bryant Frattalone

Plot: In this new age of licensed, government controlled superheroes you still need a black ops team to clean up potentially embarrassing messes.

Commentary: I dunno. I’ve tried this book out a couple of times, but it’s just not grabbing me. I can’t really put my finger on it. I have a niggling feeling of Marvel just doing this book to have a place to address all of the other heroes out there who aren’t a part of an established super team or who don’t have their own books already. I just don’t see the need for another book with The Avengers moniker on it. I keep getting this Saturday Morning Cartoon vibe from this title. That being said, even though I won’t pick up this book regularly and I foresee it getting cancelled eventually, each time I do pick it up, there are some neat little things I get along the way. So that’s the perspective I’ll be reviewing this from.

The first neat little thing is the appearance of the Constrictor. He’s one of those characters I’ve enjoyed seeing pop up over the years. He appears here for a run in with The Hulk in Manhattan, and he’s been selected because he’s run into the Hulk before and survived to tell about it. I remember the issue fondly from the 70s when the Hulk was still dumb and infantile and just wanted to be left alone. Frank even calls him, “Jade Jaws,” a nostalgic term I haven’t heard applied to the Hulk in some time. Those Len Wein, Sal Buscema and Ernie Chan issues of the Hulk are some of my favorite comic memories from my youth, and they are all brought to the forefront of my mind with this issue. Marvel should collect those issues in an Essential format. Slott is definitely mining Marvel continuity in his run on this book, and that appeals to us long time comics readers.

Neat little thing #2 is the continued presence of Henry Peter Gyrich. I remember him from Perez and Byrne’s run on The Avengers back in the day, and of course, his appearances as a thorn in the X-Men’s sides. Another character I find interesting, though I don’t really know why because he’s so cliché, is the old nazi scientist guy. He’s so stereotypical, he’s a riot. I wish I knew who the heck he was. But who doesn’t like an old ex-Nazi scientist in a comic?

Regarding the plotting of the book, Slott’s little gems here and there just don’t add up to a satisfying whole. The whole idea of the Government training young heroes to be soldiers to offset what happened to the New Warriors in Stamford, CT (my home town by the way) and then putting them in combat situations and then having to clean up those messes too isn’t a logical concept to me. Why not wait for them to be 21 and then require them to have a license to fight crime or join the military? That would eliminate the need for this book, and anyone who didn’t comply would be targets for the Thunderbolts where obscure characters without their own titles are used to better effect than here. Trauma’s infiltration of the Hulk’s inner fears, or what he perceives them to be, is done well by Slott and Caselli together. I think it’s good that Marvel has used this title to once again show just how unstoppable the Hulk is. Nothing seems to stop him! Physical, mental and spiritual assaults all fail! How is the Hulk able to overcome the psychic and spiritual assaults too? That’s yet to be seen I guess.

Caselli’s art is okay. I like his Constrictor and Bengal as well as his rendition of the rampaging man monster men call the Hulk. But there’s just too many characters running around and talking in this book (although the four Scarlet Spiders are a cool revamp of a bad idea from comics past). It makes for a tiring read and viewing. If you are looking for little gems like I’ve listed above, then pick the book up. Other than that, I really can’t recommend it as a must read.

Final Word: A book that hasn’t commanded my attention but that does toss in little gems here and there for older comics fans.

Luke Handley:

Gyrich’s personal strike squad, the Shadow Initiative, makes its debut and the team the Secretary of Superhuman Armed Forces has assembled is nothing if not intriguing: Bengal, Constrictor, Trauma, Mutant X and the Scarlet Spiders. What do they have in common? To be honest, I have no idea, but this line-up does have potential.

Before the series launched, Slott did say that this book would be something of a Marvel superheroes showcase, with appearances from all manner of characters old and new. This has been the case, sort of. The newbies have definitely been the focus of the stories thus far. Other characters have been manoeuvred around them but have struggled to stand out. This issue, the spotlight shifts to one of the more complex new “heroes,” Trauma, the “emo-boy.” This is his story, about how he comes to terms with his powers and learns what it means to be a hero. However, his new team-mates also get the opportunity to grab some panel time.

Constrictor has appeared in both She-Hulk and The Thing over the last couple of years, both written by Slott, and it’s nice to see him once again in the writer’s care as he furthers the ex-con’s “redemption” arc. The inclusion of Bengal is rather puzzling. He’s an incredibly obscure character, and why Gyrich thinks he’s the man for the job is a mystery. Still, he does look cool. Then we have the Scarlet Spiders. Given how powerful the mecha-spidey suit turned out to be, it makes sense for Stark to want to put it to “good use.” And why stick with one if you can have three? I was hoping for a bit more information on who the guys in the iron masks actually are, but beyond the fact that they’re no doubt ex-military, what with the “Sirs” and all, there’s nothing new revealed here.

