Superhero comics are all about building up iconic, seemingly invulnerable heroes and then thinking of ways to tear them down. This becomes a greater challenge when you’re talking about superhero teams, particularly teams of seemingly endless power like The Avengers. You’ve got to find ways to physically, emotionally and psychologically challenge the characters while leaving as few holes in your plot as possible, and because you’re dealing with a mythos that’s already half a century old, you have to do with an eye toward both the past and the future. When this sort of thing is done poorly, it’s almost painful to read. When it’s done well, as it in Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch’s Avengers Disassembled, it becomes classic.
Avengers Disassembled is essentially based on a very simple question: What would it take to pick apart Earth’s Mightiest Heroes? Questions like this run through a number of major “fall of the superhero” stories, from Batman: Knightfall to Chris Claremont’s legendary Phoenix saga. When it comes to telling this kind of story, it’s all in the answer. Not just how, but why, do these heroes fall? For Bendis (one of Marvel’s go-to guys for major event comics), the answer comes from within.
His treatment of the fall of the Avengers, the figurative and often literal disassembling of all that they’ve worked for and all that they hold dear, is both moving and inventive. The idea of a superhero team coming apart from the inside isn’t new, but Bendis adds new layers to an old story with surprising ease.
Avengers Disassembled begins with inexplicable violence, the return of the shell of a friend thought to be lost that erupts into a deadly explosion. With one Avenger dead, yet another fiery explosion rocks the Avengers Mansion, and the heroes begin to lose their grip on what it means to be a superhero. They are no longer in control, either of their own emotions or of the situation. These are Earth’s mightiest, and they’re powerless. Worst of all, no one can explain what’s happening to them.
It’s a different kind of comic book story not just because of the way Bendis (with the help of iconic, powerful art from Finch) breaks down his superhero team, but the way he chooses to explain it. This is a major event comic, but it often feels startlingly intimate. There are no massive invasions or supervillains of unimaginable strength challenging The Avengers for the fate of humanity. There is only a mystery that turns out to have a surprisingly simple and terrifying answer that will ring through the Marvel Universe for years.
Avengers Disassembled is brilliant not just for the power of its storytelling, but for its deliberate efforts to break away from the status quo of comic book event storytelling. It doesn’t rely on cosmic forces, giant monsters or even the internal pride and overconfidence of its heroes to generate conflict. It’s about chaos, and how heroes react to it. It’s about how that chaos begins to tear at the familial bond between a superhero team, and how the source of that chaos changes everything. It manages to be firmly rooted in the consistences of the Marvel Comics mythology while spinning it in a new direction, and it does it all from the confines of the iconic Avengers Mansion.
Avengers Disassembled did more than just lead into more Marvel Comics events (most notably House of M). It also spun off two new Avengers teams and changed the face of the Marvel Universe. It marked the end of a superhero era for Marvel and the beginning of something more dynamic and dangerous. It’s a bold story by a bold writer, and as mainstream, no frills superhero comics go, it’s among the best you can read.