Last year at this time, the Marvel Universe was an entirely different place. Evil held sway and heroes had to operate in the shadows thanks to Norman Osborn's "Dark Reign." Osborn is in prison now though and a new "Heroic Age" has begun. The super villain threat still exists, but now super hero teams can operate out in the open and currently there are two Avengers teams doing just that. One group features the Avengers "trinity" of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man and operates out of Avengers Tower, starring in the monthly "Avengers" series by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist John Romita Jr. The other team, starring in the monthly "New Avengers" series also by Bendis and featuring art by Stuart Immonen, is led by Luke Cage and operates out of the newly renovated Avengers Mansion. CBR News spoke with Bendis about his plans for both books.
Bendis recently kicked off the second volume of "New Avengers," with the current storyline finding the latest incarnation of the team: Ms. Marvel, Luke Cage, Wolverine, Spider-Man, The Thing, Mockingbird, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and their S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison Victoria Hand, forced to defend the world against an assault by demons and dark mystical forces. To help repel the assault, they have allied themselves with former Sorcerer Supreme and former New Avenger Stephen Strange, current Sorcerer Supreme Doctor Voodoo and Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan. Bendis has used the arc to delve into the use of magic in the Marvel Universe.
"There were a couple of reasons why I wanted to explore the world of magic in the Marvel Universe. Number one is that it's filled with all these awesome characters and interesting ideas. On top of that, the medium and the language of comics has grown larger and larger and changed and matured and there are certain elements where I want to see the more modern version of that kind of story. We're getting it with things like Matt Fraction's 'Thor.' So I want to see what magic in the Marvel Universe means today. If the characters and the elements of the Marvel Universe are more real, then how does magic play out?" Bendis explained to CBR News. "I'm also interested in taking away the things from Doctor Strange that can make him the deus ex machina that everyone worries about him being. I like the character tremendously, and I like the direction we're taking him. I also like the idea that there are forces in the world that you can't control no matter what you try. Having the Avengers in that situation is very exciting."
While Bendis has used the current "New Avengers" arc to look a lot at the background of Doctor Strange and the decisions he was forced to make as Sorcerer Supreme, he's also put Jessica Jones into some situations guaranteed to move her character forward as well. The former super hero who gave up the costumed life to become a private eye found herself dragged back into it when she married Luke Cage, finding herself in another role she was uncertain about when she gave birth to Cage's baby girl. When the demonic invasion began, Jessica found herself on the front lines, and in "New Avengers" #4, she helped saved the lives of both her husband and Ms. Marvel.
"Jessica is a mother, and she doesn't know how to be a mother or an Avenger. She doesn't know what kind of Avenger she is," Bendis remarked. "She doesn't know any of these things, and here she is trying to live the part. I think a lot of us can relate to the fact that sometimes you find yourself in a role and you have to decide if you want to live the part or just curl up into a ball. I think it's more interesting to watch her try to live up to the part."
At the end of "New Avengers" #4, Iron Fist confronted Doctor Strange about the true nature of the Eye of Agamotto and the role that nature has played in the current demonic invasion of Earth. Strange hasn't had a chance to answer yet, but the revelation about the eye is just is just one of the many exciting developments Bendis has planned for "New Avengers" #5, in stores October 13 and #6, which is in stores Novembers 10. The two issues are the penultimate and final chapters of the first arc of the new volume of the series..
"I don't want to give too much away, because there's a lot going on in this story that hasn't been revealed yet. I can say that grave decisions and choices will be made. When this storyline ends, not everybody walks away alive, for lack of a better word [Laughs]," Bendis revealed. "And not everyone that's a hero stays a hero and not everyone who's a villain stays a villain. There's some side switching going on."
The first arc of the new volume of "New Avengers" has primarily been about magic and the past choices of Stephen Strange. So, as Bendis hinted, the arc will be a definitive one for Doctor Strange, setting up what comes next for the former Sorcerer Supreme.
"There's a lot going on with the character, even in the next arc as well," Bendis stated. "There's a lot of reestablishing him and that will be a continuation of what we we're doing with him in the last volume of 'New Avengers.' He's on the road to recovery. He's on the verge of rediscovering himself and reestablishing himself in the Marvel Universe as someone besides the Sorcerer Supreme. This is the real interesting stuff. What kind of man will he be? What kind of hero will he be? He's still got his powers. He's still going to be the cool magician with kung-fu skills.
