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Some Assembly Required

 

The New Avengers: Breakout

Brian Michael Bendis, David Finch

Marvel, 2005

Rating: 3.7

 

Posted: September 24, 2005

By The Gentleman (exclusive to Shaking Through)

Although the Avengers are the big guns of Marvel Comics, they've rarely enjoyed the sales or status of their DC counterparts, the Justice League, partly because the team's core roster has historically included some B-list characters (the Wasp and Henry Pym, for example). Because the title was formed relatively early in Marvel's history, the company didn't yet have a rich crop of iconic world-beaters to pick and choose from like DC did -- and the ones it did have, like Iron Man, hadn't yet developed into their full potential.

So if one wanted to elevate the Avengers to the big-ticket status to which they've always aspired, one could easily take the approach Grant Morrison so successfully did with JLA, and pump the most recognizable characters up into their most archetypal selves. Or one could shake up the very idea of the Avengers, while returning to the team's roots as a collection of ill-matching parts. That's the tack Brian Michael Bendis has taken with The New Avengers, and Breakout, which collects the first six issues of that new title, suggests it's a wise one.

Luckily for Bendis, over the last few decades Marvel has developed some iconic characters, and the best of them are, in true Marvel fashion, misfits -- Spider-Man, Wolverine, even Captain America. Yes, on the face of it, the very idea of adding Wolverine and Spider-Man to Marvel's premier team seems ridiculous. But it raises a valid question: Why not? After all, didn't the original team lump the Hulk (the ultimate misfit) with a couple of nobodies and Iron Man -- a group that seemed doomed to failure?

Six months after the Avengers disintegrated following the events of Avengers Disassembled, a mysterious figure hires the supervillain Electro to create a distraction by shutting down the Raft, the part of Ryker's Island Maximum Security Penitentiary that houses the world's most dangerous powered super-criminals. And as luck would have it, he does so on the same day that blind attorney Matt Murdock (who's also the costumed crimefighter Daredevil), his partner Foggy Nelson, and bodyguard Luke Cage, accompanied by SHIELD agent Jessica Drew, are visiting the Sentry, one of the world's most powerful -- and most troubled -- protectors.

During the chaos that results, they're eventually joined by Captain America, Iron Man and Spider-Man, and the good guys do a credible job of holding their own, considering that they're grossly mismatched. Captain America is so impressed by their teamwork that he prevails upon Iron Man to help him gather them together as a new Avengers team; despite his reluctance, the armored crusader (whose alter ego, industrialist Tony Stark, disbanded the team), agrees. Soon, the duo have assembled a new cast of Avengers, lacking Sentry or Daredevil (who's rather busy dealing with his "outing" as Murdock in his own book) but including Drew, fired from her SHIELD post and reclaiming her former role as Spider-Woman. (Here endeth the rote plot summary, except to note that yes, somewhere along the way, the ever-popular and over-used Wolverine does make an appearance.)

Regardless of whether one disagrees with some of his methods or storytelling quirks, one has to admit that Bendis isn't afraid to take risks -- something hard to do in the structured and constrained world of superhero comics, where (despite what most industry insiders will publicly say) maintaining a marketable brand outweighs telling a good story any day of the week. And he makes some welcome changes here, including stripping the Avengers of their federal affiliation, salaries and congenial working relationship with SHIELD -- in fact, Bendis renders Drew's former employers in the world's premier spy organization (or someone in the organization, anyway) as complicit in a conspiracy involving the stockpiling of super-powered criminals and the prison break. These Avengers are underdogs (although they do get a nifty hangout courtesy of Stark), unsure of whom they can trust and exactly whom they're hunting for.

Penciler David Finch, aided by a handful of inkers and colorist Frank D'Armata, largely sustains an atmosphere of murky ambiguity that suits the story's underdog/conspiracy feel -- although sometimes that murkiness extends to overly busy layouts and a bit of difficulty distinguishing one character from another. On the whole, though, Breakout promises an intriguing new take on a property that hasn't always gotten the props (or the treatment) it deserves. As Iron Man tells Captain America while debating the merits of inviting Wolverine into the fold: "We're going to need someone to go to that place that we can't." That seems to sum up the writer's plan in a nutshell -- to take the book to places it previously hasn't been able to go. It remains to be seen whether he succeeds, but Breakout makes a good case for watching him try.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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