Let’s just get something out in the open first. I’d never purchased, or even read, an Avengers comic before starting up Hickman’s run in late 2012. Now Avengers make up around half of my Pull List. Evidently, you could say I’m enjoying his work. More than I thought I would.

So let’s set the stage; back in 2012 Marvel were wrapping up their gigantic event for the summer – Avengers Vs X-Men – to widespread, if not quite universal, acclaim. It was written by Brian Michael Bendis who, for the last 8 years, had been the lead writer for The Avengers franchise. With a slew of titles and events happening throughout his run, which had focused largely on the interwoven character dynamics of the various superheroes of the Marvel Universe, and Bendis about to leave, it was wondered what would come next. What would Marvel want from their Avengers franchise now?

The answer is… somewhat of a surprise. You may remember something else Avengers-related happened in 2012. There was a movie with the same name. Some of you might have seen it, but it did alright at the box-office. The natural conclusion, dare I say ‘assumption’ would be that Marvel would push their Avengers comics to be more like the movie universe they were creating. Sure, they started publishing “Avengers Assemble” with roughly the same cast and tone, but most observers would have thought the main books would have looked very similar.

Boy, were we wrong.

Jonathan Hickman, known by Marvel fans for his run on Fantastic Four, was not the obvious choice. His strengths lay in long, overarching plotlines, neat info-graphics and high science fiction; a perfect marriage for the Fantastic Four but seemingly ill suited to the character heavy, relationship driven Bendis-era Avengers. And, compared to the atmosphere created by Joss Whedon in the Avengers film, Hickman seemed oddly placed to take on the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Tellingly, however, Marvel was one step ahead of the readers and unleashed “Marvel NOW” as a major re-launch of their titles.  With most of the major books getting whole new creative teams, and new story directions, the time for this kind of change on the Avengers was, as they put it, NOW. Bendis moved to the X-Men family of titles, promising to shake up that particular corner of the Marvel Universe, and Hickman moved into Avengers tower, taking charge of both the main “Avengers” book and “New Avengers”. It was quite obvious from the start that Hickman had brought with him all the things he was lauded for.

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The first page of Hickman’s first issue of Avengers

For anyone familiar with Hickman’s past works, his grand opening, which began to tease at the edges of the franchise’s fabric, would be less of a surprise, but for a new reader it was quite a shock.

As an opening salvo his first story arc took the team from the six “core” members (as depicted in the blockbuster Avengers movie) and unleashed his grand concept. “Getting bigger” was the cry, and it would need to. A team of six could never combat the threats that Hickman was cooking up, and so the roster expanded into characters new and old, some less of a surprise than others. But all the while it was as if the characters themselves were doing the author’s work for him. He would expand their world as they expanded their own team. No longer content with just Thor – Norse god of thunder – on the roster, the Avengers quickly recruited Hyperion – a Superman analog from the world of the Squadron Supreme, a franchise Marvel had used on and off in the past decade or so; Smasher, a member of the Imperial Guard, a Green Lantern like squad of elite soldiers drawn from a myriad of different worlds; and Captain Universe – the living embodiment of the Universe itself attached to a woman who only recently awoke from a coma.

Immediately, as these things do, a portion of the readership began to vocalize their distaste for the changes, seeking a return to the character-driven stories of the Bendis era, but these complaints seem to miss the point. The characters driving this new direction were some of the oldest Avengers – namely Captain America and Iron Man – and were shown as being simultaneously reactive and proactive in a way many writers could have failed to set-up meaningfully. But the complaints also hit a different aspect of the stories that Hickman was telling, something better illustrated by the companion title “New Avengers”.

In New Avengers, a group of powerful and intelligent individuals (the “Illuminati”) came together to “run the world in secret”. The concept had originated within the Bendis years of the Avengers books but Hickman gravitated towards the group as a way of telling his grand science fiction tale. Within the pages of New Avengers, the Illuminati faced a threat that seemed too big for any group of “heroes” to face: the death of not just our own universe but of all of reality itself. A situation tailor-made for such an influential group, it would seem.

The book seems, at least on the surface, to be the more “normal” of the two (Avengers and New Avengers), shipping regularly once a month and keeping its focus on the main seven characters as they face off against the major threat. But, equally so, there is no “simple solution” for the problem they face, and while the greatest minds in the Marvel Universe can easily see the threat in all its horrifying glory, and they set about making gigantic weapons to deal with the symptoms, the situation itself is something ongoing and ever changing. The plot is never straightforward as new variables (both from within and from without) appear, forcing the changes to plans and the rethinking of strategies. So while on one level New Avengers is your “standard superhero book”, it also isn’t.

