Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Penciler: Steve Epting
Inkers: Rick Magyar/Steve Epting
Colors: Frank D’Armata
“When everything around you crumbles — when everything withers and dies…who answers the call of desperate men?”
Five years from now, when Black Panther has been introduced to the Marvel cinematic universe (it’s gonna happen, trust me) and the world is anxiously awaiting Black Panther: The Movie, it’s a safe bet that we’ll have Jonathan Hickman to thank. Obviously, Hickman didn’t create T’Challa, who was one of the more memorable characters to spring from what was arguably the greatest collaborative effort in the history of comics: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s one hundred issue plus run on Fantastic Four. But Hickman seems to be the writer most willing to take chances with Wakanda’s favorite son, and New Avengers #1: “Memento Mori” is another step in the Panther’s evolution.
Until recently, T’Challa, was king of Wakanda, the fictional African nation powered by super scientific technology and their primary export: vibranium. In case you aren’t up on your imaginary metallurgy, vibranium is the rarest metal in the Marvel Universe, valued at roughly ten thousand bucks a gram. The only place you can find it? Wakanda. It’s safe to say, then, that Wakanda’s economy is doing just fine. Back in Fantastic Four #607-608, Hickman (along with artist, Giussepe Camuncoli) changed Black Panther’s role in Wakanda, upped his power set, and basically got him in shape for his starring role in New Avengers. Courtesy of the goddess, Anubis, T’Challa became the custodian of the Wakandan necropolis (and King of the Dead), where all previous Black Panthers are buried. As a result, he gained the strength and knowledge of the generations of Black Panthers who came before him. T’Challa wasn’t exactly a lightweight to begin with, but gifting him with a new supernatural purpose and title has made him one to watch.
New Avengers #1 opens with a flashback to the formation of Marvel’s Illuminati, a cabal of the Marvel Universe’s greatest minds, strategists, and leaders. It was Tony Stark who formed the Illuminati (in Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s 2006 one-shot, New Avengers: Illuminati #1), calling together Reed Richards, Charles Xavier, Doctor Strange, Namor, Black Bolt, and T’Challa, with the idea that they were the ones best suited to lead the world’s superhumans in battle against cosmic threats. T’Challa angrily refused the invitation, fearing that too much power concentrated in the hands of too few people could only lead to disaster. He may have had a point. The next page functions as an additional prologue, as Reed Richards, talking to an unseen individual, ruminates on mortality, including his own. Considering that Richards’ fate has been divinely bound to T’Challa’s (courtesy of Anubis in Fantastic Four #608), the implication is clear: if Reed Richards must accept his own mortality, then it’s gonna affect Black Panther as well.
The story then opens in proper, as three Wakandan youths are engaged in a rite of passage which will determine whether they can become “Makers,” the scientific elite of Wakandan society. A mysterious obelisk reveals a holographic map of an alien solar system, indicating that they passed the test. When T’Challa appears he informs them that “Wakanda now possesses the preeminent space program on the planet” and that these children will be astronauts. And then a dimensional rift opens up and everything goes to hell…
This, ladies and gentlemen, is Jonathan Hickman at his best. Secret civilizations? Check. Secret societies with those secret civilizations? Check. A hero who relies on science and the supernatural? Check. Extradimensional beings? Check. Extradimensional beings who are also extraterrestrials??? Yeah, check that one off the list, too! Throw Steve Epting’s fantastic art into the mix and, well, you have a winner. Epting is probably best known for his recent work with Ed Brubaker on Captain America, and, as far as I’m concerned, nobody defines the current Marvel Universe quite like he does. Epting’s detail oriented realism is almost painterly in its approach, but his impossible happenings and technology virtually leap off of the page. Epting, who also worked with Hickman for a period on Fantastic Four, expertly creates machinery that looks like it came from Jack Kirby’s workshop, and integrates Kirby-tech and the famous “Kirby dots” (which have become almost ubiquitous as comic shorthand for cosmic energy) into his illustrations. And any time Epting is paired with Frank D’Armata and his more real than real eye for color, then you’re right in the middle of the action.
Using the Illuminati as the starting point and core of New Avengers implies that, as big as the threats are in the “main” Avengers title, they’ll be bigger (and probably crazier) here. After all, it was Bendis’ Illuminati mini-series which retroactively placed the Illuminati at the center of some of Marvel’s greatest cosmic battles: Secret War; The Infinity Gauntlet; Galactic Storm…not exactly minor skirmishes. All of them involved extraterrestrial or extra-dimensional beings, and it looks like the antagonists of New Avengers are both. The fact that Hickman has chosen to open BOTH of his Avengers books with brand new villains is a testament to his creativity, as it would have been pretty easy to just get the ball rolling with another Kang story or something similar. When we finally see Namor, Reed Richards, Doctor Strange, Black Bolt, and Tony Stark being led into T’Challa’s palace by Captain America, it’s safe to say that big things are in store. When we remember that first page (and the entire New Avengers: Illuminati special from alllllll the way back in 2006), we know just how crushing it must be for T’Challa to call on these men for help. That’s how you know things are serious.
So, let’s review, shall we? The roster of New Avengers consists of the world’s most powerful sorcerer, three kings, and two of the most brilliant scientific minds on the planet. I don’t think this team is going to be solving all of its problems by hitting them. It’s worth noting that Tony Stark shows up in civilian garb, and not his customary suit of high-tech armor. I have absolutely no idea what to expect from New Avengers, and I couldn’t be happier about that.