Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest - New Avengers: Illuminati

Posted: Sunday, March 26, 2006
By: Keith Dallas

Writer: Brian Bendis
Artist: Alex Maleev

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Editor’s Note: Illuminati will appear in stores this Wednesday, March 29

Average Rating:

Michael Aronson:
Michael Bailey:
Michael Deeley:
Kelvin Green:
Shawn Hill:
Judson Miers:
Dave Wallace:

Michael Aronson

As Bendis would say: wow. Just, wow. This is really something. I’m not sure if I’m more shocked that this issue read like every interview given about Civil War thus far, both in content and presentation, or that of all these leaders and great thinkers gathered, only Iron Man has the balls to voice his opinions while everyone else mumbles and says “um” a lot, or that the entire opening of the Civil War series seems to be prefaced in this very issue – and I don’t mean acting as a prologue, I mean it explicitly states specific events that occur in the Civil War preview pages before they even happen.

Need more evidence that Bendis can’t write group books and events? Look no further.

The writing goes amiss on the very second page. The group visits T’Challa to present to him their problem – except right after Iron Man delivers his opening, it’s apparent that Reed wasn’t briefed on the matter at hand, and neither was Namor. What kind of group presentation has the group traveling to another country when not half the members know what it’s about? Wouldn’t Prof. X be able to inform everyone telepathically?

Why invite Black Bolt, otherwise mute king of the Inhumans, to a discussion? Since Prof. X projects only projects Bolt’s thoughts once, why isn’t Medusa there instead? You know, Black Bolt’s wife, who acts as his spokesperson in every single Inhumans story.

Why does Namor get out of his seat right away, strutting around like a petulant child? Oh, is that supposed to tell us he’s hot-headed and intolerant? Well then, why did they invite him to the discussion? Come on, this is a guy who punctuates his sentences with “BUT!!!” That’s right, not a comma, not just one exclamation mark, but three of them. Because he’s JUST THAT INTENSE!!!

The method for setting Banner up is absolutely absurd. S.H.I.E.L.D. tells him a satellite needs fixing, and the Hulk needs to go into space to fix it. Huh? The Hulk is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tech support? Someone must have wiped Banner’s mind or else he might have considered that there’s an Iron guy in a suit who can also fly into space, with maneuverability, and knows a thing or two about satellites other than how to smash them.

It seems that Marvel characters refer to the actual titles to their crossover events. “House of M, Secret War, the 198.” Seriously? “The 198” is an event? What, like “Hey, remember that House of M? Not an actual house, mind you, just this alternate reality where Magneto took over.” Nope, doesn’t sound ridiculous at all.

To say that Maleev has been miscast on art here is quite an understatement. Sure, the book is all talking heads, and sure, that’s what Maleev spent the last five years illustrating, but we’re talking about colorful and iconic talking heads. Instead of the typical depictions of these characters, Namor looks like The Rock, Dr. Strange looks like Sean Penn and Prof. X looks like a skinny Kingpin. The style is entirely ill-suited for this story. And what the heck is that on the bottom corner of page six?

Where this story really fails isn’t necessarily in its execution (although it enthusiastically fails there too) but in its implications. Just as Identity Crisis made the League wholly ineffectual by sending them off to apprehend numerous villains, none of which were guilty of Sue Dibny’s murder, so does Illuminati take the Marvel heroes down a notch. Some would say that makes them human, but I think it does a little worse here. Now you’re telling me that not only has Reed failed after years and years of research to cure Bruce Banner’s condition, but he’s giving up and settling for taking Banner completely out of the picture? Why not just go the full retcon and say that Reed was a homeless bum who accidentally boarded a shuttle that got hit by cosmic rays, and thus has no inclination for science or heroism whatsoever.

As the opening for a line-wide crossover (or two, or three), does Marvel really expect us to be stuck on choosing a “side”? I think if they had substituted Iron Man for Doctor Doom or the Red Skull, while keeping the same dialogue, no one would bother thinking twice about which side is the “right” one. I was expecting Iron Man to start extolling the virtues of capital punishment and ethnic cleansing.

