Hickman begins Avengers #1 like a creation story, the theme of creation being prevalent throughout the three-issue opening arc: “First there was nothing. Then everything.” As we will see, this is juxtaposed against New Avengers #1, the dark underside of Hickman’s epic, which begins with Reed Richards’ ominous statement: “Everything dies.” Even here at the beginning, Hickman is weaving together a complex science-fiction tale with larger than life themes intermingled with each other.
“Then we raced toward the light.” Again, Hickman appears to be drawing on creation imagery (“Let there be light”) to set the thematic tone for his tale, a tale about the birth and death of the Marvel multiverse even as it sets up the creation (and the destruction) of an idea—an Avengers World!
The first nine pages act as a prologue not simply to the main threat in this arc, but for Hickman’s entire run, and he engages in some non-linear storytelling and foreshadowing of future events. How did the spark for the idea of the Avengers World, the expanded roster and legend of the Avengers World begin? Perhaps it started with Hyperion (a member of the Squadron Supreme, a group of often-despotic Justice League pastiches who have troubled the Avengers for years, although this particular version of Hyperion is unlike his more despotic multiversal counterparts. More on that in future entries!) and his appearance on Earth-616 (the multiversal designation for the main Marvel continuity). Not so, says Hickman. Nor did it begin when the Shi’ar Imperial Guard broke (events in Avengers #5). Nor did it begin when Ex Nihilo terraformed Mars (the threat in this issue).
It happened before the light (an allusion to the White Event from Warren Ellis’s New Universe and the events of Avengers #7. Again, more later!). Before the war (Infinity). Before the Fall (some websites, like TV Tropes, understands this to refer to Secret Wars. However, given that Hickman seems to indicate that the events depicted here were meant to be completed before the series when in a new direction, i.e., the 8-month time jump to the “Time Runs Out” arc, a better conclusion is that the events refer to Avengers #29 when Cap and the Avengers confront Tony and he sicks a number of Iron Man armors on them. This better fits the image of the multiple fallen Iron Man armors).
How did it start? With two men. With an idea.
Hickman transitions to a scene of Tony waking up Steve, who wakes up with a faint memory of the members of the Illuminati standing over him. This is an allusion to the events in the first few issues of New Avengers. It might be important at this point to explain why I chose to start with Avengers and not New Avengers. A lot of websites argue that it is better to begin Hickman’s story by reading New Avengers 1-3 first. This may have something to do with some readers liking a more linear narrative, one in which Captain America’s brief flashback already makes sense to the reader. However, I enjoy Hickman’s non-linear approach to storytelling in his prologue and think that starting out with a more traditional story of superheroics in Avengers and then undercutting that with the darkness and betrayal of New Avengers provides a nice counter-point, as if to say “things are not as hopeful as they first appeared.” Later, Hickman will describe Steve and Tony as Life and Death. Avengers could be called the book of Life, showing the Avengers as Steve believes they should be—noble heroes, above reproach. By contrast, New Avengers is in many ways Tony’s book, reflecting the dark side of being a hero, with a group of flawed protagonists making hard and morally compromising decisions. First life, then the grim reality of death.
As Tony and Steve talk, they acknowledge the growing threats they face, and Tony credits Steve with the observation: “We have to get bigger.” As I mentioned in my previous post, Brian Michael Bendis’s run on the Avengers ended with Iron Man saying, “We go bigger.” Oddly, Hickman credits Steve with having said that. Whether this was a mistake on Hickman’s part, or whether Hickman may not actually have been directly referencing the end of Bendis’s run, I can’t say. It’s only a small continuity flub, but worth bringing up considering it reflects the end of Bendis’s long run on the title and the theme of this issue.
