With Infinity well into the deep mysterious caverns of Hickman’s brain, we are slowly working our way out with tiny snippets of enlightening reveals. As I become more familiar with his work, I notice how well structured his plots actually are and from how far back they begin. He almost always provides flashforwards of scenes yet to come, with lovely monologues or subtle rhetoric. It is a great writing tool and Hickman plays his own oracle with fragments of divination. From the very first book we have such a recurring epitaph that is still pertinent with Infinity:
“There was nothing. Followed by everything. Swirling, burning, specks of creation that circled life-giving suns. And then…we raced to the light” Avengers #1
“There was everything. Followed by nothing. A swirling gaping maw that swallowed life-giving suns. And then…we cowered in the night” New Avengers #5
Life and death are central themes to the series but not simply of humans or mutants, but to species and worlds. This is a grand scale of apocalypse. The chapter headings and Latin translations give the impression that this story was foretold eons ago, and the world will be changed forever.
This is far from a new concept in the realm of comic lore, but what Hickman does is make it believable. He starts at the very beginning of a character and then builds upon an intricate design and delivers on his prophecy. It is the same process used for East of West and Manhattan Projects and it is very exciting. The faith I have in Hickman’s ability to evolve a story, led me to re-read all of his Avengers books and try to form a coherent summary of the central themes of the titles. Now bear with me…
The Creators/Gardeners/Alephs and birth of Ex Nihilo and Abyss
At the dawn of everything, there was a perfect species of builders who worshipped a mother, a Goddess who was the universe itself. Then Hickman uses a beautiful line, “Eventually, they grew beyond this – abandoning the old ways of reverence for the new path of relevance” Avengers #2. In other words, in their infinite boredom they developed systems to control space and time independent of God. This is where the Alephs come in, as they travel to worlds and deem them unsuitable for continuation of life, or fit for preservation and evolution. I hope you are beginning to notice the parallels between many a religious definition of the creation of mankind, combined with theories of evolution. Once the Alephs find a suitable world they give birth to Gardeners, Ex Nihilo and Abyss. The definition of this name, Ex Nihilo, is out of nothing, and is used in many a theological discussion about creation from emptiness. It is interesting that the development of all species is dependent on the Creators, who were initially theological beings but then became atheistic and developed systems to initiate evolution. It is either a phenomenally planned treatise on the existence of God, or a deliberate confusion and amalgamation of subject matter. Anyway I digress. Ex Nihilo and Abyss were created on Mars to oversee the development on Earth and the human race. What they did not predict was the resistance encountered from our protectors – The Avengers. It would appear that the Gardeners are too powerful for our heroes, but then there was a weapon that suddenly appeared, a God, and no, not Thor. The hero Captain Universe is possessed by the Mother Goddess, who the Creators abandoned many lifetimes ago. Suddenly the first arc ends with the creator of the entire Universe telling the Gardeners to stop misbehaving, in true maternal fashion. Now the Avengers have an omniscient presence on their team and this is where it becomes interesting. The next few issues of Avengers focused upon a new characters and the realisation of what has become of the Creators systems.
Evolution on Earth
Whilst on Mars, Ex Nihilo created a superior human in the form of Adam. He was born in adult form and taken to Earth where Stark analysed his undecipherable language. There were a few pages of coded writing, which were eventually translated by a key Hickman provided in later issues. Adam’s name is amusingly mistranslated by Iron Man as Blackveil, which is a synonym of his actual name Nightmask. Once this superior man learns our language, he instantly addresses Captain Universe as Mother. The origins of this Goddess are also explained as we see her intermittently possess Tamara, who was a woman comatose after a car crash ten years ago. Mother utters the ominous words,
“Tamara is broken, because she is dying…Just as I am” Avengers #6.
There are some lovely scenes of meditation where we switch from meeting Tamara, who tries to remember her accident and then Mother who realises something is desperately wrong with the universe. Once the translations continue we are yet again treated to another augury;
“The system is broken. It’s coming! It’s here…the white event.” Avengers #6
Whilst all this is happening, the other Avengers are busy trying to understand what Ex Nihilo has been doing on Mars. Our Gardener reveals that he sent seven evolution pods to Earth. Each vessel had a central purpose in the spectrum of evolving the indigenous species, however Ex Nihilo was bored and changed things. He decided to make the whole world sentient and went against the system that produced him (another essential analogy with theology).
