The newly formed new New Avengers (!) have been put to the test since the end of Civil War. After narrowly escaping the government sanctioned Mighty Avengers, recent events have brought the team to Japan in order to rescue their teammate Maya Lopez/Echo. Predictably, this puts them in conflict with the Hand and Elektra. Lots of ninja fighting has commenced and Dr. Strange has been grievously stabbed in the chest...
The issue begins with a sequence at the Sanctum Sanctorum including Wong and Jessica Jones. The Orb of Agamotto shows the horrific injuries of Dr. Strange. Wong replies that the Orb only shows what Dr. Strange wants them to see.
Meanwhile, the fight between the Hand and New Avengers continues on. Wolverine realizes they will only win this fight if they are willing to kill. Amusingly, Spider-Man has "mid-battle witty zinger" competition in the form of Hawkeye/Ronin. Luke Cage confronts Elektra. She sets the New Avengers leader on fire.
Amongst the many individual battles, Dr. Strange communicates with Wong in order to release his vaunted astral form. Once free of his mortal body, Dr. Strange uses sleeping spells on the many ninjas. He also frees Maya from her Hand brainwashing. Maya proceeds to brutally stab Elektra in the back. The New Avengers are exhausted. The remaining Hand ninjas leave as they realize their leader has been killed.
Unfortunately, all is not as it appears to be. "Elektra's" corpse reverts to a Skrull, apparently her true form. It seems as though an alien shape-shifting Skrull (frequent enemies of the Fantastic Four as well as one half of the famous event known as the Kree- Skrull War) has been impersonating Elektra in order to gain control over the shadowy Hand organization. The New Avengers are shocked by the revelation.
Back at the Sanctum Sanctorum, Jessica feeds her baby a bottle. Wong informs her that the New Avengers have won the battle and are all right. Jessica is relieved to hear of the news. However, the baby's eyes surreptitiously turn green, the color of a Skrull.
Marvel touted this as an issue that would set up the events of next year's stories. Let's get right down to the Skrull revelation. I like it. I know I am probably in the minority on this. However, having aliens impersonate humans is a tried and true formula for not only comic books but other popular culture mediums as well. Bendis has stated that the Skrulls will not be a plot device to solve inconsistencies in characterization or to explain away controversial events such as Civil War. Let's hope this is true because I don't want a whole year's worth of universe changing events to be explained by way of little green aliens. That being said, the story possibilities for a Skrull secret invasion are intriguing. The New Avengers are living up to their modus operandi as more of a detective/street level team. The themes of trust and accountability that a Skrull invasion would bring fit right into this dynamic.
Any reader of New Avengers is at the whim of Brian Michael Bendis's writing style. The simple fact of the matter is that you either love it or hate it. I've been a huge proponent of his emphasis on dialogue and protracted story build-up. I am well aware of readers who dislike his style and I understand their frustrations to a certain extent. However, Bendis should be given a lot of credit for playing around with comic book conventions and for reinvigorating classic B-level Marvel characters. A book like New Avengers (that includes Bendis favorites such as Spider-Woman, Luke Cage, et al.) has a homely and warm feel. You can tell that the writer cares deeply for his characters. A case in point would be Spider-Man's return to one- liners and jokes in this title (In contrast to the vastly mischaracterized darkness that permeates the Amazing title). The scene between Hawkeye and Spider-Man brought a smile to my face.
Bendis also shirks convention by engaging the reader while nothing really has happened. This arc briefly touched on a subplot involving the Mighty Avengers but for the most part all the team did was fight ninjas. This is not a criticism but a testament to how well Bendis plots a story. The meat of this issue was all about the dialogue and deliberate pacing. Of course, Bendis also knows how to shock the reader, hence the Skrull bit.
Here is what I did not like about issue #31. Bendis seems to favor some characters more than others. Dr. Strange's inclusion on the team is exciting but he really hasn't had anything to do other than provide a strong magical presence to the team. Similarly, Iron Fist's inclusion solely has been to provide another body to fight ninjas and throw a "cool" bone to fans of the Luke Cage/Iron Fist Heroes for Hire teams of old. Curiously, Spider-Woman has been underutilized as well. One of the main advantages of a team book is to draw in readers with the big names (i.e. Wolverine, Spider-Man) and then have the lesser known characters assume prominent roles, thereby making them shine. The B-level characters are still more or less underdeveloped at this stage.
Finally, the new art style championed by Leinil Francis Yu serves New Avengers quite well. Critics complain that his figures are sloppy sketches and are presented in an unflattering light. However, we must be reminded that the world of New Avengers is not a bright and cheery place. The grit suggested by Yu's pencils compliments Bendis's script. Furthermore, Yu's chaotic sketches contain a heightened realism in the tradition of Alex Maleev's work on titles such as Daredevil. In a story involving a massive ninja brouhaha we really feel the scale and impact of the fight thanks to Yu's attention to detail.
This all adds up to 4 webs. Like many readers, I am concerned about the Skrull revelation but realize that there are some strong story possibilities. Bendis and Yu remain in top form. Here is hoping for a lengthy run from the both of them.
Craig Lowrey, the usual reviewer for New Avengers, was unable to do this issue. My esteemed colleague, Andrew Miller, will be reviewing issue #32. Craig should be back to doing his stellar reviews starting with issue #33.