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Hickman & Opena’s ‘Avengers’ #1 Is Big, Cool, and Gorgeous [Spoiler-Free Review]

Out this week is the first issue of Jonathan Hickman’s obviously meticulously planned and apparently very lengthy run on Marvel’s Avengers franchise. Avengers #1 — by Hickman (Fantastic Four/FF, The Manhattan Projects) with art from Jerome Opeña (Uncanny X-Force, Fear Agent, Punisher) and colors by Dean White (Uncanny X-Force, Captain America) — can perhaps be best summed up in one word: big. Okay, two words: big and expanding. It starts with a monologue and montage establishing the huge scope of the events to come and from there shows the inception of the idea for, and the reasoning behind, the expansion of the Avengers.

If you’re a fan of any of these creators, like I am, you’re probably very predisposed to liking this book. But let’s give it a more thorough look anyway.

Considering my established proclivity for enjoying Hickman’s writing and how much I’ve admired Opeña’s artwork over the years, from Fear Agent to Uncanny X-Force — not to mention my adoration for Dean White, the most visually striking and transformative colorist in the Big Two business right now — whether I liked this book was probably a foregone conclusion, so, spoiler alert: it’s a pretty damn boss comic, and basically exactly what I wanted (and expected), tonally, from Jonathan Hickman taking over the Avengers. It’s bright, bold, brash, bleeding-edge superhero comics. So let’s focus on something different: instead of “is it any good?” (duh), let’s look at what it is, where it fits in the spectrum of the Avengers publishing history and Hickman’s own oeuvre, and why I enjoyed it so damn much.

From the first issue, if what you’re looking for is a focus on character relationships, banter, and general chilling out — the very successful Brian Michael Bendis formula of throwing a bunch of dynamic personalities in a room and seeing what happens — you might be better off with Kelly Sue DeConnick’s also very good Avengers Assemble series, which tickles that itch ignited by Bendis and engulfed by Whedon in the Marvel Studios movie where, honestly, you could sit there and read Banner and Stark sniping at each other all day while Spider-Man and Wolverine talk about what’s on television. While Hickman’s Avengers certainly takes its cues from the movie as well — the new “core team” is the Big Six from the film, even though Hulk’s historically been an Avenger for something like fifteen minutes in the Marvel Universe — it’s about spiraling outward, both literally and metaphorically (Also a graphic designer, Hickman makes this pretty explicit with his trademark infographics).

(It seems like an ironic joke that this book, with its apparently [outside of the Big Six] quite diverse cast and scads of new heroes and villains, is Avengers while the upcoming book titled New Avengers features a bunch of old, mostly white [T'Challa's royalty so he's 1% as hell] dudes who’ve been part of the Marvel Universe since the beginning. I suspect this irony is intentional.)

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So what is this first issue of Avengers, then, now that I’ve established what it’s not? Like many of the most successful Marvel NOW! relaunches, especially Rick Remender and John Romita, Jr.’s very promising Captain America, Avengers follows up a long, legendary run not by modifying or tweaking the formula that’s worked for so long, but by throwing it out completely and building something new. Hickman’s Avengers, at least from this initial installment, is a very plot-driven, big-ideas superhero comic — definitely more Grant Morrison than Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis, if you will. However, there’s also a Legion of Super-Heroes bent in the gigantic, dissimilar cast that’s clearly meant, both in- and out-of-story, to be a conscious response to the Avengers as an old boys’ club; an attempt to create something far more representative of the diversity of humanity and the other sentient species that hang out on Earth in the Marvel Universe.

While the book is certainly more plot-based than the run it’s succeeding, that also doesn’t mean that the characters are devoid of personality, either — much like Morrison (the comparison is frankly inescapable), Hickman’s become excellent at the economical characterization, the two- or three-panel beat that drills down to, and exposes, the character’s essence. The villains in this first issue are new, and Hickman continues to be able to write Kirby-esque unknowable gods and alien overlords with a whimsical bent, making them quirky and identifiable by personality rather than boilerplate “Begone from here, heroes!” cookie-cutter overlords.

And the art, well, there’s almost nothing to say here other than that it’s gorgeous. It’s Opeña and White, what do you expect? The storytelling is very clear, concise horizontal panels in a cinematic style — no Steranko influence here — but that’s made up for by a cornucopia of weird designs, psychedelic coloring choices and stuff blowing up to remind you you’re reading a comic book, by gum.

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So basically, it’s not about who I’d recommend this comic to — it’s about who I wouldn’t. If you’re interested in seeing characters play off of and rub against each other, to see more like the movie where the plot is basically an excuse to see Steve and Tony act like a bickering old married couple, then judging by just this first issue, Avengers might not be for you. If you want to see world-ending threats, crazy concepts, and wild ideas; gorgeous artwork; deft characterization; and really big dudes punching each other in the face, this could be — and most likely will be, judging by Hickman’s track record so far — the start of something really cool.

Avengers #1 goes on sale this Wednesday in comics shops and digitally from ComiXology.

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