The story skips ahead one month. We see the surface of Mars, terraformed with vegetation, and we are introduced to the characters Ex Nihilo and Abyss and a robot accompanying them called an Aleph. Again, the theme of creation is on full display, as Ex Nihilo waxes eloquently about the goddess creating the universe (the goddess we learn is actually Captain Universe, who will appear later in the arc). Ex Nihilo is designed to create (and his name directly references the idea of “creation ex nihilo” or out of nothing). His character recalls the tragic figure of Prometheus in many significant ways. His demeanor comes across as that of a playful trickster even as he seems to have, from his own perspective, humanity’s best interests at heart. He says, “I hurl origin bombs—not fire—Earthward. I don’t want to be a destroyer of worlds…I want to build one.” The Promethean example of providing fire for humans is recalled here as Ex Nihilo hurls his origin bombs, designed to alter and accelerate evolutionary change, at Earth. This is in contrast to Ex Nihilo’s companions, the robot Aleph, who has marked the Earth for destruction, and Ex Nihilo’s sister Abyss, whose very name conjures up the idea of a void of nothingness, representing creative potential. She is unimpressed with humanity. Tying together various religious and Promethean themes, Ex Nihilo is growing a “perfect” version of a human, whom he dubs, “The New Adam. The First Man. Our Son” (this is later revealed to be Nightmask, one of creations from the New Universe).
The new residents of Mars take note of the incoming Avengers quinjet, and we see a familiar Avengers roster: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Bruce Banner (the Hulk). Given that the publication date for this issue was in December 2012, it makes sense that it started with this familiar cast of characters, especially if the goal was to bring in new fans who had seen the movies but had never picked up an Avengers comic book. Hickman notes, however, that this was in no way a mandate from Marvel; rather, it keeps with the theme of an expanding Avengers roster, with Hickman stating, “I think that’s where we start, right? And that kind of goes back to the point of what we’re going for, is that we kind of start where everyone is familiar now. We expand forward.”
As we read the story, we find out that over two million people died in just one of the locations where the gene bomb hit. Asked if he has anything to add, Bruce says, “The time for talk is over,” and turns into the Hulk (one is reminded of Banner’s “I’m always angry” transformation in the first Avengers movie).
As the fight begins, we watch the Avengers get systematically dismantled. Hulk is swallowed in darkness by Abyss, who manipulates him into attacking Thor. Meanwhile, Ex Nihilo captures Tony and begins pealing off his armor, only to be interrupted by Black Widow and Hawkeye, who demand, “Put down the man with all the money. Please,” although they are quickly taken down.
Finally, only Captain America is left standing. He throws his shield, which is promptly caught by the Aleph, who demands that Cap yield. When Cap refuses, the Aleph beats him to a pulp (I guess Cap figured he could do this all day?). Cap is then strapped into the quinjet and sent back to Earth where his ship breaks up on re-entry, and he falls to the streets in New York, a message from the visitors on Mars to the people of Earth that their greatest champions have been defeated (I’m a little incredulous about his depiction of the supersoldier serum’s ability to keep Cap alive and heal his body. Wolverine’s healing factor has increased considerably over the years such that I would believe that he could survive that fall, but Cap’s durability and healing abilities are far less defined and seem to depend on the writer).
Three days later, Cap is recovering in Avengers Tower, staring at a screen for the Avengers World recalling his conversation with Tony: “We have to get bigger.”
Hickman waxes eloquently about Captain America’s significance to the Avengers and to the world of Marvel’s superheroes: “He was the first—our very best. So when he called, what hero would not answer? It started with an idea. The spark that started the fire was expansion. Our captain spoke, and gave the idea form, He said the words, and made it real. He said…Assemble at Dawn.”
As Cap says these words, the undisclosed narrator writes, “And how could we not? We were Avengers.”
Here, the issue ends with a shot of the expanded line-up: Captain Universe, Hyperion, Smasher, Spider-Woman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Manifold, Falcon, Shang-Chi, Captain Marvel, Cannonball, and Sunspot.
There are multiple layers and themes to explore in this first issue along, themes that get further explored as the series runs its course but no theme sticks out more than that of creation in this issue.
***My apologies for the lateness of the release of this blog series. My life picked up some steam right around the time I set out on this project to evaluate Hickman’s Avengers run, but now with Hickman’s X-Men coming out, it seemed like no better time than to revisit this series, especially now that I will be recruiting co-writers to help me make my way through it. Cheers!