Jonathan Hickman’s run on the Avengers picks up just after Brian Michael Bendis’s eight-year run on the title came to an end. Bendis’s time on the title was a veritable event generating machine, beginning with Avengers Dissembled and running through House of M, Secret Invasion, and Avengers v. X-Men (just to name a few).
Reading Bendis’s last issue of the Avengers, it certainly feels like his time on the title was up and it was time to move onto different projects to which he could bring fresh ideas and energy (which he did with the X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, and now Superman).
Unlike Bendis, who took over the Avengers while it was still (unthinkably) a B-list title in Marvel’s catalogue, which allowed him to innovate and disrupt the title, deconstructing and reconstructing the Avengers mythos with an admitted sense of mischievous glee, Hickman took over the title at a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was exploding and the Avengers became one of the highest grossing movies of all time, making the Avengers a household name. Later, Hickman’s Avengers event comic Infinity would actually go on to influence Avengers: Infinity War.
Hickman’s run picks up a number of threads left over from Bendis’s run on the series, including the use of the secretive Illuminati as a storytelling device and the conflict between Namor and the Black Panther instigated when a Phoenix-possessed Namor drowned Wakanda in Avengers v. X-Men. Other threads from Bendis’s run would be picked up by Rick Remender in his Uncanny Avengers series, not necessarily relevant for our purposes, such as the ongoing saga of the Scarlet Witch’s relationship with the mutant community and her fellow Avengers, the return of Janet van Dyne, and the redemption of Wonder Man.
However, the big idea that drives the opening story of Avengers #1 picks up from the very last line of Bendis’s last Avengers issue. The Avengers throw a party in Avengers Tower to celebrate the return of Janet van Dyne. The room is full of Avengers past and present. In the corner, Captain America laments to Iron Man that no matter how hard the Avengers try, they never seem to be able to do enough to make the world a better place. Iron Man’s solution to Cap’s dilemma is simple: “We go bigger.”
And that’s how Hickman’s story begins—with an idea that bigger stakes require a bigger roster of heroes. An Avengers Machine creating an Avengers World. As Hickman points out, the idea of an “Avengers World” in part refers to increased diversity on the team, which in the first movie consists of five white men and a white woman. It is actually the six characters from the movie who appear as the opening line-up for the roster and then get thoroughly beaten by the first issue’s antagonists, but more on that in a later post.
But the main Avengers title only tells half the story. Concurrently, Hickman began work on the New Avengers, which follows the Illuminati (Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Black Panther, Black Bolt, Namor, Beast, and Mr. Fantastic) as they attempt to ward off a secret threat not only to Earth, but to the multiverse itself, calling into question each man’s moral integrity along the way.
While Avengers tells more traditional, larger-than-life stories of heroes facing fantastic threats, the New Avengers tells the story of a group of flawed men trying to avert the inevitable and struggle with making unthinkable decisions to save their world.
Hickman’s tale runs through Avengers #1-44 and New Avengers #1-33 as well as the event comics Infinity #1-6 and Secret Wars #1-9.
While Hickman’s run, read as a whole, tells a fairly self-contained epic (which is no small feat in an era of constant crossovers and “event fatigue”), it brings in elements from his preceding runs on Secret Warriors and the Fantastic Four, the now defunct-Ultimate Universe, and even the so-called “NewUniverse” (an imprint focusing on characters from an alternate earth with stories focusing on a more “realistic” take on superheroes). This series, originally launched in 1986 to celebrate Marvel’s 25th anniversary, was later rebooted by Warren Ellis in 2006. Its concepts are heavily employed throughout Hickman’s run.
Additionally, the runs of other authors lightly intersect with Hickman’s run with varying degrees of significance. While Rick Remender’s Uncanny Avengers run (oddly) never really intersects with Hickman’s (even though it might’ve made sense to tie in Remender’s title as a part of the Avengers Machine), Remender’s Captain America series affects Hickman’s Avengers story by de-aging Captain America, a decision that Hickman rolls with. But you can’t help but wonder if Hickman would have preferred that not to have happened, given the confrontation between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark in Avengers #44. (As the world crumbles around them, Steve confronts Tony about the lies and betrayals he committed against Steve throughout Hickman’s run).
A more interesting tie-in, and maybe one of the few that actually matters, comes from Jason Aaron’s Original Sin event, which lays the groundwork to exposing the actions of the Illuminati as well as their secret betrayal of Captain America. Original Sin is also the event that made Thor unworthy of lifting his hammer Mjornir, and, unlike Cap’s de-aging, it actually plays a significant role in Thor’s characterization throughout the backend of Hickman’s story.
Hickman’s Avengers is as epic in scale as you can get with comic book storytelling. Drawing in elements from previous works and other authors while maintaining a tight narrative is no small task, especially while writing a story imbued with high concept sci-fi themes. The scope of Hickman’s tale along with the quality of his writing makes Hickman one of the truly great comic book writers.
Next time, we will begin to explore Hickman’s Avengers epic by exploring Avengers #1.