When I set out to review every single issue in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run (that includes all 44 issues of the main title, 33 issues of New Avengers and both the Infinity and Secret Wars events) I was doing it for myself. You see, as I purchased and read through each issue, month after month, at the time of their release, I found the series both fascinating and frustrating. It’s a story that demands to be mapped out. It demands to be examined, dissected and most importantly, organized. With an unforgiving, uneven pace and language that panders to those willing to be confused, it’s a comic book run that I’m surprised made it to the shelf. Marvel put their faith in Hickman and refused to play it safe. Hickman put his faith in his endgame and refused to get there on anyone’s time but his own. The readers put their faith on the line and paid for it in more ways than one.
I decided that creating a guide to each issue—basically holding the reader’s hand throughout the series—may shine a new light on all things right and wrong with the run. I wanted readers to persevere where I faltered. I wanted the most interesting concepts to burst through the tedium. Most importantly, I wanted to prove to myself that as an overall story, it worked—that the issue-by-issue madness was worth it. I wanted to take everything Hickman put on paper, filter it through my jaded mind, re-organize it on my own (digital, of course) paper and figure out exactly what I thought about it all.
Now, if you’ve been keeping up with my articles here on The Full Run you’ll notice we’re at a particular low point in the scope of things. Now is the time my writing turns sour. Now is the time all of Hickman’s brilliant concepts turn from intriguing to irritating. While I stare at flimsy paper pages and wait for the story to finally reveal itself, it stubbornly refuses to budge. As I goad the Avengers on and taunt Hickman from my armchair, I’m given crumbs instead of the loaf I hunger for. And these crumbs are stale. My patience has been tested and found wanting. I want to love the comic books I’m reading, but these ones won’t play to the beat of my drum. It’s aggravating, expensive and whittles away any faith I had left in the writings of Jonathan Hickman, any faith I had in Marvel, and any interest I had in the Avengers.
But that’s exactly why I’m writing this. In my attempt to guide readers through the patches both pleasant and putrid I’ve made a point to focus on the content of the books, without being able to dig deeper into the core concepts at the heart of these stories. It’s difficult to appreciate the finer points of this series while simultaneously slamming your head into the wall, screaming obscenities at the annoyances before you. There is a fascinating world to discover beneath the plodding pace and infuriating repetition—and I for one would like to take this opportunity to explore it, before delving back into the issue-by-issue folly that this run has become.
And I think repetition is the perfect place to start.
By now, readers should be beyond familiar with Hickman’s favourite scene, featuring a speech given by a character that arguably best represents Hickman himself. Reed Richards stands before the council of Marvel’s most powerful heroes and explains to them that everything dies. He’s talking about everything: the Earth, sun, solar system, universe, dimension—what-have-you. He says it as straight as can be, like a true scientist, devoid of emotion. Naturally, everything must end and like a true scientist Reed has accepted this. The point is, he isn’t simply a scientist—he is a super hero. The calling of a super hero on the grandest scale is to prevent the unnatural end of all things. The threat may be a gaudily dressed villain, an intergalactic wave of destruction or an unknowable break in the space-time continuum. It doesn’t matter, a hero’s duty is to protect life—but Hickman puts a finer point on the obvious and gets specific: it’s all about that unnatural end.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the picture that instantly came to mind the first time I read Reed’s infamous speech. This was Jonathan Hickman himself, standing amongst the Marvel editors, the most powerful players in the lives of fictional characters that so many of us have such strong emotional attachments to. In a time when comic books must constantly shift—killing and resurrecting our heroes, destroying established continuity and shattering our pre-conceived notions—simply to keep us entertained and purchasing their publications (though hasn’t this always been the case?) it’s clear that Hickman is pointing to the end of the mainstream Marvel heroes as we know them.
When DC announced that they were rebooting their line with the New 52, it was a shock not felt since the time of Crisis on Infinite Earths (and I wasn’t alive to see that one). The New 52 was the defining comic book publishing move of my generation. Everything (almost everything) readers thought they knew about their favourite DC heroes changed, for better or worse, and this wasn’t simply a temporary gimmick (though it has always threatened to be). Once readers finally wrapped their head around the changes, the big question on everyone’s mind was about Marvel’s next move.
