Well, it couldn't last forever. As much as I'd been enjoying the Marvel NOW debuts overall, there's been another dud dropped into the line, to join the ranks of A+X at the bottom of the heap. While I can't see A+X really getting any better, due to it not having a direction or monthly creative team, Thunderbolts, by writer Daniel Way and artist Steve Dillon, still has the potential to climb up from the bottom of the books.
The problem is in the first issue's execution, not in the concept. General "Thunderbolt" Ross aka Red Hulk recruits a team of Marvel's most notorious killers - The Punisher, Deadpool, Elektra, Venom, and a purple-haired mystery member. And that's it. That's the first issue. Basically, it's a weak extrapolation of the cover art.
Lack of conflict equals lack of drama, and Thunderbolts #1 is conflict-free. Ross shows up, usually calmly negotiating during the middle of a firefight featuring whoever he's trying to talk into joining him (a visual gag that never works here). They join him, and the issue ends. There's almost no world-building beyond perfunctory introductions of the characters on the cover, and certainly no clue at all as to what kind of book this is going to be in the future (a violent one - but then what?).
Hopefully, it's going to be a better book than its debut. While the first issue might stink, it stinks because it doesn't do anything. The good news there is that Thunderbolts could improve simply by doing something. I expect it to gear up over time now that the introduction is out of the way, but, really, I can't remember the last time I found the first issue of a team book so dissatisfying.
WILL I BE BACK FOR MORE? Not unless I hear that Thunderbolts has really kicked it into overdrive. I need drama.
I've been an Avengers fan for a long time, and the Avengers comics I prefer are the ones that really allow for a lot of the team's personality to shine through. I like banter and interplay and inter-personal team soap opera stuff with these guys. One of my favorite Avengers writers of the past was Steve Englehart, who was good at finding a balance between the superhero fights and the smaller personal conflicts. I'm not as big on the book when it's threat-driven, where I feel like a lot of the team's interaction are defined by their abilities instead of their personalities, and this is where Avengers #1 lets me down.
New writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Jerome Opena are working in a "widescreen" cinematic style for the book, and tonally, it's pretty interesting. It really does feel big, in a way that most of the Marvel NOW books don't, and it sets up things that you can already tell are going to require a little patience to see through to the end. Hickman is known for his long-term planning on books, but, to me, it's also his downfall as a writer because individual issues always feel (and here comes the bad word) decompressed. I always feel like I can read them in a matter of minutes, and I rarely feel like I got any kind of a story with a beginning, middle, and an end - I just got a chunk of something.
With the promise of a massive 18-member roster of rotating sub-teams, I'm pretty much guaranteed to not see the kind of personal politics I enjoy in Avengers. There are going to be adventures, probably really good ones, on huge cosmic canvases, built around Hickman's big ideas, but little apparent room for soap opera. And that's fine, I guess; I can't ask everyone to write their books just for me.
WILL I BE BACK FOR MORE? I will probably "trade wait" this one, and get the first arc when it's all collected. It'll probably be a more satisfying read in that form, and if I like it (and I sort of suspect I will), then I'll be back for more.
Are you a Cable fan? I'm not, though somehow I've collected a lot of stuff with Cable in it over the years. Sometimes X-Men books are like barnacles on the ship of our comic book fandom. We travel through the waters and we end up collecting this stuff, whether we really want to or not. Ah, analogies.
Anyway, Cable & X-Force #1 (Dennis Hopeless/Salvador Larocca) sees the militant mutant leading some kind of secret strike force that manages to piss off the Uncanny Avengers (does the team actually call themselves that, and, if not, how do they distinguish themselves from the "real" Avengers?) and Cable's daughter Hope (who is still dealing with the aftermath of AVX , fallout from a book I never read).
I found it completely serviceable, and your mileage may vary depending on your love of Cable. Oddly, it's another first issue in Marvel NOW (like Fantastic Four), where the lead finds out he's really, really sick and doesn't know how to deal with it. That fuels a lot of the story, along with Hope trying to figure out if there's a place for her on her father's side. I got the impression that a greater working knowledge of what's been going on with these characters would've helped a lot. In some ways, #1 felt like it could've been #19 or so of a book that wasn't bad, but was barreling along with its own story.
WILL I BE BACK FOR MORE? This isn't a bad book, but no. If you have nostalgia for the original X-Force or a healthy love for Cable, then you'll probably like it just fine.
Also from writer Dennis Hopeless is Avengers Arena #1, an in-name-only Avengers book that sees a bunch of the more recent teen heroes of the Marvel U thrown onto an island and forced to kill each other by the mad gamer Arcade. Yes, it's a lot like The Hunger Games in concept, and if Hopeless thinks a quick verbal reference will let him off the hook for such a blatant swipe at a pop culture phenomenon, it doesn't.
Imagine for a second you're Christos Gage, and you've created a bunch of brand-new characters for Marvel. They get their own monthly, Avengers Academy, and build a small, but loyal, fanbase over time. Sales can't support the book, and the writing is on the wall, but even if the book has to be canceled, Marvel now has a half-dozen new interesting characters to play with. They thank you by handing those characters over to Dennis Hopeless to kill off one by one in Avengers Arena.
In that way, Avengers Arena is an almost brutally disrespectful book - a garbage bin for characters that Hopeless has no creative attachment to, in the service of a stab at a fraction of the Hunger Games audience. It's cynical and gleeful in its cynicism. In the press Hopeless has done for the book, he's laid out his long term plans for eventually killing all but one of the teenagers within its pages by the time he's through. I'm sure it will be a wild ride, but is this the best use for these new characters? Wouldn't it make more business sense for Marvel to cultivate them instead of cropping them?
WILL I BE BACK FOR MORE? Yes. Because even though I've spelled out my knee-jerk thoughts on the book, it's fascinating and too early to tell if its a fascinating trainwreck or fascinating experiment. I kind of need to find out, and, in that way, Avengers Arena #1 is a rousing success, albeit one with a repulsive core. I'm curious to know how I'll feel about this book three or four issues after this and there's only one way to find out. Gotta read it.