The pod spawns new humanoid children with zebra like skin, fully independent, no want for sleep or nourishment or even air. There is a wonderful theme to this story reflecting on how a species evolves when they have no requirement for anything. Hyperion realises that it is to prevent those suffering around us and endeavours to teach these children. These two issues produce a lovely fatherly tale for Thor and Hyperion, relating to their roles in the universe. Mix that in with the High Evolutionary kidnapping the children to use their power to resurrect a world-destroying machine, and we have an action packed comic again. Who wants to read a comic about fatherhood eh?
The pod forms a sentient hive mind creature that is supposedly the living embodiment of Earth. It rapidly expands taking on all life, and tries to engulf Nightmask. It is ultimately accidentally destroyed by an out of control character called Kevin, aka Starbrand who is another powerful product of the systems. We shall return to him later.
This pod sparks off an anomaly an Alpha Flight’s radar and their agents are sent to investigate. The issue is a well played out story with many of the events recreated through video recording of the events. Wolverine and Cap are sent to investigate the whereabouts of Validator and the team, together with her father. What they find is very disturbing and there seems to be an overspill of time or a cross connection with the multiverse, as we see alternate version of Cap, Falcon and Manifold. Validator has been taken over by another entity and tells her father, “Something has happened, something amazing, I’m supposed to protect it. The system is now online”. She has become altogether something else and is kindred to Nightmask and Starbrand. She may be another product of the machine and once again we shall address this later.
Communication (Perth, Australia) Avengers #14-17
Self-repair (Chhatapau, India) Avengers #14-17
Self-defence (A.I.M. island) Avengers #14-17
This pod is where it all essentially starts. The communication device sends out a signal and there are some very important message boxes that read:
Whilst Banner is trying to decipher the source of the message and it’s intended target, there is great page in issue 14 that shows the sites across the world receiving, declining, unable to respond or transmitting the message. The effects of this signal is quite widespread as it causes mass electronic malfunctions, as planes and satellites begin to fall and a nuclear reactor goes into meltdown in Korea. Whilst our heroes try to salvage wreckage and save life, the evolution sites are trying to organise themselves. The remaining Avengers head to India, to stop giant square headed monsters trying to destroy a city. As if that was not enough, the pod that was sought out by A.I.M. opened to reveal a new sentinel bent on destruction. The prelude to Infinity arc is based on this communication signal and the terror released from it. The sentinel leaves the Avengers in a ruinous wreck but is surprisingly teleported by Superia of A.I.M. high command, to a safe haven where nothing exists; the space between two dead universes. This is a theme that runs through the Hickman work that I will return to later. The transmission does reach its ultimate target:
Mother and her Avatars
I am sure you can appreciate that the above events occurred from issue 3-17, but there was a lot of discovery and posturing in between. We shall return to Mother and the development of her Avatars. When Nightmask revealed himself, we were soon enlightened to his purpose: a forerunner of change. When a world evolves or is on the verge of ascending on a universal scale, there is a White Event that heralds a shepherd. Even mother decrees, “You are a flawed product of my children’s systems” Avengers #8. There is a Nightmask, a Justice, a Starbrand and sometimes a Spitfire. These terms are all somewhat vague and Nightmask has already been created, but in this issue we also see the birth of Starbrand. Kevin is a kid no one noticed in a small American town on the edge of nowhere, but suddenly he is branded with such immense power, that he barely feels a punch from Thor. An explosion occurs which destroys a school full of children, just so Kevin could become the Starbrand avatar. The inevitable anxiety of a quiet kid leads to an unnecessary battle with the Avengers, until Nightmask teleports him to Mother who helps to explain his transformation. A Starbrand is a weapon designed to protect a people as they progress through change, a defense system on a planetary scale.
