Superhero teams can be robust character dramas if you let them.
The Initiative period of Marvel Comics was an interesting time, but one I never dipped into too deeply. At first glance it seemed like a cool way to create new heroes since it proposed heroes for every state, but they needed training. Thankfully Marvel produces some fine complete collections so readers like myself can go back and see what the hubbub was about at a reduced price.
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
In the wake of the Skrull Invasion, the public has lost faith in the Initiative! What a time for Reptil to make his mark on the Marvel Universe! As storm clouds gather, the black-ops Shadow Initiative must abduct one of their own – who has defected to Hydra! But Norman Osborn’s Dark Reign changes everything. Where Camp Hammond once trained future Avengers, Camp H.A.M.M.E.R. now trains tomorrow’s Dark Avengers! The new principals are Taskmaster and the Hood, they’re registering villains as heroes and spreading Norman’s empire across the nation. But those who once made up the Initiative aren’t about to let this happen. Hunted by the law, hidden from sight, a Resistance has formed…and they’re out to stop H.A.M.M.E.R. by any means necessary!
Why does this matter?
This book collects the last third or so of the Avengers: Initiative series from issue #20 through #35. If you own the first complete collection this is a no brainer to fill out your collection, but for those not yet reading the series know that this is a slow boil sort of series that’s all about characters, plot twists, and taking superheroes very seriously. More specifically, superheroes who are part of a government arm, which is a more probable reality if we’re being honest with ourselves.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
Trauma is a rather interesting character I’d like to see more of.
Marvel is quite clever when it comes to collecting their series because they always seem to have a satisfying arc within the collection regardless if it’s volume 1 or volume 35. That’s the case here as well, which focuses on a few different threads that are written in strong fashion. The lesser story that picks up midway through follows Taskmaster’s rise to power thanks to Norman Osborn giving him more responsibility. Written in a relatable way, the character rises but really doesn’t want it especially when threats start coming faster and harder. The stronger story involves Camp Hammond original Hardball and his leanings toward a certain evil organization. His relationship with Komodo opens this volume and gives it a humanity due to their young love. A young love that just can’t be sustained with the amount of drama that goes on in this series.
If you ever wanted to get a good character drama via a complex organization that’s filled with rules and regulations this is for you. Written by Christos Gage (Dan Slott writes issue #20) the series does very well juggling so many characters. While most of them are brand new or b-level at best you’ll never know the difference as Gage gives them believable motives and voices. Some may pop in for a brief period–Prodigy comes to mind–but others like Cheetah get a lot more time on the page.
There’s some serious character work in this book too and Cheetah is one that benefits from Gage’s strong writing. She deals with a rather harsh situation (just look at the panels below) and ends up harboring some serious issues with Red Hood. Her anger ends up being a major reason why Osborn loses and Gage does well to show how characters who seemingly don’t have the power to shift the needle can. In general all of the characters are given a bit more humanity than you’re accustomed to with characters like Constrictor coming out stronger and more interesting. Heck, Gage even uses a lost cause character like Penance in an interesting way. New characters like Trauma end up being fascinating and after reading this book I hope to see him and others soon.
The art opens with Steve Kurth on pencils, Humberto Ramos draws five of the issues, Jorge Molina draws another five issues,Rafa Sandoval draws four more and Mahmud Asrar draws another. It’s worth noting Asrar and Sandoval are killing it these days on primo books so it’s pretty cool to see their earlier work here. Obviously their styles vary throughout–how can you compare Ramos to anyone–but for the most part the art is strong. There’s dialogue heavy moments throughout and for the most part the art aids in keeping the pace up. Ramos was the most famous of artists on this book and if you love his style you’ll continue to love it here. His angular, impossibly drawn hips on women are rampant here, but it looks fantastic if his style suits your taste. Asrar gets to show off some big action scenes with multiple characters featured in plenty of panels. The tone in general is quite dark in this book, but that suits a story that has Norman Osborn wheeling and dealing to rule the world.
Damn, that’s flipping evil.
It can’t be perfect can it?
With so many characters and plot twists you’re bound to get a lot of monologuing and it shows here. It’s not an problem at every turn, but a slower pace with heavy dialogue does sprout up throughout this book in ways that’ll make you need a break or at least extra resolve to get through. One could argue that gives this book more value–you’ll need hours to read it–but there are pages here and there that are so heavy on dialogue one could skip to the end of a conversation to understand the point of it all. Gage is of course infusing character via dialogue and does so in a strong way for the most part, but it can be a slog to get through all the talking, especially with explosions and punching going on at the drop of a hat.
Is It Good?
This is one of those stories that shows how flipping cool superheroes can be when done in a serious and complex way. Given how few a-list heroes are in this book one might imagine it’d be a bore, but Gage honest to god makes them all believable and realistic. The number of heroes that come out stronger after this book will give you hope for the future of Marvel because we’ll get to see them again soon.