Avengers: Endless Wartime is the first entry in an all-new series of original graphic novels from Marvel Comics. How does it fare? Click through to read our thoughts.
- Story: Warren Ellis
- Illustrations: Mike McKone
- Colors: Jason Keith
- Format: 120 pages, full color, hardcover
- List price: $24.99
- Sale date: 02 October 2013
- Publisher’s description: The first in a series of all-new original graphic novels! An abomination, long thought buried, has resurfaced in a war-torn land. But now it wears an American flag. Faced with another nightmare reborn, Captain America will not stand for yet more death at the hands of a ghost from his past. Haunted by his greatest shame, Thor must renew the hunt for a familiar beast. At their side, an assemblage of allies united to end the threats no one of them could face alone. They are soldiers. Warriors. Comrades-in-arms. Mighty heroes led by a living legend, stronger together than apart. They are the Avengers.
- NOTE: This book was personally purchased by the reviewer
Avengers: Endless Wartime is finally here after some minor distribution hiccups—the title’s release date was pushed back several weeks only to have it ship to retailers a month early, resulting in some pre-release leaks making their way online. Here’s what I previously wrote about the graphic novel when it was first solicited back in May:
… while Marvel’s commercial dominance in the on-going comics series arena is unquestioned, it does seem to us that the publisher doesn’t have the kind of critically-acclaimed, commercially successful superhero graphic novel/mini-series that DC has several of in its back-catalogue. DC can point to Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Batman: Year One, Kingdom Come, among others as examples of standalone mainstream superhero works that have not only earned accolades in the comics community, but have also caught on with the general public and entered popular literature discourse. Marvel, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have iconic graphic novels in its publishing history (the closest thing to a Marvel version of Watchmen or Batman: Year One we can think of in terms of critical and commercial reception is probably X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills), although that doesn’t seem to affect their characters’ and comics’ popularity any. Avengers: Endless Wartime is supposed to change that. Written by Warren Ellis with art by Mike McKone, the book will be based on the “common-sense continuity” version of the characters that should make it accessible to readers whose only encounter with the Avengers is via the recent Disney/Marvel Studios films or through pop culture osmosis on the Internet. We can’t wait to see how it pans out.
I’ll say this up front for those of you in a hurry: Given the hopes that were pinned to it as the first in what is supposed to be a wave of premium, standalone, original graphic novels, Avengers: Endless Wartime has to be classed as an unmitigated disappointment.
Part of that assessment stems from the book failing to meet the heightened expectations that come with its creative pedigree: Warren Ellis is a giant in the comics-writing field, albeit an occasionally polarizing one, whose imaginative and provocative work on titles such as The Authority, Transmetropolitan (a personal favorite), and Planetary has likely assured him a future place in a prominent comics award-giving body Hall of Fame or two, or at the very least, a well-maintained and lengthy Wikipedia article. And while Mike McKone is nowhere near the outsized industry personality that Ellis is, he is nonetheless an artist of well-deserved acclaim who, over the course of almost a quarter-century as a professional comics artist, has very capably illustrated books belonging to just about every major “Big Two” superhero franchise from the Fantastic Four to the Justice League to the X-Men to the Teen Titans. As this graphic novel shows however, a comic’s artistic and entertainment value doesn’t necessarily correlate with its creators’ combined experiences and reputations.
The basic premise and hook of Avengers: Endless Wartime—the Avengers battle out-of-control S.H.I.E.L.D. cyborg combat drones built by a shady defense contractor from a combination of rediscovered Nazi occult technology and creatures from Norse myth—has a lot going for it. It’s an ideal foundation for the kind of mad-ideas, “widescreen” superhero antics Ellis has shown a deft facility for in The Authority and Planetary. This premise also allows Ellis a springboard to address issues such as the ethics of appropriating the resources and technology of evil empires and dictatorships (a theme Ellis previously explored in the excellent Ministry of Space), the risks that come with the use of autonomous super-weapons (an area Ellis touched on in Supergod), the possibility that powerful military entities unwittingly generate strife and conflict just by the very fact of their existence, and the outsourcing of national defense responsibilities to private corporate entities.
It is in the execution of the work that Avengers: Endless Wartime loses the reader. Ellis only nibbles at the edges of the interesting ideas and concepts the book promises, instead slathering the panels with awkward, unnatural-sounding, exposition-heavy dialogue. Witness this interaction between Captains Marvel and America, for example, where Ellis has the former helpfully explaining her origin to someone who should already know it and then immediately pointing out how ridiculous it all is:
Or this panel, where Captain America recounts a flashback sequence that was just portrayed several pages prior whilst belaboring the character’s “man out of time” conceit already explicitly spelled out in one of the book’s opening scenes:
There are several such incidents littered throughout the book, where Ellis employs clumsy info-dump dialogue as a flimsy substitute for naturalistic character actions and interactions as a device to reveal characters’ motivations, internal mental states, and development: One particularly egregious six-panel sequence has Iron Man taking Captain America aside in the Quinjet’s passenger compartment while on a flight to their first combat mission so he can give him, out of the blue, the lowdown on his upbringing and his strained relationship with his workaholic/alcoholic father.
Additionally, most of the individual Avengers’ voices don’t sound particularly distinct. Iron Man, Hawkeye, Wolverine, Black Widow, and Captain Marvel all speak like pale shadows of the prototypical Ellis bad-ass—think The Authority‘s Jenny Sparks or Planetary‘s Jakita Wagner—equal parts bluster and clever concatenation, but with no substance behind their style. It’s a bit of a slog getting through the book’s first fifty or so pages, to be honest.
The book’s art is decent, but as with the writing, there’s an unmistakable coating of homogeneity over the whole affair. Some of that can be laid at the door of the writing: When the script calls for multiple extended talking head sequences to take place in featureless meeting rooms, corridors, and Quinjet interiors, there’s only so much even an artist of Mike McKone’s caliber can do to inject a sense of dynamism in the visual storytelling without forcing the issue, especially with the word balloons taking up so much real estate.
I also couldn’t help but notice how generic (for lack of a better or more politic term) the art on the book appears: The combination of McKone’s measured linework and Jason Kieth’s coloring results in a gradients-as-a-substitute-for-line-rendering quality that is, for better or worse, the hallmark of comics made in the Photoshop/Corel Painter era and McKone’s staging of the action set-pieces isn’t particularly bracing.
Avengers: Endless Wartime, while competently put together, reads both like a self-parody and the kind of superhero comic book that Ellis was taking the piss out of in his satirical Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.; it is a work that alternates between being self-indulgent and being perfunctory in its narrative sensibilities. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Ellis’ work in 2004’s Ultimate Galactus trilogy, by which I mean it feels like it’s cobbled together from the warmed-over leftovers of ideas that he executed much better on his earlier work-for-hire superhero material (The Authority, Planetary, Iron Man: Extremis, just to name a few examples) and his creator-owned comics work. It’s a passable distraction if you can keep the expectations born from the hype, anticipation, and premium price tag at bay, and if nothing else, the inclusion of both Captain Marvel and Wolverine is a welcome change-up from the current Marvel Cinematic Universe Avengers roster (one that we’ll also probably never see in film while Fox holds the X-Men movie rights). It’s definitely subpar comics-writing work overall coming from Ellis, though, and the tedious first act will prove a significant barrier to enjoyment for even the most ardent and forgiving Ellis, McKone, or Avengers fans.