Now in Paperback: Avengers Prime

Avengers PrimeBrian Michael Bendis (script)Alan Davis (art)Marvel Comics, 2011The Avengers, Marvel Comics' big-ticket superhero team (not the more family-oriented Fantastic Four, nor the waddling, mooing cash cow that was the X-Men for thirty years, but rather a Justice League-style assemblage of independent super-heroes, many of whom had separate titles of their own) has shifted its core chemistry many times throughout its fifty-year history, but for long-time fans, two eras will stand out: the short run under writer Stan Lee where Captain America took on three untried heroes - Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch - and slowly welded them into a cohesive (though not particularly powerful) team, and a longer run under Steve Englehart a decade later, where a considerably more back-biting team team turned around the impossible love-quadrangle of the Swordsman, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, and the insufferable Mantis. Both quartets yielded crackerjack stories.Nowadays, of course, no such chemistry is really possible. Marvel's line-up currently consists of the Avengers, the Dark Avengers, the Secret Avengers, and the New Avengers, and since not one single person on any one of those teams actually likes or cares about any other single person on any of those teams (even the baby living with one of the teams exhibits only de rigueur slacker indifference to everything and everybody), only fourth-rate bad chemistry is possible, and even that is usually more bother than the current crop of writers wants to get up to. Caustic one-liners are so much easier than gradual character development, after all.But through thick and thin writing seasons in a team so venerable, writers have returned to one trio more often than any others, a trio long since given the ultimate sanction in the comics world of being fan favorites: Thor, the immortal god of thunder, Iron Man, the code-name billionaire playboy inventor Tony Stark uses when he dons his super-powered armor, and Captain America, the World War II super-athlete propelled into the modern era. Something about this trio has warmed the virginal hearts of comics fans for almost the entire run of the Avengers, and lately those fans have broken open their Jabba the Hutt piggy-banks, torn themselves away from their SWTOR consoles, and paid to make big-screen movies starring this trio successes at the box office - and Marvel is hoping for exponentially more of the same this spring when all three characters (plus the Hulk, a member of Stan Lee's original comic book team who quickly left to pursue his true love of mindlessly rampaging) join together in a big-screen version of the Avengers.It's an odd trio, certainly, and on most levels it shouldn't work. Steve Rogers, the man behind the Captain America mask, is a product of Depression-era Manhattan, a true-blue straight-arrow marry-your-sweetheart American GI who's never been drunk, never been promiscuous, and has no overdue library books. He seems an odd fit for Tony Stark, who swills martinis before lunch and who likes both his escargot and the waitresses who serve it nice and hot. And what do either of them have in common with a 3,000-year-old Norse god who lives to pith frost-giant skulls and whose one-eyed father is the all-powerful ruler of an extra-dimensional realm? You'd think all three would say a few polite words to each other at Avengers fundraising events and then walk off in three different directions.But that hasn't ever happened - instead, a long succession of writers have found this particular trio easy to write (just as rumor has it writers have always found DC Comics' equivalent trio, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman), and that applies to Brian Michael Bendis, the fan-favorite writer of Avengers: Prime, a collection of the five-issue mini-series, now out in paperback. Even though Bendis is the writer of half the aforementioned current Avengers books, in this mini-series, divorced from marginal or topical characters and allowed to concentrate on just these three elemental figures, he turns in a rousingly heroic and warmly sentimental story of mismatched but genuine brotherhood.The plot stems from the earlier Marvel Comics mega-story "Siege," where the madman Norman Osborne used the purloined might of the American military to launch a full-scale attack on Asgard, the home of the Norse gods (temporarily stranded in the sky above Oklahoma). In "Siege," Osborne is defeated, but his attack succeeds in destroying Asgard, and in the opening pages of Avengers Prime, the various teams of Avengers are wandering around the ruins of the Realm Eternal. Here is where Iron Man and Steve Rogers (currently yielding his Captain America identity and therefore in mufti, which is why the graphic novel's cover shows Iron Man, Thor, and some guy with a bad haircut) have a heated exchange about each other's politics, momentarily heedless of the fact that Thor has seen his home blown to bits. Just as the two of them are apologizing to the thunder god, a fractured mystical portal opens up and swallows our three heroes, spitting them out in three separate locales scattered around the Asgardian universe. Their individual quests immediately become a) to find each other, b) to figure out what's going on, and c) to find a way back home.The story of course has a villain - in this case Hela, the Norse goddess of death, who's used the disruption in the Asgardian cosmos to increase her own power and make a grab for all the rest (long-time fans of Thor's own comic will remember that she has a tendency to do this, whenever there's trouble in the neighborhood) - but once our three heroes come together, there's never much doubt they'll prevail. The point here isn't a dangling conclusion but a showplace for three very different men acknowledging how much they simply like each other. Underneath Steve Rogers' pious heroism, Iron Man's caustic cynicism, and Thor's otherworldly bluster, Bendis finds three true-born stalwarts who, unlike so many of their Avengers teammates, need no other inducement to heroism than their own natures. Ultimately, it's little wonder they become fast friends.The whole endeavor is hugely aided by some of the best comics artwork Alan Davis (yet another fan favorite) has ever done. His Iron Man panels overflow with Tony Stark's raffish personality; his Thor segments are bright with blinding power; and most of all his Steve Rogers action-sequences are meticulously-choreographed ballets of movement - you sense immediately that this is exactly how Captain America would fight: constantly moving, constantly doing four different kinds of damage at the same time. Artists who tend to draw the character simply standing there hurling his shield could learn a lot from these panels.In the end, of course, Hela is defeated by this odd, indomitable trio, and relative order is restored - and more, our heroes' faith in each other is restored ("I'm better at everything I do," Tony Stark realizes, "when I'm doing it by your side"). The cosmic rupture that pulled them away from their teammates is healed and deposits them right back amongst their teammates, so this whole mini-series is a discreet bubble of an event. Perhaps this was liberating for Bendis, but however it works: Avengers Prime is a classic no fan of the team should miss.