Avengers: The Initiative #1
Writer: Dan Slott
Artist: Stefano Caselli
Colors: Daniele Rudoni
Letters: Virtual Calligraphy
Cover artist: Jim Cheung
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.75 CAN
Civil War certainly was a sales success for Marvel Comics, but it certainly wasn’t a critical darling. Fortunately, there seems to be a payoff from the crossover event when it comes to the stories that have spun off from it. Avengers: The Initiative approaches the Marvel Universe from a military standpoint, and the premise is actually one that makes sense in the context of the 21st century. This project will prove to be a turning point in artist Stefano Caselli’s career in comics, as he offers up his slickest, strongest work to date. The book is also filled with a wide variety of colorful super-hero characters, from lesser known but established Marvel heroes to new creations. Writer Dan Slott’s love of Marvel’s history shines through here, but more importantly, this comic book showcases his ability to craft strong, character-oriented moments. The characters, not the crossover, take the spotlight in this first issue that will no doubt hook readers and have them coming back for more.
S.H.I.E.L.D. director Tony Stark and his allies have enacted their 50-State Initiative, which will see a super-hero team established in every state in the U.S.A. But key elements of the initiative are recruitment and training, which are also central tenets in the Superhuman Registration Act. To that end, a boot camp for super-heroes has been established in Stamford, Connecticut. A military superhuman codenamed the Gauntlet serves as the drill instructor, and his latest batch of recruits has just arrived. Among them are MVP, the agile and strong grandson of the inventor of the original Super-Soldier Serum; Cloud 9, an insecure girl who can fly on and manipulate clouds; Armory, a young woman in possession of a remarkable alien weapon; and Trauma, a moody young man whose powers will frighten you… literally.
Perhaps the most apparent element about Caselli’s artwork is the influence that J. Scott (Danger Girl) Campbell’s style has had on his art. Many of his closeups on the various characters’ faces really put one in mind of Campbell’s style. Fortunately, Caselli’s seems to have cast off the cheesecake focus that characterizes Campbell’s art and taken a more grounded approach. The designs for the new characters are simple and grounded, but they’re also striking and effective. There’s a manga influence at play as well, as one can see in the designs for Gauntlet and Armory; that oversized, tech hand shtick is really played up in this inaugural issue. Caselli conveys movement quite well here, which is fitting, given the brisk pace of the story. The colors are muted throughout the issue, and it balances the brighter, goofier elements nicely. That’s important, given the political catalyst for the story and the grave ending that arises by issue’s end.
Dan Slott’s love of Marvel’s history and collection of colorful characters are on full display here, as he brings back a number of obscure characters and introduces us to new ones with connections to previously established heroes or villains. Fans of Marvel lore will no doubt be thrilled, but Slott wisely doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with all of the history that comes into play in this story. Mind you, knowledge of the catalyst for and plot of Civil War is required, but this title is geared toward those who have already read it anyway. There’s a great level energy and even a sense of innocence to the young characters that make up the core cast of characters, so much so that it reminds me of a brighter, more fun period in super-hero storytelling.
The book definitely has a dark side as well, and sometimes it’s too dark and at others, not dark enough. The book opens in Iraq as we’re introduced to a superhuman soldier, but instead of facing insurgents, Marvel has sanitized this brief glimpse of that conflict by placing Hydra terrorists in the Middle Eastern setting. It’s so out of place and somewhat trivializes a real-world war; it makes for a jarring moment for the reader. Conversely, the ending is surprisingly brutal and cynical. I suppose it’s a testament to the lighter moments in Slott’s story that the ending is so unsettling. Still, given the broader commentary on politics and society here, it’s a fitting development.
The super-hero boot camp concept is actually one that makes a lot of sense, even without the new, post-Civil War context in the Marvel Universe. I’m actually reminded me of a New Universe one-shot from years ago — The Draft — that saw superhuman recruits forced into a military lifestyle that didn’t suit them.
The first episode of Avengers: The Initiative is a success, and the main reason is the strong characterization Slott brings to bear in this script. Cloud 9’s insecurities make it incredibly easy to relate to her. MVP’s status as a jock is balanced by how incredibly likeable the character is. Trauma’s goth attitude becomes quite understandable once one discovers the nature of his powers, and there many more interesting characters, full of potential, running around. Despite the time Slott spends on setting up the premise, this issue is about how these characters interact, not how they got to be at a military training facility. As long as the series maintains that focus, it should be a solid read, month after month. 7/10