Heroes Reborn is a book that fully embraced its alternate-reality tropes to a T: a major event in history altered, a small crew of people in the know as to how the world used to be, and the eventual climactic battle. The story almost revels in those tropes and, of course, in the DC Comics four-color nonsense of the Squadron Supreme — a brighter, much more fun romp of Marvel’s answer to the Justice League Gone Bad than their initial epics and more recent reboots.
A good crossover of this style — your Ages of Apocalypse, your Houses of M, your. . . The Nail, I suppose — is a commitment to that alternate world, a deeper consideration to how it works than simply “The Avengers didn’t exist, down to business”.
In Age of Apocalypse, we got the X-Universe issues, which give a little insight as to what the non-mutant heroes of the universe are doing. They’re an unsubtle couple of issues, but it allows for a deeper immersion into that space. In the House of M event, the single best issue doesn’t deal with the conflict at all, instead showing us the events of Steve Rogers’ life under M. It’s heartfelt, crushing, and never takes the alternate world for granted.
Heroes Reborn follows suit, not only committing to the fiction of the universe but to a larger metafiction of a Marvel Comics that never resurrected Captain America, with letters columns discussing plot points and publishing history that never happened. It’s a little stylistic wrinkle borrowed from the sadly forgotten Amalgam Age of Comics, which likewise pretended that DC and Marvel had only ever been Amalgam together.
Both Heroes and Amalgam want their worlds to be dense with that hinted-at history, and want their characters to be believable variations of themselves/their parts. HR wants us to believe, in its one-shot tie-ins, that there but for the grace of God goes a Magneto who runs a mutant resistance force in Xavier’s stead.
It isn’t exactly the metafiction or the interesting alternate versions of characters that truly sells the issues collected in Heroes Reborn Companion, but the delightful DC-ification of those characters. The myriad creators want, like Mark Gruenwald before them, to apply the lens of that rival universe to Marvel. This new story wants to embrace the great goofy Silver Age rather than sweep it away.
In this volume it leads to a deeply troubled, non-spider Peter Parker who, in the main book, comes off as full Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen for our Superman stand-in Hyperion—a cub reporter who shouts things like “Oh, great googly moogly! Um, hey, good buddy? You got your ears on out there?” when he needs Big Red’s help. This being Marvel, however, there’s got to be pathos. And a lot of it.
This volume gives us dark versions of Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes, Jimmy Olsen, and Teen Titans before veering more into addressing the Marvel half of things—Magneto and the Mutant Force is our bleak-as-hell X-Men story, while Siege Society gives us a depressingly Nazi-lead group of ‘villains’ which could more correctly be considered anti-heroes in our Squadron-oppressed reality.
The quality of these stories — both writing and art — is more than a little uneven, with the Society and Hyperion and his Shi’ar playmates more interesting in the implied publication history the stories represent than the stories themselves. Conversely (and somewhat frustratingly), this means that the exposition-heavy Peter Parker and Young Squadron stories read more like origin stories for characters that should already be (metafictionally) established.
This means that its in the spaces where these issues butt up against the larger alternate universe and its alternate universe publisher where the seams of the experiment begin to show. The commitment to the gag is, in the main book and portions of Companion Vol 1, somewhat flawless. It’s the over-commitment to the gag that trips up the flow and fun of the thing. Every place where the books get heavy-handed about insisting this is all real blow the narrative’s cover, like that friend who is very bad at keeping your surprise birthday party a secret.
Of the three volumes which make up the Heroes Reborn experience, Heroes Reborn Companion is probably the least essential. While it might feel important to know where Peter is during it all, these stories don’t capture the essential metafiction as strongly as could be desired.
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