By: Dennis Hopeless (Writer), Kev Walker (Penciller), Jason Gorder (Inker), Jean-Francois Beaulieu (Color Artist), VC’s Joe Caramagna (Letterer)
SPOILER LEVEL: RED ALERT
Our heroes make a deal with devil, but cross their fingers behind their back.
(Attention, fans of Runaways: You will want to read the issue first, so if you read this review instead, you will find SPOILERS.)
The pacing of this series is near-perfect. We all knew from the beginning what kind of decision the young heroes would be making (hint: the name of this series is AVENGERS UNDERCOVER) so the big decision the characters make at the end of this issue is not so surprising. What’s actually full of tension is HOW they go about their decision-making process, which in this issue means a tour of the underworld of Bagalia (which includes a quite literal sense of the word) and lots of character interaction.
The characters are divided more or less among lines that parallel their use in the series– the supernatural characters in one area, the “leaders” go with Madame Masque, with Chase and Death Locket, largely reactionary/follower figures, with Constrictor and the Young Masters. It’s in the latter’s group that we get the sense of what exactly “the deal is” with Bagalia, which is revealed to be the hangouts for grunt labor (“like supervillain marines”) for the higher-up, big name villains. At least that provides a sense of place and purpose, to which Death Locket immediately gravitates, relishing the idea of just being “dumb” for once.
This makes it interesting when Death Locket is left out of the circle when the others come up with the idea of a third option in their “in or out” dilemma. The plates are spinning so that Death Locket as well as Cullen/Bloodstone can be set up for further conflict among the group. This is not a cohesive group, which means the antagonists may not be just the villainous cabal above them but could also very well be their peers, the ones they most need to rely on.
While the decision to agree to join the Masters of Evil may not have been a surprise, that doesn’t mean they’re aren’t any at all. The first big surprise is Hellstrom’s attempt to win over Nico/Sister Grimm by resurrecting Alex Wilder, who arrives in a full-page splash after a dramatic page turn, a perfect example of when comicbook storytelling is effective. “In the flesh,” he assures her, while being ominously up-lit from the light source below him.
The last big surprise comes at the end, as Cammi rejects the offer, with predictable results. And it’s truly a surprise, because of all people, we’d expect Cammi to be the strategist that would best be able to go along with the undercover plan, only to find out that she’s the only one opting “out.” Looking at the key conversation, it’s easy to read Cammi as advocating for this undercover plan, as she encourages Chase to make his decision after it seems clear that everyone wants this outcome. On a second reading, it’s less clear. Does she honestly believe there are only two choices (“Rock and hard place. Now we all get to pick one.”) or will this be set up for future conflict? Obviously, she won’t be gone from the book entirely, but it’s following this book’s tradition of going in completely unexpected directions while staying true to essential characters.
The Bottom Line: There’s a distinct lack of action in this issue, but if anything, the dramatic tension is even more pronounced. Hopless and Walker/Gorder/Beaulieu do some great world-building here as well as genuine character development. The heroes make their decision to be “undercover” as the title suggests, but what exactly this means and how it will all play out remains tantalizingly up in the air.
The Grade: A
Four Other Tidbits:
— I appreciate the how the different “circles” of the underworld have their own names, such as Hellstrom’s Hell Town and Constrictor’s Snake Pit. My favorite is the how-has-no-one-ever-thought-of-this-before “Mephisticuffs” netherworldly fight club.
— Is this the first time that we’ve seen Constrictor’s new coils? He had always used telescoping adamantium coils, but here he has energy lashes.
— How, exactly, did the Constrictor get to that tiny little ledge in order to lasso Cammi in the first place?
— Zemo likes toast with grape jam. Don’t you think that’s a bit on the nose, Z?