This is where it becomes a little complex as we are introduced to the Superflow of the universe. Each universe has a communication satellite created by the builders but the current universe’s Superflow has broken. It has been replaced by an older system, a back up system that has created Starbrand, unfortunately these systems are not necessarily compatible. Nightmask takes Starbrand back to see his father, Ex Nihilo on Mars. Abyss then forms a type of diagnostic on Nightmask and finds out that Ex Nihilo has changed things. In his boredom he has either utilised a new system or broken the old one. This fact has yet to be revealed, but this is the moment where Ex Nihilo declares his intent with the evolution pods. As Starbrand and Nightmask trace the sentience pod, the hive mind creature attacks them and it is killed by Starbrand. As the Avengers come to investigate they realise that Kevin is far too powerful and inexperienced. He is sent to the Dyson sphere, created by Iron Man, to hone his powers. When Validator was discovered, she states something amazing has happened to her before saying the system is online. So it would appear she may also be an Avatar of Ex Nihilo and Mother, especially considering the branding of the ground where she was discovered is very similar in nature to the Starbrand under the feet of Kevin when he received his powers. However she has yet to make a further appearance in the crossover. I also find it interesting that the Japan evolution pod has yet to be opened and maybe this contains the Justice or Spitfire avatar. Parallels can once again be made with the coming of the four horsemen of the apocalypse heralding the end of the world. This concept would certainly fit the Infinity storyline, and is also juxtaposed with a similar group in the comic East of West. Now where has Mother got to. Over the preceding issues Mother has been investigating these broken systems. She takes Manifold, our resident teleporter and takes him to Galadoa in issue 15. The purpose of this visit is to see more of her children, and how far they have strayed without her. This planet has been primed for destruction by an Aleph, but in their defence they have created the Knights of Galador. We do not meet these heroes, who are ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of the planet, until Infinity #1. It is here we finally see the mass genocide that the Builders can inflict and how the Knights ultimately fail. Mother mourns the loss of more of her children and sends Manifold back home to deliver a message. The Avengers do not understand or believe her, but she knows they will believe Manifold. As he returns to the Avengers tower in issue 17, he declares a warning, “We need to get bigger”. In himself he acts as a harbinger of doom, realising how much strength is required to defeat the Builders. This is when Bruce, Steve and Tony finally realise the severity of the extinction threat. They then ask their former enemies Abyss and Ex Nihilo to join them, as Avengers, for the oncoming war against the Builders. I find Ex Nihilo quite the rebellious character, given he is now going against his own people to defend a planet. He feels Earth worthy of ascension but his forefathers have deemed it ready for destruction. With the culmination of the prelude to Infinity we have a new Avengers team ready for war. Meanwhile on the Dyson sphere, Nightmask has been training Starbrand, who has slowly mastered his immense ability and is now ready to join the Avengers.
The Avengers Cast
Since the beginning of the book we have also see a schematic diagram of the Avengers. In the middle sit Cap, Tony, Thor, Hulk, Widow and Clint but we have blank symbols connected to them. Some of these have slowly been revealed and the diagram below shows how far we have come. Given at the beginning of issue 17, all the cast were involved and all the symbols revealed up to date, we were still missing six new heroes. At the end of that particular issue we brought in Ex Nihilo, Abyss and Starbrand, we can assume three of these spaces are filled. It would be interesting to know which characters fit into the two large circles at twelve and six o’clock, it could easily be our Gardeners. But one fact is sure, Hickman has yet to complete his Avengers cast and we may have more avatars on the way, after all we do need to get bigger.
Rumour and conjecture
Throughout Avengers there has been an undercurrent of fear and terror across the planet and some of the universe. In issue 11 we saw Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Spider-woman, Shang Chi, Sunspot and Cannonball go to A.I.M. island for a bio-weapons auction. There are some suspicions that advanced weaponry is being sold to highest bidders for some unknown nefarious purposes. As we are treated to a gambling casino romp, Shang Chi has a battle against A.I.M. operatives where he finds out that A.I.M. weren’t selling but buying. They are preparing for a war and are recruiting an army of assassins. Of course Hickman gives away very little this early on, but given the sentinel Superia captured earlier, there are certainly ominous premonitions of a war ahead.
Throughout the issues there has also been some observances of Skrulls running scared. In issue 15, Abigail Brand of S.W.O.R.D. comes across a terrified Skrull armada. In Infinity #1 we have the Avengers on a mission in Italy to find across another group of Skrulls, tucking into pizza. Of course they are beaten down and taken back to S.W.O.R.D. Brand then adds up the clues and intercepted surveillance from Kree origins and determines that there is a Builder fleet heading straight towards Earth. The time has come. Before we approach Infinity there is another part to the story that needs discussing: Hickman’s New Avengers.
These are the most powerful and intelligent men on the planet, in that they have given themselves a personal responsibility to govern planet-threatening issues. Their decisions may have been on the dubious, if not immoral side of the argument but nonetheless they are very tough calls to make. Of course this means the organisation is incredibly secretive. Brian Bendis developed a storyline revolving around the immensely powerful Infinity Gems a couple of years back. Each one was entrusted to a member of the group and they were all hidden at the discretion of their keeper. So who are the Illuminati? They are all familiar faces: Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Stephen Strange, Beast, Black Bolt, Namor and T’Challa. The first arc revolved around the appearance of a parallel universe Earth, on a collision course with our own. It was decided that in order to save our world, the other planet must be destroyed. There is much debate and posturing but ultimately it is decided that it is a must, and the Infinity gauntlet must be reassembled in order to prevent the destruction of a world. Theoretically the collision could be averted without the death of billions. Captain America was chosen to be the man to pull the trigger, but he fails resulting in the destruction of the gauntlet. Five of the six gems were destroyed and one simply vanished. As arguments ensue amongst the group, they all turn on Cap, as they find his morality at too great a cost. Namor accuses, “The preservation of your soul at the expense of everything we hold dear?” New Avengers #3. Dr. Strange wipes Steve’s mind and he is removed from the group. Incredibly enough if you return to the first Avengers issue, you will notice Steve is woken by Tony and is asked if he had bad dreams, then you see this image.
