Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers #1:

Memento Mori

If Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers #1 begins with a creation story, his New Avengers starts out with a less hopeful proclamation: “Everything Dies.”

Hickman’s New Avengers #1 opens with a one-page prologue providing a recap of the origin of the Illuminati from 2006’s New Avengers: Illuminati #0. When Brian Michael Bendis took the reigns of the Avengers comics in 2004, one of the retcons he made was to a establish a secret society of superhero leaders consisting Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Black Bolt, Charles Xavier, Mr. Fantastic, and Namor the Sub-Mariner. While the group first appears in New Avengers #7 in 2005, their history is established in New Avengers: Illuminati #0. Bendis established that after the Kree-Skrull War (a popular Avengers storyline from the 1970s), Iron Man called a meeting in Wakanda of the above-mentioned heroes, plus Black Panther, and attempted to form a council that could share information to prevent such an event from happening again.

The recap provides a glimpse of that first meeting and its ending. While almost everyone in the group agrees to continue meeting in secret, T’Challa refuses to join the group, admonishing them to walk away. He chides them for thinking that they can make difficult decisions in private without the consent of their families and teammates. He then asks: “What happens when you disagree? When one of these Earth-changing moments finds you all at odds with each other, here in a secret meeting? What happens then? Walk away now.” Hickman wryly notes, “They did not.”

Hickman has not included this scene simply to provide a history of the Illuminati for those who are unfamiliar with the group, but this question of T’Challa’s, “What happens when you disagree?” plays an important part in this initial arc and will have repercussions in the second half of his overall story, particularly in the forthcoming conflict between Captain America and Iron Man (more on this two blog posts from now).

This recap is followed by the title of the issue, which serves as a fitting and recurring theme throughout Hickman’s New Avengers: “Memento Mori.” The title is a Latin phrase meaning “remember that you must die.” Here, I must acknowledge my own lack of training in Latin (the problem with a Protestant v. Catholic upbringing) and admit my dependence upon Wikipedia. “Memento Mori” is “an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death.” Hickman’s ongoing tale in New Avengers is nothing if not that — an artistic reminder of death’s inevitability. The very first page of the main story underscores this with Reed Richards’s opening words, “Everything dies.”

His speech continues, “You. Me. Everyone on this planet. Our sun. Our galaxy. And, eventually, the universe itself. This is simply how things are. It’s inevitable… and I accept it.” Hickman will return to this speech in issue #2. But first, he jumps back in time 26 hours to show his readers exactly how the story got to this point.

Before continuing, it is worth pointing out how much Hickman has told us just with these opening pages. He’s indicated the role that Black Panther would play, not only by a focus on his words in the recap but even by the cover art, with T’Challa front and center. He’s foreshadowed a coming dissension in the ranks of the Illuminati, the outcome of which will have tragic consequences. And he’s placed the theme of death and its inevitability at the beginning of this issue.

With the prologue material out of the way, the story begins with a hopeful scene. In Wakanda, 26 hours before Reed will make his Memento Mori speech, the focus rests on a group of young Wakandans engaged in a series of “games”; tests to determine their status as “Makers,” those innovative minds who will guide Wakanda’s future intellectual and cultural success.  These young people represent hope and the future, two elements that New Avengers will cause to crumble, especially in the face of death and the future ruin of Wakanda that is coming later in Hickman’s story.

The youths solve one final puzzle located on what looks like an ancient ruin. The ruin contains a riddle about tradition, that, to quote one of the youths, helps them to “remember where we came from… on the way to where we’re going.” The ruin then opens up, revealing a stellar cartography map of a different galaxy. This little detail actually sets up certain elements of Ta-Nehesi Coates’s run on Black Panther, which focuses, in part, on Wakanda and space travel. Coates has recommended Hickman’s version of Black Panther and Secret Wars in particular, as noted here and here. Coates acknowledges his appreciation for continuity and Jason Aaron has gone on record as confirming that Coates had the scene from New Avengers #1 in mind when he introduced the Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda.

The youths are interrupted by T’Challa, now no longer king of Wakanda, having been replaced by his sister Shuri (although he is still Black Panther and king of the Necropolis, the Wakandan city of the dead, where the Illuminati will hold a majority of their meetings). T’Challa speaks with the Makers about the future of Wakanda being in the stars with the West giving up on their space program and the East crawling toward space. It is Wakanda, he says, that will have the most preeminent space program.

This forward-looking scene of hope for the future and the promise of youth is interrupted by tremors and a charging rhino coming out of the portal, from where they know not. T’Challa puts his arm through the portal instructing the youths not to follow (which they do anyway).

