A Smarter World:

Hickman’s Avengers #1-3

Judging a long form story based on a small glimmer of it month to month doesn’t make much sense.  You can judge a cake from a slice, but this isn’t cake!  Stories trace trajectories.   A story takes the reader beyond the horizon of right now.  To take one apart, segment it, then judge each segment rather than the whole is a weird enterprise – and I am not sure who get’s the benefit of it.

So, when it comes to reviewing comics, it seems better to take a long, involved look at the overall story, rather than a glance at an issue.  Let’s begin.

When the Avengers movie released in May 2012, to say it was a success is a complete understatement.  Avengers was a cultural barnstormer and everyone’s mouths at Marvel salivated in response.  It’s a Pavlovian response at this point when a comic book movie is a success, the publishing company sees dollar signs and starts to ramp up production on trade paperbacks and revivals.  Obviously an Avenger‘s comic relaunch was not far off.  Now, here is where it gets weird though.  Brian Michael Bendis was the chief engineer of the Avengers books.  He had been writing them for almost a decade at this point.  When Marvel relaunched the Avengers property with two books (The adjectiveless Avengers and the new New Avengers) they went with a new writer.  A writer that was known for weird, post-modern science fiction with a heavy design leaning.  In an intriguing move by Marvel, Jonathan Hickman would write both Avengers books.

The weirdness of Hickman is he packs his stories with ideas the way Chipotle stuffs their burritos, to the point of worry that the whole thing might explode.  He comics are ripe with cultural criticisms, speculative physics, violence, anti-heroes, and consequences.  Much of what Hickman does makes people wonder:  Is he insane?  Is he a genius?  or is he just another mediocre writer trying to get by on some clever ideas.  After reading his first Avengers story Avengers World I have to say genius is a fitting title.  Hickman takes the Avengers off planet, thus widening the scale of this book from largely centered in America/Earth (though Avenger’s always had a sci-fi/space opera tinge to it – see Skrull/Kree war, Secret Invasion, and such), to galactic (a tactic that is showing payoff throughout his entire run.)

And Hickman’s Avengers is definitely galactic.  In fact, his run stretches all the way back to the start of the universe: the big bang.  What better way to discuss how life expanded through the universe than to start at the its creation.  Not only life itself through the universe, but the evolution of life. Also, keep in mind that while this first story is 3 issues, everything in this Avengers series is leading up to the next big Marvel event: Infinity.

Now, to help get us there, Hickman is spending a lot of time building up.  You don’t get much more build up than starting at the Big Bang. It’s easy to see that Hickman’s scope is wide here.  He is taking the reader from nothing to everything.  This page also settles into a theme Hickman will carry far in this 3 issue story: binaries/dualities.  Everything and nothing.  Ex Nihilo and Abyss.  Us and Them.  Captain America and Iron man.  Life and Death.

Hickman seems to love the idea of binaries and dualities.  There is an inescapable drama caught in the nexus of them.  The play and ambiguity between poles.  Something to Nothing.  And back.  Hickman isn’t trying to take an easy path.  As can be seen in the first few pages where Tony wakes up Steve (a scene that Captain America would re-enact worldwide at the end of the first issue.)  There is a bookend quality to the writing and art.  It’s like mirrors are being laid out everywhere.  But, Hickman seems bent on developing these binaries into something else.  What could have been an easy story of:  bad guy bombs Earth from his perch on Mars, good guys come to Mars, fight happens, there is somet trouble, good guys prevail.  Status quo is restored.  This is not that comic.

Instead of relying on an easy binary of good guy/bad guy, Hickman muddies the moral waters a bit.  The characters on Mars(Ex Nihilo, Abyss, Aleph, and a gestating Night Mask), firing evolution bombs at Earth, are not villains, not really.  Hickman portrays them as antagonists for sure, but even Ex Nihilo isn’t a villain really.  He is a character trying to save life by transforming it into something new, something not quite this and not quite that.  His man speeches belie a character that wants life to strive (though he may break a few eggs along the way.)  By ‘waking the world’ Hickman seems to want to show a new way.  Perhaps we are so used to thinking in binary terms that Hickman is trying to stir the part, activate the reader to the potential in comics that isn’t being addressed in most mainstream books (I say potential because comics are a hyper-medium that sit at the crossroads of film and novels, anything is possible with them.) That the world doesn’t have to be divided and in fact, there can be a synthesis that acts in the universe’s (and therefore our) best interest.  In fact, Hickman seems primarily interested in creating a new universe (spoilerish pun not intended) for this Avengers team, one complete with what will be called “An Avengers World.”

The X-Men recently, via Matt Fraction, tried to create a mutant utopia that went south, as it should.  What Hickman is doing is not a re-tread of that at all.  This isn’t a super-hero world where men fly in the sky.  This is an Avengers world, and it’s going weird really quick.  In many ways, Hickman’s first run on the series shifts the paradigm of superhero comics. His, and Jerome Opena’s, blending of decompressed and compressed storytelling that has a novel effect:  it tells the story.  I know this seems like a joke, but Hickman and Opena are creating a storytelling synthesis here that truly does supersede it’s foundations.

