Get on your pleather pants and floral print tops, losers, we’re going back to 1996. Mainstream comics were undergoing a strange, tumultuous time in the aftermath of the creator-owned explosion of Image Comics. Trying to stay on top of the sales charts had led to some pretty cringeworthy stunts, and frankly, what’s one more among friends? The X-Men’s long-building threat, Onslaught, had just seen most of the publisher’s non-mutant hero populace transported to a pocket dimension created by Franklin, the occasionally terrifying child of Sue and Reed Richards. In this world, many stories that had once taken years to build and deliver were smooshed into a much smaller number of issues. After a quick introduction, plots were completely derailed, and within about a year, we were back to the 616 with a general “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” attitude about the whole event.
Heroes Reborn: Avengers undergoes at least three major creative lineup changes in twelve issues, which may give you a decent idea of how disjointed and weird this series is, even when completely divorced from the greater Heroes Reborn context. It might also go without saying that this series, which barely manages to eek out a single coherent plotline over the course of a year, doesn’t age great, but it still somehow isn’t the worst thing printed in 1996 (here’s looking at you, Amalgam Universe).
Let’s Talk about Loki
This comic truly relies on Loki more than any other character to bring charisma to its pages. Fortunately, this Loki, mired in his relatively basic Silver Age persona, is a lot of fun to read. In fact, the story kicks off with Loki flying around and ranting in an absolute rage about various things that make him angry. He proceeds to take on an intangible form to spy on various soon-to-be Avengers, from Hank Pym and Janet to the Scarlet Witch, Swordsman, Vision, a very furry Hellcat, and a very (very) buff Captain America. Also, Clint Barton is there and he has a Wolverine mask with no mouth. The team discovers Thor frozen in a block of ice, they free him, and they very briefly fight Loki, all just in time for them to hold their fists in the air and yell, “AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!”
Yet Loki is not dissuaded by his embarrassing defeat, and he teams up with a very leggy Amora the Enchantress in hopes of bringing down Thor and the others. In this reality, Loki does actually achieve his goal of becoming very large (and therefore very powerful). The Avengers scramble in an attempt to defend themselves against Attack of the 50 Foot Loki, but their attentions are by that time divided between saving the city and saving their rapidly unraveling dimension. By Avengers #10, this team becomes aware that Loki is far from their biggest problem considering the fact that they literally only exist in a child’s imagination. Meanwhile, Loki betrays everyone and gets beaten down by Odin, so it’s still a pretty typical Loki story.
Thor vs. the World
Thor is another reason to read this book, as the weight of the big brawls falls mostly on his truly majestic shoulders. This take on the Odinson gave us an angry, brash god who leaps into battle at the slightest provocation. As this Wanda is a relative neophyte and unskilled at controlling her powers, Thor is objectively the team’s heaviest hitter, which is how entire issues pass with him doing the vast majority of the fighting while the other Avengers dash around and take potshots. When the team comes up against Kang, Thor both starts and finishes the fight. When the other Avengers are taken out by a rampaging Hulk, Thor spends the entirety of #5 in an evenly matched brawl with the green giant.
Ultimately, this is a Thor story perhaps more than it is an Avengers story. After writers Valentino and Loeb are cycled out, legendary Thor scribe Walter Simonson steps in to ease the series out, and centers Asgardians as he does. Amora and the Executioner arrive in order to help Loki, who naturally betrays them when he’s a hair’s width away from completing his goals. Thor of the 616 arrives in the pages of the book with #9, and though he and this Thor battle it out for a bit, they ultimately come to see one another as brothers. With two Thors for the price of one, this effectively becomes his book.
There Are Other Characters Too I Guess
Though Thor and Loki do shine in this series, the other characters don’t always fare quite as well. Hank Pym is exactly the same in this universe, so he runs around testing new inventions and ruining people’s lives for sport by introducing sentient murder robots to the plot. The entirety of Swordsman and Hawkeye’s characterization takes place over a two-page sequence in #2. Hawkeye shoots arrows that the Swordsman blocks with his swords. When Swordsman begins a speech about the importance of training, Hawkeye says, “You’re starting to sound like Fury, or worse, Cap.” We have no idea what Hawkeye’s problem with anyone actually is, which Swordsman observes by saying, “What a surprise, you, having a problem with authority figures.” To which Hawkeye responds, “I don’t have a problem with authority—as long as they put me in charge!” That’s it, that’s those two characters in a nutshell. There are several guest appearances, but outside of Thor’s massive fight with the Hulk, they don’t amount to much. Doom pops up here, but does more in the Heroes Return series, while characters like Iron Man, Nick Fury, and the Fantastic Four all make their presence known at various points.
It might not be a great surprise that women characters have very little to do in this series. Mantis shows up as Kang’s sidekick, and she is very much in his shadow. Agatha Harkness is Wanda Maximoff’s mentor and guardian, but she’s quickly dispatched by Loki. Wanda has a handful of moments learning to use her powers, but she’s barely present in the series except as a pawn for Asgardian drama. Hellcat makes some foolish choices in hopes of gaining the beauty and popularity she feels her furry form has cost her, but that’s about all she gets to do. Janet is creeped on by Ultron and nobody takes it all that seriously until it becomes a major problem.
Heroes Reborn overall reads as a quick retread through the “greatest hits” of these heroes, and that is certainly still the case in Avengers. In some ways, the whole event reads a bit like a tribute album in which there are some brief brushes with greatness and a whole lot of filler. The sales of this relaunch started strong, but quickly faltered, and were perhaps never quite strong enough to justify the sizable number of mid-story layoffs and the chaotic timeline it brought. Enthusiasm died rapidly, and soon the books were seeing 616 relaunches.
Still, it wouldn’t be so long before the Ultimate Universe arrived, following much the same structure as Heroes Reborn, but with a lot more ambition in regards to ongoing story arcs. In some ways, this reads as a prototype for similar ideas going forward, but it suffers from a lack of creative vision and an unwillingness to try new things within a format uniquely positioned to stretch boundaries and reimagine potential.
All that said, watching Thor and Hulk throw down for a couple dozen pages is always going to be worth the price of admission, so if you keep expectations low, you might find something here to enjoy.