Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review # 176: "New Avengers Omnibus - Vol. 1"

After a mediocre run by Geoff Johns, the usual crap from Chuck Austen, and Mark Millar's "The Ultimates" showing off how cool the Avengers could be, it was time for a change. Cue Brian Michael Bendis, who had been kicking ass on "Ultimate Spider-Man," "Daredevil" and "Alias." But could he handle a team book?

The answer - at the time - was an emphatic "yes."

Bendis turned the Avengers on their ear, getting rid of antiquated concepts like Avengers Mansion and membership cards. He blew up the team in spectacular fashion in "Avengers Disassembled," turning Scarlet Witch into a frightening villain, destroying Vision, demolishing the team's base of operations and killing off Scott Lang and Hawkeye. His retcon of Wanda Maximoff's abilities is brilliant, outlining that "Chaos Magic" doesn't exist and she's merely been using her mutant power to warp reality. With that, she becomes a frightening figure and - through "House of M" up until the "Children's Crusade" debacle - one of the biggest threats to the Marvel Universe.

With the Avengers as they existed in shambles, Bendis rebuilds from the ground up. He reforms the team in "New Avengers" in a more Justice League style, as the company's biggest guns are added to the roster. Joining traditional members Captain America and Iron Man are Spider-Man and Wolverine, which turned a lot of heads. It showed that Marvel was taking the Avengers seriously as a flagship title.

While people have been critical about how Steve and Tony rationalize adding the murderin' Canucklehead to the lineup and use it as an excuse to discredit Bendis' entire run (suggesting that Cap and Iron Man would never have approved of someone going places they wouldn't before,) I'm among those who praise it. If you wanted a signal or acknowledgement from the characters that times had changed, this is it. The Avengers were done living in the past (at least at the time) and facing new realities of their organization is a definite positive. That said, Logan doesn't really do much for the first half of this omnibus, and only gets to shine after there's been a major shake-up.

To be honest, though, that isn't a problem. Wolverine, Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man have their own books. What Bendis does is follow in the footsteps of every great Avengers writer that came before him: build up the rest of the team. After tweaking him to reflect modern society in "Alias," Bendis turns Luke Cage into a full-fledged hero. Complications from his family life interfere greatly with Avengers business, but it's in ways that help to fully transform Cage from a blacksploitation mistake to a full-fledged A-lister.

Bendis also works magic with The Sentry, the mentally-ill hero with Superman-level powers. Just reading that sounds ominous. Bob Reynolds is placed on the slow-burner and what's collected here barely sets him off on the frightening direction he and "The Void" would go.

And then there's Spider-Woman. Jessica Drew returns repowered and her behaviour is shady from the get-go. Despite that, she seems endearing and genuinely wanting to help despite the mess she finds herself in. Knowing the truth about Jessica's involvement, though, really plays games with your perceptions. Drew is practically the protagonist of "New Avengers," as her every word and her every movement is worth study.

She and the other characters are easy to look at too. The cinematic-style art in "New Avengers" is top-notch from start to finish with few exceptions. David Finch sets the movie-style tone perfectly, which is followed up strongly by Frank Cho and given a slightly gritty feel with Leinil Francis Yu. I smiled when I saw Bendis collaborators Alex Maleev ("Daredevil,") Michael Gaydos ("Alias") and Mark Bagley ("Ultimate Spider-Man") show up and there's an all-star group of artists who assemble for the post-"Disassembled" finale issue. The legendary George Perez draws a few pages that pretty much steal the entire omnibus. Man, that guy is good.

But, really, art has to support good ideas and Bendis really had a truckload at this time. Avengers Tower; adding Logan and Spidey; the Raft breakout; taking Cage seriously; Sentry's meta origins. And then there is the so-called "SHIELD/Hydra" conspiracy that permeates the narrative. The book ends with the discovery of who has been really pulling the strings of the Marvel Universe for the past few years, and it is brilliant.

The numbers speak for themselves. Under Bendis, "New Avengers" became Marvel's top-selling title, knocking the X-Men from their perch. It played a big role in the Avengers we see on screen today, and has given Bendis a high-profile job at Marvel for life. Even if things haven't been perfect in recent years when it comes to his team books, no one can deny that - in his early days on "New Avengers" - he was a force to be reckoned with.

Rating: 9/10

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