And Marvel replied coyly, with a seemingly endless wave of soft reboots. They weren’t about to throw away all of their established continuity, but they would give readers new #1s, telling fans “now was the time!” every time. Seemingly untouchable books like Uncanny X-Men were renumbered and shake-ups were around every corner. No title was safe and no character would remain entirely intact. It was a dangerous time, because no matter what book you liked, no matter what character you were attached to, everything could (and would) change on a dime, leaving long time readers spinning. I can’t speak for new readers, but if they missed a first issue, a series was never left waiting before it would be rebooted yet again with a fresh #1 on its cover.
But it wasn’t DC’s New 52—it wasn’t a clean slate, and I think that’s Hickman’s point. Readers were still waiting for the shoe to drop. Every news announcement was a possibility, every event book a threat. The Marvel Universe that readers knew (or at least thought they knew, with all of these soft reboots occurring) was on the verge of bursting. It seemed Marvel’s downward spiral, publishing series of shorter and shorter length, couldn’t continue. Things were constantly affixed with All-New, Uncanny or Astonishing (thankfully we were spared the Extreme) and that New 52 feel was almost palatable.
Hickman plays off of this feeling brilliantly. Marvel’s history goes back a long time, but is it ready to expire? Can fictional heroes save themselves from the inevitable end of the very books they star in? Someday, hopefully far down the road, Marvel may have to shut its doors. Heroes like Spider Man, Captain America and the X-Men may no longer be relevant. This will be the natural end of things. Until then, they will do everything in their power to exist. An unnatural end is unacceptable.
We know this scene is powerful, with Reed explaining things to the Illuminati. It’s a thrilling beginning to a promising series. It’s deeply rooted in meta fiction and points to exhilarating adventures for a group of popular comic book characters. It has everything going for it. And then we see this scene again. And again. And again.
It’s a strange literary device that personally, I’m not a fan of. If any of you are familiar with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, you may recognize the absurdity of this device. There is a particular scene in the third book of that series where (and I hope I’m not spoiling anything for you) Jake, a young boy, runs away from school. Realizing his final essay had been written while he was experiencing a blackout (of other-worldly proportions), he reads over his mostly nonsense (and very cryptic) work, and then flees for fear his teachers will find him legitimately insane. A large section of said essay contained enigmatic phrases repeated ad nauseam—a feature that his teacher surprisingly compliments. She finds his use of repetition fascinating and poignant. Jake remains puzzled—the teachers actually liked his nonsensical work?
This is how I feel reading Hickman’s Avengers work. The “everything dies” scene is repeated so many times that I feel it loses its meaning—and I think that has something to do with the comic book medium. Hickman may feel like he’s using repetition as a tool, to compare and contrast scenes or to emphasize a point. He may find it poetic. The problem comes from the way we read it.
Monthly comic books are not cheap these days, coming to Canada for at least $3.99 a pop (and even more now). When one purchases a comic for that price, there are certain expectations. One of those expectations is not to find the same pages we’ve seen before, taking up space that a decent chunk of story could have occupied. Monthly comic books are strictly structured and restricted by their page count. When those pages are used to display a poetic sense of repetition, it doesn’t feel like the chorus to song, but wasted space that one actually paid money for.
Now, if this were a novel, the tables may be turned. When I decided to read Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22, I put the book down numerous times before really sinking my teeth into it. Sentences would be structured to repeat phrases, then spun in paradoxes and repeated with new meaning. Structure at first seemed arbitrary, only revealing itself once closely examined. Large phrases were never shortened for quick reference and conversations always went in circles. But that was the point. It took determination to finally crack into what made the book great.
As a self-contained, rather large novel, you pay for Catch-22 and can decide if you want to pick it up again or not. The whole story is there. You don’t need to pay extra money to steel yourself and dig into its eccentricities. Once you own the book, it’s up to you to delve into it and explore. With Hickman’s Avengers, you’re paying per page, hoping that the next one will be the one that catches you. Will the next issue finally reveal the machinations behind the grand story Hickman is building, or will we be on the line for further monetary sacrifices? If his run is ever collected in a single edition, it will be a mighty tome, as expensive as it is thick—Catch-22 is a pocket book you can find at most thrift stores. The writers are going for the same thing, but it’s the medium that trips us up.
