For those of you put off by the sprawling size of the Avengers line, Marvel may have found the answer. Avengers: Endless Wartime is a prestige format original graphic novel, with the top-notch creative team of writer Warren Ellis and artist Mike McKone offering a standalone story unconnected to any bigger picture or line-wide crossover.
The plot is thoroughly straightforward. The pasts of Captain America and Thor intersect in the present to create a threat both mythological and technologically advanced – living weapons that will completely change the face of warfare. Against the wishes of SHIELD, the Avengers task themselves with putting a stop to this threat at its source – a factory located on a mysterious Norwegian island.
The plot doubles as a non-too-subtle attack on the US government’s use of drones, casting a harsh light on the kind of thinking that allows a country to slaughter people in such a removed manner. SHIELD isn’t quite presented as the bad guy, but at best is portrayed as a morally dubious organization willing to utilize barbaric weaponry if it reduces casualties on its side. This “by any means necessary” mindset and the military-industrial complex in general are the true villains of the piece.
Yet the decision to publish the story as an original graphic novel is perhaps of greatest interest. The format allows the creative team to make storytelling decisions that wouldn’t work in single issues. At the start, around 15 pages take place in the Avengers Tower kitchen, which would be ludicrously decompressed for a monthly title but here serves as a way of establishing character dynamics and delivering necessary exposition. The reader can afford to be patient, knowing that the action is bound to pick up in subsequent pages.
This freedom also applies to the art, with McKone’s action scenes benefitting from having room to breathe. In particular, a flashback to World War II is beautifully executed, with several pages used to depict Cap’s actions in minute detail, highlighting both the gravity of the situation and the unparalleled skillset of the man. This unhurried approach pays dividends, resulting in some of McKone's finest work.
The story fits neatly into the current Marvel universe. The portrayal of Captain America is in keeping with the emotionally adrift version depicted in the most recent issue of his solo title, and Cap’s and Wolverine’s relationship feels true to their interactions in Uncanny Avengers. Clint Barton is the lovable doofus of the critically acclaimed Hawkeye series, and Bruce Banner is working for SHIELD but isn’t a very co-operative employee.
If there’s an area in which the creative team have taken liberties, it’s the interpersonal relationships. A certain amount of tension is natural between super-powered individuals with vastly different outlooks on life, yet in Avengers: Endless Wartime it reads more like hatred. Indeed, it’s so striking that at times it takes you out of the story; it almost feels as though Ellis is expressing his own personal disdain for the characters. This isn’t a thematic device, nor does it factor into the plot in any notable manner. Charitably, you could suggest that the enmity arises from a range of ideological beliefs concerning the rights and wrongs of war. However, if that was the intention the idea isn’t executed clearly enough to succeed.
Further, the fact that the villains are so steeped in symbolism detracts from their usefulness as antagonists. They’re not an interesting threat, merely sentient beings for the Avengers to wail on. The identities of the true masterminds are touched upon in passing, but the moment is so fleeting that it doesn't have much of an impact, not helped by the fact that their fate is dealt with off-panel.
Yet despite these flaws, Avengers: Endless Wartime has plenty to recommend. It may not be the most compelling read of the year, but it is a worthwhile alternative to the grandiose scope of Jonathan Hickman’s empire-spanning Avengers stories and Brian Michael Bendis’ street-level focus. McKone’s art is fantastic, with a strong emphasis on character and the best version of the Hulk in years. The cast are utilized well; strong versions of Captain America, Captain Marvel and Thor are front and center, but even peripheral characters Wolverine and Bruce Banner both get great scenes. And the thematic resonance adds an extra layer of complexity, elevating the book above the usual superhero fare. Definitely worth checking out.