Today, Spencer and Ethan are discussing New Avengers 13, originally released December 31st, 2013.
Spencer: When you need to fight evil dictators or invading aliens, you call the Avengers, but when you find yourself facing threats a tad more existential, threats that can’t just be punched in the face, you call the Illuminati. Indeed, the Illuminati have spent most of writer Jonathan Hickman’s run on New Avengers trying to solve the Incursion problem, but in this month’s issue they find themselves faced with a threat much more tangible, yet just as overwhelmingly impossible as the Incursions themselves. As Doctor Strange says, the Black Priests are eviler than evil, “darker than dark.”
New Avengers 13 is a bit of a strange issue, as it spends much of its time following a group of alternate Illuminati on Earth-23099 (featuring Charles Xavier, Magneto, and Captain Mar-Vell alongside the typical line-up) as they combat an Incursion. They’re met by a mysterious group of beings calling themselves the Black Priests; they atomize the Illuminati by literally just speaking a word, then proceed to destroy Earth-23099, but not before leaving a message for our Illuminati, who have been watching the events of the issue unfold through a “mirror” Black Swan helped them build.
Meanwhile, Doctor Strange continues to grapple with forces beyond his understanding as he attempts to gain control of the Blu’Dakorr. This scene feels a little off too, partially because it’s confined to a single two-page spread that has no effect on the rest of the issue, and partially because it kind of comes out of nowhere, with no real transition. It’s a tad jarring, but it’s also much more important than it appears at first, largely because of these few lines of narration:
I feel like this statement sums up not only the threat of the Black Priests or the threat of the Incursions, but in fact the themes behind this entire series. The Illuminati have been systematically sacrificing everything important to them in order to ward off the Incursions—a threat beyond our normal understanding—and will likely have to sacrifice much more before things are resolved. The Black Priests as well emerge in this issue as a threat darker than dark and far beyond the understanding of the natural or supernatural, as they so aptly point out:
Instead of defining themselves by any of these simple disciplines, the Black Priests operate under the power of just a few words, words so powerful that just speaking them instantly murders all of Earth-23099’s Illuminati. It’s a power beyond anything we can yet articulate, and Hickman wisely avoids trying to explain them at this early juncture.
Indeed, this issue is all about introducing and hyping the Black Priests, and in that sense I found it massively effective. In the past I’ve criticized Hickman’s hype machine, and I stand by those criticisms; Hickman’s habit of introducing multiple new threats before the old ones are even taken care of and doing little to define those threats can be exhausting to deal with. Yet, the introduction of the Black Priests doesn’t fall into this pitfall at all; instead, the issue focuses on them as a singular threat, shows us why they’re so dangerous instead of just telling us we should be afraid of them, and folds them into the ongoing narrative of the Incursions instead of just listing them off as some faceless threat we should be concerned about in the future. They’re unnatural and scary and threatening in all the right ways, and I’m excited to see more of them.
Where this issue stumbles a bit, though, is with its status as an Inhumanity tie-in. It’s advertised as a fairly crucial part of the issue, what with the book’s actual numbering being “New Avengers 13.INH”, its title being “Inhumanity”, and the giant “Inhumanity” banner on the cover accompanied by artwork featuring Black Bolt and his newly hatching brethren; in all actuality, though, the Inhumans barely factor into this issue. They’re discussed briefly, when the Illuminati of Earth-23099 recap their version of the Terrigon Bomb’s detonation, and Reed-23099 seems to think they may complicate things when they try to investigate the Incursion, but none of that comes to pass; instead, the Black Priests wipe out the newly-hatched Inhumans with barely a thought and they’re never mentioned again. I don’t know whether tying-in with Inhumanity was forced or not, but it is a waste of time.
In fact, the only real worth I can find to those scenes is their revealing that Earth-23099’s Black Bolt has been deposed as King of the Inhumans because of his dealings with the Illuminati. It reinforces this series’ theme of sacrifice we mentioned earlier, and it also mirrors what’s currently going on with T’Challa, not to mention the dark future Iron Man 3030 predicted for our Tony Stark. Still, this isn’t really enough to hinge an entire tie-in on.
