Story Arc Review: Avengers Academy #34-39 "Final Exam" and FinaleA comic review article by: Shawn Hill
Two years on, and the energetic and inventive Avengers Academy comes to a natural conclusion. The title began as a collaboration between Gage and Mike McKone, who was a natural for teen heroes thanks to his strong reboot of Teen Titans with Geoff Johns a few years before. Recapturing that rare magic is certainly why I got hooked by the title initially. It was part of the Heroic Age push that occurred after the Osborn eraa of Dark Reigns and Sieges, etc. The book was an emblem of hope and fresh energy, and the fact that it comprised Osborn's most vulnerable teen victims just added a layer of depth to the off-concept character dynamics.
As Hazmat declares to her teachers in the finale, it didn't take long for these clever kids to realize they weren't initially gathered as the brightest hope of the Avengers legacy, but because they were the most damaged and the most vulnerable to taking an evil path with their powers. The teachers (Hank Pym, Jocasta, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and Tigra) seem taken aback by this accusation, but that's mostly because great communicators they aren't. If ever a faculty was assembled who have their own big mistakes to learn from, it was this one.
But something else has become clear over the course of the series: even if the kids are completely right about the original motivation of the Academy, they've been through a lot in that ensuing time since they matriculated. They've proven themselves heroes over and over. And friends, and competent warriors. Despite Hank's fumble explaining their new status, they're more than provisional Avengers at this point. He's just, as usual, a better scientist than leader.
That prickly interpersonal dynamic is one of the many Gage has had right since day one. This book has fared pretty well amidst all the crossover pushes of the past two years, mostly because Gage came up with interesting and specific twists relevant to our teen crew in each case. "Fear Itself" was in fact their crucible, when the dire straits of the nation in the face of attacks both Fascist and divine forced the students into adult service, necessitating battle-field decisions of the harshest sort. Just the sight of some of our kids trying to survive on their hidden space station with Asgard-empowered Titania and the Absorbing Man after their blood was like watching Jason X but with victims you actually cared about.
Sure there have been some missteps. There was really no defense for Juston and his pet Sentinel when Emma Phoenix came calling, save that Juston had already joined the Academy. Quicksilver used his sneakiness well to protect his young charge, showing even he has learned from some of his mistakes. C'mon, even Magneto himself is contrite these days.
And the school had been a harbor that has made room for errant mutants, Runaways, Thunderbolts and Young Avengers all over the course of the series. Adding X-23 to the mix was a stroke of brilliance, allowing Gage to explore in detail the personality quirks of one of the more damaged high concept heroines ever, and compare and contrast her to the main characters in interesting ways. Since Laura doesn't have normal emotional responses, she judges every situation by detached logic alone, giving Gage a quasi-autistic character not unlike the team's strategist Finesse. Seeing their friendship come to an end for reasons they both articulate so carefully in the finale is just one of many powerful moments that X-23 has been the catalyst for.
Another was a meta-issue, as many readers in the active letter's page had issues with her revealing costume when she was introduced, and suggested an active combatant who is also an attractive young woman might choose more practical attire. The creative team listened to these thoughts, and updated Laura's look not as an act of fan service, but as an example of the interactive level of communication possible these days between the creators and authors of a favorite title.
The inclusion of a variety of unlikely characters over the series' run was one of its great strengths, and evidence of just how much of a Marvel geek Gage really is. Not only did those other teen groups stop by (and always stay in character), but what about Sebastian Shaw (in unusual non-villainous mode), Korvac (and his doomed lover/partner Carina) and Devil Dinosaur (because if you've got Reptil and Old Lace, why not throw in the Kirby original, too)?
Nowhere but here could one have read the dire plight of Hybrid, a mutant offspring of human and Dire Wraith (originally a ROM and X-Men villain?!) who was masquerading as a student in order to setup his long-held rapine goal of a mutant breeding program. In story after story, even this extra-creepy one, Gage found his plot points in the natural tensions that emerged from competing personal agendas.
Nowhere was that more evident in than in "Final Exam," where the core team went off-campus, lured by the temptation of former foe Alchemist, a teen millionaire who promises to cure them all, meaning most poignantly that Veil will stop dissolving, Mettle will have human skin again, and Hazmat won't need her toxicity suit to save her from poisoning everyone around her. Reptil and White Tiger have their own subplot regarding learning to use their magical talismans as well as a would-be usurper. X-23's power-loss, conversely, means her death, as she can't survive without her healing power.
Hazmat and Mettle get their moments as lovers finally able to touch skin to skin (that moment that never works for Gambit and Rogue), and then realize they need to give that bliss up in order to save their friends. Which they do, willingly. Giuseppe Camuncoli's harrowing covers ably demonstrate the high stakes of this final story, as Hazmat, White Tiger, Reptil and Mettle are each seemingly crushingly defeated, one by one. That's just drama, though, as inside they figure ways out of their defeats, using their professional training. Divito and Grummet make a strong alternating team on the final arc. Both are able successors to McKone, as were earlier runs by Sean Chen and Tom Raney. All of the above share a visual clarity based on solid anatomy and a realistic but sunny approach to storytelling, giving the book a highly consistent and bright look appropriate to the positive message for the full run.
The penultimate issue quotes the cover of the classic Uncanny X-Men #100, which then pitted original X-Men against all-new. This time it's the Academy vs. the Jean Grey School, for flag football! Gage makes room for some funny beats with Quicksilver (whose sangfroid simpatico with the similarly Machiavellian Finesse has been a series high point) and Warbird, Wolverine and Tigra, and most of the other misfits (even the ever-vulgar Doop!). In the finale, the faculty finally gets the message across that our core team are the "Avengers of Tomorrow." Whether that turns out to be true isn't the point. It may have been before their time, but they've graduated, and most of them are better off than when they started. Mission accomplished.
Shawn Hill knows two things: comics and art history. Find his art at Cornekopia.net.