The Next Big Thing is a weekly column where I go back and look at what I’ve been calling “preview anthologies”; one-shots released by superhero publishers meant to establish a new status quo and highlight new titles due for release soon. This time we’re covering Civil War: The Initiative, a one-shot released bridging the gap between the blockbuster Civil War event and “The Initiative”, a new company-wide banner placed on titles set in the Marvel Universe.
While last week’s anthology, Civil War: Choosing Sides, took place in the midst of an event, the circumstances regarding Civil War: The Initiative are much more typical for this type of one-shot. Following the end of Civil War, Iron Man’s pro-registration side had won the day, Captain America had surrendered and his allies remained fugitives from the law. That law was the Superhuman Registration Act which was enforced by Tony Stark in his new role as Director of SHIELD and “The Initiative” in question was the Fifty State Initiative, which aimed to place a superhero team in every state.
I debated whether or not to include Civil War: The Initiative because it isn’t a preview anthology in the same way as Civil War: Choosing Sides; it has two writers and one penciller but going through it you can see where the divisions are, highlighting each story and the title it is advertising. Usually I’d break down the credits as and when, but for this issue I’m going to place all the credits right at the start here and then separate segments by which comic they’re inviting you to try.
Writer: Brain Michael Bendis (Pages 1 – 12, 22 – 34), Warren Ellis (Pages 13 – 21)
Pencils: Marc Silvestri
Background Artists: Michael Broussard & Eric Basaldua
Inks: Joe Weems with Marco Galli & Rick Basaldua
Letters: Troy Peteri
Colors: Frank D’Armata
The first vignette in this issue is not at all interesting as a unit of story but I do think it is interesting as a relic of the time. Essentially, all that happens is a recap of the New Avengers storyline “The Collective” framed as a prison interview. Michael Pointer was an ordinary man who didn’t know he was a mutant that could absorb energy; after 99% of the mutants lost their powers, that mutant energy coalesced and took possession of Michael, driven by the consciousness of Xorn, who I do not have time to get into right now. In this new form, Xorn used Michael’s body to kill Alpha Flight along with a lot of other people until he was taken down on Genosha.
The interview ends with the interviewer revealing themselves to be Walter Langowski aka Sasquatch, who tells Michael that he has been recruited into Alpha Flight’s successor Omega Flight, alongside U.S.Agent, Arachne, Beta Ray Bill and Talisman. I talked last time about how I was still a relatively new reader at this time and I thought this line-up was really cool. I liked how it was almost like a team of first-alternates; back-up Thor, back-up Captain America, back-up Spider-Woman.
The story also serves as an interesting collaboration between Bendis and Omega Flight writer Michael Avon Oeming, longtime friends and co-creators of Powers. Oeming isn’t credited on the issue, but it feels like Bendis passing the baton of The Collective’s story on to Oeming to carry on in the pages of Omega Flight, which would also serve as the next (and final) part of Oeming’s Asgardian saga which began with the “Ragnarok” storyline in Thor and extended into the Beta Ray Bill: Stormbreaker miniseries.
However, as I alluded to last time, the events of Omega Flight couldn’t matter less in the grand scale of the Marvel Universe. The miniseries ends with Beta Ray Bill sacrificing himself by entering “The Realm of the Great Beasts” in order to stop a dark god, but then Bill showed up during Secret Invasion exactly one year later with no mention of his previous circumstances. It’s also interesting to look back at how big a deal Michael Pointer was for such a short amount of time; I think his last appearance was in Dark X-Men ten years ago but I do wonder if he made it to Krakoa.
Just like Omega Flight, Thunderbolts gets a second story after being featured in Civil War: Choosing Sides, but again, more consequential to the actual comic it’s advertising. The previous story was more about establishing the recruitment of the Thunderbolts Army used by Iron Man’s side in the superhuman civil war, while this story here does more to establish the full team and their mission ahead of Thunderbolts #110, the first issue of Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato’s run.
The story shows the Thunderbolts hunting down a new hero named Hurricane, created by Ellis and Silvestri for this issue and then never seen again and we’re introduced to the new line-up of the team one-by-one; Venom, Radioactive Man, Penance, Bullseye, Moonstone and Swordsman. It establishes the new Thunderbolts as hero hunters targeting unregistered individuals and hints at their new roles as media darlings, which is expanded greatly in the ongoing series.
What’s interesting about this story here is that Norman Osborn, arguably the most important character in Ellis and Deodato’s Thunderbolts does not make an in-story appearance — The Green Goblin is shown among the team in a kind of pin-up splash page, but it doesn’t really hint towards his more machiavellian role behind the scenes as the Thunderbolts’ director which is perhaps the most influential change to the post-Civil War landscape.
Ellis and Deodato’s work on Thunderbolts and specifically with Norman Osborn went on to have a major impact on the entire Marvel Universe for the next five years. I’m not sure if this was already in place as a plan for the future or if Bendis was inspired by Ellis’ work with the character and ran with, but about a year from this issue or so, Osborn is going to take Tony Stark’s job as Marvel’s top cop and replace SHIELD with the (even) more authoritarian HAMMER. We’ll talk more about it as we move through the years, but many of Osborn’s Thunderbolts are going to become Avengers under his tenure as the head of HAMMER, including Venom, Moonstone and Bullseye. It’s also worth noting that Mike Deodato was the artist on both Warren Ellis’ Thunderbolts and its spiritual sequel Dark Avengers, maintaining an artistic consistency across the two titles.
