The Small Town Terror of ‘Avengers Standoff: Welcome To Pleasant Hill’ #1 [Review]
This week saw the release of the prologue issue to Marvel’s spring event Avengers Standoff, in the form Avengers Standoff: Welcome To Pleasant Hill #1 by Nick Spencer, Mark Bagley, Scott Hanna and Paul Mounts. The event has been touted for a long time now, but heading into this first issue it was still rather unclear exactly what Standoff was going to be about.
Things are a lot clearer following the release of Welcome To Pleasant Hill, which is a moody mystery hidden behind a sunny suburban smile. Be warned this review contains meaty spoilers for the first salvo in this event as we unpack the events of the issue and its killer cliffhanger. In other words, if you want to know what Standoff is actually about before you investigate further, we're going to do our best to tell you.
Since he took over the Captain America franchise, Nick Spencer has been playing with themes of liberty versus security, not too dissimilar to those established in the film adaptation of The Winter Soldier. Standoff builds on this, establishing a S.H.I.E.L.D. that isn’t necessarily evil or overtly corrupt, but is playing fast and loose with morals and ethics in its attempts to keep the world safe.
After infiltrating a S.H.I.E.L.D. base, Bucky Barnes views footage of a S.H.I.E.L.D. experiment going wrong, and is quickly apprehended by agents before everything goes white. Thereafter, the main story of the book follows a man with no memory waking up in Pleasant Hill, an idealized suburban paradise where everyone seems very eager to make sure he doesn’t leave.
The man known only as Jim eventually settles into his life in Pleasant Hill, but still believes he’s not being given the whole story. Jim’s fears are confirmed when he meets a familiar looking man with a goatee and penchant for technology who reveals the truth about Pleasant Hill.
The small idyllic town is actually a S.H.I.E.L.D. prison for mind-wiped super-villains, and while Spencer and Bagley have lead the readers to believe their two viewpoint characters are Bucky Barnes and Tony Stark, it turns out they are actually…
Baron Zemo and The Fixer!
The last page of the book is what really ties the whole thing together, with a cliffhanger that no-doubt purposefully echoes the infamous last page of Thunderbolts #1 nearly twenty years ago. It’s an increasingly rare feat for a superhero comic to genuinely shock me on the last page, but Spencer succeeded with the bait and switch.
In recent years, Mark Bagley has been criticized for an art style that some consider dated compared to what we think modern superhero comics should look like, but he’s utilized absolutely perfectly here. He captures the "town trapped in time" look for Pleasant Hill, which only makes it more unsettling, and the fact that he defined the Thunderbolts along with Kurt Busiek makes that last page really hit.
There’s a lot more to the book aside from the hook of the original Thunderbolts returning, and from the cover it seems like the event as a whole will tie into the current Captain America story, in which S.H.I.E.L.D. were exposed for attempting to artificially create a Cosmic Cube. The town of Pleasant Hill surely holds a lot more secrets yet to be uncovered, and the biggest one likely revolves around the little girl from the front cover who wanders the town, and was seemingly present during whatever accident occurred at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base.
A lot of people seem to be confused as to what Avengers Standoff actually is, but this prologue issue sets up the concept neatly; it's The Prisoner in the Marvel Universe. That's a decent hook to sell the entire event. Marvel has said that Standoff is a throwback to the more contained events of old, and if the rest of the event is as intriguing and exciting as this first issue, it could a sleeper hit.