In November, Marvel's popular comic series New Avengers will have been running for five years. If you count its run as starting when writer Brian Michael Bendis did the old Avengers book's final arc, it's been going since August 2004. In this time, the Avengers have become the most popular/profitable franchise Marvel has, supplanting even the X-Men. They've gone from one book to four; New was followed by Mighty, The Initiative, and now Dark.They've also become the flagship of the shared universe, dictating the way all the other books go.
Needless to say, the New Avengers have been subject to intense criticism. To be fair, much of this is internet criticism, which is about as intellectually sound as three-year-olds whining about how they want macaroni and cheese instead of Chef Boyardee. But valid points have also been made about the errors of Bendis and Marvel's direction. I happen to agree with many of the individual criticisms, but not enough that I would lose interest in the franchise overall. In fact, Bendis' Avengers may have made me the most intellectually engaged in a Marvel franchise's progress that I've ever been; the contradictions are part of what make it so fascinating and enjoyable.
The most common criticism of New Avengers as a series that I've seen is that it isn't new, other than as repackaging the Avengers in a darker and edgier setting. John Seavey, a very insightful comic blogger who coined the term " Storytelling Engine " in reference to an ongoing series' underyling " blueprint ", derided New Avengers in his essay on the Old Avengers. He commented that by excising the old Avengers' storytelling engine, the New Avengers have ended up a random group of superheroes that use some Avengers trappings.
I submit to Mr. Seavey that the void left by the old Avengers' long history is the point.
One thing that has always bothered me about superhero comics is how they so easily slip into taking their fantastical, convoluted genre history for granted. They're stories where you have grown men and women who dress in bright, revealing spandex, have amazing powers and gadgets, and fight evil across realms of magic, aliens, gods, and more. To a person who's familiar with superheroes, this is par for the course. To a person who's not familiar with superheroes, it's either incredibly awesome or incredibly stupid, depending on how the creators make it across.
The Old Avengers was a book whose storytelling engine so often put it in the " incredibly stupid category ". This is not to diminish the fine work the title's many writers and artists have done over the years, but to acknowledge that it was the kind of book that existed in a space where superheroes were business as usual. The original line-up was an attempt to ape DC's Justice League and have all the A-List heroes in one monthly book; however, at the time the Marvel Universe was still very new and didn't have a well-defined A-List. What's more, Marvel's heroes were much rougher around the edges in personality than DC's; where DC's Justice League was like the country club of superheroes with its affluent, pretty, well-adjusted white guys, Marvel's heroes tended to be significantly more anti-social. Spider-Man was not put on the original team, the Fantastic Four were already a cohesive family unit, and the Hulk left in the second issue after realizing that the prettier members hated him. So the line-up became a home for second-string heroes, and cycled through a growing base of possible members repeatedly. Like a sports team, the membership varied regularly, but the status quo was always there; they would always be the A-List superhero team, the bright-and-shiny public heroes that lived in Tony Stark's New York Mansion, had an official charter and regular meetings, and fought evil within the confines of the law.
Bendis' Avengers has that history, but it's used in a much more self-conscious way that allows for increased story potential; in his series, being a super-hero is not a fixed identity, but one that has been challenged by world events, and one that the characters work to redefine. When the series starts, the Old Avengers have disbanded after one of their most trusted members went crazy and used omnipotent power to kill, injure, discredit, and otherwise traumatize many of her comrades. A breakout at a supervillain prison creates a setting where a new group of heroes band together, and decide to take on the Avengers name again. But they don't slip so easily into the role, because they're much more aware of the complexity of the larger world. The stakes are higher than for the Old Avengers; the super-villain underworld has done their own organizing, the government is watching the superhero community with their own agenda in mind, and even the Avengers themselves have their own closets full of skeletons.
Critics have accused Bendis of crassly trying to make the Avengers into an A-List team, most notably by admitting members like Spider-Man and Wolverine. I would be a complete idiot if I denied the marketing value of putting Wolverine on an Avengers team, but it isn't without story purpose. The New Avengers want to establish new value as a symbol, and their membership establishes that. The initial line-up of the team is led by Captain America and Iron Man, original Avengers who represent Greatest Generation idealism and futurist realism, respectively. Spider-Man finally joins the team, the isolated nerd given a chance to prove himself after years of treading water as a working-class vigilante. The membership extends to the other spheres of the superhero community, as we have prominent urban hero Luke Cage ( once a blaxploitation stereotype " Hero-for-Hire ", now given a chance to truly prove his worth ), duplicitious SHIELD Agent Spider-Woman ( an explicit link to the conspiracy theory storylines ), omnipotent yet agoraphobic Superman analogue Sentry ( a hero who could have been great were it not for his mental illnesses, now given a chance to actually be great ), and pragmatically lethal X-Man Wolverine as a link between the two brands. It's a mix of A-List and B-List heroes across multiple parts of the Marvel Universe, that's a calculated appeal in-universe to make super-heroes cool again.
Of course, things don't actually turn out that way for the characters; hurbis is another big theme. In trying to control their meaning to the world, the heroes tend to create more problems. One the series ties into Mark Millar's Civil War storyline, this reaches a head as the heroes split into in-group and out-group. Iron Man is the in-group, who believes that by joining the system he can control it for the benefit of the people, by making superheroes a legitimate function of the law. Captain America is the other side, thinking that the heroes work best when they have autonomy and serve ideals instead of rules. From here the series splits off into two, with New Avengers being the underground resistance, and Mighty Avengers being Iron Man's attempt to make a fully legit team with complete control over their representation. This fails catastrophically for Iron Man, and he ends up being disgraced and replaced by Norman Osborn, which leads to Dark Avengers; villains using this kind of PR manipulation to pass as heroes.
Storywise, this owes much of its influence to the Ultimates, the cynically satirical alternative take on the Avengers. However, while the Ultimates redesigned the heroes from scratch, New Avengers engages with the history of the Marvel Universe; this is not a story about the dawn of the Age of Heroes, but the attempt to start a new one. And while the Ultimates was almost completely self-contained, Avengers has the task of setting the standard for the other Marvel Comics. The other major component to New Avengers is the storytelling style pioneered by Chris Claremont in his foundational X-Men stories; long, soap-operatic sagas with continual progression and no inherent end. By merging the two styles, it creates something unique; an ongoing superhero saga about the attempt to define superhero identity, and the many pitfalls along the way.
I'll be analyzing key Avengers stories from recent years to further try to understand where this is all headed.