The next two pages are a really great use of the comic medium to illustrate the movement through the portal with the gutter serving as the transition point between the blue-sky of Wakanda, to the red sky of an isolated dimensional zone, which will come to be known as an “incursion point,” with another Earth in the sky preparing to collide with the main Marvel Earth. T’Challa sees a pale being known as the Black Swan, surrounded by armed guards, and a blonde man who readers find out is the Manifold of the other Earth.

The Swan and Manifold speak in another language. One of the Makers, Kimo, steps forward to ask them what they are doing there. After all, he says, “What kind of future astronaut-explorer is afraid of a little first contact?” This he does to T’Challa’s disapproval. Black Panther steps forward, noting that the language they’re speaking is High Sumerian. The Swan responds, “And you speak English…So it’s one of those earths.” T’Challa asks what they’re doing, but the Swan says none of them can summon an incursion and mentions the religion of Rabum Alal, who demands the destruction of such worlds apparently. (The identity of Rabum Alal will be revealed during the second half of Hickman’s run, “Time Runs Out.”) The Swan asks T’Challa if she told him she came to destroy a world, would he try and stop her. “I would do more than try,” he responds, although he doesn’t realize they’re referring to the other Earth.

The Black Swan orders her men to kill T’Challa and the Makers. T’Challa is able to save himself and one of the Makers, N’Kono, with a shield, but the others are killed with weapons that burn off their flesh. N’Kono strikes one of the men, but T’Challa teleports he and N’Kono out of harm’s way.

T’Challa is unable to teleport as far as he wants because of dimensional interference and remains within the incursion point, unable to bypass the incursion wall. He attempts to convince N’Kono to get back to the city to warn the Wakandans while N’Kono bemoans the loss of his fellows. T’Challa is concerned for the future that N’Kono and his dead siblings represent, stating, “I will not forfeit our future,” with N’Kono musing “it seemed like such a perfect day.” This reiterates the theme of death and loss of hope that Hickman’s New Avengers represents, in contrast to the main Avengers title. This point is driven home by the surprising death of N’Kono, who is shot by one of the guards with his dying words being, “I see… the stars.”

T’Challa attacks the guards, while Manifold and Black Swan discuss who will make the choice to use the device he’s holding to destroy the other Earth. Manifold hands her the device, and Black Swan seems disappointed he won’t use it himself and knocks him to the ground. He takes this as a sign she will kill him and reminds her that she said he would live. She replies, “I said nothing of forever,” and kills him. (In issue #2, she will state that since a Manifold cannot use their powers outside of their home reality, his death was a mercy.)

As T’Challa approaches, the Swan uses the device, with the other Earth exploding in the sky. T’Challa attacks. With the other Earth destroyed, the sky turns blue again.

T’Challa reflects on these events and remembers a prophecy he was once given: “A word of dead kings and hopeless causes. Of the future lost and of worlds dying.” He then wonders, “When facing the end… when everything around you crumbles — when everything withers and dies… who answers the call of desperate men?”

As if to answer his question, the next two-page spread simply reads, “New Avengers: Illuminati.”

The last three pages depict the arrival of the Illuminati, as T’Challa prays to the Wakandan goddess, with each part of his prayer corresponding to the members of the Illuminati: “Save me from what the world demands. Save me from righteous men (Captain America and Iron Man). Save me from thinkers (Reed Richards). Save me from summoners (Doctor Strange). Save me from midnight kings (Black Bolt)… and the devil himself (Namor, who decimated Wakanda during the Avengers vs. X-Men storyline)… Save me from what we are about to do.” With this last line, we see the Illiminati standing together, with Captain America standing at the front of the group (having been made a member of the Illuminati during Marvel’s “Heroic Age”).

A lot of ominous foreshadowing and table-setting happens in this story. Hickman plants several seeds (like the figure of Rabum Alul) that will only pay off in the second half of his three-year run.

The presence of Captain America among the Illuminati should cause the reader to remember the image from Avengers #1, when Steve dreams of being surrounded by these very men while lying on the floor.

The reference to Namor as the devil is a callback to the previous Avengers vs. X-Men storyline and Namor’s destruction of Wakanda, a point of contention with T’Challa that will be thematically important for the whole Hickman’s story.

Finally, there is an element of symmetry in this first issue, since the story begins with a recap of T’Challa’s refusal to join the Illuminati and his condemnation of the group in the past, and then his summoning of them in the present.

Again, if Avengers is a book about life, heroics, and hope, New Avengers will be the book about death, compromise, and despair.

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Matthew William Brake is the creator and founder of Pop Culture and Theology and the series editor for the book series Theology and Pop Culture from Lexington Books. He holds degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy from George Mason University and a Master of Divinity from Regent University. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He has chapters in a number of books on philosophy and pop culture, including Deadpool and Philosophy, Wonder Woman and Philosophy, and Mr. Robot and Philosophy.

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