Really this is a hallmark of Hickman’s writing.  His heavy design work has definitely poured over into comics and this book is the better for it.  This isn’t to say the book is perfect.  Now, while there are some things that just don’t work in this first story, that could also be because we don’t have the full picture.  Hickman is giving us several glimpses into the future, but ultimately these scenes don’t make sense yet.  They are simply a taste of the too come, which will make sense (I assume) once Hickman wraps up his grand narrative.  Perhaps this is why, In many ways, the intelligence on display in Hickman’s run feels more like Star Trek and less like X-Men.  Meaning, less resolution through fights and more focus on brains and exploration.

But, it’s not just his ideas that Hickman dazzles with.  There is a denseness to his writing that relies heavily on that synthesis of compressed/decompressed storytelling.  Often the compressed scenes are fast moving and rely heavy on character interactions which is told in a decompressed style.  This means Hickman is evolving his storytelling beyond one or the other.  He is breaking with the typical patterns for a hybrid paneling that supersedes the other two, just as he hopes to do with superheroes as well.

Don’t panic, there is some cool super heroics in this book: team building, new villain of a larger threat.  It is all here.  But there is an almost total lack of grand standing in exchange for long speeches about progress and evolution or just world-building by Hickman.  Despite not having the typical dressing of a superhero comic, there is still so much to love and wonder at in Hickman’s Avengers World storyline.

But, once again, there is some cool stuff happening in this storyline.  From Ex-Nihilo (who might be one of the most complex and interesting ‘villains’) to Cap fighting Aleph.  Cap is being held down and pummeled by Aleph during the first issue.  With each punch Aleph asks Cap to yield, Cap through what must have been a broken face, still tries to mutter ‘no.’  There is also the end part of #1 where Cap starts to awaken the world.  It’s a very powerful,cool call to arms scene.  One that seems to start the evolution of Earth into an Avengers World.

There are many interesting characters at play in Avengers World.  The Garden is about as interesting an idea on display in a Marvel comic in some time.  Here we have a villain that isn’t looking to rule or destroy.  Ex Nihilo is a villain after something more ethereal: evolution.  But, not just evolution as it is, but the consequences of evolving.

Which is one of the reasons Ex Nihilo and the Gardeners are such a weird “villain”.  Ex Nihilo himself does not want to kill anyone.  In fact, he seems to revere life in a way that Aleph and even Abyss do not understand.  But, Hickman isn’t just throwing out new “villains” for this series.  Hickman is building the Marvel Universe(s) from the start, from the Big Bang.

This is perhaps where the complaints of Hickman’s run miss. Hickman is playing against two (perhaps more) fronts, but he does so gracefully.  He isn’t just giving the reader a three issue story that will never be spoken about again – except maybe as continuity fodder.  Instead, Hickman is adopting a more TV-esque attitude that everything is building towards a long form story with a climax and ending.  It seems similar to what Spencer is doing with his Image comics series Morning Glories, where the stories are told in seasons which run over 26 issues.

It’s easy to see that Hickman is taking more of a TV approach to writing this series.  While comics have always been rather TV like, Hickman is taking this gambit full on.  There isa  season 1 feel to his writing that not only invites new readers, but welcomes old readers into the fold.  Now, there are complaints that there is so much on display, it’s almost difficult to take it all in.  I know it can seem daunting for some readers, but the pay off throughout the series is well worth the initial investment.

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Kevin Thurman is a writer based in Chicago. He blogs about comics, life, and music at errantghost.tumblr.com.

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  1. I’m liking what Hickman is doing. My only complaint and disappointment is his lack of any character moments. I consider his Fantastic Four run one of the best comic book runs of the last ten years. It’s incredible for the same epic storytelling he’s doing with his Avengers run. But I also loved it for the intimate character moments, whether it was seeing the relationship between Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm, the struggles between Sue Storm and Reed Richards, the fun interactions between the FF kids and Valerias/ Bentley’s mini romance. It’s moments like those that made that run shine. It’s unfortunate that his current run is pure plot and no character. It’s a good story, very rewarding, but Hickman gives it no time to deal with some of the characters and have some good character moments. It’s especially disappointing considering that Hickman picked a strong line up of characters. Hopefully that improves in the future.

    • Aldo,
      I had noticed the same trend in the Avenger’s stories. Do note that as the series progresses (hell even after the first 3 issues) you definitely start getting those great character moments and scenes. In fact, you get more of them than perhaps most other mainstream Marvel books (Captain Marvel by DeConnick aside, oh, and Young Avengers). But I think it was a very shrewd tactical gambit on Hickman’s part to run the story this way. It really focuses on Tony and Steve and how from that duality comes this Avengers world (from Life/Steve and Death/Tony), but it also sets up this event that has been moving the book forward in a rather novel way.

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