As I’ve been shelving all my print comics (more on that next month), I’ve been re-reading key stories that have been trapped in storage bins for the past five years. Inspired by Shelfdust’s recent look at Secret Invasion and my own re-read of World War Hulk, I recently sat down with Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev, and co.’s The New Avengers: Illuminati special.
If you’ve never read this issue, it retcons into existence a secret association of heroes (the titular Illuminati) that has met throughout Marvel history to share information and make decisions that impact the Marvel Universe. The group includes Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Namor, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange, and Professor X. (Black Panther declines to join the group, telling them that forming a secret “superhero ruling council” is a mistake.)
The New Avengers: Illuminati released in 2006, during my junior year of high school, and I remember being quite excited for it. A secret group of heroes that has been shaping the Marvel Universe for years? Sign me up! I loved this book, as well as the fact that the Illuminati were now a thing. I couldn’t wait to learn more about them. (A bit later, Marvel wisely cashed in on readers’ demands to see more Illuminati.)
However, re-reading The New Avengers: Illuminati now, what impresses me most is how it tightly and ingeniously sets the stage for the next THREE YEARS of monthly Marvel comics, within just 32 pages.
The Road to Civil War … and Planet Hulk … and Secret Invasion
The New Avengers: Illuminati contains three sub-stories. Working backward (for reasons that will soon become apparent), we see:
- Iron Man attempt to convince the other members of the Illuminati to support the forthcoming Superhuman Registration Act. It doesn’t go well.
- Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Reed Richards, and Black Bolt decide to shoot the Hulk into space. Namor disagrees vehemently, leading to a fight.
- Iron Man gather and establish the Illuminati in response to the recently-concluded Kree-Skrull War. (It is worth noting that, originally, Iron Man wanted to do more than just establish the Illuminati. He wanted to create an overt governing body for all superheroes. Tony believed this body would be able to prevent future alien attacks on Earth. As we’ll discuss later, Tony gets his wish as a result of the Superhuman Registration Act; it promptly blows up in his face.)
The next three big event comics that Marvel released after this issue were:
- Civil War.
- Planet Hulk.
- Secret Invasion.
The seeds of each of those events were planted in a sub-story here, to bear fruit within either the next month (Civil War) or up to two years later (Secret Invasion).
As an example of how far ahead The New Avengers: Illuminati was thinking, and how deft Bendis and Marvel’s long-term plotting was, consider this. At the time, and even upon Secret Invasion‘s release, I thought nothing of the Kree-Skrull War being the inciting incident that triggers the Illuminati’s formation. I just figured it fit neatly into the timeline Bendis wanted to mess with. Now, I can see that the choice of tying the Illuminati to the Kree-Skrull War was incredibly purposeful foreshadowing for Secret Invasion. And what’s more, referencing the Kree-Skrull War allows Bendis to have Tony Stark say “This is what I need to stop a Skrull invasion,” give him those very tools as a direct result of Civil War, and then turn those tools against Tony and the rest of our heroes in Secret Invasion.
There’s a direct throughline from the beginning of this book, which released in March 2006, to the end of Secret Invasion, which released in December 2008. And that is amazing.
When “the Bendis Era” Became an Era
The New Avengers: Illuminati is not the first chapter in what I often call “the Bendis era” of Marvel Comics. But it is Marvel’s first experiment with turning that era into an era. Prior to Illuminati, Bendis’s New Avengers showed Marvel could pack all its stars from across its different lines into one series (and thus, one story). Then, Bendis’s House of M showed it was possible to coordinate meta-narratives across multiple Marvel lines. Given those successes, Marvel decided to double down on “the Bendis era” and create a years-long meta-narrative that shaped not just a couple lines, but the entirety of the Marvel Universe – and that years-long story began, properly, in The New Avengers: Illuminati.
If readers hadn’t connected with “the Bendis era,” I’m sure Marvel had an escape plan that would have allowed them to bail on the era’s hallmark interconnectivity. However, “the Bendis era” was a success. So much so, in fact, that it grew beyond its initial scope, eventually reaching its denouement in 2010’s Siege. When I think about this era, of which The New Avengers: Illuminati is so emblematic, I can’t help but marvel at the momentum and sense of cohesiveness each subsequent Marvel event was able to maintain, as well as how those qualities enhanced nearly every title in Marvel’s line. From Captain America to The Amazing Spider-Man to The Incredible Hulk, each Marvel series felt important during this era, because each fed off of and contributed to the larger story of “the Bendis era.” In short: The illusion of change did not feel like an illusion in Marvel comics published between 2006 and 2010.
This is a strategy that both Marvel and DC have attempted to replicate many times since 2006. With one exception (Infinite Crisis-era DC), it has never worked as well as it has during “the Bendis era.” Which leads me to wonder: Why? What did “the Bendis era” pull off that no other initiative since has been able to do as successfully?
If The New Avengers: Illuminati‘s contents are any indication, it may be that publishers simply aren’t thinking as long-term as a construct like “the Bendis era” requires. It’s clear that Bendis knew exactly what stories he and/or the rest of Marvel’s writers were writing for the next three years when The New Avengers: Illuminati dropped. In superhero comics’ current era of six-issue runs and (at least until recently) constant relaunches, it is possible that publishers are not willing to bet their entire line’s sales on one carefully cultivated meta-narrative. For that sort of action, you now have to turn to the Marvel Cinematic Universe – you know, only the most successful film franchise in the world.
P.S. – It’s worth pointing out that there is exactly one notable female character (Maria Hill) and character of color (Black Panther) to be seen in this book. Neither are members of the Illuminati. I think that’s largely Bendis playing with the hand Marvel’s publishing history dealt him, but still – how weirdly apropos to have a bunch of arrogant old white dudes decide, without consulting anyone else, that they are now speaking for and shaping the entire Marvel superhero community.