"We're definitely going to dig into the various elements of him as the series goes on," Bendis continued. "The connection between him and characters like Iron Fist and Wolverine will be interesting because of their mystical and spiritual backgrounds. All of these things will connect with the team in a way where hopefully even people who have been familiar with these characters for a long time will go, 'Oh man that is interesting. They never really bonded like that before.'"
In "New Avengers" #7, the team finally finds time to sit down and take care of some important logistical matters. "Issue #7 will be sort of like what some people wanted issue #1 to be. They figure out who's going to do what and where and why and how. They decide what the business of the New Avengers is going to be like and what the New Avengers look is. On top of that, they try to answer the questions of who will be the Jarvis of the New Avengers, what role Victoria Hand will play in the New Avengers, who's paying the bills and how things function. We'll find out how all these relationships work, but more importantly - and I think the thing people are going to enjoy the most, I certainly had fun writing it - is the answer to the question of who should be the nanny for Luke and Jessica's baby?" Bendis remarked. "You can't just have a nanny. You need a super powered nanny. We see all the applicants. You're going to see some familiar faces, some dreaded faces and some hilarious faces. We'll reveal the nanny in that issue and how they relate to the other characters. This will be someone they know. I'm looking forward to this tremendously. I think we may even reveal the nanny's identity live at the New York Comic Con."
Stuart Immonen has been tasked with bringing to life the main and supporting cast of "New Avengers" and Bendis has been consistently impressed by his efforts. "I think it's the work of Stuart Immonen's life. I really do. With every page that comes in I'm like, 'Oh this is the best thing he's ever drawn.'"
Bendis' big plans for the "New Avengers" don't stop with December's issue #7. He's got the team's adventures mapped out well into next year and many of the elements from the initial arc will continue to play a role in future stories. "'New Avengers' will not be a magic book, even though it may seem like it is for these first few months," Bendis stated. "We will be returning though to the implications of the magic world that Doctor Strange and, in some ways, Iron Fist live in. There will be visits to K'un-Lun. You will absolutely see some fallout from past events that haven't fully realized themselves yet in the lives of the Avengers. More importantly, Simon Williams AKA Wonder Man's very potent anti-Avengers feeling will flow into all of the books, including 'New Avengers.'"
Bendis' plans for the cast of his "Avengers" series are equally huge. Currently, the team of Captain America, Spider-Woman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Iron Man, the Protector, Hawkeye, Thor and their S.H.I.E.L.D liaison Maria Hill are embroiled in a quest to keep the time stream from unraveling. In order to accomplish this mission, half of the team had to travel forward in time to a possible future where their young descendants struggle against the tyranny of the robotic Ultron who had conquered the world. The storyline was partially inspired by the "Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow" animated film and featured the first comic appearance of the title characters from that movie.
"I know 'Next Avengers' didn't do great and I initially didn't watch it. Then Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada said, 'My daughter just watched this cartoon and she loved it!' He sent me a copy because he knows that my daughter's tastes are sort of similar. So when I got it, I asked her, 'Hey you want to watch this cartoon about the Avengers?" and she goes, 'Yeah,' and she loved it too. She's not a big super hero junkie,'" Bendis revealed. "So I started to think about why they loved it so much. I talked with Chris Yost, the writer of the film, and told him that Marvel has all these interesting alternate futures, like 'Days of Future's Past' and '2099' and that 'Next Avengers' was equally appealing to me.
"I loved the characters, so I told him that I thought it would be great if the characters from the movie became part of the Marvel Universe," Bendis continued. "He was thrilled. So they're going to be a big part of this storyline and if they survive I think we'll see them again."
When the Avengers team arrived in the alternate future, they were met by an older incarnation of Tony Stark who explained to the team why the time stream was in danger of unraveling. He did so with the help of an elaborate wall chart that listed events that had already happened in the Marvel Universe and hinted at possible future ones.
"'52' had a wall chart, but I never read '52' so I didn't see their wall chart. I think it's pretty evident, though, that we both stole from 'Back to the Future' [Laughs]. That said, this was an idea that was put forth and kind of snowballed through the offices of Marvel. I originally said that future Tony had made what was the mad man's version of Doc Brown's chalkboard. The idea was that if Doc Brown's chalkboard had two lines, this one would have like a thousand. Each one would be labeled and cataloged," Bendis explained. "From there, editorial went crazy with, 'Let's write in everything that we know we're going to do and we think we're going to do.' Because there are some plans that we have coming up over the next few years, which you aren't going to see for a couple years, because the pieces aren't ready yet. Much like it took us awhile to get to 'Secret Invasion' and 'Siege.'