There is a rather interesting character in New Avengers, she goes by the name Black Swan and, yes, she is another emissary of doom. It is her that recited the above quote on how everything is followed by nothing. She is captured from this parallel universe and aids the New Avengers in their quest to destroy a planet, whilst locked away in Wakanda. She describes the destructions of worlds in multiple universes, with an air of the inevitable.She is mocking of the Illuminati, at their realisation of what act they will have to perform. Her pity is impressive, given the immense intellect standing in front of her. Their next window to the parallel world opened in Latveria but this time the world attacked. It seems that the parallel world is in the process of infection and decay, meaning that only zombie like creatures bent on infesting remain. The Illuminati built a new weapon based upon Black Swan’s designs and essentially blow up the infested world. As poignant as T’Challa’s line is, “I’m remembering who I used to be” New Avengers #6, it falls short given that there is nothing left to save on this incursion. Anyhow job done.
What I love about New Avengers is that it is almost through the looking glass of the perfect moral Avengers. The Illuminati do what needs to be done and the expulsion of Captain America is a prime example of this. The Avengers do what is right, but that is not always enough which is why the Illuminati even exist. How this will play into the Infinity storyline remains to be seen, but I am hoping for some more dubious morality in the issues to come. The following issues laid the preparatory groundwork for Infinity. Reed Richards and Iron Man are wary of a battle to come and are trying to make best plans and Black Bolt struggles to hide his world-destroying secret amongst others, from his wife. There is an interesting war developing between Namor and T’Challa as a group of Wakandans were found slain at the feet of Atlanteans. The source of this has yet to be established but it leads to Namor requesting peace with Wakanda’s Queen. T’Challa fails to successfully communicate the message and war ensues. The memories of a Phoenix possessed Namor destroying their city haunts her to this day. There is a devastating panel of Namor clutching the dead Atlantean soldiers, whilst T’Challa realises his failure. The book ends with unseen warriors arriving in Wakanda, the Jean Grey school, Strange’s house and to Namor. And so Infinity begins.
One of the reasons I decided to write this post was because I never quite worked out what was behind this crossover. There appeared to be a Thanos element, which had never been mentioned prior to Infinity. Where is this to fit in with the Builders? Do we essentially have two sets of bad guys to fight? There is so much universe destroying and planet razing that can only one set of Avengers manage to save the day? It is the intertwining of these two elements that I really look forward to. Before discussing Thanos there is one further common theme that seems to bond some of these stories:
The space between two worlds
This concept is quite intriguing, as we have already seen the breaking of the multiverse Superflows. It was first mentioned in Avengers #4 where Hyperion was origin was retold. He escaped his homeworld as it died, from what? Another planet crashing into it. He became the last of his species trying to prevent another world from dying. As he failed he remembered his fathers last words, “Truth without Compromise” Avengers #4, and found fault with them. These are beautiful lines by Hickman and I think they refer to performing a moral good without compromising ideals. Both the themes of the greater good and parallel crashing universes reflect New Avengers nicely. It was also A.I.M. that grabbed Hyperion from the space between two planets, and also the destination of the Sentinel that decimated the Avengers. A final resemblance occurs at the first battle against the Builders, when all seemed to be succeeding but out of nowhere multiple ships de-cloaked. It appears that these ships were hiding in the space between universes. All these ideas are slowly merging as Infinity progresses and there will be a underlying unifying plot.
Thanos and his Black Order/Cull Obsidian
From the pages of Thanos Rising we became witnesses to the tortured desolate soul of Thanos. Our antagonist left Titan to raise Hell and bore many a child from many a species. However he was haunted by the love of a childhood romance that led to him killing all of his children and his family. Ultimately he learnt to ignore the voice in his head and love left him forever, leaving him devoid of emotional attachment. A certain triumph that left only emptiness. Thanos has built a group of soldiers, his Warbound if you will, that aid him in destroying worlds. You will notice yet another Hickman theme again in the first issue of Infinity; The Outrider harbinger that travels to different worlds looking for a tribute. This is a pledge to Thanos and comes in the form of information but also as severed heads. Corvus Glaive is part of the Black Order and he returns to Ahl-Agullo, a world once emaciated by Thanos. The Order is angry that they have rebuilt their city and ask for a testament to show their subservience under Thanos. It came quite brutally in the form of severed heads of their young. It is a horrific gift but fits with the murder of his own children, and is a brutal enough concept to prevent a society from progressing through its youth.
