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A review of the trade paperback, The Collective, collecting issues 16 to 20 of the New Avengers comic book series. This is the US Marvel Comics imprint that can be found online for around £10.
An enormous explosion erupts in the middle of a small Alaskan town, triggering a red alert aboard the secure SHIELD helicarrier in US air space. As the SHIELD agents log into satellite images of the decimated town, they are startled to make out the figure of a man making his way across the Alaskan wastelands at impossible speeds. The Canadian super team, Alpha Flight, is rapidly despatched to the scene, but when they confront the stranger, they find themselves brutally defeated. Maria Hill, acting director of SHIELD has little choice but to utter the words she thought she'd never say again. And so, the Avengers Assemble!
After the launch of New Avengers in 2006, fans had thus far been treated to a series of reasonable story arcs but nothing that could sincerely be considered to be 'classic' Avengers material. Whilst the main writer on the series Brian Michael Bendis had remained consistent, changes in the main artists had given the series a slightly broken feel, and in The Collective, this remains the case. What The Collective delivered, however, was probably the first 'great' New Avengers story, telling a tale of intrigue and action that finally recaptured the tone and scope of the classic series, whilst playing with all the new elements so eagerly injected by Bendis.
It's a devastating story that follows on from an earlier Marvel Comics event known as House of M. Whilst House of M was, in itself, an entire story (and is available as a separate trade paperback) knowledge of that tale is not required to appreciate the Collective, particularly thanks to the (extremely brief) resume provided on page one. In essence millions of mutant super-humans were stripped of their mutant powers, leaving only a few with their powers intact. In The Collective, the incredible being that initially hits Alaska is somehow linked to these terrible events but, as with any notable Avengers event, the rest of the novel depicts the heroes' endeavours to understand who or what is behind it all.
In these days of heightened expectations, comic books must now go to new lengths to astound and entertain their readers and events that would once have been the culmination of months (if no years) of plotting by the writers are often now played out within the space of a few pages. The Collective is a good example of this new increased level of drama. Within what were essentially five issues of regular continuity, we witness the entire slaughter of a team of heroes who previously had their own title for more than ten years - and that's within the first ten pages or so. Later we find Spiderman in a new costume, Iron Man ripped out of his, a guest feature from Ms Marvel who appears to be shifting back to her Binary persona, and the return of one of Marvel's greatest super villains. Having to deal with the Alaskan threat could almost be seen as an afterthought.
Except, of course, it's not, as Bendis's masterful writing pitches us into the heart of an exciting, relentlessly paced story line that gradually increases the threat upon the world until it's literally a showdown to save the planet. It's stuffed full of memorable and dramatic moments as Bendis's 'anything goes' approach to storyline continually brings out shocks and surprises. It's loyal to the continuity of the series so far, continuing to demonstrate how the Avengers must now work within a slightly more modern world and, rather than playing it alone as they once previously would have done, the entire tale is set alongside the security force SHIELD, demonstrating the increased accountability that had come (and, notably, was about to come to a much greater extent). Disappointingly, however, there's pretty much no time or room for anything else and the intriguing threads being developed over the previous three graphic novels are not even mentioned in The Collective.
Bendis's attempts to carve together a memorable team roster don't work so well here either. As per previous issues, the narrative continues to be dominated by the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and Spiderman and (infuriatingly) Ms Marvel who was really only guest starring. The edgier characters, brought in to give the series a more contemporary, daring feel continue to be edged out here, as though Bendis is nervous that they will take things over. Wolverine, normally a key character within the continuity of the X Men series, just seems to be making up the numbers here, for example, and Cage's streetwise attitude is lost within the breadth of such a global threat. Once again, The Sentry is irritatingly omnipotent too, and gets wheeled out like some kind of weapon of mass destruction with barely any characterisation whatsoever.
The first chapter of the volume (originally issue 16 of the ongoing series) is drawn by Steve McNiven and his limited tenure on the series seemed to be as a result of his shift to the upcoming Civil War saga that was to be such a huge thing for Marvel Comics as a whole. McNiven's clean, futuristic style, coupled with Dexter Vines impeccable colours, gives the first chapter a much more focused, more contemporary look that is reminiscent of the likes of The Ultimate or Ultimate Spiderman. McNiven isn't, however, as capable as others with some of the details around facial expressions, with the result that some of the regular characters appear strangely unfamiliar compared to other issues. Mike Deodato, coming on board for chapters two through to five brings back a slighter more old-fashioned but engaging art style that has a much better grasp of faces. The last four chapters hold together very well indeed and the artwork is impressive amidst the scale of what becomes an enormous story. Deodato's cover work is particularly impressive. His cover art for chapter five (issue 20) is outstanding and terrifying but couldn't really be used for the whole novel as it rather gives the game away about what is to come.
Easily the strongest of the four New Avengers chapters to date, The Collective is awesome stuff. The story is a complete page-turner, which may sound clichéd, but it's hard not to devour every page of this volume in one complete setting and, for the first time this series, the reader is left wanting more. The only real criticism comes from the fact that the story is probably just a little TOO big for five chapters and a sixth (or even a seventh) might have helped develop things a bit more and provided some room to continue the back story. Nonetheless, The Collective is a welcome return to form for The Avengers and should please new and old fans alike