Jason Aaron and company’s Avengers has focused primarily on Big Concepts rather than character moments; it’s a book obsessed with the larger mechanisms within the Marvel Universe. It deals with rogue Celestials and lunar gods, Draculas and Phoenix forces, rarely taking time to examine the smaller individuals caught up in those mechanisms.
When it did zoom in on a single Avenger (a Robbie Reyes here, a Jennifer Walters there), it seemed more interested in the idea of the character’s power source rather than the hero themselves—it’s a Challenge of the Ghost Riders, plural, or a World War She-Hulk too large to consider just one character.
These larger concerns are the book’s strength. Building conceptual largeness in the Marvel Universe highlights the initial purpose of the Avengers: to work together against threats too large for any one member to handle alone. It also details larger frameworks to cosmic and conceptual mysteries, both deepening and broadening the Universe.
It’s a delight, then, when History’s Mightiest Heroes drops down from that dizzying omniscience and focuses, for a moment, on individual characters—and, in doing so, only manages to ask much larger questions than it intends to answer.
The issues in this volume do not showcase any of the Avengers we’ve spent the last 56 issues working alongside. Instead, it looks back to examine the lineage of those characters, introducing unknown (perhaps forgotten) heroes of the past. We’re given, in quick succession, a sorcerer soldier in a world war, a ronin of vengeance in Edo Period Japan, and Reno Phoenix and the Starbrand Kid of the Wild West.
The existence of each of these calls into question the nature of these forces (let alone whether these are of Earth-616 lineage): how many times has the Phoenix Force chosen a human avatar? What myriad hands has the Eye of Agamatto passed through?
Each new variation on a theme brings with it smaller questions; if there is a Man-Thing in this World War, does that imply that the Man-Thing is an ongoing presence, some sort of cosmic necessity rather than an accident suffered by one man? How does the drunken Iron Fist of 1926 reflect upon the legacies of K’un-Lun?
The book isn’t interested in answering these questions; it only asks them to widen an impossible scope of the Marvel Multiverse, to suggest a beautiful and unknowable strangeness.
History’s Mightiest Heroes continues the massive work of the preceding volumes by introducing slivers of the Big Concepts the book is obsessed with. It fractures our understanding so that we come to terms with how massive and wonderful not knowing can be.
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