Monday, 14 March 2011

Avengers Assembled: Part Two

Secret Avengers - Volume 1: Mission to Mars- By Ed Brubaker

Secret Avengers - Volume 1: Mission to Mars

Those of you who read and paid attention to part one of this review may have noticed that despite Steve Rogers forming an Avengers team he wasn’t actually a part of it, his successor as Captain America, Bucky Barnes, was. So now you might be asking yourself, ‘Well then, what’s Steve doing?’ The answer is simple, not all the threats to the world can be punched in the face by the Avengers, some of them have to covertly punched in the face, hence the Secret Avengers.  

Designed to be a shadowy black-ops counterpart to the Avengers, the Secret Avengers are a pre-emptive strike force, eliminating potential threats before they get out of hand and New York becomes a battle ground for the thousandth time. Just behind the main Avengers book this title was the second most exciting book in the re-launch as far as I was concerned and unlike Avengers this book hasn’t let me down.

Writer Ed Brubaker, who was done some excellent work on Captain America in recent years, has assembled possibly the most badass team of second stringers imaginable, War Machine, Black Widow, Valkyrie, Moon Knight, Beast (formerly of the X-Men), Ant Man and Nova, with Steve Rogers himself leading. These guys might not be household names like Spiderman or Wolverine but they can be relied to get the job done and be all kinds of awesome while they’re at it.

The plot of the opening four issue story arc, which along with a fifth issue epilogue is collected here, concerns secret organisations, conspiracies, cover-ups and mystical artefacts and it mostly takes place IN SPAAAAAAAAAAAAACE! In other words, exactly what we expected with outer-space thrown into the mix, and everyone knows space improves everything.

Mike Deodado’s art is vastly better than the art of the previous two Avengers books and suits the book wonderfully; bring both a heavy noir vibe and a very cinematic look to his work.

The characters are better balanced here than in Avengers, with everyone getting their chance to shine, although the story is very much driven by Steve Rogers, as it should be. Brubaker writes the characters well and seems to have a solid grasp on all of them, with one notable exception...

The treatment of Nova in this book is something that had a lot of fans of Marvel’s cosmic wing in somewhat of an uproar. Nova, while being a fairly obscure hero, has arguably done more to protect the Marvel universe than 99% of its many superheroes, having taken part in the struggle against inter-dimensional warlord Annihilus, who was responsible for billions of deaths during the Annihilation event, and personally killed Annihilus. Yet despite his status as a universe saving mega hero in this story Nova is accorded surprisingly little respect from his fellow Secret Avengers, with Rogers himself calling Nova a ‘boy’ several times. Nova is also rendered unable to assist the team early on in the series, leaving it up to Rogers to save him.

Personally I too dislike Nova’s treatment here, his competence having been reduced most probably to compensate for his high power level in comparison to the other team members, several of whom are non-powered. On the other hand it didn’t have me spitting blood like some of my fellows, it was annoying but not book breaking.

Of course Nova’s characterisation won’t matter that much to new readers and ultimately it doesn’t matter that much at all, what with Nova leaving the series at the end of this arc to take part in another cosmic story The Thanos Imperative. What does matter is that this is a well paced, well written, well drawn opening story and I would recommend it to anyone who likes the idea of superhero-subterfuge in space.

This story is available in both hardcover and trade paperback format  and I give it a solid recommendation.


Avengers Academy-Volume One: Permanent Record by Christos Gage

Avengers Academy Vol.1: Permanent Record

After the Civil War event an program called the Initiative was created, designed to train young superhumans to ensure that untrained amateurs could never inadvertently cause a disaster. Once bastard-extraordinaire Norman Osborn took over the Initiative took a dark turn and young superhumans were subjected to whatever means possible to bring out their powers quickly so that they could be trained as part of Osborn’s personal army, means including torture and experimentation. Avengers Academy is the story of six young survivors of Osborn’s regime being trained by veteran Avengers to be the heroes of tomorrow... or is it?

This opening arc serves primarily to introduce us to our six young heroes and start the ball rolling on their various story arcs that will continue throughout the series. Each of the six gets their own issue to focus on their back-story and character, with other minor development for them here and there in each other’s issues.

I’m going to get this out of the way, despite its failings (which we’ll get to) this is my favourite of the current Avengers crop. Each of the new students is interesting and over the course of the series we’re getting some nice character development and interactions, with each other and the various established heroes charged with training them.

Then we get to the art... why is it that these Avengers books almost all have bad art? The Avengers is the centre of the Marvel universe, both in storyline and sales, and yet they’re giving art duties to whichever monkey flings the most shit at the page. There are good things about Mike McKone’s art, the proportions are solid and the panels are nicely set out but once again we have facial issues. (Why is it always the faces? From now on I’m calling all poorly drawn faces ‘Avengers faces’.) Anyway, the lack of expression is the main problem in this book, early on in the first issue one Veil, of the students of the Academy, finds out that her powers are slowly killing her. Judging by her facial expression the news of her imminent death is about as important to her as what colour her socks are. At several points the art seems unfinished; more like a sketch to be re-done later rather than a finished product, at one point it is noted that Academy teacher Speedball is threatening someone with blue energy, blue energy that is apparently invisible because it’s nowhere to be seen.

As I’ve said, despite the art failings this book is a good read, the characters and their plight are engaging and I for one can never wait to read the next issue to find out what they’ve been up to. Unfortunately this book is struggling to sell, with a cast of newcomers and a lack of a big name writer like Bendis or Brubaker this book is struggling to maintain its very average sales from month to month. It’s doing even worse in this collected format, after an early surge of sales it has, at the time of writing, dropped down to 50th place in Amazon’s rankings of currently best selling Avengers books, behind stories that I had forgotten even existed.

In short, good writing and good characters with bad art but an engaging story that needs all the sales it can get. Available in both paperback and hardcover it is my personal top recommendation of the four Avengers books, especially for new readers.


In conclusion...

The current crop of Avengers ongoings is a mixed bag if I ever saw one, two good books with one bad one and one average one. Three of which have bad art. So is this re-launch a total disaster? No, but it is disappointing. Brian Michael Bendis really needs to up his game with his two Avengers books to keep the franchise strong, and the line has recently been hit by the announcement that issue 12 will be Ed Brubaker’s last issue as writer of Secret Avengers.

This isn’t the worst time to be an Avengers fan or a newcomer, but it isn’t sunshine and rainbows either. 

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