If Marvel wanted to cause a stir with Illuminati (a name which is never used in the actual story, nor does it have anything to do with the New Avengers), then they’ve more than succeeded by talking down to the intelligence of their readers. The use of the Marvel Universe is illogical, the characters are given forced positions with no rational motivations and the “controversy” is anything but. Which side am I on? Sorry, Illuminati, I’m on the side of quality stories, not forced and contrived events.

Michael Bailey

Plot: Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Professor X, Namor, Reed Richards and Black Bolt meet with Black Panther in his African county of Wakanda to discuss the recent Kree-Skrull War. Iron Man proposes they form a group to meet and defuse potentially dangerous situations before they got out of control. Black Panther wants no part of it, but the rest of the people attending the conference agree with Iron Man. Years later, the group meets to discuss the fate of the Incredible Hulk, which ends in a fight. Soon after, they meet to discuss proposed legislation Iron Man has been given a copy of that would force all supposed super-heroes to reveal their identities and become agents of the government.

Commentary: I was interested in the whole Civil War concept even before I read this book. This is the first time in a long time that something this big coming from Marvel piqued my curiosity, which is saying something considering what a devout DC follower I am. House of M and “DeciMation” held no appeal to me, but the concept of the United States Government trying to get the super-heroes who operate within its borders to reveal their identities and basically become agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is intriguing. So I thought that reading this story would be worth my time since it is the set-up for Civil War.

I was not disappointed.

I’m serious. If you are in anyway interested in Civil War and have been sitting on the fence whether or not to get involved, I suggest you read this story. It is a lot of talking heads and heroes arguing amongst themselves, but at its heart it is a story of some very powerful people with the noblest intentions coming together as a group and falling apart. There is some fighting (a brief one towards the end of the second act) but mostly it is Brian Michael Bendis pulling off some great dialogue and characterization. The scope of the story is pretty big considering the characters involved and the event that precipitated the meeting.

The concept was pretty neat as well. The idea that these characters would have gotten together in a secret cabal to deal with alien invasions, mass disappearances of heroes and villains and other things that go bump in the universe works for me. Some may cry unnecessary revisionist history, but it makes for an entertaining story. Writers have been fiddling with Marvel’s past for years, so doing it now should make no never mind. What is important is the fact that the story stayed true to the characters involved, and everyone acted as I think they would have.

My only real disappointment is the fact that we didn’t get to see the meetings that took place after other events. Take your pick; Secret Wars, Secret Wars II, “Acts of Vengeance,” “Onslaught” (which would have been interesting since some of the characters would have disappeared and the group would have had to deal with their absence), even “Inferno” since that bled into the non X-Men books. I don’t want to give too much away but only three events are dealt with: one that happened three decades ago, one that is currently playing out in the pages of the Incredible Hulk, and the meeting that sets the Civil War in motion. Bendis really hooked me with his dialogue, and I wanted to see more of these characters debating the ramifications of such crises.

In The End: Between the writing, the art and the idea, this book is well worth your time and money. It is a fantastic story that raises questions and issues for the reader to think about and ponder. I really wasn’t expecting too much from this special, but Bendis really surprised me. Alex Maleev’s art complimented the relatively quiet nature of the story, and his layouts added to the tension and drama of the piece. This is a great prologue and does a fantastic job of developing interest in the upcoming event. By the end of this story the question is raised: whose side are you on? No matter your answer, things in the Marvel Universe are about to get a lot more interesting.

Michael Deeley

Ladies and gentlemen, the first Avengers story written by Brian Bendis that doesn’t suck.

After the Kree-Skrull War, Iron Man called a meeting of Earth’s leading super heroes. Reed Richards, Namor, Black Bolt, Prof. X, and Dr. Strange met Iron Man in the Black Panther’s castle. IM suggested that the War might have been prevented if all of Earth’s heroes had worked together; that presenting a united front would discourage future alien attacks. While no one thinks such an organization could work, they do agree to meet regularly to share information and discuss problems unique to their “people.” And they agree to not tell anyone about these gatherings: not their teammates and not their families. The Black Panther wants nothing to do with this. He warns that such secret meetings would ultimately divide and destroy them. He’s later proven correct.

