Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Best Avengers Stories Ever - 2004-present

I have been reading Marvel’s ‘Avengers’ comics for 26 years, which apart from following my football team, is probably the longest continuous stretch of time that I have done anything.

I once heard Avengers’ writer Brian Michael Bendis say at a convention just after he had read through the whole series that there are a lot of bad Avengers comics … but there are also a lot of good comics. These are what I personally think are the good ones.

In a sense I tipped my hand as to which stories I thought mattered when I did my ‘pseudo-critical’ history of the Avengers. But that was seven years ago now and there has been some notable stories since then.

So across five posts spanning each of the Avengers’ five decades of publication, here are what I think are the best Avengers stories.

Part One (1963-1973) was here.
Part Two (1974-1983) was here.
Part Three (1984-1993) was here.
Part Four (1994-2003) was here.

New Avengers #1-6 – ‘Breakout’
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Penciller: David Finch
Line-up: Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Luke Cage, Spider-Woman (sort of), Sentry
Main villains: Sauron, Electro, Purple Man, Carnage, Mister Hyde, Jigsaw, and many more
Other main characters: Daredevil, Foggy Nelson, the other Black Widow
Review: Shaking Through  

Brian Michael Bendis wrote more ‘Avengers’ issues than any other writer, and launched five different Avengers series. I found that his best story arcs for each series tended to be the first ones, as he would establish a distinct tone for a series that seemed to either wear after about eight issues, or get caught up in a company-wide crossover.
Aside from its quality the first arc of ‘New Avengers’ is one of the most important ‘Avengers’ stories ever, even more so than the ‘Avengers Disassembled’ arc that preceded it. After ripping apart the old team in ‘Disassembled’ Bendis re-creates the roster around marquee Marvel characters Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Wolverine, along with Luke Cage, Spider-Woman (sort of), and well… the Sentry (who I don’t mind, but he’s the odd member out here). From that point on the Avengers became Marvel’s most successful franchise, built around the company’s flagship heroes.
The story itself, in which bunches of villains are broken out of the superhuman prison the Vault and a new team of heroes assembles to stop them, was quite good, and for me at least made up for some of the anger I felt over ‘Disassembled’. Once assembled the new team travels to the Savage Land, where they face off against Sauron and start to discover the dark underbelly of S.H.I.E.L.D. David Finch’s art made for a notably shadier ‘Avengers’ title – helped by key characters speaking off-panel – without the outright, over-the-top bleakness of ‘Disassembled’. This line-up, like all of Bendis’ line-ups, would not last for more than a few story-arcs, but the Avengers were the team from this point forwards.
Young Avengers #1-6 – ‘Sidekicks’
Writer: Allen Heinberg, Penciller: Jim Cheung
Hmm, does this count as an ‘Avengers’ book, or as a ‘let’s-put-Avengers-into-the-title-so-it-can-sell’ book? I remember enjoying it, but I don’t recall much more about it than the Iron Lad reveal.
Civil War #1-7 – ‘Civil War’
Writer: Mark Millar, Penciller: Steve McNiven
Line-up: Everyone. Everyone in the Marvel Universe is an Avenger.
Main villains: Depends whose side you are on

