With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.
Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Artists: Stefano Caselli, Steve Uy (#12-13)
Issues: Avengers: The Initiative #1-13, Annual #1
Out of the literal ashes of Stamford, Connecticut, the site of the devastating superhuman bomb that claimed hundreds of innocent lives, rose a new hopeful training facility for registered super-powered people. The Civil War was over. Tony Stark won, and his Fifty States Initiative plan was going into full effect – a super-powered team in every state to combat the many threats of the Marvel Universe. These teams needed a place to train and recruit, and thus Avengers: The Initiative was born.
Avengers: The Initiative was originally crafted as a six issue limited series depicting the drama and complications of the training facility. Before the first issue was even published, Marvel decided to make it an official ongoing series, making it the third Avengers title at the time (New Avengers, Mighty Avengers).
Like New X-Men, Avengers: The Initiative centers around young, inexperienced teens with extraordinary powers and the drama that ensues when you throw them together. While I enjoyed the characters and writing of New X-Men more, Initiative does have an immediacy to its plot and pacing that I found compelling.
The story begins with a new busload of recruits coming to the training facility (with some of the dorkiest superhuman names I’ve ever seen): Hardball, Cloud 9, Trauma, MVP, and Komodo. They are later joined by a few others like the Eric O’Grady version of Ant-Man (Irredeemable Ant-Man), Thor Girl, and Ultra Girl, as well as the cast of the New Warriors, though none of them are given much time to develop. Our first team is our central focus, though much of the focus is also on the training facility’s instructors: Gauntlet, Hank Pym (Yellowjacket), War Machine, Henry Gyrich, Baron Von Blitzschlag, and later Taskmaster.
For me this was a ton of mostly new characters that I had to adapt to, and Dan Slott does a decent job making me care about them. Hardball and Komodo develop an adorable teenage romance, Trauma is trained by temporary instructor Dani Moonstar (depowered and coming from New X-Men) to become a healer and therapist rather than a frontline fighter, and Cloud 9 is given the wide-eyed uncertainty that makes her the most relatable in this whole mess.
In the very first issue MVP is killed by Armory, a woman with an alien gun that washes out of the program. Trauma is able to shapechange into your deepest fears (making him a Boggart from Harry Potter). When he turns into a giant spider she freaks out and starts firing everywhere, and MVP saves Cloud 9 but takes a shot in the head. His death and subsequent cloning go from mysterious side plot to action-packed main plot in the second volume.
The first volume, “Basic Training,” is mostly concerned with introducing our characters, the facility, and how the Initiative works to capture registered heroes like Spider-Man (they fail) and fight bad guys like Hydra (they win). Issue #4 suddenly ties in with World War Hulk – one of the few ongoing series to do so, and it’s actually a lot of fun. Most of the original Initiative team is sent to help clear the streets, but they get a bit high and mighty and decide to take on the Hulk and his alien buddies, which doesn’t end well.
In Issue #5 we’re introduced to the Shadow Initiative, Henry Gyrich’s personal hit squad that doesn’t exist in any records – consisting of Constrictor, Bengal, Trauma, Mutant Zero, and the Scarlet Spiders. None of them are really given any time to develop (and barely introduced) but it still manages to be a really fun issue, ending with Trauma trying to harness Hulk’s fears into various forms (Abomination, Juggernaut, Bruce Banner). It doesn’t go well, and Trauma is hospitalized for several issues. Don’t mess with Hulk.
The second volume picks up with the dead MVP thread that had been effectively layered in earlier. Cloud 9 and former instructor and New Warrior Justice had seen that he was alive and well back at home, and it’s revealed that the triplet Scarlet Spiders are also all clones. MVP is described as the Ubermensch, the perfect human who doesn’t have any actual superpowers, so he’s cloned recklessly by Blitzschlag. Eventually this leads to Pym and Blitzschlag outfitting a newly cloned MVP with Armory’s old tactigon alien weapon that they’d surgically removed. Problem is the weapon is semi-sentient, and drives the new clone insane. The newly created villain calls himself KIA (clever) and goes on a murderous rampage, putting the entire facility under attack.
KIA kills one of the Scarlet Spiders, Trauma, and Slapstick, and seriously wounds War Machine and Constrictor. The exciting plot brings together the bloated cast of the former New Warriors, our new recruits and instructors, and even Iron Man and the Mighty Avengers into a final showdown against KIA. Cloud 9 is able to stun him with a kiss (not sure if that was part of her gas powers or if the clone remembers he had a thing for her) and they slap a head device on him that scrambles his brains. By the end most of the New Warriors leave to form a Counter Initiative to make sure this kind of thing happens again.
“Killed in Action,” ends up being a really fun story with a satisfying ending, but there’s just too many characters to keep track of and care about. I liked our original recruits just fine but the New Warriors just seemed like they were in the way. The Annual issue is made up of several short stories that delve into the backstories of some of the recruits and instructors. It was interesting but mostly unnecessary – like, one of the stories is about Armory who got kicked out back in the first issue.
Avengers: The Initiative was a lot more fun that I expected but still not nearly as enjoyable as New X-Men when it comes to super-powered teenage drama and action. Stefano Casselli’s art has a bright, youthful tone that matches well with the series, though I wasn’t a fan of the temporary art change for the last two issues in Volume 2. Everyone looked completely different, and it was horribly distracting. Issue #13 also seemed like a pointless one-off that included a whole other busload of recruits in a minor adventure.
The Initiative continues for a solid 35 issues and does tie-in to all the major Marvel Events that happen throughout the next few years, including Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, and ending with Siege in 2010. I’ll probably stick with it but seeing as how our initial team of recruits graduated in issue #12 (and are dived up into various states and teams) I don’t know how much I’ll care about future recruits.