Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – New Avengers: Illuminati

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!

new avengers illuminati coverWriter: 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!

new avengers illuminati #1The 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.

new avengers illuminati #3

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.

new avengers illuminati #5

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – The Road to Civil War

Thanks to 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!

road to civil war coverWriters: Brian Michael Bendis, J. Michael Stracynski

Artists: Alex Maleev, Ron Garney, Mike McKone, Tyler Kirkham

Issues: Amazing Spider-Man #529-531, Fantastic Four #536-537, New Avengers: Illuminati

Though House of M had several tie-ins and shook up the world for mutants and X-Men, it was Civil War, Marvel’s next big event that hit in the Summer of 2006, that really became the premiere Marvel crossover event, with just about every single ongoing series having an appropriate tie-in or story arc.

With big events comes big responsibility, er, numerous trade paperbacks. Marvel knew they had a grand story to tell and planted some early seeds of the Superhuman Registration Act in New Avengers and other series. The Road to Civil War is a stand-alone trade paperback that collects three issues of Amazing Spider-Man, two issues of Fantastic Four and a special one-shot issue called New Avengers: Illuminati (which would later become a limited series).

Though I’ve recently become quite the Marvel connoisseur (see, um, all these Final Thoughts on my blog) I actually haven’t read two of Marvel’s most famous and longest-lasting series, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. Jumping into Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t too harsh – after all Spider-man is a member of the New Avengers (at the time). In issue 529 Tony Stark builds our friendly neighborhood sass machine a custom spidey suit with all kinds of fancy cybernetic enhancements, including four additional arms! All Stark wants in return is for Peter Parker to become his right-hand man in the political storm that’s brewing in Washington D.C. – the Superhuman Registration Act.

What follows is a nifty little arc where Mr. Stark and Mr. Parker go to Washington for a Senate hearing, discussing the pros and cons of forcing masked superheroes to reveal their identity to the world and be held accountable for their actions (like for example, all the property damage their battles cause). The lengthy scenes have all the potential of being long-winded and heavy-handed but Brian Michael Bendis does a superb job making good points on both sides and generally making the actual politics interesting rather than hand-waving.

ASM #530

Of course since it’s a comic as soon as they walk outside they’re attacked by the Titanium Man, a Russian mercenary in his own fancy suit, and Tony flees while Spidey battles the surprise attack. At the end it’s revealed that Stark actually paid the Titanium Man for the attack to remind everyone why superheroes are important, and Parker begins to doubt his trust in Tony.

In New Avengers: Illuminati Stark visits the secret organization that was first revealed back in New Avengers – a clandestine meeting of the world’s most powerful superpowered leaders: Dr. Strange, Mr. Fantastic, Black Bolt, Namor and Professor X. The extra-long one-shot issue dives into the murky past of the Illuminati, including their formation after the Kree-Skrull War. Fascinatingly the whole comic adapts a very retro 70s/80s art style and actually sticks with it throughout (despite catching up to modern events leading to Civil War). It works quite well and lends the story an air of authenticity.

When the group is first formed they invite Black Panther to join, but he instantly refuses, being the only one to have the foresight to see where this collusion will lead to. The group meets again to discuss shipping off Hulk into space after a particularly violent battle – which is a fun way of tying together the beginnings of “Planet Hulk,” the major storyline that takes over the Incredible Hulk series throughout Civil War. Namor has a huge problem with this agreement to simply get rid of the Hulk and ends up fighting Iron Man and leaving the group in a huff. I’m unfamiliar with Namor other than he was the very first Marvel superhero and thus far all I’ve learned is that he’s a huge asshole.

Our secretive leaders meet again to discuss the Superhuman Registration Act, and Stark suggests moving in front of it to support it so it doesn’t get out of hand. He also has the creepy foresight to predict almost exactly what ends up happening in the actual Civil War storyline, including a masked hero attacking a villain near a school and causing a horrific number of casualties. That part gets a bit heavy-handed but it’s still fun seeing this group of major players in the Marvelverse come together and discuss the big issues (as well as squabble amongst each other). Dr. Strange leaves, Namor curses them all while Mr. Fantastic supports Stark. The lines are being drawn and it’s a cool way of leading to Civil War.

The two Fantastic Four issues are much less of a direct tie-in than the others. The story revolves around Thor’s hammer crashing to Earth after the “Ragnarok” events in Thor, which I’m wholly unfamiliar with (I can only read so many comics!). The Fantastic Four are called in to investigate but Dr. Doom shows up with a legion of Doombots to stake his claim. Apparently he was in hell last we saw him, and hitched a ride when Mjolnir ripped through space on its way to Earth. For being completely lost on the goings-on of the Fantastic Four it was a pretty decent little story with lots of action and Doom chewing up the scenes as he does so well. How it ties into Civil War I haven’t the foggiest idea, other than further explaining what the situation is with Thor at the time.

The entire trade is ancillary reading to Civil War but it does provide a lot of nice background information, especially on Spider-Man leading up the grand event. If you have Marvel Unlimited I would definitely recommend reading the Amazing Spider-Man issues but as a whole the trade is only okay as a tie-in, and harmless fun as an overall collection of comics.

FF #537 edit