I also wasn’t a huge fan of Simone Bianchi’s pencils; I thought they suited the bizarre Black Priests, but that the other characters just looked strange and occasionally misshapen under her style. I admit that I might be biased, though; I am a huge fan of previous penciller Mike Deodato and really missed his work this month. Ethan, what’s your opinion on Bianchi’s work? Did you get anything more out of the Inhumanity stuff I may have missed, or did you find a waste of time/missed opportunity as well? Did Hickman manage to get you interested in the Black Priests, or is it just too much hype for you? Answer any way you like, as long as you don’t repeat any of the Priests’ magic words; I’ve grown to like this body and don’t want to see it melt, thank you.
Ethan: Well, there goes my opening paragraph then, thanks buddy. I was about to kill you and all of our readers by dropping a Black-Priest-bomb, but you went and ruined the surprise.
Honestly, I liked just about everything in this one, including the art. This issue played with a couple of strong, quintessential concepts, laying a foundation for the next arc by evoking a few powerful ideas. Specifically, the forms of Passivity and Agency were superimposed on top of the two sides: the Illuminati governed by the first, and the Black Priests embodying the second. I appreciated the change in the art because the thicker outlines and sketchier shapes on the page ended up giving a bit of a stained glass feel to things, which is an appropriate medium for the tone.
What occupies the Illuminati for the entire issue? Building the Mirror – a way to spy in on alternate realities, specifically to see the death of parallel Earths. Yes, they’re a roomful of geniuses and warriors, and they have all kinds of fancy toys and abilities to play with. Even the action of fabricating and adapting the Mirror itself could be seen as a sort of agency, or exertion of will on their surroundings, but ultimately, it’s still a Mirror: it’s still just a means of observation, of looking at somewhere else and someone else.
Likewise, although Doctor Strange is shown to be jumping around, pounding the ground like he’s challenging John Henry for the Human Pile-Driver record, that’s all in the astral plane or in a demonic dimension or something. His primary goal is to search the nooks and crannies of the Blu’Dakorr, to look for hints as to how he can find new, greater power. Again, he’s pretty much doing the mystical version of “keep your eyes peeled.”
Enter the Black Priests. Like you say, Spencer, this issue is all about hyping these guys up. With the Builders taken out and Thanos on ice, the remaining threat is the incursions. Kind of a broad threat – we need to give a new face to the danger, and the Black Priests are it. Much to the chagrin of the heroes of Earth-23099.
Speaking of whom – I’ve often mentioned how much I like seeing alternate versions of our familiar heroes (I hearted the Young Avengers mayfly dimensions so hard), and I’ve also said a thing or two about the visceral appeal of getting to watch your favorite heroes die horrible deaths (I’m looking at you, Age of Ultron). Earth-23099 is much closer to the Ultron days, but it’s fun to see Xavier alive and Magneto rubbing elbows with the good guys on Team Illuminati. Though honestly, even though Erik has those sweet magnetism powers, I can’t say I see how he’s qualified to sit at the table with the grown-ups. He’s never demonstrated the mental capacity of the rest of bunch, and his leadership track record is pretty dismal, so it does seem like he’s there as a little kid on Bring Your Child to Work Day with Xavier.
In any case, the combined strategic and tactical powers of the group ends up being far too little, and we see their meat shredded from their bones when the Black Priests speak. While I’m always glad to see Professor X again, did it really have to be to see him killed off again? Too soon, right? I guess, at least it was Cosmic Evil that snuffed him this time rather than the son-figure? Silver lining.
Getting back to the point, the Black Priests are the agents here, the ones with the will to power, the ones with the capacity to Change Things. Where the Illuminati of Earth-616 are defined by the action of looking, of standing by and just watching, the Black Priests are all about that Word, the one that lets them reduce reality to ash when it’s uttered.
So much of fiction and mythology is about the power of the spoken word, the power of spells and chants. This word has a bit of that flavor, though it transcends the fuzzy mystery of magic and surpasses the stuffy Power of Knowledge held by the scientist like Reed Richards. This sort of Word feels more like the Judaic Old Testament logos, the infinite, eternal, divine sort of speaking things into and out of existence, not because the words tap into some energy or pool of power, but because the words are more like the ones gods use to create and destroy.
That, or the Black Priests get their awesome powers from wearing those sweet hats all the time. We’re all friends here, you can be honest with me: look me in the eye and try to tell me you were not jealous of those domes, man. And they’re all different styles!
Which makes sense, because think about if you showed up to Black Chapel time and the guy standing next to you in the Black Pew was wearing the same Black Priest Giant-Golden-Eyeball-Miter as you were? Awwwwwkward.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?