And finally, Mutant X. Gyrich’s spiel about there still being around 300 empowered mutants was odd. Marvel has said many times that 198 is not a concrete number, that there may be a few more muties kicking around the place, but half as much again? The X-Men have used Cerebra and come up with 200 hits, and it’s hard to imagine them missing that many. Then again, Gyrich could very well be talking out of his arse, as he so often does. But whether she’s number 201 or 301, the question remains: who is Mutant X? We’re not given much to go by here, other than the fact that she has had “previous names,” according to Len Samson, and that she is not officially registered. My best guess, at this time, is that she is in fact some sort of genetic amalgam clone, a hybrid grown in a lab from the DNA of various known mutants. Of course, this is pure speculation, but with mutants being such a rare commodity in the Marvel Universe these days I’m hoping for a decent explanation somewhere down the line. For now though, Mutant X remains too vague to actually be interesting in her own right. She’s the Shadow Initiative ’s failsafe, and until we find out more about her, I’ll reserve any further judgement.

Despite being an exciting, relatively fast paced issue, there are some head-scratching moments. Why are Bengal and Constrictor chosen to insert Trauma? Surely, the Scarlet Spiders, with their cloaking armour, would be more suited for the task. Why does Gyrich decide to downgrade Trauma’s official power level rating at the end of the issue? Sure, he got smacked by the Hulk, but only because big old mean and green is so angry right now he’s afraid of nothing. Trauma actually accomplished that which no other Marvel hero has up to this point: he took down one of the Hulk’s Warbound. If that’s not enough to be classed as “omega level” I don’t know what is. Of course, the final scene can be read another way: that seeing the good Trauma can do in helping his team-mates overcome their fears, Gyrich downgrades his ranking so as to avoid those higher up the command echelon “wasting” his powers beating up über-powerful foes. Somehow though, considering what we know about Henry Peter Gyrich, this seems highly unlikely.

Stefano Caselli has produced good art on this book from the get go. This issue turns out to be one of his best yet, as the characters he gets to draw are darker than most of the other Initiative members, making his brooding facial expressions more at home than ever. His clear action sequences reinforce his visual storytelling, resulting in an issue that looks really good.

Unfortunately though, on some level, this issue just doesn’t quite work, which is rather frustrating because the elements are here to make a really good comic. The problem, I feel, comes more from the format of this series than anything else. Every issue, we get a rather dramatic shift in focus from one character, or group, to another. Though it can be interesting to shift the focus from one main character to another throughout a story arc, switching to a completely different angle and perspective can cause a certain amount of disconnection from the story being told and make it hard for the reader to really invest in the leads, as they are swapped around so abruptly.

Despite a certain lack of continuity within the title, this comic still works on several levels. The idea of Gyrich having his own personal commandos becomes more appealing every time I think of it and, within the space of five issues, Dan Slott has successfully fleshed out his newbie heroes. I still have hopes that this title can pull things together and become great, but this issue just isn’t quite there yet.

Dave Wallace:

I stopped reading Avengers: The Initiative a few issues back, because I wasn't hugely enthused with the direction that the book seemed to be taking. However, with this tie-in issue to World War Hulk, I decided to give the title another try - and I was surprised to enjoy this issue a little more than the first couple that I read. Usually, I’m wary about throwing books into crossovers before they’ve had a chance to really find their feet, but World War Hulk actually brings a lot of focus to the book, streamlining it into a straightforward search-and-rescue operation which sees a hand-picked team of Initiative members dispatched to New York to rescue a group of breakaway young “heroes” who got caught up in the Hulk’s rampage. It’s not necessary to be following WWH to fully appreciate this story (the plot of the core series isn’t that complex, after all), but this issue plays off a few of the details of that book nicely, giving the Hulk himself a fair appearance so as to make this worthy of reading for those fans who have bought it on the promise of an appearance by the Green Goliath.

Slott’s plotting is solid, and his ever-present sense of humour shines through a story which other writers could have turned into an overly serious, po-faced tale (the most successful gags being those concerning a “deus X-Man” and the misnomer that is “World War Hulk” - the Hulk has only hit Manhattan so far, after all), but the writer doesn’t take the comedic angle so far that all sense of drama is lost, either. There’s a star turn for Trauma as he takes on the Hulk in a well-written and climactic showdown, and other characters are further developed as Slott manages to progress a few of the book’s ongoing subplots (which don’t mean a huge amount to me, but will probably be pleasing for regular readers who didn’t want to see the overarching “Initiative” story take a complete backseat to the crossover). Caselli’s art is solid, bringing a sense of weight and substance to the action sequences and allowing his cartoonish characters to be fairly expressive - his take on Gyrich proves particularly effective, making the most of his love-to-hate personality. Daniele Rudoni’s colours really enhance the linework, too, bringing subtler shades to pages which really benefit from the atmosphere of her chosen shades.

I still find the core concept of the book to be slightly oxymoronic (the whole point of the Registration Act was to avoid untrained, inexperienced heroes being put into situations where they were out of their depth and couldn’t be confident of success - but there’s no jeopardy and drama in that, so the Initiative recruits keep getting mixed up in situations which are beyond their abilities, despite them being under tight government control. On the other hand, no-one wants to read a dull monthly comic about super-powered kids in training in a safe environment...), and I still probably won’t be picking up future issues, but this tie-in to World War Hulk proves that there is life in the “Initiative” concept, and that Slott and Caselli are talented enough creators to be able to make it work.

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