The story ends with Stark telling the group about the upcoming superhuman registration act coming before Congress. It would require anyone with superhuman powers to reveal their identity and work for S.H.I.E.L.D. Refusing to do so will be considered a federal crime. When conflicting sentiments about the legislation are offered, the group splinters, and The Civil War begins.

Finally, FINALLY, Bendis gets a clue! He writes these characters as if he’s actually been reading about them for more than two years. Sure, Tony Stark calling himself a “futurist” is based more on Warren Ellis’ recent reinterpretation of the character, but it would be Stark to suggest a meeting like this. He’s seen the benefits of uniting superhumans as chairman and sponsor of the Avengers. He would believe gathering heroes in a single organization would not only save lives but rehabilitate and control supervillains. While the Panther says such an organization would play into public fears about superbeings, Stark, as a CEO and member of the oft-troubled Avengers, knows public opinion can be swayed. This is 32 pages of real people talking until they shut up and fight. It’s the kind of story Bendis does best.

I’ve enjoyed Alex Maleev’s art on Daredevil. His dark, gritty, photorealistic style is perfect for this story. Dave Stewart confirms his reputation as one of the industry’s best colorists. The story begins in bright Africa and ends in a dark factory. The brightness dims with the passing of time and the growing darkness ahead.

This sounds like a great premise for a crossover. It’s an ideological battle at heart with characters motivated by their personal beliefs. The situation was created by a series of traumatic events that affected the entire world. In short, it’s a uniquely Marvel story.

Kelvin Green

Hang on, is this a spoof? Because the first story idea that comes to mind for me when Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Reed Richards, Namor, Professor X, Black Bolt and Iron Man are involved is not, surprisingly, a lengthy and dull boardroom discussion. It’s such a bizarre and fundamental misunderstanding of these characters, and superheroes in general, that I’m baffled by it. And when you have Strange actually saying, on-panel, that such a gathering would be tied up in discussion and bureaucracy and would not end up doing anything, it makes me wonder whether Bendis is conducting an exercise in stratospheric levels of self-deprecatory irony. Then I remember it’s Bendis, and I realise that it’s just shit. I mean, really, who in their right mind looks at these characters and decides the best use for them is forty-odd pages of empty waffling? I’m all for cerebral superhero comics, but there’s a considerable difference between “intelligent” and “so boring and pointless that I want to drill out my own eyes with an ice cream cone to make the experience go away.”

To be fair, there is a great fight sequence between Iron Man and Namor in the middle third of the book, but we have to wade through a lot of empty dialogue to get to it. And even then, that’s not really what I’m talking about. The characters Bendis has assembled here inspire a certain sense of drama, or at least melodrama, but this is so depressingly staid and lacking in any kind of vitality whatsoever.

What’s worse is that all this gum-flapping is so vacant and unimaginative (“Illuminati”? Oh come on, that’s the best they could do?). The comic is full of ideas and concepts that the writer evidently finds fascinating, but he’s either unable or unwilling to actually explore them, and the end result is something that feels very intellectually dishonest; I wish I had confidence that Bendis would attempt to answer some of these “big” questions he’s asking, but I rather suspect that it’s just empty pretension in order to give this comic, and the crossover event it spawns, the illusion of weighty intellectual importance. After all, since everything that’s said here comes directly from Hawkeye’s rant in “Disassembled” and Bendis did nothing with it then, why should I expect things to go any differently here?

Quite aside from being a below-average comic that’s convinced it’s better than it is, Illuminati is also full of Bendis’s increasingly irritating writing tics. He seems to have recently developed a tendency to have characters break the Fourth Wall and refer to previous storylines by their published titles, and indulges that to a ridiculous extent in this issue. Furthermore, everyone has the same dialogue yet again, which is made all the worse by the nature of the gathering; yes, it’s very realistic and natural-sounding dialogue, but who really expects the likes of Doctor Strange or Namor to have realistic and natural-sounding dialogue? I know it makes me sound like a foamy-mouthed fanboy lunatic, but I’m tired of Bendis’s habit of bludgeoning characters and concepts so that they fit his style, rather than doing the work to properly integrate them into the stories he wants to tell. There are kings, dispassionate scientists, tortured heroes and strange mystics in this comic; they shouldn’t all sound like average guys, let alone the same average guy. It just strikes me as lazy and lacking in imagination.

