I’ve never attempted to read every issue in one of the Marvel Comics events. For the uninitiated, an “event” is a large-scale story that has an effect throughout the universe (or multiverse) of Marvel comics, centered on an eponymous limited series telling the core narrative. However, by exploiting the complex web of character connection and interaction that define the Marvel universe, the event is not confined to the limited series, but is supplemented by dozens of “tie-in” books – that is, specific issues of an ongoing series that connect to the primary limited series. The notion of such a sprawling story may seem daunting, but by following the story week-to-week and picking up the couple-three event issues as they’re released, a True Believer is promised a complex and multifaceted experience. With only four issues of the event having been released, I’m excited to dive headfirst into my first Marvel comics event! Follow the jump and let’s explore the surprises to be found at the outset of the road to Avengers Standoff – and be warned: this post contains spoilers for this issue.
The story opens on Bucky Barnes infiltrating a S.H.I.E.L.D. base. His narration blasts the reader with a plethora of expositional information – but it’s hardly unwelcome, as it quickly establishes the parameters of the situation: something bad has gone down at S.H.I.E.L.D., and he’s here to investigate just what that might have been. Using Captain America’s security clearance, Bucky is able to activate a holographic record that shows some sort of Gamma Radiation experiment going horribly wrong (who could have seen that coming). The result is an explosion that kills everyone that was present – with the exception of a mysterious glowing child. “Want to be safe,” she tells Bucky. “Just want to be happy.” But before Bucky is able to get any additional information, he is captured by S.H.I.E.L.D.
Once this introduction is out of the way, a title page vignette provides Maria Hill’s statement regarding classified information that had been leaked by a hacker. Dismissing the notion that the security program revealed by the hacker is dangerous, Hill proceeds to shift blame away from the program, redirecting it to the individual who leaked the classified information. The parallels between the narrative and recent American history are already inescapable, clearly echoing the actions taken by Edward Snowden when he leaked classified information regarding the security programs of the United States’ National Security Agency.
However, the implications of this parallel will have to wait for a future issue, since the next page jumps into the narrative focused on for the remainder of the issue : Jim’s arrival at the town of Pleasant Hill. Drawing from a technique artfully exploited by short-form science fiction, the reader is presented with a setting and characters that are obviously not what they seem, along with a few hints to drive the point home. Jim, the focal point of the narrative for the duration, is an amnesiac, and serves as a proxy for the reader – just as the reader is wonders what the true nature of the uncanny town might be, so too does Jim, voicing our questions to the other characters. It quickly engenders a sense of connection between the reader and Jim, especially when he attempts to escape: just as we’re aware something isn’t right in Pleasant Hill, so is Jim, and we want him to discover what’s going on so we can learn, too. Furthermore, a few panels showing Captain America and Bucky at the beginning of Jim’s story suggest he might be a recognizable hero beneath the amnesia.
But while Pleasant Hill might pretend to be an idyllic small town, it isn’t long before the cracks begin to show: as Jim wanders around a suburban wonderland, a radio station broadcast overtly displays hilariously sinister currents beneath the surface. It’s like Hill Valley if Marty had taken the DeLorean to Orwell’s 1984. Jim tries to escape, but ends up discovered that the town seems to be confined within a force field – one generated by Stark technology.
Over the next couple of weeks, Jim attempts to escape a few more times, but is consistently thwarted by nameless S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, conveyed by some of the issue’s snappiest art (a clever little montage). But this pattern is broken when Jim meets the mysterious child from the prologue. She asks him if he’s happy in his new life, and when he says he isn’t, she explains that he used to be so hung up on the past that he couldn’t move forward – by erasing his memory, she had removed this anchor so he could proceed with his purpose. Before she is ushered away, the child resurrects an apparently dead bird, and the resurrection finally convinces Jim that he should be content to abandon his forgotten past for a new life in Pleasant Hill.
Inspired, Jim commits an act of outright heroism when he rescues an infant from a house fire. But the baby wasn’t the only one in the burning building, and a mysterious man amid the flames tells Jim he can explain what’s rotten in the town of Pleasant Hill. Jim isn’t sure whether to keep his appointment with the stranger until an uncomfortable meeting with Maria Hill, who tells him she is the mayor of Pleasant Hill, then proceeds to grill him for information regarding the stranger.
Jim responds to Hill’s hostility by keeping the appointment with the stranger, who is revealed to strongly resemble Tony Stark. He tells Jim that while they have had their differences in the past, he has created a machine that will “undo” everything that has been done to Jim. But before it is turned on, the stranger plays an orientation video for Pleasant Hill. Narrated by Maria Hill, the video reveals that Pleasant Hill is actually a place of incarceration for super villains. By rewriting their minds and appearances, the super powered criminals can be made to forget who they are, and instead become docile members of the town.
The nature of Pleasant Hill revealed, Jim demands the machine be activated, and it is revealed that the protagonist was never one of our heroes, but is rather super villain Baron Zemo. The reveal is exceptionally effective, since despite hints to the contrary throughout the narrative, the reader expects to have been following a hero. The subversion of this expectation created by revealing the protagonist to be a villain is well-executed and effective, especially due to the inclusion of a few misleading (but not dishonest) “flashes” of Cap and Bucky intercut throughout the narrative. As the story closes, Zemo declares to Fixer (the actual identity of the stranger) that he will soon avenge himself upon S.H.I.E.L.D. by freeing the other villains from Pleasant Hill.
As an introduction to the Avengers Standoff event, this book succeeds quite well. Laying groundwork for an exciting conflict, and one that promises a hefty dose of social and political commentary, is difficult to accomplish – especially when it’s being presented through a story that features a deft twist at the end. Welcome to Pleasant Hill pulls this off with a deftness that promises plenty of excitement to come. The art isn’t exceptionally stylistic, but it does a competent job of presenting the action in a clear and well-rendered manner.
In addition to all this, the event seems to court new readers by including a number of characters familiar to viewers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Dr. Erik Selvig, who has appeared in the Thor and Avengers movies; Agent Hill, from the Avengers movies; even a cameo from Graviton, who appeared in the first season of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. On the other side of the equation, fans of the MCU who are new to the books are introduced to Baron Zemo at the conclusion, who will be featured as a villain in the upcoming Captain America 3: Civil War.
Is Agent Hill simply posing as mayor, or has she fallen victim to her own security program? Will disaster strike at the upcoming Pleasant Hill air show? What other super villains are unknowingly incarcerated there (hint: check the air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror of the car Jim steals during his second escape attempt)? Can S.H.I.E.L.D. possibly justify this sort of incarceration?
Let’s find out! Next up: Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill Alpha 001