04 December 2004

Review: New Avengers #1 / The Ultimates 2 #1

To say I was skeptical about Marvel go-to-guy Brian Michael Bendis' New Avengers seemingly self-serving reload would be quite the understatement. Based on the ill-conceived complete disaster that was Avengers Disassembled, and it's half-assed epilogue/retrospective in Avengers Finale, I was fully prepared to hate it on sight.

Boy was I wrong!

After the requisite - and, thanks to its brevity, sad in that wow, that really was lame kind of way - first page recap of the Disassembled disaster, Bendis starts things off with a shadowy meeting between a silhouetted figure and a thug who turns out to be Electro.

"Costume or no costume?"
"That is completely up to you."
"Costume."
As simple as that bit of dialogue seems, David Finch, Danny Miki and Frank D'Armata team up on the visuals to give it a real sense of foreboding and manage to make Electro look more threatening than he ever has.

The scene shifts to The Raft, the oddly spelled Ryker's Island's "Maximum-Maximum Security Installation" and a plain-clothed quartet exiting a helicopter: Matthew Murdock, Jessica Drew, Luke Cage and Foggy Nelson. Bendis' people. Foggy is understandably nervous as The Raft is Marvel's equivalent of Arkham Asylum, or better yet, Superman's Gulag in Kingdom Come. Eight levels of super-villians incarcerated in one place.

Of course, the inevitable happens...the lights go out and all hell breaks loose.

When he's on his game, Bendis paces his comics like he's editing a movie, steady, confident, taking his time to develop both plot and character, sometimes at the expense of any overt action, but making every moment add up in the end. Here, it all flows in a very organic way, and nothing rings false. Unlike Disassembled, which felt like a forced march through the Highly Improbable Zone, Bendis is obviously playing in his own sandbox now and fully in control of the story.

Interestingly, Captain America appears in only two panels; Iron Man and Wolverine, not at all. And the mysterious Sentry? Suffice to say Bendis sets the stage for him very nicely.

Despite the fact that I still see this team as more of a Defenders-style super group - loosely affiliated, coming together to take on the big threats and dispersing afterwards - I understand the Avengers name has a much higher profile and Bendis is as high-profile as you get these days. Nevertheless, I think he still has a lot of making up to do to the old-school fanboys who are still bristling over Disassembled. I'm not one of them, though, and as such, will definitely be back for the next issue and am enthusiastically adding it to my monthly pull list!

Meanwhile, in the alternate universe of Marvel's Ultimate line, Mark Millar, Robin to Bendis' Batman, lays a runny egg with the beginning of his second arc of The Ultimates. Not having read the first arc at all, my only exposure to this gritty, more realistic version of the Avengers was through Bendis' lackluster Ultimate Six mini-series last year that left me feeling ambivalent at best. But Ultimate Fantastic Four is one of my favorite monthlies right now, and the New Avengers ended up being good, so I figured what the hell.

What's the big deal, was more like it.

Millar kicks things off James Bond style with the most badass Captain America I've ever seen parachuting into northern Iraq and single-handedly stomping some insurgent ass while rescuing nine aid workers being held hostage. It's classic Stallone/Schwarzenegger action, completely lacking any nuance or subtlety, and Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and Laura Martin deliver the visual goods.

Unfortunately, Millar doesn't hold up his end of the bargain.
"Listen up, scumbags: You know who I am and you know what I do. Surrender those weapons and you might -- just might -- live to tell your grandchildren about this little episode. But touch those triggers and I swear your own mothers won't even recognize you."
Says Captain America to at least 12 insurgents who have him surrounded with automatic rifles. It's downhill from there as Millar's dialogue takes center stage and so much of it rings false, especially his heavy-handed parallels to current events. And I don't mean that from a purist, that's not the Tony Stark I know kind of way. Though Stark does come off as a complete jackass during a Larry King interview.

Mind you, this issue isn't terrible, it's just not all that good. Which might be acceptable for something with less hype surrounding it - like Alpha Flight, maybe? - but for The Ultimates, it's a major disappointment, and it's back to an in-store skim for me, at best.