Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]
Don’t buy the hardcover edition of Avengers Vol. 2: The Last White Event.
This has nothing to do with the quality of the story; I have some quibbles, but as I’ll explain, Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers has rightly become the core of Marvel’s endeavors to change for the better. Instead, I’m asking you to not buy the hardcover out of protest for Marvel’s current collections pricing structure. Asking $25 for five issues is just beyond the pale -- even more so when Avengers World charged the same for six! Comixology has the issues collected here for $19.95, and the trade paperback will be the same price when it comes out in April; it’s still a bit much, but at least it’s the appropriate cost considering the prices of the issues.
Hickman ended Avengers World with a double whammy of reveals: Earth is being threatened by a reality-destroying “White Event," and the artificial human created by that book’s villains is not named “Blackveil," but “Nightmask." The destruction of numerous universes by White Events is the topic of Hickman’s New Avengers and marks the start of the two books interlocking in preparation for Infinity. I’m not as big of a fan of New Avengers, mostly because the characters seem “off" from their usual selves, but it takes a turn for the better once Infinity hits.
So what’s the importance of Nightmask? If you’re not up on your obscure '80s Marvel characters, Nightmask was part of the “New Universe” initiative, an experiment in publishing a more “realistic” superhero universe. Hickman has been unapologetic in using '80s Marvel concepts in Avengers; I’ll go into more detail in a post on my Tumblr. This isn’t the first attempt to salvage the “New Universe” ideas: Mark Gruenwald made good use of them in Quasar, and Warren Ellis tried to revive the New Universe with newuniversal but had to abandon it after his computer lost the files.
Hickman takes the idea to a new level by proposing that the New Universe characters are archetypes who appear in each universe at a moment when that universe is ready to ascend to a new level of complexity. This is marked by a White Event; unfortunately, the systems used to deliver these archetypes have been broken, which cause problems such as Captain Universe -- the embodiment of Earth 616 -- to have memory problems. In this case, the White Event delivers a Starbrand, a sigil which grants immeasurable power. The opening of the story plays with the reader’s expectations by setting up a number of possible Starbrands ... and then taking a massive swerve, which I won’t spoil because Hickman and artist Dustin Weaver do such an excellent job of misdirection.
The ensuing arc sees the entire team take on Starbrand and Nightmask; they still aren’t enough. (I maintain that this is the result of bad karma for kicking Luke Cage out off-panel back in Avengers World.) From there, the villains Ex Nihilo and Abyss -- the creators of Nightmask -- make their reappearance to set up a number of incidents on Earth involving their experiments with life and sentience. The pacing is a little odd; the stories in this trade are all in response to the events of the first three issues, so it simultaneously feels like it’s taking too long on one scale while feeling properly paced when looked at from a distance.
"Validator," the story from issue #10, is easily my personal favorite in this trade, introducing an Omega Flight team as Canada’s contribution to Marvel NOW! and providing a number of surprising twists. Wolverine gets some great character work without having to stab anyone, while Smasher and Manifold get exposed to some of the stranger aspects of being an Avenger. What really makes this story great is a sequence involving the Avengers going through numerous evolutions and future incarnations (I’ll let you discover the context). The Hulk turns very briefly into the Maestro, his villainous future from Peter David’s run on the Hulk, but Captain America takes it further, turning into, of all people, Rob Liefeld’s Fighting American. There’s no real reason for it; it’s just an inside joke on the behalf of Hickman and/or Mike Deodato, but it’s an appreciated one.
The final story in The Last White Event sees a small team going to Macau to intercept the sale of a superweapon to various criminal syndicates. This story shows how adept Hickman is at portioning off the huge team into sub-teams, using Shang-Chi’s tranquility, Sunspot’s wealth, Cannonball’s gregariousness, Black Widow’s ruthlessness, Spider-Woman’s nobility, and Captain Marvel’s brashness to all drive the tale. Even though the end result doesn’t really work together with the New Universe elements of the rest of the book, it’s a nice break and a great use of the "JSA Cooldown" method.
I’m going to cheat a little here and discuss two issues that are in the next trade, Prelude to Infinity, but should really be collected here. These issues get swallowed up in the action of Prelude and the Infinity mega-hardcover, which is a shame, as they are again some of my favorites. Issues twelve and thirteen are a two-parter centering on another project of Ex Nihilo, in this case a tribe of fast-growing children whose bodies can violate thermodynamics to provide endless power. Thor and Hyperion take center stage so that Hickman can answer another fan complaint: why have both of them on the same team? While they are (almost) equally powerful, their friendship despite their respective pessimism and optimism provides a nice contrast on how to write super-strong heroes. Hickman also brings the High Evolutionary into play, setting him up as a potential greater threat.
On its own, Avengers: The Last White Event isn’t perfect, but it’s part of an excellent ongoing story and has its own highlights, especially the art from Weaver and Deodato. Next week, however, the systems running the universe finally break as Infinity begins.