By going back and looking at these kinds of preview anthologies we can see the seeds planted for the next three years of storytelling in the Marvel Universe as the rise and fall of Norman Osborn was really the key throughline of the late-2000s. I wanted to revisit these one-shots to see which books Marvel thought deserved readers’ attention and to see, with hindsight, whether they actually did. Thunderbolts might end up being the most influential of all the titles featured in this entire series, because few comics influenced an entire publishing line-up for as long as it did in the era that we’re talking about.
New Avengers and Mighty Avengers
The previous two stories started with the framing device of Tony Stark checking in on different aspects of the post-Civil War landscape but for the final tale, Tony meets with Carol Danvers — Ms. Marvel at the time — to discuss their working relationship. Carol’s place in the Marvel Universe was really interesting at this point, because it felt like the publisher saw her potential to be an A-List hero but we’re maybe a bit too gunshy to really pull the trigger as they would a few years later.
Prior to this, coming off the events of House of M, Carol retained her memories of the alternate timeline and it was a world where she was the top hero; she was basically Superman in the House of M timeline and it made her realise that she had the potential to be that in the real world too. She received her first ongoing series in several decades but still as Ms. Marvel, even though she was the Captain Marvel of the House of M timeline; ostensibly because she didn’t want to take a title she didn’t think she had earned. She’d say on the sidelines of the first two years of Bendis’ tenure as New Avengers writer and one of the lead creative forces of the Marvel Universe, but with Civil War over it was time for her to step into the spotlight.
In this story, she tells Iron Man how she tracked down Spider-Woman, who was fighting The Grey Gargoyle — as a side note, that’s an Iron Man villain; Tony, keep your shit in check — and Carol reached out to Jess to try and get her to come in and sign the registration act by lying to her about Captain America not being dead. In the kind of continuity nod that I don’t usually expect from Bendis, Carol tells Jess “You were there for me at my worst moment” which is a reference to the Avengers Annual #10. I don’t want to get into the details of all of that, but essentially Carol had been put in a bad place by the events of Avengers #200 and Chris Claremont used Avengers Annual #10 to try and fix as much of the damage as he could.
Carol tries to talk Jess into signing but ultimately lets her go and Tony tells Ms. Marvel that was the wrong call before retiring to Stark Tower to contemplate who gets to be an Avenger. What’s really interesting to me about this whole vignette is that it’s going to happen like two more times in the pages of New Avengers, where Ms. Marvel gets the chance to bring in the unregistered heroes — including Spider-Woman — but she chooses to let them get away. I remember it being something of a running joke at the time, how often standoffs would end with Ms. Marvel looking the other way with the promise that “next time, I’m bringing you in.”
So the two titles being set up here are New Avengers by Bendis and Leinil Yu and Mighty Avengers by Bendis and Frank Cho. Mighty Avengers was Bendis’ attempt to go a bit more Silver Age with his take on the team, bringing back classic team members like The Wasp and Wonder Man alongside newer recruits like The Sentry and Ares. Mighty Avengers reveled in its throwback nature, using thought bubbles over the more modern practice of narrative captions and pitting the team against classic Avengers villain in Ultron.
Spider-Woman would seek out what was left of Captain America’s anti-registration team in New Avengers with teammates like Luke Cage, Spider-Man and Wolverine joined by the likes of Doctor Strange and Ronin (Clint Barton in disguise) in their quest to carry on Steve Rogers’ mission. At the time, New Avengers was a much more street level title, with their big enemy being The Hood who set himself up as the new Kingpin of New York in Wilson Fisk’s absence and less generous readers at the time would deride the book as being a Defenders or Heroes For Hire title in disguise, due to its team lineup and story focuses.
Finally, what’s especially interesting is that while it doesn’t allude to it, this final vignette features two characters who would go on to be revealed as Skrull agents during Secret Invasion; Edwin Jarvis and Spider-Woman herself. Bendis had been planting hints of Secret Invasion since his first issue of New Avengers when Skrull agents hired Elektro to cause a blackout at the supervillain prison The Raft, so it’s likely that he knew both Spider-Woman and Jarvis were Skrulls when he was writing this scene, subtly influencing things from behind the curtain to prepare the Marvel Universe for their big attack.
Looking back, this anthology feels a bit less substantial than its peers but at the same time, it’s a bit more cohesive. Marc Silvestri obviously had a lot of help putting this book together, but the consistent art across thirty pages of content makes it feel more like a story and less like a catalogue. However, I can’t help but think that there are titles that would have been better suited getting the rub of this kind of anthology; Avengers: The Initiative would be an obvious candidate, but also short-lived titles like New Warriors and personal favourite The Order could have benefitted from the spotlight given to high profile books like Mighty Avengers and Thunderbolts.