The Next Big Thing

Enter The Heroic Age #1

The Marvel Universe embarks on what promises to be a new status quo that looks a lot like the last few years of comics.

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. After a year of Norman Osborn’s “Dark Reign” the one-time Green Goblin had finally snapped and launched an invasion on Asgard which resulted in his ousting and an end to his reign of terror. A new dawn was rising on the Marvel Universe and this new line-wide initiative was aptly titled “The Heroic Age”

The five years or so between “Avengers Disassembled” and “Dark Reign” were a rough time for the heroes of the Marvel Universe, so the post-Siege banner of “The Heroic Age” promised a bright new future as we headed into the futuristic new decade of the 2010s. Things felt “back to normal” for once; Captain America was even alive again and leading a team of Avengers against big deal threats like Kang and Ultron! It was like the Bronze Age all over again; the dark days of the superhuman registration act and HAMMER were in the past and while there were still enemies on the horizon, the Marvel Universe seemed like a sunnier place.

I don’t know if it’s just where I was when it came to reading Marvel Comics at this time but this anthology feels less important than the rest. I think it’s partly because three of the titles that have vignettes in this issue have already come up at least once before, so it doesn’t feel like we’re entering a bold new vision for the Marvel Universe. Instead, it mostly feels like a last gasp to drum up some interest in a few titles, along with a genuine introduction to a new franchise and one very out of place story by a pair of future superstars.

Reptil in “Admissions”
(Christos Gage, Mike McKone, Jeromy Cox & Joe Caramagna)
Mike McKone, Jeromy Cox & Joe Caramagna (Marvel Comics)

This is the genuine introduction to a new franchise that I mentioned in the opening, as we get introduced to Humberto Lopez aka Reptil, a teenager who can transform parts of his body into dinosaur parts — that’s an important distinction, because at least at first, he can’t transform into a full dinosaur. I believe the character was created for the children’s cartoon The Super Hero Squad but debuted in comics several months earlier, in Avengers: The Initiative Featuring Reptil #1 where he was recruited onto a team by Tigra to take down the excellently named Stegron The Dinosaur Man.

This story reveals that after Norman Osborn took over The Fifty State Initiative, he imprisoned Humberto and experimented on him, trying to unlock his full potential and force him to transform into a full dinosaur. This story shows Reptil’s escape in the midst of the collapse of HAMMER and ends with Humberto being rescued by The Avengers, specifically Hank Pym, Tigra and Justice, who recruit him into Avengers Academy.

Avengers Academy was kind of the logical extension of the kind of stories told in Avengers: The Initiative but in a campus setting rather than a boot camp. The big hook of Avengers Academy was that the young heroes chosen to attend its first class weren’t the bright new future of the Avengers, they were all the highest risk of becoming supervillains. Whether it was due to their propensity towards narcissism like Striker or as a result of the way their powers cut them off from their humanity like Mettle or Hazmat, the first class of Avengers Academy all had one thing in common; Norman Osborn saw great potential in them and the Avengers wanted to show them a different path.

It was a really fun series which had a more-than-decent run of forty issues and my favorite thing about it at the same was that it gave Christos Gate, someone who Marvel had relied as either a fill-in writer on events or a co-writer for books that were behind schedule, a chance to create something from whole cloth and add it to the tapestry of the Marvel Universe. The series balanced its younger cast really well with its faculty; heroes like Hank Pym, Speedball and Quicksilver who were all dealing with their own issues after the last few years of bad things happening all the time and I especially loved it when the cast grew and brought it a bunch of established by forgotten characters like White Tiger, Power Man and Machine Teen.

Unfortunately, the characters of Avengers Academy aren’t really around much anymore, with more than a few of them having bit the dust in the intervening years. The follow-up series Avengers Arena thrust many of these characters into a Battle Royale situation orchestrated by Arcade and not everyone made it out alive. Hazmat is still around as a supporting character in Captain Marvel and Power Man and White Tiger had a good run through Al Ewing’s late-2010s work but the majority of the cast has faded into the background in recent years.

Agents of Atlas in “Heroes For The Ages”
(Jeff Parker, Gabriel Hardman, Giancarlo Caracuzzo, Elizabeth Breitweiser & Ed Dukeshire)
Gabriel Hardman, Giancarlo Caracuzzo, Elizabeth Breitweiser & Ed Dukeshire (Marvel Comics)

I talked at length in the last installment about how I really like the Agents of Atlas but they kinda overstayed their welcome and this is a great example of that, as they make another appearance in a preview anthology to advertise another ongoing series, this one only making it five issues. It is a shame, because I’m a massive fan of Gabriel Hardman’s art and it looks great here with Elizabeth Breitweiser’s colors — although, regrettably, Breitweiser is an avowed supporter of the Comicsgate movement.

What is interesting here is how two stories from a previous preview anthology dovetail here as 3-D Man leaves behind the Skrull Kill Krew and sets his sights on tracking down the Atlas Foundation to help answer questions about where his own powers come from. The original premise of the Agents of Atlas took all of the heroes from before Marvel Comics was Marvel Comics, when it was Atlas Comics in the 1950s. The original 3-D Man was created in the ‘70s as a hero who debuted in the ‘50s, so it made sense to tie that concept into the larger Atlas story which is very loosely, about an extradimensional dragon war. 