An Outrider visits Attilan in order to find Black Bolt, and enter his mind looking for something Thanos so desperately wants. It is here that the sins of the Illuminati come to light, and more importantly the time gem that remains. I love the following panel as Bolt looks genuinely aggressive and we actually hear him speak. The Outrider escapes with his life and is brought in front of the Cull: Glaive with Proxima Midnight, Black Dwarf, The Ebony Maw and Supergiant. It is decided, the Obsidian order is to attack the Illuminati and seek the time gem.
The rest of Infinity #1 is focused upon the impending battle with the Builders and Steve heads up a force of Avengers, Skrull, Inhumans and the Shi’ar. The Cast list is looking so massive and grows each week. The story continues throughout Avengers and New Avengers and with multiple tie-in books. As of yet we seem to be on a downward spiral to extinction as the first battle was lost, the Illuminati are attacked with only Wakanda victorious and the Builders marvelling at the resolve of Earth. In the latest issue of Infinity there are a couple of small reveals that may change the shape of the battleground altogether but I will come to those in another post.
So what is actually happening?
The Builders are in the mood for destruction and there is some evidence that Earth is the centre point of all that is wrong in the universe. The system is broken, however this is an understatement. All the systems are broken because the multiverse is collapsing on itself. The Goddess is motivating the Avengers to get bigger in order to save the universe and overcome the builders. The avatars have yet to fully play their role and I do believe there are more to come yet. Thanos is after power and a legacy, and with the time gem he will be able to have the capacity of a God. This will have to play into the Builder’s storyline and I struggle to see a partnership formed with Thanos and anybody really. I have one major concern in a theory that ties all of these plots together. Time and the multiverse is broken, which we all know because it happened in the Age of Ultron. The events of AoU occurred on Earth and the repercussions have yet to be fully realised. Maybe the Builders are trying to fix this anomaly by destroying and rebuilding; given this is what they do. I say it is a concern because I did not enjoy that story arc and I would not want it to taint the ingenuity of Infinity. However I have faith in Jonathon Hickman to bring it all together and sit excitedly whilst watching it happen.
There is no doubt that Hickman is a fantastic writer and storyteller. I have always levelled criticism at him for always painting the big picture and ignoring the minutiae and personal aspects of his heroes. However in the twenty-five odd issues of Avengers he has produced an engrossing plot with wonderfully grown characters. He has not just relied on the stalwarts of the Avengers but brought in new people and revelled in their origins. The arcs are complex and intricate but come together and I would certainly not be writing this post if I thought he wont tie up the threads suitably. The subtle prophecies written so beautifully and the lovely chapter divisions make for a complete Avengers tome. If would be perfect as a giant trade book, almost like a religious text. Hickman’s work handles a wealth of religious themes, which begin at the existence of life and creation. He is non-committal in his writing and covers many viewpoints throughout. We have the existence of a God who created life but also the worshippers who turn their back and learn to emulate evolution. There are multiple theological and scientific arguments in play and it is far from a simple creationism argument. Even to the point where the tenets of survival of the fittest do not simply fit. If that were the case then the Gardeners would not trigger evolution if it were supposed to be a natural process. The idea that a world will fight its way through extinction is more apropos to the fittest surviving. Once again both angles are covered simultaneously. Then we approach the idea that the world is broken and needs to be reset. This is the central premise of the Builders coming to destroy Earth, it is deemed the focal point of the break, the centre of the multiverse. This is extremely reminiscent of Noah from Genesis, where he takes two of every animal whilst God rids the existence of evil from Earth. Ironically it is Mother Goddess who tries to prevent her wayward children from doing so, by telling the Avengers they need to get bigger and prevent destruction. Bring in a forerunner, a starbrand, and Gardeners and you have a heavyweight component to the superhero group. The idea that a species can develop together to essentially perform deicide is compelling and threatens the omniscience of God. Couple this theme into the New Avengers relative morality exposition, then we are pushing ourselves, as a species, to make decisions and commit immoral acts for the greater good. Ultimately the title, Infinity and the tag line, nothing lasts forever are indicative of the circle of life: birth, death and rebirth. The creation of new worlds and the destruction of others, which brings us back to the first two quotes at the beginning of the post. Let us end with another classic Hickman adage from Avengers #3 which wonderfully summarises Hickman’s work:
“It was the spark that started the fire – A legend that grew in the telling. The great idea was expansion and it started with two men. One was life and one was death.”