Alex Maleev surprises me with his contribution to the issue; while he’s a fine artist, I’ve never been convinced of Maleev’s ability to portray superheroic action, but here he completely dispels my doubts. There are a couple of glitches here and there, like the nineteen-foot-tall Hulk and the disturbingly nonchalant S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Iron Man meets, but on the whole this is a great-looking book, and the fight scene is just stunning. If he’s been this good all along, he’s been wasted on Daredevil.

This is an odd comic because the premise is immediately intriguing and promises great things, but that promise is never delivered on. Somewhere in here, there’s a dramatic and exciting superhero comic with some interesting ideas to explore, but sadly, it’s being suffocated by a writer who simply isn’t capable of telling the stories he wants to tell.

Shawn Hill

This is one dumb comic. In its implications it’s worse than New Avengers #16, which was just bad storytelling.

There are two lines I can’t get over.

They both come from Sub-Mariner.

“No family. No wives.”

“How many convicted criminals and supposed ex-mutant terrorists do you have on the Avengers right now?”

The first is the condition upon which Namor will join this secretive all-male coffee klatch. Because we all know wives gossip. Namor is still living in WWII.

The second is Namor’s opinion on the mixed bag of Avengers of “many years ago” (sometime after the Kree-Skrull War). A mutant says this.

Then he should get it right. Wanda and Pietro are not “supposed ex-mutant terrorists.” They are instead mutant supposed ex-terrorists. It may seem like a small change, but it means a lot. Bendis has never understood what mutants are in the Marvel Universe. This comic just makes his misperceptions more glaring.

Prior to Namor’s outburst, Tony Stark (the biggest idiot by far in the story) argues that he convened Black Bolt and Black Panther and Reed Richards and Dr. Strange and Namor because a “unified grouping of heroes that included mutants could smash down barriers.” Isn’t he already on a unified group that includes mutants? The Avengers are beloved protectors of the their country at this point. Why does he need Namor to remind him of that?

Seemingly just to disagree with Namor, Reed supports Iron Man to the extent that he’s right about one thing: cooperation leads to shared information. “We could have dealt with [the Kree-Skrull War] sooner had we met.”

Why do they have to “meet?” The X-Men, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four have for years had access to giant video screens and advanced video teleconferencing long before such things actually happened in our world with help from AOL and Apple. Heck, James Bond had this stuff in 1961.

Everyone certainly seemed to keep in touch in the many crises of the 80s and 90s. They all (all of these world and science leaders) had satellites and Star Trek communicators and teleportation technology and those who didn’t had either telepathy, astral projection, Spider-sense or Cosmic Awareness. The Marvel Universe was nothing if not connected.

“Meet?” What the hell for? Am I reading 1602 all of a sudden?

Iron Man, seriously belying his own words as a “futurist” who sees things before they happen, spends several scenes apologizing to Black Bolt for his inability to communicate. Black Bolt leads an entire nation of god-like beings. He has a means to communicate. Her name is Medusa.

Oh, right.

“No wives.”

Plot: Iron Man’s oligarchy meets in Wakanda. T’Challa backs out immediately. Nobel Prize for T’Challa, please. When they decide to take care of the Hulk Problem, Namor opts out. When Tony gets wind of the Superhero Registration Act, his brilliant strategy is to immediately capitulate. Dr. Strange finally wises up and withdraws. I can’t tell what Black Bolt does because Medusa’s just his wife, but I assume he’s as smart as T’Challa rather than as dumb as Reed.

Exasperation: They used to make movies about this kind of thing, Tony. Assimilation comes after rebellion, not before. Ever heard of a poem called “First they came…” by a Lutheran pastor named Martin Neimoller? Is it because you never “met” him in person? You should really look into broadband.