This volume of Atlas would be Marvel’s last attempt to make the Agents of Atlas a thing for about a decade, when the name was revived during the War of the Realms event for a new team of Asian heroes put together by Atlas head Jimmy Woo. The new Agents of Atlas spun off into their own series where they crossed paths with the original Agents and things looped back around to the extradimensional dragon war story in the background but it’s too early to say if that’s ever actually going to get paid off or if it’s still just simmering in the background.

Black Widow in “Coppelia”
(Kelly Sue DeConnick, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson & Nate Piekos)
Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson & Nate Piekos (Marvel Comics)

This is just a weird one, at first I wasn’t quite sure why it was in here but on a second read, I think it’s advertising the wrong comic. The basic premise of the short is that Black Widow infiltrates a ballet and to intercept a shady deal but it turns out the product being exchanged is a teenage girl. She rescues the girl but realises that she’s been set up by S.I.S. and instead calls Steve Rogers for help getting her to safety.

At the time, Black Widow’s series was written by Marjorie Liu with art by Daniel Acuña; it was already two issues in when Enter The Heroic Age came out — this story ends with “Natasha’s adventures continue in Black Widow #3 — and the events of this story have nothing to do with the larger story being told in her ongoing. In fact, it isn’t even the same creative team on this story, which is written by Kelly Sue DeConnick with art by Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson. At the time, everyone involved were relative newcomers but they would go on to become genuine superstars within the industry; Kelly Sue for titles like Pretty Deadly and Aquaman, and McKelvie & Wilson on series like Young Avengers and The Wicked + The Divine.

It wasn’t until I re-read the last panel that I realised this wasn’t setting up the events of Black Widow, it was a preview story for Secret Avengers by Ed Brubaker and Mike Deodato. Natasha makes reference to the offer Steve Rogers made and that offer was to come in and work alongside his Secret Avengers team, realising that she can trust her family in the superhero community more than she can her contacts in the international spy community. McKelvie would actually later go on to draw an issue of this volume of Secret Avengers, though after Brubaker left, but it does kinda bring it back around full circle.

Hawkeye & Mockingbird in “Big Trouble In Little Chinatown”
(Jim McCann, David Lopez, Álvaro López, Nathan Fairbairn & Cory Petit)
David Lopez, Álvaro López, Nathan Fairbairn & Cory Petit (Marvel Comics)

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this one because there’s not a lot I can say that I haven’t already said in the last installment; this story even has the same writer, artist and inker as the last Clint & Bobby vignette, which I suppose is consistent. The big difference here though is that Clint is once again Hawkeye rather than Ronin, using the transition from “Dark Reign” to “The Heroic Age” to discard his murderous vigilante identity for something more traditionally superheroic.

The other big change here is that while the previous story had Clint seeking reconciliation and Bobbi looking to move past their marriage, they’re once again back together after the events of New Avengers: The Reunion. This story really highlights how well they work together at a team and I think it’s cute that they’re dating again like it’s for the first time, that’s a fun dynamic. It’s not gonna last for them unfortunately, Hawkeye’s going to go on to date Spider-Woman and Night Nurse while Bobbi briefly goes out with Spider-Man before realising how bad of an idea that is and reunites her first ex-husband Lance Hunter in her ongoing series.

Luke Cage in “Top Dog”
(Jeff Parker, Kev Walker, Frank Martin Jr, & Albert Deschesne)
Kev Walker, Frank Martin Jr, & Albert Deschesne (Marvel Comics)

The final story in this anthology is the third Thunderbolts story in the space of five anthologies, but this time it’s setting up a big change to the way the series works. Thunderbolts started out as villains posing as heroes, then it was villains trying to be heroes, then it was villains working for the government hunting down heroes and now in this new incarnation, it’s essentially the Suicide Squad. We get a look at the inside of The Raft prison which has been a fixture in the Marvel Universe since it was introduced in the pages of Alias seven years prior. 

We get some nice cameos from villains like The Griffin, Bushwacker and one of the Blood Brothers, as well as a quick appearance by Norman Osborn which sets up the aforementioned Osborn miniseries which would launch a few months later. Luke Cage goes undercover as a guard to establish dominance over the inmates and let them know that if they want to get out, they can sign up to the Thunderbolts Program and earn time off their sentences. It ends with Luke confiding his doubts about the role in Steve Rogers, who reassures Luke that he’s the perfect man for the job.

As a former inmate, Luke is the perfect man for the job and after five years or so of him being defined by his status as an Avenger and a husband, it was nice for him to have a purpose and a mission away from all that. The premise of Thunderbolts at this time wasn’t the most original — as I said it was basically Suicide Squad — but the roster line-up was fun and it did interesting things with its characters like Ghost, Crossbones and even Man-Thing. It eventually grew into a new Dark Avengers series and then kinda merged the two teams as it wrapped up.

The one-shot definitely feels like it’s setting up the end of an act within the Marvel Universe which began with “Avengers Disassembled” and next time we’ll be getting more of a fresh start. Going back and reading all of these in a row highlights the flaws of this issue more than if you just read it in isolation; reading another Agents of Atlas story and another Thunderbolts story and another Hawkeye & Mockingbird story all in one issue gets a bit old. I definitely think it’s the weakest of the anthologies covered so far, but some really good stuff did come from it.

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