CBH Review: Avengers Endless Wartime New Graphic Novel

Avengers: Endless Wartime is the first of Marvel’s new Original Graphic Novel series, and on the surface everything sounds like a huge win for Marvel fans. Comic book legend Warren Ellis writing an all-new, standalone Avengers graphic novel? I couldn’t pre-order the book fast enough.

Now that I’ve had time to read Endless Wartime, though, I’ve found it’s not quite the runaway success I was hoping. Is this graphic novel worth your dollars? Let’s take a closer look:

The Avengers Face Endless War… Completed in 116 Pages

Graphic novel gets overused these days, often time synonymous with Trade Paperback collections (runs of 4-6 comic book issues collected in one volume) or even just comics in general. Avengers: Endless Wartime is a true graphic novel in the sense that it’s a standalone story that begins and ends within its sleek, shimmering snow-white covers.Avengers Endless Wartime OGN

The general plot involves The Avengers, fresh off the cinematic events of Marvel’s The Avengers, investigating a mysterious alien air-drone wreaking havoc above the war torn Middle East. The discovered alien technology stirs up challenging memories for Captain America and Thor, and the rest of the book finds the team dealing with the sudden appearance of these devastating war machines.

Overall, Avengers: Endless Wartime is a fairly brisk read (116 pages including the title, credits, and introduction from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star Clark Gregg), with outstanding dialogue, characterization, and wonderfully eye-catching coloring and shine. The book is predominantly enjoyable if you already love these Marvel heroes, and Endless Wartime feels like a logical, intriguing follow-up to last summer’s blockbuster game-changer. 

Unfortunately, Avengers: Endless Wartime is also prey to an underdeveloped and static plot, with very little established meaning or drama throughout. At $16.98 on Amazon, Avengers: Endless Wartime is a perfectly affordable hardcover graphic novel. The question becomes – who really needs a story that takes so few risks?

Great Graphic Novel Expectations

For the uninitiated, Warren Ellis is one of the top 5 comic book writers of the last 20 years, and you could make a very compelling case that he’s the absolute best. His comic books include Transmetropolitan, Stormwatch/The Authority, REDand a whole slew of universe-defining Marvel work. Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. is one of the most original and bonkers Marvel series of all-time, and Ellis’ “Extremis” storyline in Iron Man became the basis for Iron Man 3, as well as the next 5 years of Iron Man stories in the comics.

He’s one of the best in the business, on the Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Mark Waid level of greatness… but I’m not sure you’d really know it from Endless Wartime.

Let’s start with the positive, and by positive, I mean the dialogue. Ellis is great at dark, wry humor, and although it doesn’t get particularly dark here, the banter and characterizations are phenomenal.

Avengers Banter
Classic hawkguy.

Ellis is also a master of warped science fiction ideas that gravitate towards real-world meaning, and in Endless Wartime this is a big part of where the book falls apart. Maybe I’m missing something, and I’d like to read this another time to be sure, but it feels like there’s an enormous gap between an attempted deeper meaning and a delivered deeper meaning.

You can make an argument that this is a Marvel Avengers graphic novel and that the point is action and entertainment. I don’t necessarily expect Endless Wartime to suddenly enter the world of Watchmen on a philosophical or emotional level of complexity.

That said, with a standalone graphic novel by Warren Ellis, I kind of hoped it would try.

The early drone strikes here seem like an attempt to conjure modern struggles and shine new light on them through the lens of a world with superheroes. Weirdly, that never really happens.

Rather than look at the ethics of drone strikes and the effect they have on the world at large, Ellis takes an almost impossibly comic book twist: the drones are actually Asgardian creatures manipulated by World War II Hydra technology into living, self-sustaining weapons. There’s no real assessment of what it means to control a population through these violent menaces because the alien “drones” are actually the villains. There’s no curtain, no shadowy sect of S.H.I.E.L.D. defending the utilitarian value for the greater good. Just “evil aliens” blowing things up.

Philosophically, Endless Wartime broaches one real issue which is captured right there in the name: Is war forever? Are we ok with that?

Endless Wartime
The nature of endless war

Although the answer seems to be that fighting begats more fighting, and war begats more war, it’s a shame Endless Wartime didn’t provide more insight into the discussion, or even surface the undercurrent of dark fatalism more prominently. After all, few graphic novels have a better opportunity than The Avengers to really sit down and question what all the fighting is for.

Shake Some Action

With the graphic novel largely disappointing on a thematic level, it probably at least makes up for that flaw with huge, immense action, right?

Well, yes and no.

There are TONS of wordless panels here, and the book has a fantastic sleek shine to it. The coloring from Jason Keith is the unheralded weapon all the way through, as Endless Wartime is a pleasure to look at and hold.

That said, with wordless panels there’s a sense that the action should be clearly conveyed from the images on the page. That’s often not the case. I found the action scenes consistently confusing, and although it does very little to derail the plot, this felt like a persistent bug.

There are at least two occasions where Iron Man rushes into battle, lots of panels happen depicting something involving his character, and then suddenly he’s out of the fight. Ok. Ultimately I get what I need (Tony’s having a rough go against these alien/tech beasts), but I couldn’t tell you how we got there.

Aside from that, Mike McKone’s art fits the Avengers mold very well. Bruce Banner was the only hero that took me a minute to recognize.