A mark of the Avengers’ surge in relative popularity over the past decade has been that Marvel has tended to focus most of their company-wide ‘events’ around the team, including ‘House of M’, ‘Secret Invasion’, ‘Siege’, and the most successful of them: ‘Civil War’. (This focus on the Avengers for company-wide events may also be because essentially every major character in the Marvel Universe is an Avenger now – even the X-Men are Avengers when it suits.) ‘Civil War’ definitely had the most interesting concept, though one still simple enough that it could well have happened earlier: Marvel’s superheroes are at ‘war’ each other, due to a split over a ‘Superhuman Registration Act’ which will force the heroes to reveal their identities and work for the government. One side, led by Iron Man, sees the Act as the heroes’ only way forward with the government, while the other side, led by Captain America, resists it. Essentially every superhero is caught in the fight, across a seven-issue series and numerous tie-in books.
The ‘war’ makes asses out of both sides. Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic and the pro-registration side enlist maniacal supervillains to boost up their side’s numbers, and create a dumb, vicious clone of the thought-to-be-dead Thor who proceeds to blow a hole through one of the heroes’ brains. Captain America meanwhile becomes more holier-than-thou the longer the series goes on, and gives the eager-to-please Punisher a smack across the face. No one really comes out of it looking better, but I still enjoyed it, as the war became a framework for putting the characters into some new and interesting situations, while remaining mindful of their established relationships. McNiven’s art, back when he was only starting to get notice, is up to the challenge of making it feel like a grand-scale event.
For the record I was on Iron Man’s side, though not for any deep philosophical or political reasons. Maybe it was because Iron Man was my first favourite superhero as a kid, although I don’t recall taking his side in the ‘Operation: Galactic Storm’ split. So maybe it was because I felt the story, for all its impartiality in promotion, was leading me to take Captain America’s side, and I reacted against that. Or maybe I just felt that Cap was being the bigger sanctimonious ass.
New Avengers #22: ‘New Avengers Disassembled (Part 2)’
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Penciller: Leinil Yu
Line-up: Luke Cage, Iron Man, Ms. Marvel , Captain America, Falcon
Other main characters: Jessica Jones, Danielle Cage, Daredevil (Danny Rand, not Matt Murdock)

Probably the best of the numerous ‘Avengers’ tie-in books to major events has been this tie-in to ‘Civil War’, in which Luke Cage decides he will not register with the government. The decision puts himself and his family at risk, but with a little help from his friends, Cage is able to retain his liberty.  

New Avengers #26
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Penciller: Alex Maleev
Line-up: Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch
Other main characters: Dr. Strange, Wong

I have been skewered on internet forums for professing my admiration for this issue, but I still stand behind it. Hawkeye, who was killed by the Scarlet Witch’s attacks in ‘Avengers Disassembled’, suddenly wakes up very much alive. He then seeks out Wanda to find some meaning behind what has happened to him, but finds her with seemingly no memory of him, the Avengers, or what she has done. Or has she … ? It was the ambiguity around this point that I thought was well-handled, and made me very intrigued to find out the answer. As Dr. Strange says to Hawkeye before he sets out, ‘If you find her, if by some miracle – I doubt what you’ll find will help you feel better about what’s happened. It may make things worse.’ Again, despite Hawkeye and Wanda appearing to reconcile – and then some – it is not clear if Hawkeye’s finding her has been for the best. Also, I love Alex Maleev’s art, and the models he uses for his characters; perhaps with another artist I would have found this story as objectionable as others seemed to.
Mighty Avengers #1-6 – ‘The Ultron Initiative’
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Penciller: Frank Cho
Line-up: Ms. Marvel, Iron Man, Black Widow, Wasp, Wonder Man, Ares, Sentry, w/ Henry Pym (sort of)
Main villains: Ultron, Mole Man
Other main characters:  Maria Hill

After being one of the main writers whose style shifted Marvel away from ‘thought balloons’ Brian Michael Bendis brought them back in a big way for his first story arc for ‘Mighty Avengers’. But Bendis’ use was more than just a re-hash of the device; the balloons were fitted into his extensive, rapid-fire dialogue, providing us with the characters’ internal commentary on what was being said. Seeing panels cluttered with white word balloons was a breath of retro fresh air amongst all those modern ‘decompressed’ comic books.