Avengers, on the other hand, often ships twice a month and shifts its focus between the rather large, almost unwieldy group of heroes that populate the pages. Three issue arcs are interspersed with one-and-done books leaving the reading experience somewhat fragmented. But this book contains the classic hallmarks of the superhero genre, with brightly colored individuals punching each other. So while the book itself seems to ship randomly and never connect together, the book is a “standard superhero book” in many underlying ways. But then everything changes when you read the books together. 

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The origin of Hyperion, formerly of the Squadron Supreme, just one of the additions to The Avengers and the Marvel Universe Hickman has made.

When viewed alone, the books each tell their own tales, but together, New Avengers and Avengers tell the micro and macro aspects of the same major conflict. A universe is failing, broken, and the Avengers are the only ones who can stand in the way.

So the major complaints launched about the books were aimed at the pacing, and structure, of the stories. Multiple storylines, a focus on outlying characters instead of moving ahead with the main group, seemingly pointless details; these were often cited as problems that made the book “unreadable” (or some variant of the same), but instead it highlights two things. One of these things is, of course, the fact that the story Hickman is trying to tell can’t be told in an arc or two. It can’t be rushed. It’s a long form, expansive story that will cause many ramifications in the characters that are a part of it.

Too often, it is said, stories fly by and we are unaware of how certain characters are affected by them. In Avengers, and New Avengers, how they effect upon the characters will, in turn, affect how they respond to the future developments, creating more story than merely the events themselves. This is, of course, why Hickman was brought on board, and goes to illustrate the other point that the complaints made, albeit unintentionally.

“What do you want from your comics?”

Have you ever asked yourself this question? Has anyone ever asked you? So often we follow a genre, a creator or (usually less successfully) a character but rarely do we seek out a specific experience. And, even more rarely, do we examine what it is about the medium that allows us to have that experience. Hickman, and many of his contemporaries, ask themselves this for a living, and we have tasked them to deliver us the answer, even if we’ve never asked the question, and the responses are, of course, as varied as the individuals depicted upon the pages of our comics.

Bendis, of course, answers the question with dynamic character interaction and relationships, with cool stories coming second to the people within them. His stories, generally (and of course this is all something of a generalization) involve character interplay as the primary source of story propulsion. Everyone who reads comics can speak of his “decompressed” conversations, his back-and-forth dialogue inspired at once by Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, hoping at best to sound as though it were being spoken by people on the subway, or in line at the supermarket. He understands that comics are a form of art we stay with, coming back month-to-month, and we live our lives alongside these characters. We’re sharing their stories and, just like in day-to-day life, the most common source of pain and pleasure, drama and joy, is the people in our lives.

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Hyperion and Thor discuss their place as Gods in the Savage Land in issue 12 of Avengers

Hickman, however, has a different answer. He, too, seems to create a world that we’ll be revisiting, month-to-month, but uses this caveat as a means to tell his long-form stories. As a reader we buy each comic and store it, either in print or now in digital, and it’s on hand should we need it. He uses the medium itself to inform the story that he’s telling. This isn’t a movie – a loud, expensive, brash experience we have for a couple of hours and which, by the end of it, is done – and neither is it television – more regularly released and longer, but hard to go back through to find old clues. This is comics, where playing the long game is what we’re all doing, as readers and creators. Hickman’s strength is enabling each small story told within the larger epic to inform and propel the major storyline. Perhaps the details become more important later, or perhaps they simply tell us who, what or where someone is. But all the smallest parts, added piece by piece over the weeks and months, serve to tell us a tale that couldn’t be told within the confines of a movie, or a television series.

Hickman’s time on The Avengers has had several flurries of action, with little resolution, but the slow burning fuse leads to something terrible, something huge, something we know is worth waiting for and something that is coming upon us at a time we know not when.

 

In Part Two, we take a look at Infinity, as the bleeding edges of the two Avengers titles come together, with Earth, the Galaxy and Thanos clashing in Marvel’s big event comic of 2013.

About The Author

Living in Australia, my life is probably quite like yours, except hotter and with more dangerous animals. I've had a love of comics for the last 20 years, which is almost exactly two thirds of my life, and very little else has been with me that long. I fancy myself as a writer, but I fancy myself as many things that I'm not all that good at, so go figure. I have strong opinions but I love to discuss things, so please comment, cos I'd love to hear what you think of what I think.

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