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A review of the trade paperback Breakout, which reprints issues 1 to 6 of the original comic book series, The New Avengers, originally published in 2004.
In the aftermath of Avengers Disassembled, America has nobody to turn to. On Ryker's Island, maximum-security penitentiary, a plot is unfolding and soon the arch-criminal, Electro, spearheads a breakout from the prison, allowing dozens of other dangerous super-powered criminals to break free at the same time. But they haven't counted on a group of super-powered visitors who, for a number of different reasons, happen to be on the island at the same time. Iron Man, Captain America, Spiderman, Cage, Spiderwoman and Daredevil all find themselves fighting for their lives as foes from their past are given an opportunity to take revenge on the heroes who put them behind bars. In the aftermath, one thing becomes clear. America needs the Avengers, but for reasons the old ones could never really comprehend. And so the New Avengers are born...
Over the last decade, Marvel Comics has experienced a massive growth in popularity, partly catalysed by a number of extremely lucrative film adaptations and partly because of its continuing ability to evolve. Whilst many of the comic-book world's most popular characters originate in the Marvel Universe, the creative teams behind them are not afraid to shake things up a bit, particularly where the super team known as The Avengers is concerned. After the title was relaunched in 1998, an ongoing story arc featuring arch-villain Kang eventually led the team into the Avengers Disassembled storyline, effectively rendering the team disbanded. It didn't take a genius, however, to work out that a new team would quickly spring from the ashes. It was really only a question of who would be in it.
Historically, the formation of a new team of Avengers has always marked a popular turning point in the team's development and this has become more hyped and more anticipated as time goes on. "Breakout" is effectively a six-part story intended to portray the creation of a new line-up, comprising a number of different plot strands, some of which are simply there to speed up the team's evolution and some of which exist to create intrigue for future issues and story arcs. Indeed, it's the slow-burning development of storylines in the Avengers series that has always proven to be its main success. Certainly, Breakout promises great things.
The story, however, is a bit of a mess. Writer Brian Michael Bendis, noted for his work on other series, seems to have a head absolutely full of ideas, too many of which end up in the finished story. Curiously, Breakout features plot elements normally associated with other, popular Marvel series. The actual prison breakout is reminiscent of a Spiderman story, focusing closely on one or two characters and scheduling the events within the familiar confines of Spiderman's patch. But when the action eventually shifts to the savage land, by default it feels rather like one of the earlier Uncanny X Men stories. Never does it ever really feel like an Avengers story. This is almost certainly deliberate, but it's quite an uncomfortable shift. The audience is expected to adapt to this new world in much the same way that Captain America and his team mates must also adapt and this is a big part of Breakout.
Part of the thinking behind Breakout (and its preceding events) is to demonstrate that the world is now a different place. In post-911 America, the people don't feel reassured by the same things anymore and distrust of government and authority is rife. Breakout seems to tap into this fear; throwing together some of the original Avengers (Iron Man and Captain America) and throwing some new faces into the mix to try and make it all feel a bit different. The corruption of government is amply demonstrated here, as is the shadowy role of the US military (represented here by the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Bendis introduces a number of shadowy figures (by voice or darkened presence) to indicate that the New Avengers have some new enemies.
Breakout is, disappointingly, not the most exciting tale for a series premiere, nor is it really the most coherent. As the plot moves from one location to the next, it's not entirely obvious exactly what is supposed to be going on and fans of the old Avengers series may find this is a little inaccessible. The character development is handled very poorly too, seeming to acknowledge some of the new team members' eccentricities and foibles whilst simultaneously ignoring others. We know from history, for example, that Spiderman is completely opposed to working in a team and yet here, he relents at the first invitation as though it's something he has always wanted to do. Worse still is the X Man Wolverine's willingness to sign up when we just know it's something he wouldn't do. Something tells me that the inclusion of these characters is more about widening the appeal of the series than it is strengthening the existing base.
That aside, the story develops in an interesting way, particularly as the action shifts to the savage land and the intrigue thickens. There is a noticeably modern feel to the story, which, at times, is more reminiscent of something like 24 than a superhero comic book and it certainly creates a more vibrant result. The interactions between the new team members are interesting too. The contrast between Iron Man and Captain America's old-school approach and the more cavalier attitude displayed by Spiderman and Cage is quirky and, occasionally, quite funny too - notably when the team finds itself captured and completely naked. Breakout is a good set-up to the series, with the promise of good things to come, although the arrival and disappearance of The Sentry is almost unforgivable as is the despatch of one of Spiderman's most awesome enemies.
The glossy paper shows off David Finch's artwork to good effect, with reasonably striking results later on in the book. The early scenes set almost entirely in the darkness of Ryker's Island are a little too dark to be truly decipherable (you get a feel for this from the main cover art) and the pencilling is more enjoyable when bathed in the sunlight of the savage land. Finch's Avengers are realistically realised too. Cage is big enough to look menacing but not as ridiculously pumped-up and exaggerated as other artists have shown him to be. Spiderwoman is slinky and svelte and Captain America retains a strange nobility that other artists have lost. Another nice addition to the trade paperback is the original cover art from all six parts of the series displayed between each of the chapters, as well as a number of variant covers that were available as limited editions displayed at the end of the book. Irritatingly, there's a strange Avengers tableau shoved in between each chapter that seems a bit pointless but it's not enough to detract from the reading experience.
Breakout is an enjoyable enough yarn and offers the potential for a good series to follow. It's not, however, the most accessible story arc for newcomers and long-term fans will almost certainly yearn for the days of Kurt Busiek's old-school story telling, when Avengers did nothing but avenging. But this die-hard fan is still happy to see what happens next.
This paperback is imported from the USA and retails for anything between £7 and £15. www.amazon.co.uk is, as ever, a good place to get this at the best price.