Spencer: Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers hasn’t exactly been a character-driven book; that’s not to say Hickman doesn’t have an excellent grasp on the various voices of his cast, but to say that this title is very much driven by the plot, with the characters often feeling like cogs in his Avengers machine. Starting with Avengers 35, though, the title skipped eight months into the future; catching us up to the activities of the various Avengers in this new setting has given Hickman a chance to refocus on his characters, as well as on some of the many plot points that have fallen to the wayside in the last nine months or so. Avengers can sometimes be a hard book to love, but issue 36 continues the return of the kind of storytelling that made me pick up this book in the first place.
Cannonball and Smasher return to Earth to show off their new “mutant-superhuman-superguardian-hyper-gestated” son, Josiah, and in preparation to help Sunspot reform the Avengers, who splintered eight months ago when the Illuminati’s activities were revealed. Sunspot, meanwhile, has his own mission; in the Savage Land, he and the Zebra Children have prepared a pod that can launch its inhabitants halfway across the multiverse, all in hopes of finding and defeating the cause of the multiverse-destroying Incursions. Thor (Odinson), Hyperion, Starbrand, Nightmask, Abyss and the Ex Nihili have volunteered for the mission, and much of the issue is spent examining their reasons for taking what is quite obviously a suicide mission.
In that sense, not much actually happens in this issue, but after nine months of breathless plot with little-to-no room for the characters to breathe, a chance to sit back and reacclimatize to the various Avengers was most needed. Even beyond the characterization, though, this issue feels like a soft-reboot, an opportunity to readdress plot threads that haven’t been touched since Infinity or earlier; Sunspot’s purchase of A.I.M., for example, harkens back to his and Cannonball’s schmoozing with A.I.M. agents in issue 11, and his new office assistant, “Pod”, appears to be one of the creatures the Avengers fought back in issue 16. We return to the Savage Land to find the Zebra Children from issues 12 and 13 acting much more grown up, and Abyss’ diagnosis of the Earth references Starbrand’s destruction of the Earth’s new “brain” in issue 9. None of these ideas move forward very much, but just seeing them referenced again after nearly a year — and being folded into Hickman’s ongoing Incursion plot at that — gives me faith that they’ll be resolved in at least some form, and that our reading of those early issues wasn’t for nothing.
Like I said, though, the highlight of this issue is how it gives us a chance to see what makes each Avenger tick a little. Obviously, this works better for some characters than others; we really have no idea why Starbrand and Nightmask have been out looking at Alephs, for example, other than that they have nothing better to do. The scene with Smasher and her family, meanwhile, is one of the most human and touching scenes in the entire issue, but Isabel continues to be a character defined solely by her relations with the men in her life (her grandfather, Sam, and now her son). Hickman never gets into Smasher’s head or shows anything from her point-of-view, and that’s disappointing.
Despite their more out-there point-of-view, Abyss and Ex Nihilo have one of the more poignant reasons for volunteering:
Ex Nihilo and Abyss’ powers and their views about the universe may be too strange for us to ever fully grasp, but their reasons for acting are simple and powerful: life is a miracle, and it must be protected at all costs. Actually, while it’s a minor theme, the children in this issue (Josiah and the Zebras) may very well represent the miracle of life, how it constantly continues and why it must be protected.
In that sense Hyperion, de facto father to the Zebras, perhaps has the most to lose by going on this suicide mission, but he’s also one of the most resolute. To him service matters, sacrifice matters, and it’s up to him to show that by example to both his friends and his children. Hyperion has become one of my favorite Avengers since this title began, and his steadfast morality is a big reason why.
Then there’s Thor — kinda. As we’ve seen, the man the roll-call now calls “Odinson” is no longer worthy of the name “Thor,” nor his hammer Mjolnir, and that leaves him a man with little to lose and much to prove.
Indeed, while there is no doubt still nobility to Odinson’s actions, he mainly just wants to prove that he’s worthy again. Is that a tad bit selfish? Maybe. But for a man whose whole life has revolved around his worthiness, it’s certainly understandable.
With its focus on characterization, there couldn’t have been a better choice to illustrate this issue than Stefano Caselli. Fresh off a stint on the similarly-focused Avengers World, Caselli has a gift for facial expressions and bringing out the emotion behind each scene. This serves this issue well, but especially when it comes to the Zebra Children; there’s a certain ridiculousness to those kids showing up in suits working for Sunspot, and Caselli’s work perfectly catches the fun behind that idea.
Drew, as someone who hadn’t been keeping up with Avengers over the last few months, are you as happy as I am with the refocusing of this title? Did you enjoy revisiting these Avengers, or are things still moving too slowly for you?
Drew: I think my answer might be “both.” I understand that it would be important to reestablish everyone’s motives after the time-jump — priorities have shifted for many of these characters in the interim — but I feel like we already did that in issue 35. This issue definitely puts a finer point on what’s at stake, going so far as to say that nobody leaving on this mission believes they will return, but then what was the previous issue for? I’ve often been bothered by Hickman’s wheel-spinning tendencies, which only really seems to happen on his Marvel work. I suspect this has something to do with timing out the big events that spin out of his series (Infinity and the upcoming Secret War), but whatever the reason, it often makes entire issues feel pretty disposable.
Retroactively rendering issue 35 irrelevant notwithstanding, I actually enjoyed this issue quite a bit. Getting a better sense of the plan (and what the heroes are actually risking) gives everything a purpose that I think was lacking in the previous issue. Moreover, giving the heroes an opportunity to say what they think might be their final goodbyes cuts to their core in a way that I don’t think we’ve really seen in this series.
Marching off into almost certain doom focuses the heroism on sacrifice in a way that we haven’t seen from this series before. Even during Infinity, it never felt like the heroes were quite so resigned to self-sacrifice. This issue defines a hero as someone who would face certain death in order to save humanity (or the multiverse, as the case may be), which is a refreshing counterpoint to all of the cynicism in New Avengers.
Which I suppose brings me to your point about Thor, Spencer. I don’t think Thor is concerned with his worthiness in quite the way you suggest. He’s defined himself by his ability to wield Mjolnir — which in turn defines his heroism in his mind — but here, he’s no longer concerned about being worthy of Mjolnir, he just wants to be worthy of the heroic end. That is, he wants to be up to the task of dying to save the multiverse. He sees the sacrifice as noble, and hopes that he is capable of such a noble act. That strikes me as heroic (if a little frank about the possibility of not stacking up) and not at all as selfish.
Actually, if anyone is motivated by self-interest, it’s got to be Nightmask and Starbrand. When they meed with Bobby, their discussion doesn’t touch on sacrifice or saving anyone’s life, instead hinging on a dispassionate proposition about “problems.” They’re motivated by their own curiosity above all else, but I think a diversity of motives is important in the group that ultimately leaves — Abyss and the Ex Nihilii want to preserve life, Hyperion wants to save his children, Thor wants to be the hero, and Nightmask and Starbrand want to see cool stuff.
Oh, and not for nothing: the fact that things can be “pushed” into our universe during the collapse of another leaves the door open for any character of any universe making it into good ol’ 616. Perhaps Miles Morales is on his way?
All in all, I’d say I was happy with the issue. I loved the focus on the characters, and Hickman ends it with no real possibility of retreading the same material, so I’m definitely excited for the next issue. Seven months might make for a long countdown, but hey, at least Hickman is acknowledging that he’s on the clock.
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