Bright sides: Maleev has lightened up his noir art to reflect actual superhero costumes. Namor’s in his shiny black wetsuit, and Iron Man in the flashback is in the old armor. Maleev looks a bit like Michael Lark here, which is a marked improvement over his usual fare.

S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Hill comes off as neither a bitch nor an idiot for once. And now at least I know whose side I’m on in Civil War. Poor Peter Parker. He picked the wrong team already.

Judson Miers

According to Wikipedia, the Illuminati (meaning The Enlightenment) have been in existence since the 14th century (although officially organized in 1776) as a secret and subversive group whose membership extends across all borders and cultural periods. I remember when President Bush stated that we would start a “crusade against terrorists (circa September 2001).” Most Americans didn’t understand why this was such an offense to those in the Middle East. They had forgotten their world history and the terrible carnage that was visited upon that region “in the name of God” to regain the Holy Land back from the heathens. I guess, I’m somewhat of a stickler of language because certain “charged” words do MEAN something specific.

The basis of the story is that the “heads” of the major groups of superheroes secretly came together in Wakanda to discuss how to avert the next world disaster. It’s apparent that this is Tony Stark’s meeting and primarily his idea, though everyone in attendance agreed (somewhat grudgingly) except for Namor and T’Challa (a.k.a. The Black Panther). Years later, the group meets again to discuss current happenings and their collective response to them.

Critique: First off, this is not a story about some sort of Illuminati-like group. This is a story about something akin to a Mafia family with the usual levels of discontent. Little was really ever settled, less was actually done (or hinted at being done), and there aren’t any real consequences to the story except for the “I told you so” from Tony Stark.

IF the story was believable, the artwork could be forgiven but neither was good enough. The characters look like they were drawn from action figure dioramas. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’ve got an axe to grind here because I don’t. In fact, I was really looking forward to this prelude to the Civil War story, but I’m really let down and disappointed. The characterizations weren’t right except for Namor’s typical arrogance and temper, the artwork wasn’t good, the dialogue stiff, and the story didn’t do much to help my “buy-into” the upcoming plotlines.

By the way, if this is a story about the Avengers and the most trustworthy members of the major hero groups, who could object to Captain America being in this group? If you can’t trust your national superhero in superhero-type business, who can you trust? Save your money for an Extra Value Meal; it’ll be more filling than this comic.

Dave Wallace

This issue is clearly intended to bind a lot of Marvel’s big summer event comics together, to set up Civil War (and, in retrospect, “Planet Hulk”) and to examine in a little more detail the relationships between the members of Bendis’ secret society which has apparently been at work behind the scenes of the Marvel Universe ever since the Kree-Skrull war. To retcon 30+ years of comics continuity, however subtly, is an ambitious feat, and I’m not well-versed enough in Marvel history to know how many old storylines the very existence of this secret society would seem to contradict. However, on its own terms, the book is reasonably successful, detailing the origins of the “Illuminati” with a more political bent than I expected at the same time as setting up the central conflict of Civil War – and providing a more convincing argument in favour of the registration of Marvel’s heroes than I’ve seen elaborated anywhere else.

Beginning with the first meeting between Iron Man, Reed Richards, Namor, Black Bolt, Charles Xavier, Dr. Strange and the Black Panther, the issue gives us a few glimpses into the group’s history before tying their activities into Marvel’s current continuity. Starting out life as a well-meaning product of Tony Stark’s guilt over the earth’s heroes’ inability to prevent the Kree-Skrull war, the group seems to have the world’s best intentions at heart – yet, as the years go on, the “Illuminati” become a worryingly autonomous and morally questionable secret society who begin to fall apart as it becomes clear that they can’t overcome their differences of opinion on certain key subjects. It’s testament to Bendis’ writing ability that he can make the reader sympathise with all of the characters’ points of view, whether it’s Iron Man’s progressive and proactive desire to have a positive influence on world events, Namor’s detached cynicism, or Black Panther’s unease at the secret and isolated nature of a self-proclaimed planetary protectorate who answer to no-one and can’t even debate issues in a respectful manner between themselves. It’s clear from the offset that the group is headed for a fall, but the fact that the heroes do have such solid reasoning in wanting to be better prepared for the next big global disaster somehow makes its formation believable.