Which brings me to the next point, and this one absolutely works in the comic book medium—the Avengers Machine. When Hickman kicked off the main series, he made one thing clear: the Avengers need to get bigger. In a seemingly obvious but actually quite sly move, he showed us how Iron Man and Captain America worked together to create what they considered a super-team. This iteration of the Avengers would meet the extreme challenges that lay ahead. How did they know what troubles they’d get into? It goes back to the meta nature of Hickman tackling the Avengers—it can only go up from here. The Marvel Universe has experienced so much in its history that only the most dire of situations should afford the combined might of the Avengers. Think about the fictional cosmos and inner-workings that have long been established by writers like Jim Starlin—I mean we’ve seen the embodiment of existence so many times that watching it have a casual conversation with a smart-mouthed troll isn’t anything out of the ordinary (or even remotely thrilling). We’ve gone to infinity and beyond, as it were, and returned unfazed. From here, there are only two types of Avengers stories to tell—either the close, personal stories that reveal and develop characters, or the grand cosmic adventures that go further into the understandable Marvel Universe than we’ve ever seen. Hickman set out for the later, while sneaking in a smidge of the former.
You see, the Avengers Machine is really two parts, one on the surface and one hidden. The surface Machine is Captain America’s doing. He is an upfront, no-nonsense man who knows how to move around foot-soldiers. This is the diagram we’re given at the start of so many Avengers issues—one that clearly employed Hickman’s graphic design talents. It looks like a technological Iron Man blueprint, but this roster of heroes is all Cap’s. It’s at the front of each issue, showing us which characters we’ll be seeing almost as if the players had been chosen from the character selection screen of a video game. But this map still has its secrets.
The hidden Machine is Iron Man’s doing. Tony Stark is an arms dealer and always will be—he doesn’t necessarily order troops into strategic positions around the battlefield, he builds the biggest gun and brings it to the party. First, Tony aligns himself with the Illuminati. He can assess the threats from here and decide how to handle them. Captain America was kicked out and mind wiped, so Tony can play freely in this sphere with the help of the world’s greatest minds and away from the discipline of the world’s bossiest commander. With the Illuminati he builds weapons capable of destroying worlds (all this is covered in New Avengers). He starts work on building a sphere around the sun, capable of harnessing incredible power. He steals a world-destroying ship from the Builders after their defeat. He houses Starbrand and Nightmask—two incredibly dangerous and yet-to-be understood beings. With the help of an Iron Man from another dimension, he is even able to harness the power of a planet hurled at the Earth like a bullet—keeping it out of phase and creating a seemingly endless supply of power. These are weapons, tools, machines—things Stark understands. The Avengers have their troops and commander, and in Iron Man a controversial arsenal ready to tackle any threat.
An open Captain America and a secretive Iron Man? Sounds like a reverse Civil War, and you know what? It makes more sense too.
This combined Avengers Machine gives the team unprecedented power. It also reveals much about the two characters while keeping the reader distracted with the simple challenges superheroes face and enough pseudo-science talk to make us forget what lies just beneath the surface of these over-indulgent explanations.
In many ways, you’ll see in upcoming articles how this Avengers Machine backfires—its inner-workings short out and it collapses in on itself. The diagram Hickman paints for us at the start of each issue shows the inherent brilliance in the scheme, but fails to take into account the folly of its human creators.
Unfortunately, this upcoming story is told is a manner both frustrating and ugly (thanks to some very rushed art). My point is: there is a depth to Hickman’s storytelling that isn’t easily uncovered due to his reliance on plodding pace and endless repetition. In the coming weeks I will not be kind to Hickman’s Avengers, but I want you all to know it’s simply part of the process. We need to get through this together, so we can look back on it all and be proud of the journey. We need to slam our heads against the wall and endure both the faults of the medium and storytelling, so we can come back and extract the little brilliant things that were there all along.
It may not be the most pleasant trip, but a promising destination is what it’s all about.