WARNING SPOILERS FOR NEW AVENGERS #21 and #22
Jonathan Hickman’s tenure as Godking of the Avenger’s comic book universe has been one imbued with massive scale. He has taken the Avengers to the depths of space to “stand with the other worlds” in a grand intergalactic war. He has hurled Captain America 50,000 years into the future. He has pulled heroes from the place between dimensions, smashed worlds together, and shown us indications of repeated Armageddon. The scope has been larger than any other Avengers story ever told. The stakes, even higher than the cartoonish levels the team calls par.
But here, in New Avengers #22, the Avengers stand alone in a desert. There is no splendid space battle. No high science fiction idea birthed forth in canny fashion. No titanic enemy to fight. They are just alone, with themselves and the things they have done.
In a chapter with no action or fight scene, Hickman has written an explosive piece of comic book history.
(SPOILERS AGAIN IF YOU MISSED IT ABOVE)
Since the New Avengers relaunched in 2013, the story has followed The Illuminati (Mr. Fantastic, Tony Stark, Black Panther, Namor, Beast, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange, and The Hulk) and their attempt to stop Incursions, events where two alternate dimension versions of earth collide. When an Incursion occurs, one of two possible outcomes is realized. Either one earth is destroyed or both universes die.
Up until now the communal intelligence of The Illuminati has saved our earth from the Incursions without destroying an innocent alternate earth. The end of New Avengers #21 changed that, as time finally ran out for earth’s mightiest heroes, and Namor activated a bomb that destroyed an alternate earth.
New Avengers #22 is the quiet fallout of Namor’s choice. The Illuminati are hit hard with the realization that while they saved two entire universes, they also killed six billion people.
In 22 pages Hickman deconstructs what it is to be a hero. This group of Avengers has saved the world countless times, battled evil, and stood up when no one else would. For over two generations, the Avengers have stood as an ideal of heroism for readers. They have bronzed themselves as moral standards of valor and strength. They have been our pop culture avatars for what is good.
Now for eight of those heroes, that is gone.
This hits each character in different ways. Alone in the desert, their pain and conflict bounce off each other as the cope with their fall.
Super heroes normally feel bigger than normal people. Literally bulletproof, in some cases a finger length away from Godhood. Not here. These are men with their heroism pulled out like it was a rotten tooth. Beyond humbled, they ask each other if this was all inevitable. Have they lorded over mankind? Holding themselves in higher regard. Assuming they will always be the just and right ones. Were they always doomed to make the wrong choice and become monsters?
The soul of this issue, like all issues of this New Avengers arch, lies in the relationship between Namor and Black Panther. Two kings, each a failure in their own eyes, they place the protection of their kingdoms above even their own souls. They want the same thing. Redemption. For them and their crown. But they have different ideas of how that is achieved.
Namor, pulled the trigger that killed a world. He embraces it. He sees the monster and the hero. The other heroes were willing to hold on to the abstraction of morality, even at the possible cost of two universes. This seems masturbatory to Namor. He understands what he did was awful but doesn’t care. He lives to protect his kingdom. That is what being a hero is to him.
Black Panther was willing to let his kingdom, and his world possibly die to avoid the moral stain of legendary genocide. He proved heroic by standing by a difficult choice because he felt it was right. But conversely, he failed his people. Namor’s confidence in his choice, highlights Black Panther’s feeling of failure.
This is the end of their corporation. The crimes they have committed against each other over the course of the series have all been brought to the front of the stage. All their faults are reflected in each other and they can no longer take it.
As the last panels of this book fade down to a sepia tone sunset, Reed Richards is the first of the team to realize that the true fallout of what happened, is even grander than six billion lives. They will not have the fortitude to kill a world again. The next Incursion will be the end of two universes if they cannot find a way to save both worlds and stop the Incursions forever. It is a task believed to be unattainable.
We see into Reed’s face as he looks at the device in his hand that counts down to the next Incursion. Eight hours. For maybe the first time in Avengers’ history we feel the possibility of nihilism becoming actualized. Maybe there is no hope. Reed admits that all things must end and perhaps The Avengers are not the saviors of earth, but the men meant to sheppard it to its end.