Infinity, on its surface, was the Avengers’ greatest victory in Hickman’s era, and once you dig a little deeper, was the Avengers’ greatest defeat. Of course, that couldn’t be the end of the story.
This fourth Complete Collection throws out the previous one’s style of having no demarcation between issues – it’s abundantly clear when the issue you’re reading ends and when the next one begins. And it’s also very clear whether you’re reading an issue of Avengers or one of New Avengers. Before every Avengers issue is a white page with the title and a little snippet of art, feeling like a standard chapter in the story. But before any issue of New Avengers, the title page is all black, with the symbol for Marvel’s Illuminati across the page. It is very clear that this is the secret history, the one where bad things are happening. Sure, there’s conflict and antagonists in the main Avengers title, but the protagonists are the good guys while the antagonists are the bad guys. There are no “good guys” in New Avengers. It’s what makes the book so potent.
For my money, this is the strongest portion of Hickman’s run on Avengers, at least in terms of Hickman’s plotting and writing. The Avengers have to face off against twisted versions of the classic roster, while the New Avengers completely unravel as they continue to seek out new information on the Incursions and how to prevent them. There’s some really fun conceptual work wrapped in the framework of exploring alternate universes, in both books. The evil AU Avengers are reminiscent of the Crime Syndicate, and let Hickman show off his own chops in terms of how he got the characters he was writing, by inverting them and making them their own foils.
But where the book was its most interesting, where it’s always been its most interesting, is in New Avengers and its exploration of the Illuminati and the universe-ending stakes of the entire story. The Illuminati tries their best to gather information, to come up with a way to save the day and still be heroes. They try so hard, and are able to coast by on the fact that the Earths from the universes they’ve had to deal with incursions from have been either uninhabited or evil or something else. Until one isn’t. Until one has heroes trying just as hard as they are to find another way.
The back half of this collection is where the Avengers unravel. Steve finds out what has been done to him and what has been done in his absence, and the Illuminati find that only one of them can truly do what they’ve convinced themselves they must. It’s heartbreaking and inevitable, and every time I read it I’m struck with awe of how impactful it manages to be.
The only real complaint I have here is that the art starts to take a dive. Esad Ribic, Mike Deodato Jr, Simone Bianchi, and Valerio Sciti are all solid artists and put good work in here — Bianchi’s style feels out of sync with the rest of the artists, but is still good. But then, Salvador Larroca, Rags Morales, and Kev Walker are also there. Morales and Walker aren’t bad artists, but they don’t serve the grander style that the first group I mentioned bring to the table. And Salvador Larroca is straight up not good. This isn’t helped by the fact that the trade is so large that a lot of double page spreads have significant gutter loss. It’s ugly and frustrating and the weakest part of a volume that, had all the artists been great, would have maybe been the best Avengers story.
Still, though, I came away from reading this very glad that I revisited this run. Even before Time Runs Out and Secret Wars, this penultimate act of Hickman’s Avengers proved that the whole endeavor was worth it. If he can close out his run on the X-books even half as well as this, it’ll be an all-time great.
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