"There are other elements like that coming up not only from the Avengers' office but from the X-Men office, the Hulk office and a bunch of other places. We know we're doing them one way or another. So Tom Brevoort and Axel Alonso and a lot of the guys had a lot of fun scribbling hints about things that may or may not happen," Bendis continued. "What's fun is that I know which things on the Wall chart are definitely happening because they're already being written and drawn even though they're not coming out this year. I like that they're on this chart because it's going to make us look like geniuses [Laughs]."
"Avengers" #6 is in stores October 27 and brings the battle to save the time stream to an epic close. "Issue #6 really brings it all home," Bendis stated. "Some people have to make some difficult choices to save the world, the universe and the time stream."
In past Avengers line-ups, Bendis has included newer Marvel characters or characters with new takes on them like the Sentry and Ares. In November's "Avengers" #7, he continues that tradition by having the Red Hulk join the team, a character who was recently revealed to be the original Hulk's nemesis General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross.
"From the beginning, I was sort of intimately involved in the mystery of the Red Hulk. Over the course of many retreats and many conversations, I listened to Jeph Loeb birth the character, from a germ of an idea all the way to the character's present day circumstances. I heard him explain what the point of the character was, what the character means and how he got to where he is today," Bendis explained. "When Jeph was wrapping his run on 'Hulk,' he turned to me in a quiet moment and said, 'When you create these characters and you finish your run with them, you worry that they'll disappear into the ether. So anything you can think of doing with the Red Hulk, like having him battle the Avengers, feel free.' He wanted to let us know that if we wanted to use the Red Hulk we should feel free to use him.
"I thought what could be better than him joining the Avengers? And Jeph Loeb got a little Hulk boner," Bendis joked. "Then we had a long talk about where the character's been and what Jeff Parker is going to do with him during his current run on 'Hulk.' So it ended up making a lot of sense. It made a lot of sense in Steve Rogers' world to have a military tactician of the highest order on that team. A Hulk that can think? Absolutely! That harkens back to the early stages of the Avengers because there was a Hulk on the team, of course they fought him for several issues. So this made a lot of sense."
The Red Hulk's introduction into the world of "Avengers" also serves as a way of introducing the team to their next big threat and kicking off the series' next arc. "We're going to pick the Red Hulk up in a pretty reader friendly and easy to define place, where he will be the one faced with the Hood's surprising power quest for the Infinity Gems. He'll try to make good with the Marvel Universe by coming to the Avengers and saying, 'You guys need to know about this.' Hopefully he'll earn his place on the team by the end of the arc," Bendis said. "I've already written most of the arc. It's completely different from the arc that we're doing now, but still pretty bombastic."
The revelation that the Hood is searching for the Infinity Gems sets off alarm bells across the Marvel Universe, especially among the team who last had the gems in their possession, the clandestine super group called the Illuminati. Since they last dealt with the gems, the individual Illuminati members have undergone a number of changes. Tony Stark's memory has huge gaps in it because he needed to keep his knowledge secret from Norman Osborn. Professor Charles Xavier also lost most of his memory and went on a sort of spiritual quest to regain it. Namor, the Sub Mariner recently began to celebrate his mutant heritage by joining the X-Men. As mentioned earlier, Doctor Strange lost the title of Sorcerer Supreme. Reed Richards repented the secrets he kept from his family as an Illuminati member. And the Inhuman king Black Bolt perished in an intergalactic conflicted referred to as the "War of Kings."
In December's "Avengers" #8, the Illuminati reassembles because of the threat of the Hood, but due to what the individual members have gone through they're not happy about reuniting. "Tony videotaped a lot of the Illuminati meetings. So he caught up pretty easy," Bendis stated. "This story has been a lot of fun to write. We get to see Parker Robbins hunt for the Infinity Gems and learn how he has inkling as to where they are and who has them. We also get to watch the Illuminati go, ''Oh, well. We fucked this one up pretty good.' And now we have Black Bolt's widow Medusa, who did not know there was an Illuminati, getting that call. 'Is your husband home?' 'No.' 'Oh...' So that will be very interesting. Plus I'll get a chance to unveil the story I've been dying to tell, which is the outing of the Illuminati."
