*Note: This was a review written by me for a previous website.
Avengers Undercover is the latest in a line of comics that dates back to the Avengers: Initiative in a nearly unbroken, and almost entirely unconnected, series of books focusing on a younger generation of Avengers (not to be confused with Young Avengers or New Warriors). The first series started as a spin-off during the Civil War event, which saw the Initiative open up as a boot camp for young super heroes where they were dropped off for training before joining a team in one of America’s fifty states to become that state’s official squad of heroes. As the Initiative wound down and Marvel moved (briefly) towards a lighter fare of books it became replaced by Avengers Academy which kept the theme of teaching young heroes, although now more inline with the way the X-Men school had traditionally been portrayed (and also with the twist that the kids in the first class were pegged as potential future villains). That eventually gave way to Avengers Arena, which did not even attempt to disguise the fact that it was a rip-off of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale (the first few covers were even stylized after the covers of those books). It was a darker story with sixteen teenaged kids — some Avengers Academy alumni, and others picked up from other castoff series — were put into a death match against each other with the intention being that there would be only one survivor. It sold rather poorly and received a large amount of backlash from fans given that many of the participating characters (particularly those from the Runaways series) had rather passionate fans (though apparently not rich ones since they cannot maintain a series of their own), but surprisingly the reviews were overwhelmingly positive and it did create a solid word of mouth over time. Not enough to save the series, but enough to give it second life as Avengers Undercover.
In the aftermath of Avengers Arena the survivors (there was more than one) have become Internet celebrities, and each reacts in their own ways. Most of them just want to be forgotten, and in turn forget the horrible things they had to do in the Arena. Chase has decided that if he is going to be famous then he may as well cash-in and take advantage of the situation, and Bloodstone is hellbent on getting revenge on Arcade. Meanwhile, the regular people of the Marvel universe spend their time discussing the finer points of the Arena, such as who was the most useless in the fight and what they would do if put into the same situation (hint: most of them think they would be kings of the arena). It says a lot that, given our inexplicable fascination with reality television, that it is entirely believable that people would probably react like this if it actually happened.
What set Avengers Arena apart from most other comics was that it actually dealt with the emotional trauma of the horrible things these kids had to do. Superhero comics, by their nature, are extremely violent, but it is only rarely that the consequences of that violence really shines through. This is particularly true in the last decade or so where both Marvel and DC have been extremely casual about killing off their characters, and often in gruesomely brutal ways. Death has never really meant much in comics — there has long been a joke that Uncle Ben and Bucky were the only characters to ever stay dead, and that no longer is true of Bucky — but in recent years it has meant even less. My reaction to the news that Marvel plans to kill Wolverine later this year was met with an eye roll (though it is a good idea, admittedly, to get him out of circulation for a while), and killing lesser characters often results in a resigned sigh at best.
It is generally understood now that most fans are not going to care when you kill off a character anymore. After all, that character will just be alive again the next time a writer wants to use them, or if they are due to appear in a movie. Often character deaths are used as a plot point rather than an emotional point. You want to show how badass your new villain is? Roll in a C-list hero and chop their head off. Do you need to show that a situation is “serious”? Have the minor character in the background make a noble sacrifice to stop it. Furthermore, the real joke to all this is that once you have already killed off a character you get the general impression that everyone else is safe since the token sacrifice has been made (see, for instance, Chewbacca, who was killed in Vector Prime to prove the new threat was real, and then no other major movie characters were killed — granted that is no longer in continuity, either). This is hardly a problem unique to comics, but it does appear to be a bigger problem in comics than in other media. This will only get worse as comics movies become more popular and more characters become untouchable in the comics.
The trick, then, is to make the death matter within the context of the story. Avengers Arena was a book filled with C- and D-list heroes who had small, but loyal, followings (plus some new characters, and some true Z-listers), so there was a genuine sense that any and all characters were fair game. You could kill any and all characters in the book and not have a significant impact on your main fanbase. Sure the direct fans of those characters would be mad, but we have already established that they are more vocal than plentiful (which actually works in this book’s favor, since vocalized outrage would bring free attention to the title). On top of that, the characters reacted relatively realistically to the situation they were put in. Most of these guys had never killed anyone or encountered true death before, and the simple idea of it freaked most of them out. Once the body count actually started rising you could actually see the trauma set in. It was an uncomfortable book to read, but for all the right reasons.
Avengers Undercover takes this to the next stage, and has most of the kids dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder in some form or another. With all the mayhem in the Marvel and DC universes it is a surprise most characters do not suffer from this, honestly. They are isolated and feel that no one can understand them (which is pretty true, since they are being treated as reality television stars rather than as the victims they are), and not getting the help they need. There is a sense of weight to the book that most comics lack, and you really do end up feeling for these kids and the trauma they have endured. It is not surprising, then, that they are also extremely easy to manipulate by people who know how to do such things. The heroes have failed them by not even looking for them during the events of Arena, and now they have failed them again by not comforting them after the fact. I am not sure that it is an intentional indictment of how self-absorbed and self-important the bigger superhero books have become, but it certainly works on that level.
The actual plot of the book boils down to the various survivors coming together to find Bloodstone, who has gone missing after descending into an underground lair in search of Arcade. They find him easily enough, but discover he is working with Baron Zemo and the Masters of Evil now (controlled by Hellstorm, but the others do not know that). Using his connection with the Masters he is able to track down Arcade, and the team seeks their revenge. Things move from there as the team tries to come to grips with what has happened following this, and they realize that they now have to do something about the Masters of Evil, if they can. This is where the “Undercover” part of the title comes in, as they decide to take down the Masters from the inside. What is unfortunate about this is that it takes us six issues to get to this point (the entire trade), and the recently solicited tenth issue was announced as the final issue due to low sales (I presume). So six issues of setup followed by four issues of wrap-up. Sad, but not unexpected.
And it is sad to see Avengers Undercover go, especially if you view this as the closing arc to Avengers Arena (which you probably should). The stigma against the former carried over to the latter and it looks like the run of books is coming to a close. It may be hard to keep track of due to the large range of titles that it crossed, but every distinct section is worth checking out, even if you decide to not view it as a semi-continuous whole. Avengers Undercover v1: Descent is an okay book when taken on its own merits, but when added into the larger context of Avengers Academy and Avengers Arena it becomes an excellent book (Avengers Initiative does not really have any connection to this book beyond being the spiritual predecessor to Avengers Academy). Not everyone was happy with what happened to the kids during their time in the arena, but the story hits the right notes to make it meaningful and impactful. Do not write it off because of its obvious influences, but instead read it and respect it for its ability to do what so few other books these days are capable of: make these superhumans human.
Avengers Undercover: Descent is available from Amazon and your local comic shop.