Writers: Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Reed
Artists: Jim Cheung (p), Mark Morales (i), Justin Ponsor (colours)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Your honour, I present the case for the defence of Brian Michael Bendis.
For a writer who gets such a lot of flack for padding out his stories, not being able to make good on the promise of his concepts, and writing all of his characters with a single "voice" to be able to turn out a comic like this is no mean feat. Maybe it's the presence of Brian Reed as co-writer, but these common complaints with Bendis' style simply don't apply here, as the two writers conspire with Jim Cheung - rapidly becoming one of my favourite superhero artists - to create a single-issue story with real substance and which manages to avoid short-changing any of the many A-list characters who appear. Bendis got a lot of stick for his "Illuminati" concept, but it now seems clear that he's not trying to use his elite group to rewrite Marvel history, just to explore some of the classic concepts of the Marvel Universe from a slightly different angle, and this issue sees Reed Richards spearhead a project to collect the six Infinity Gems to avoid them falling into villainous hands (again).
This is a team book in a way that Bendis' New Avengers has never quite managed to be. Each character brings his own insight and point of view to the situation, and the manner in which each member of the "Illuminati" represents a different group of Marvel heroes is underlined by the wonderfully old-school captions and logos which introduce the members on the opening page. Every one of the Illuminati contributes something to the effort to retrieve the Infinity Gems, and the story proceeds along a fairly linear route, albeit one which is underpinned by a sinister tone which hints heavily that the Gems are influencing Mr. Fantastic to collect them for selfish rather than altruistic reasons, à la Lord of the Rings. The book has a proper beginning, middle and a well-defined ending, with the implication of a mini-twist on the final panel which doesn't seem tacked-on or clever-clever, but suits the characters and their motivations perfectly. All of the moments of humour hit their mark, and there's an efficiency to the writing which draws attention to the absence of the kind of self-indulgent chatter that is sometimes associated with New Avengers, as Bendis and Reed elegantly outline abstract concepts (such as the significance of one's perception of the Mind Gem, or the disconcerting effects of the Reality Gem) without feeling the need to overexplain them or getting bogged down in unnecessary detail.
Jim Cheung excels at his craft in this book, bringing a delicately-outlined and characterful look to the members of the Illuminati. As with last issue, Bendis and Reed gift him with a few spotlight scenes which show the team making use of their various powers, and Cheung pulls them all off. The raw power of Black Bolt letting loose with his voice, the minimalist void of Charles Xavier, Namor and Dr. Strange exploring the landscape of the weird and wonderful Mind Gem, and the disturbing scenes of the havoc which is wrought by the Reality Gem are all communicated to the reader far more strongly through the artwork than through the text, and it's testament to Bendis and Reed's confidence in their artist that they allow Cheung's visuals to be such an important part of the storytelling. Mark Morales' fine inking and Justin Ponsor's attention-grabbing yet often restrained colours make the best of the already impressive linework.
What I love about this book is that it captures the classic spirit of the Marvel Universe through a modern, done-in-one story, taking advantage of the variety of characters, concepts and amazing powers that it offers in a way which makes them feel fresh and imaginative despite their familiarity. What I love about this book is that you don't need to have any prior knowledge of the history of the Marvel Universe to understand the plot, but if you have, there are many nods and winks included which will enrich your reading experience and add depth to its stories. What I love about this book is that it shows heroes battling their own flaws in order to try to do what they think is right, without betraying the characteristics which make them heroes in the first place. In an era in which superheroes seem to have to go through Crises, Wars and Dissassemblies every five minutes in order to remain "edgy" and "relevant," this is a blast of cool, fresh air which reminds you why these characters worked so well in the first place. The next issue deals with what I consider to be the defining Marvel crossover, Secret Wars. I haven't looked forward to a comic so much in ages. I only wish it appeared on a more-than-bimonthly schedule.
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