In the current arc of "Avengers," series artist John Romita Jr. has been tasked with drawing gigantic action scenes and lots of characters. With the second arc of the series set to feature the regular members of the team, the Red Hulk, the reunited Illuminati and the villainy of the Hood, he'll continue to have his work cut out for him. Bendis feels that his collaborator has been doing an amazing job with the work he's given him and for that he's eternally grateful.
"I actually kind of feel bad. I believe I wrote in the first line of the last script that I handed him, 'Honestly, John, I just realized that if I was the artist of this book, I would punch the writer in the face.' It was obnoxious and selfish of me to ask him to draw things like the off panel Ultron War [Laughs] and Thor versus Galactus, both of which appeared in recent issues," Bendis said. "The problem is, and I even gave an extra page to the 'War of the Worlds' H.G. Wells Killraven stuff because in my heart I thought he would love to draw that stuff. Those were some of the best pages of the series. Even my editor Tom Brevoort was like, 'I think John loves drawing that stuff.' So you can see that I'm a huge fan of John's and I have these images in my head and I think, 'Wouldn't it be cool to see John draw these?'
"I'm already well into the second arc and we're getting stuff like the Red Hulk beating things up and more mano-a-mano fights. So it's a little calmer. I think John has done an amazing job. He and Klaus Jansen are an amazing team," Bendis continued. "I take writing towards an artist very seriously. These are images that I was hoping John would understand why I'm giving them to him to do, and I can tell that he does. When the initial idea of putting us together was brought forth, I think it was Joe Quesada who said, 'I want to see your Avengers carved out of granite. I want to see these hulking masses of almost stone like men and women just beating the shit out of stuff.' That's what John has delivered. That's what this is."
The battle for the Infinity Gems will continue well into next year and it's one of many epic tales that Bendis has lined up for the "Avengers" series in 2011. "In some sense the Infinity Gems story is even bigger than the story we're doing now in 'Avengers'. The outcome is not what people think they're going to see. It's not Thanos. The revelation about the Illuminati will have major impact on the relationships between the characters and what Steve Rogers thinks of Tony Stark and his place on the team," Bendis hinted. "Plus we have some other really cool surprises coming up in 'Avengers.' None of which I'm allowed to discuss, but if you follow me on Twitter, you'll see that there are certain artists working on certain projects that may or may not be Avengers related. We've got some huge names working on Avengers projects that I think people really are going to dig. And I will say this about the time stuff in our current arc; when you get to issue #6, you'll see that there are a couple of surprise endings. All of that will be addressed down the road. Killraven, the Next Avengers, the Maestro, all of that is going to be dealt with in the future."
When Bendis kicked off "Avengers" and launched the latest volume of "New Avengers," he began a new back up feature that has been running in the back pages of both books, "Avengers Assemble: The Oral History of Earth's Mightiest Heroes." Each issue of the books features a different chapter, and in each chapter Bendis offers up the thoughts of various Avengers and other Marvel characters on the events that shaped Avengers history.
"I love oral history books. I read them ferociously. I'll even read them about subjects that I don't really care about. About five years ago, I pitched Marvel the idea of a book like this. They were like, 'I don't know if we want you spending your time on that.' So when the opportunity came to use this idea as my back up feature in the Avengers books and put the book together chapter by chapter, I got very excited. They're a nice, cost-effective way for Marvel to have back ups in the books. I'm excited, too, because there's a lot of material that I've been dying to do here. I think they make the packages of the Avengers books even more interesting," Bendis explained. "I really like how many people have said to me, 'Oh, man - I want to go back and read these stories. I've never read them.' So people are going back and reading books like 'The Essential Avengers.' That's very cool!
"And just for the most selfish of reasons, these are the best writing exercises to analyze the voices of the characters; where they're coming from and their mind sets. I'm learning things about Thor, Tony Stark and Captain America that I thought I had thought all the way through, but now find different layers. Particularly with characters like Jan and Hank. I keep finding layers that I didn't know were there before," Bendis continued. "What's also fun about these is the plan initially was that I would be on the 'Kree-Skrull' war by now and I would stick to the big stuff. I keep finding cool material to mine in the old issues, though. So the oral history back ups will continue for the foreseeable future. I love doing them and they seem to be working out really well. My pitch to Marvel was, 'By the time the Avengers movie comes out, you've got yourselves a whole book worth of material.'"