Art-wise, the presence of Bendis’ Daredevil collaborator Alex Maleev works to ground the many colourful heroes in a real-feeling world, and even though I’m not sure that his unflashy style suits some of the more fantastical superheroes quite as well as the street-level types, it comes together better than I expected. Maleev even gets to demonstrate his oft-maligned talents at portraying action sequences here, with a fight between Namor and Iron Man executed very effectively, and a few big splash pages (such as the single panel of the Hulk facing off against the Thing) coming off very well. Even if there are a few misfires – some of the facial work isn’t as strong as I’ve come to expect, and there’s only so much you can do with an issue choc-full of static sequences of heroes sitting round a table having a debate – the overall effect is good and makes me a lot more optimistic about Maleev’s chances of taking on a more unashamedly superheroic book. I was also please to see Daredevil colourist Dave Stewart providing the same function here, as he complements Maleev’s linework with his restrained and atmospheric palette. There’s a strong sense of graphic design at work throughout the issue (even if the style of Gabriel Del’Otto’s cover is somewhat at odds with the interior art – and check out Namor’s posing pouch!), although it’s debatable whether such an ultimately inessential issue deserves such a high-profile art team, other than to boost sales.

Bendis is no Mark Millar when it comes to laying on the political allegory in his big-scale superhero comics (and it’s probably just as well, as the group has enough going on to deal with with their own internal in-fighting without devoting space to extensive real-world analogies) but he does veer into this territory slightly as he begins to outline the political background of the upcoming Civil War, referencing a ‘culture of fear’ which Iron Man foresees as surrounding superheroes in the near future. Tony Stark’s opinion that the Superhero Registration Act is an inescapable and necessary evil that they should just lay down and accept is an interesting one, and one which paints him in a less-than-heroic light despite his realistic approach to the situation. It’s also a marked contrast to the opinion which he stated in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, which suggests either that Marvel editorial aren’t doing their job properly, or that Stark is being willfully deceptive in his dealings with Spidey. If this is the case, it certainly fits with the more Machiavellian tendencies which Spider-Man writer J. Michael Stracynski has recently seen fit to attribute to the character – but I’m not sure it’s a very laudable modification of Iron Man’s personality, since it seems to come out of nowhere and suggests that he’s been lying to his teammate Captain America for years. In fact, it’s interesting that Cap is being left out of the Illuminati altogether, as you’d think that a global protectorate might find some use for a master strategist with more years of experience than any other superhero in the Marvel Universe. Either way, the book sidesteps these issues - perhaps leaving them to be explored by the upcoming Civil War mini itself, or perhaps because Bendis simply wants to paint the Marvel Universe as a darker and more ideologically complex place than the inclusion of heroes of a more straightforward moral character would allow. Of course, the very fact that this society has been kept secret for so long has a certain negative bearing on all of the personalities of the characters involved, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s going to be how they deal with the fallout if and when the Illuminati becomes public that is really going to test how well this retcon fits in with the main players of the Marvel Universe.

Another problem with the book is that, for an issue which is trying to establish the history of a secret society which has been operating in the Marvel Universe for years, we actually get to see very little of their work between the formation of the group and their reaction to present-day Marvel events (with Iron Man again referring to these recent storylines by their published titles, jarring the reader out of the story slightly). Whilst Bendis has probably concentrated on the most important parts of the Illumintati’s history, there’s definitely a sense that we only see what is absolutely necessary to allow us to understand how the group is involved in Civil War and “Planet Hulk,” and that the rest of their tale is being left to other writers to deal with at a later date. It’s also the case that this book isn’t going to mean very much on its own, and that it’s only really going to be a worthwhile purchase for those who are keen on following Civil War over the next few months. There’s not much of a story here, truth be told, but it’s an interesting enough read for those who are keen to find out just what’s been going on with that little group we first saw in the pages of Bendis’ New Avengers last year. However, even then there’s not as much meat added to the bones of the idea as I was hoping, and for all the tidbits that have been dropped in various titles of the last few months about the Illuminati and their influence, fans could be forgiven for expecting this one-shot to amount to something more.

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