Professor X, Iron Man, Namor, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange, Mr. Fantastic – Marvel’s Illuminati take us on a tour of history as they deal with the infinity gauntlet, Secret Wars, and the Skrull Secret Invasion.
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!
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Jim Cheung
Issues: New Avengers: Illuminati #1-5
The concept of Marvel’s Illuminati – a think tank of the most powerful heroes, leaders, and figures, first appeared back in New Avengers Vol. 2 in 2005. Iron Man goes to the group (which is more of a casual get-together than a clandestine secret society) to seek advice on The Sentry, and brings together the Inhumans, Mutants, Fantastic Four and other heroes to help reign him in.
The Illuminati then spun off into a one-shot issue that helped set up the Civil War event in 2006, as well as showing the group deciding to exile Hulk in the Planet Hulk event.
It wasn’t until 2007 that New Avengers: Illuminati transitioned into a five issue limited series. The overall goal seems to act as a precursor and lead-in to 2008’s Secret Invasion, though only the first and last issue center on the Skrulls. By giving us various retcons we get a fun little tour of some of Marvel’s bigger events throughout history, as told by some of its biggest players.
It was shown back in that one-shot issue of Illuminati (which in Marvel Unlimited is listed as issue #0) that Black Panther (which would’ve been T’Challa’s father T’Chaka I believe) was initially asked to join but quickly refused, leaving the group with Black Bolt, Dr. Strange, Namor, Professor Xavier, Iron Man and Mister Fantastic. You’ve got representatives of all the major factions of Marvel heroes, as well as the mystical and science avenues.
Get a group of people together with wildly different viewpoints and backgrounds and it can spark some interesting conversations, as well as lots of heated arguments. To their credit the group functions surprisingly well together, with only Namor being the primary dissenting voice in most of their decisions and deliberations. The king of the oceans is a total asshole and overly aggressive (in a fun way), but I’ll be damned if he’s not correct in just about every situation: “Hey guys, maybe not shoot the Hulk into space because he’ll come back and be super pissed off!”
The first issue has our group meeting after the Kree-Skrull War of the early 1970s. Our heroes decide to take a stolen alien ship to go talk with a Skrull warlord. It doesn’t go well as these leaders of men are eventually reduced to pithy threats, and they’re soon captured and tortured. The story is told mostly from Tony Stark’s perspective as he escapes and frees the rest of them, but not before the Skrulls may have gained some valuable technology from their experimentation.
The next few issues take us on the aforementioned tour of history, as our group is shown dealing with important Marvel events like the Infinity Gauntlet (early 90s), Secret Wars (80s) and the attack by Marvel Boy (no clue). Most of them seem like an odd but enjoyable excuse to revisit and provide epilogues to these events.
In issue #2 Mr. Fantastic reveals that he’s been gathering Infinity Gems in an attempt to destroy them. After their initial freak-out the group agrees to go after them in a mostly danger-free montage sequence. Reed can’t will them to disappear, so they split the gems up amongst each other. Issue #3 involves the awkward attempt to explain the terribly conceived sequel to Secret Wars – Secret Wars II, and ends up just further muddying the waters with continuity errors.
Those were big events, so it was strange to see Issue #4 focus on a character I’d never heard of – Captain Marvel/Mar-Vell’s son Noh-Varr (would that be Quasar/Phyla-Vell’s brother?) and didn’t much care for their extended scenes of trying to convince him to become a hero rather than rot in prison after his failed attack. More enjoyable was the first third of the book which centered on the various members’ women trouble when Dr. Strange announces a recent break-up. It’s a funny, grounded moment that takes all these grand men down to our level, though it also highlights the fact that there are no women on the Illuminati.
Issue #5 finally takes us to the present day with the group deliberating and arguing over the sudden appearance of a disguised Skrull. The body of Skrull-Elektra, which was shockingly discovered at the end of New Avengers Vol. 6. is brought to the group by Iron Man after he was given it by Spider-Woman in Mighty Avengers Vol. 2. This body gets around!
While the group decides how they want to handle a possible body snatchers-style Skrull invasion, Black Bolt is revealed to be a Skrull in disguise! The Skrulls are not only undetectable by scanners (and powers like Wolverine’s scent) but can apparently reasonably mimic the powers of their shapeshifted persona, as Skrull-Black Bolt quickly demonstrates. Iron Man is able to defeat the Skrull while the others escape, but the implication that one of them was the enemy in disguise rocks them to their core, and the group is disbanded.
While that last issue is an important lead-in to Secret Invasion (and would help explain Black Bolt’s odd behavior in Silent War and his quick defeat in World War Hulk…) the overall series is a mostly unnecessary but somewhat fun look back at older Marvel events. The concept of a secret meeting of Marvel’s most powerful heroes and leaders is neat and I particularly enjoyed Jim Cheung’s art and penchant for two-page spreads with heroes taking center stage. To get the most out of Secret Invasion I’d definitely recommend the last issue, but at five issues you might as well enjoy the whole series.