August 30, 2009

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Avengers The Initiative Volume 1

Written by Dan Slott
Illustrated by Stefano Caselli and Steve Uy
Marvel

Continuing my read-through of the post-Civil War Avengers material, this is Dan Slott's dark take on the underbelly of Tony Stark's grand plans for the superheroes of the Marvel Universe.

And my oh my, is it ever dark. Slott seems to be best known for the man who wrote She Hulk stories in the tradition of Byrne or his all-too-brief run on the Thing. But he's also capable of pulling off dark stories that don't feel dark just for the sake of being "edgy." His "Arkham Asylum: Living Hell" is a great comic because it's extremely dark--one of the most horror-filled Batman comics I've ever read--and yet at no time do you feel like hes just piling it on because he can.

That's true here in the Initiative. Slott merely wants to show that Stark has no idea how his grand concept can be corrupted in the hands of Peter Henry Gyrich, the superhero-hating ex-liason for the Avengers now working as part of the Initiative. In his quest to get control over the project, he's willing to stop at nothing, from working with ex-Nazis to putting together "Secret Avengers" to killing people to achieve his aims.

But part of what makes this work is that at no time does Slott use characters out of place. You don't see Rhodey involved in the shady dealings at Camp Hammond because that would be out of character for him. You do see Hank Pym doing things a real hero might not do, but that's because Pym's life is full of questionable decisions and therefore it's in character. Similarly, the cameos by Curt Conners, Ben Grimm, Hank McCoy, and others are all handled in such a way that clearly indicates Dan Slott has read a *lot* of comic books.

Perhaps the best example of this is when Rhodey and a Lizard ripoff try to take down Spider-Man while he battles half the Sinister Syndicate (the "lame half" according to Peter). Spidey works hard to take on the crooks while the other "heroes" are more interested in taking down him for violating the law. It's a theme we've seen time and again with Spider-Man, but Slott uses Peter to point out to Komodo just how screwed up the whole thing is. After all, if they're trying to depower one of the longest-standing heroes on the block, what makes her think they'll care about her if she screws up?

It's not so much a physical beatdown as much as it is a clinic on how an experienced hero fights a smart battle. As Mark Millar showed in the last issue of Civil War, Spider-Man, when written well, is one of the best at what he does--and he's smart enough to know it.

Slott even manages to do a good job with the World War Hulk crossover he's asked to do, finding a way to show the idealism of some of the heroes versus the ugly practicality of the Initiative. Plus, he uses the circumstances of the crossover to further his subplots, rather than distract from them.

But I think the best example of Slott's handling of the series is in the final issue of this trade, where a muder on the base leads to an investigation amongst the metahumans. Tightly plotted, Slott gives a whole host of suspects, shows that Gyrich is a total dick, and even throws in a surprise ending, all in 22 pages. That's some old-school single-issue goodness right there.

Really, the only problem I had with the Initiative is that I'm not a big fan of the artist, Caselli. His characters are too cartoony for the dark tone of this book. It needed a moodier, more angular artist to really capture the moments when the book swerves into black ops mode. The Nazi's speech to Pym about his admiration for him is a thing of beauty but the artwork just justn't sufficiently mesh with the idea. It's times like this that I miss the Buscemas of the world.

Even if you're not a big fan of the concepts spinning out of Civil War, you may want to give this a try. Slott's handling of Marvel's cast of characters is top notch and the story's pretty good too--dark with those hints of humour that help it all along. All in all, it's a pretty good start and an excellent handling of the idea of supheroes for all fifty states and what happens when opportunist government folks get their hands on that kind of power. Good stuff.