When combined with a plot lacking suspense and tension, though, the inconsistent action is a lot less exciting. There are some really fun scenes, like the below where Thor and Captain America team-up to take down an Ice Harrier (as we learn to call the alien drones), but again, at no point does the outcome seem in doubt. The Avengers are running around fighting crazy alien constructions… but haven’t we seen that a million times before?


Marvel Graphic Novel Continuity – Where Does This Fit?

There’s an interesting element to Endless Wartime in the sense that these characters we so clearly know are hybrids of movie and comic book continuity.

For the most part, it’s clear Endless Wartime, and one presumes Marvel’s subsequent line of standalone graphic novels, is indebted to Joss Whedon’s otherworldly successful Avengers movie.

Then again, it’s tough to say Endless Wartime is entirely removed from Marvel Now and current comic book continuity. Ellis’ Hawkeye is clearly tied to Matt Fraction’s writing of the character, giving him the down-on-his-luck and group-clown character Fraction writes so well. Ellis even fits in a “hawkguy” reference at one point.

Even Wolverine is in on Fraction & Aja
Even Wolverine is in on Fraction & Aja

You certainly can’t attribute this characterization of Hawkeye to the film, as Clint Barton (as played by Jeremy Renner) isn’t given much more of a role than “evil mind-controlled henchmen of Loki.” It worked for the film’s purposes, but it’s very nice to see Hawkeye more established in Endless Wartime. He provides a higher percentage of laugh-out-loud highlights than any other roster member.

Then you have Captain Marvel, in her full-on new comic series Captain Marvel outfit and haircut. Same goes for Wolverine, a Marvel comics Avengers staple since Bendis added him to the roster in 2004’s New Avengers. Obviously, you didn’t see either of those characters in The Avengers, and in the case of Logan, you likely never will. There’s even a reference to the Hulk working with S.H.I.E.L.D., which could be both a reference to Mark Waid’s Indestructible Hulk or just how Mark Ruffalo’s character wound up at the end of The Avengers.

It’s an interesting blend – are these the characters of the comic books or the movies? And why aren’t those the same?

There was a sketch on Jimmy Kimmel recently that involved a 4 year-old girl competing in Marvel trivia vs. Hollywood Boulevard “Heroes.” It’s a fun watch, and a fascinating insight into how far comic books have infiltrated the mainstream, but you’ll notice pretty quickly in “Mia vs. Marvel” that the trivia focus is placed entirely on movie continuity.

With the Scarlet Witch as her favorite character, it’s clear Mia knows her comics. That said, imagine trivia of Iron Man even 10 years ago. There’s not a single question involving an arc reactor – that’s so movie specific it raises the question: are these two entirely different characters?

In Endless Wartime, it’s fairly clear Ellis is writing for Robert Downey Jr. He does it well, as you’d expect, and the Downey Jr-ization of old shellhead might be the strongest indicator that this graphic novel is fit for the big screen. In addition to the size and the scope of the action (giant Nazi Thor alien ships!), writing Iron Man as the razor-witted, glib, Tony Snark from the movies sends a clear message: This is Marvel Movies in graphic novel form.

For the record, I’m more than ok with this. Cinematic portrayals of superheroes can have negative effects on their comic book hosts, but I’m not sure a lot of people are looking to go back to plain toast Tony Stark.

To recap, too, the only prep work you would need to do for Endless Wartime is see The Avengers movie. There’s no required pre-requisite reading, aside from maybe the aforementioned New Avengers so you at least know what the heck Wolverine is doing hanging around Avengers Mansion.

Do I Buy It?

As a whole, I really like the Marvel OGN (original graphic novel) initiative. They’re hyping up Spider-Man: Family Business from Mark Waid, James Robinson, and Gabriele Dell’Otto as the next to come in April 2014, and I’ll undoubtedly pre-order. Sitting down to read Endless Wartime feels like an experience, the trade equivalent of a new Avengers movie. I was surprised to find how quickly I got caught up in the seemingly boundless potential of this book.

The hardcover here is pretty glorious to hold as well. The book design from Rian Hughes is sleek, almost shimmering, and I prefer the trade with more height (11 inch vertical, over a Walking Dead paperback at 9 inches). Size isn’t everything, but let’s face it, it helps.

There’s also a lot to like stylistically, particularly the black text call-outs for things like S.H.I.E.L.D. Handbook explanations, or in most cases, third-person narration boxes. It’s an interesting use of the space and the form, a little more like a novel than traditional comic book captions which would insist on taking up space in the panel and blocking out some of the art and coloring.

Endless Wartime Captions
Writing that doesn’t interfere with art!

All in all, though, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed with Avengers: Endless Wartimeor at best just vaguely disappointed with what the book might have been.

If this was a 6 issue mini-series, you’d leave feeling very underwhelmed. There are fun, enjoyable moments on the character-to-character level, but the overall story? There’s hardly a villain. At no point do the Avengers actually seem particularly threatened. Black Widow takes a mean spear through the leg, but that’s about as close as any of them come to real danger. There’s no Big Bad waiting at the end of this which is tremendously disappointing. A Red Skull or Baron Nemo twist at the end would have been thrilling.

Ultimately, this is a pretty average entrance into the OGN line from Marvel. It’s a nice looking book to have, and the content is perfectly fine, but I’d recommend it only for the most dedicated of Marvel fans. There are so many good books coming out from Marvel right now, that I’d suggest dedicating those $16 to the latest issues of Hawkeye or Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers before diving in here.

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