The Last Avengers Story is from 1995, and even though that was around the height of my comics fandom as a teenager, I didn’t read it. In fact, I had never heard of it until I saw it featured on Brian Cronin’s blog. This surprised me a little, because around that time, Peter David was my favorite comic writer. The title of the book is the premise: it takes place a few decades from the present day, and it details the last Avengers story. The Last Avengers Story is also the name of a novel – or a comic? – in the story itself; it, too, details the last Avengers story, and in the distant future, Kang steals it in order to discover how he can (or rather will) defeat the Avengers once and for all.
You see, the world of The Last Avengers Story has changed very much from the world of the present day. Wonderman died killing the Hulk; Hawkeye has lost his vision; Captain America was assassinated during his third year as president of the United States. But it isn’t really a dystopian future either: several major cities have been devastated from catastrophes, but the remaining superheroes, including the children of some of our favorites, managed to effectively wipe out the most dangerous supervillains. Well, with a bit of devious help from the government. The final straw that made Cap run for president was that the government spearheaded a campaign to capture as many supervillains as possible with the heroes’ help. Once captured, the government unilaterally executed all of them.
This crime against his former allies and the lack of available ones is what has driven Kang to seeking The Last Avengers Story. Armed with the knowledge from that book, Kang forms a small group of supervillains, including the latest iterations of Ultron and the Grim Reaper, and they tell an aged and soft Hank Pym (Ant Man) to round up whatever heroes he can for a new and final team of Avengers – they will meet them at a set place and time and kill them all.
If Brian Cronin hadn’t recommended this book and I had seen a brief summary like the one above, I’m not sure I would have read it. In the hands of even good writers, these stories about alternate futures or parallel realities that describe a hero’s last days often devolve into shameless brutalizing. More than a few What Ifs and Elseworlds amount to something like – “We know we can’t kill or main Superman or Cyclops in continuity, but we can here, and this whole book will be about it!” I certainly don’t mean to say that all or even most out-of-continuity stories are like this, because that simply isn’t true. And I certainly don’t mean say that good stories can’t be told in which heroes are maimed, brutalized, or debased in ways that in-continuity stories usually don’t allow. That’s simply not true either: consider Red Sun; The Dark Knight Returns; Earth X and its successors; Kingdom Come; and so many other good books.
The Last Avengers Story belongs on that list, too. I wonder if Peter David was aware of and reacting against the impulse to write about debased or corrupted heroes for the sake of “realism” and “grittiness,” rather than out of the impulse to tell a good story. At one point, Hank, describing his career as a superhero and Avenger, says, “Somewhere along the way, the whole became something. . .wrong. Something dark, perverse. . .grim and gritty. I think that’s when we all decided we wanted out.”
This reminds me of Superman’s reaction to Magog in Kingdom Come, a character who is a clear parody of the most popular heroes of the 90’s: guys who kill villains and don’t give a shit about nothin’, because feeling things and caring about stuff is trite. Like Superman, Hank thinks he’s living in a changed world that wants different heroes and has left him behind.
One of the cleverest and ballsy moves Peter David makes in writing the book is that he makes Hank Pym the main character. Nobody ever knows what to do with the guy. In the scheme of the Marvel Universe, he’s maybe the third or fourth smartest human. He becomes an ant, but also sometimes giant. The most memorable story ever told with him was about how he beat his wife. The most significant thing he has ever done was creating Ultron, the Avenger’s greatest villain. Here, too, he’s pathetic, cowardly, and washed up.
He puts together this final team of Avengers not out of any sense of nobility or a determination to thwart evil one last time, but because Ultron tells him that if he doesn’t gather a team to fight, Ultron, Kang, and their crew will just hunt them down one by one.
The best part of the book occurs in the middle, where Hank visits the old allies who survive (or, for the ones that don’t survive, their kids) as he tries to assemble the team. We find that Spiderman has sold the formula for his webbing to 3M and now works as a scientist there; that Johnny Storm’s daughter, who has the power to make constructs out of blue flame, is a pacifist and an artist; that the She Hulk’s daughter works as a one woman SWAT team in New York. As I mention above, we also learn that Hawkeye is blind and Captain America has been assassinated, though Hawkeye is convinced that he was secretly put in suspended animation until he can be cured. How ridiculous; as Hank points out, they thought the same thing about JFK. We also learn about the Vision, and the Scarlet Witch, and their children, and Tigra (if anybody cares). But I shouldn’t spoiler everything here.
The final battle between the last Avengers and Kang, Ultron, and their crew is good, though seeing what happens to these characters, many of whom are new because they are the children of old characters, isn’t quite enjoyable as the flashbacks and recaps of what’s happened to the heroes we know and love.
Ariel Olivetti’s art is impressionistic and moody; sometimes, it’s claustrophobic and challenging. It’s a good looking book, though the artist seems to have signed every other page – a distracting and unusual affectation.
As Brian Cronin mentioned, if this book were released now, it would get much more press, and deservedly so. It’s no Marvels, and it’s no Earth X, but it takes its characters seriously and tells an interesting story with them. And the last pages, well, they just kill me.
[Serious spoilers follow!]
The book is often brutal, but it isn’t casual about it, and it earns it. One of my favorite parts is when Johnny’s daughter is watching the televised fight between the last Avengers team and Ultron’s crew, and, terrified and repulsed by the carnage, she runs out of the room: Kang has managed to get around Cannonball’s invulnerability by splitting him in two with a force field; She Hulk’s daughter has gotten scythed through the chest while her back was turned; the Black Knight’s son is tricked into blowing his own head off.
We expect Johnny’s daughter to show up at the last minute and save her father, who has joined up with Hank. But she doesn’t. At the end of the book, we find that she ran away to hide in a closet, distraught and unable to stand the stress of seeing her father in danger. She’s not a warrior like her father; that’s just not her life. It would have been disingenuous to have her show up to save the day.
Who does show up to save the day, or rather why, is the big surprise. As I mentioned, Hawkeye was blinded some years earlier, and he’s living with Mockingbird. He’s pretty happy and optimistic, convinced that Cap was rescued and secreted away somewhere. Well, everybody knows better, especially Mockingbird. She’s pretty angry when Hank shows up at her door to recruit them for the team, and she winds up kicking Hank out. But shortly before the battle, Mockingbird and Hawkeye receive a mysterious phone call that convinces them to show up, and they are instrumental in stopping Kang and Ultron. Who called? What did he say? My immediate instinct was that it was Cap – or rather someone claiming to be him. As we soon learn, Hank’s plan was actually to assemble the best team he could and then escape to a parallel universe, leaving them to fend for themselves. I assumed the call was a ruse by Hank to get Hawkeye and Mockingbird to show up. In this violent and hopeless world, that would make good sense. The whole book has shown us how these hero and this future are somehow a little worse, a little bit less innocent, and little bit more broken. It’s not a dystopia, but this world lacks the wonder, courage, and principles that the world of the modern-day Avengers has. How could Cap fit into a world like that?
But, the last page reveals, he is alive in some kind of chamber, attached to machines, surrounded by monitors; he’s been watching the story all along on his screens. He did step in and call Hawkeye. He’s like King Arthur recuperating on Avalon, but better. He’s not sleeping away and at repose until some distant day: he’s watching his people and helping them when they need it most. This world does have its heroes, and they are great ones, like Hank, who has to overcome his cowardly impulses and ultimately die to save his friends, or Captain America, holed up in his machines. They’re just a little hidden.