Sunday, May 11, 2008

New Avengers: The Illuminati

Since Secret Invasion is all the rage, I thought I'd post a review of one of the lead-ups, New Avengers: The Illuminati. Conveniently it was just this week released in trade, which is a good way to pick it up. My primary motivation for wanting the book was for the art of Jim Cheung, but as I browsed though the individual monthly issues I knew it would be collected sooner than later so I waited for the trade. Sure enough... A book like this I have no idea why it was even a monthly in our current market. And it's very frustrating as a consumer to see advanced solicitations for trades of storylines that aren't even completed on the shelf yet. But that's really another topic... The Illuminati I do think is best read as a collection-- tho it's best read as a collection now, while all this other stuff is going on.

The Illuminati in this instance does not refer to the conspiracy that fathers all conspiracies, but to the secret gathering of Marvel's brightest leaders. Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Professor X, Black Bolt, and The Submariner secretly gather to keep reigns on things too big for the superhero community at large. You may recall this it was this brain trust that conspired to send Hulk away to avoid his involvement in what would become Civil War, but in the end prompted World War Hulk. Each issue, or chapter in this case, shows the men gathering at focal points in Marvel Universe lore. At times beforehand, at others during or after. This is what makes the book instantly appealing to any long time comics reader because those focal points chosen are The Kree/Skrull War, The Infinity Gauntlet, and Secret Wars. I don't know if it's retro goggles, but back in the day that shit was off the hook. Was it any different then what Civil War or House of M is today? Dunno. But in this context it is cleverly put together as secret side quests of those times that was alot of fun to see play out (I always did wonder what happened to the Beyonder). The final two chapters bring things a bit closer to the present, with the inclusion of Marvel Boy's life direction choices and the aftermath of Civil War that leads to the realization that Secret Invasion is about to begin. This last bit with Secret Invasion ties all the way back to the first chapter on the Skrull homeworld creating a very strong setup. And this is what is playing out in the better Secret Invasion tie ins currently on the stands. I guess writer Brian Michael Bendis really did know what he wanted to do all along, tho I do wonder if it stretches back in literal time as much as reported (it's been noted that Bendis was planning Secret Invasion soon after he started writing regularly for Marvel lo those many years ago, and has been planting seeds ever since).

Being a Bendis book there is alot of talky talky. But not as much as usual, which is nice, tho there is one chapter where the men talk about the women in their lives with full blown Bendis Balloonapalooza. Which sounds interesting, but, well, it's nothing more than cute. The uber-writers of comics today aren't content with humanizing our heroes, they must super-humanize by bringing them to unforeseen levels of the mundane. Thankfully the scene is only a lead into the chapter on Marvel Boy. It was my least fav, since Marvel Boy was outside of the generational anchors that the previous chapters were, but I understand why it's there. Needing something to tie the more recent Marvel developments and legacies directly leading into Civil War and Secret Invasion, that whole Marvel Boy phenomenon, albeit brief, was probably the only significant story to cull (The Death of Captain Marvel being the classic storyline referred to). For the record my favorite chapter was on the Infinity Gauntlet :-)

The art is by Jim Cheung, accompanied by some well-suited inkers, which is of course fantastic. With such a dialog heavy foundation the pages remain dense and varied. This is to Cheung's great skill, because as an artist that can be some of the more difficult aspects of storytelling to manage. But there are several occasions for him to let loose on some big 'ol action sequences. The opening chapter's escape from the Skrull homeworld and the closing chapter's battle with the Super Skrull are particularly cool. I must also add that the colors are by Justin Ponsor, just flat out one of the best in the biz. He's been paired with Cheung on many occasions and it's great to see him here as well. The Cheung/Ponsor combo also shines on last week's New Avengers #40, and for those who want to witness some of the best the pairing has to offer, get your hands on those old Crossgen issues of Scion.

Finally getting to read this book in one sitting I really enjoyed it. Yes it is a Bendis book and there is a certain formula that goes with it that can only be described as... Bendis. But I think for long time readers of Marvel who really don't read that much any more (like me), it's a well constructed trip through the history we remember well, plus a little getting things up to date. To newer readers the book has a ton of information on these past events with virtually no retread, so its not like you're being forced to relive the past. All in all one of Bendis' better efforts and a great looking package all around.

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