The ‘Mighty Avengers’ took place following the ‘Civil War’, with superheroes now registered and operating across each of the 50 states, though some heroes (over in the ‘New Avengers’) still resist. In the first issue Iron Man tasks Ms. Marvel with picking ‘the best Avengers team possible’ – at least out of the registered heroes – giving us probably the most entertaining ‘pick the team’ issue of the past decade. The main threat is a rather-offbeat Ultron; a shiny silver naked woman that is much more of the silent, mysterious type than the grinning pumpkin-head version. Penciller Frank Cho, well-known for drawing buxom women, made fanboys’ eyes bug out with his sexed-up Ultron rendition. However, with heavy-hitters Ms. Marvel, Wonder Man, Ares, and the Sentry on the roster Cho also gets the chance to draw a bunch of fun knock-about fights; even still, this Mighty Avengers team end up enlisting Ant-Man/Henry Pym (sort of) to help them stop his creation. A good start for the title, which was almost immediately stopped dead in its tracks by it essentially becoming a ‘Secret Invasion’ tie-in book, following which this ‘best Avengers team possible’ was no more.

Avengers Vol. 4 #1-6 – ‘Next Avengers'
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Penciller: John Romita Jr.
Line-up: Captain America (Bucky Barnes), Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Spider-Woman, Hawkeye, Protector, w/Steve Rogers (former Captain America)
Main villains: Kang, Ultron, Immortus, Apocalypse and his horsemen, Wonder Man
Other main characters: Maria Hill, future Hulk, future Iron Man, the Next Avengers, Killraven, Devil Dinosaur
Review: IGN

Another new direction, another new team … following the end of Norman Osborn’s ‘Dark Reign’ former Captain America Steve Rogers assembles a new ‘Avengers’ team to once again be a symbol of all that is good for the future of humanity. That aside, this was a good return for the team, who after several years absence now had Thor back in the fold. Kang shows up to tell the Avengers that they must go into the future to stop Ultron, otherwise they face an even darker future. Kang himself has tried twenty times, using a different army each time, and his constant stretching of the time-stream eventually causes it to snap. Before you know it we have dinosaurs and Martians turning up in present-day New York, while Thor takes on Galactus. Meanwhile some of the other Avengers travel in the future to try and convince Ultron to throw a fight. Bendis and Romita Jr made Ultron seem about as scary and invincible as he has ever been, and Bendis throws in some nice misdirection about the role of the future Hulk in all this. Contrary to the bold new direction this it claimed to usher in the Bendis era kind of petered out after this, but this was a bulky story with big heroes and villains in it.   
Avengers Vol. 5 #1-3 – ‘Avengers World’
Writer: Jonathan Hickman, Penciller: Jerome Opena
Line-up: (Deep breath … ) Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Spider-Woman, Captain Marvel, (Inhale …) Falcon, Cannnonball, Sunspot, Manifold, Shang-Chi, Hyperion, Smasher, Captain Universe (Whew!)
Main villains: Ex Nihilo, Aleph, Abyss
Jonathan Hickman’s ‘Avengers’ run has had its ups and downs, but it got off to an impressive start, as the Avengers expanded to their biggest line-up ever. The final page of the first issue that shows the massive new team promised exciting things ahead. This is what I said about the issue at the time:
“This is the best Avengers I’ve read in quite some time, probably since Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s alternate take on the team in ‘The Ultimates’. Jonathan Hickman is a ‘big ideas’ kind of guy, which makes him well-suited to what is meant to be the biggest, brashest Marvel title out there. Hickman has even taken the Avengers’ membership to absurdly large levels, packing almost 20 members into his line-up (I don’t disapprove of this concept, even if I think some of the choices are a bit weak). Really though, it’s Jerome Opena’s art that has me most keen about this book. He makes basically everybody he draws look kinda bad-ass; even douchebags like Sunspot and Sunfire. This is what the premier super-team in 2013 should be like. Verdict: Four fingers and a thumb.”
Hickman did continue to be a ‘big ideas’ kind of guy, even if he basically only had the one big idea. Unfortunately Opena did not stay on the title, and subsequent art did not always match Hickman’s ambition. Also, some of the ‘douchebags’ became a bit more ‘douchey’. The first three issues are still good stuff though (and even the stuff that followed, while not as good, is still worthwhile) … good enough to get the final spot of my ‘Best Avengers Stories Ever’ list.

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