Ranking - Avengers Undercover
Avengers Undercover #1-10 (2014)
Written by Dennis Hopeless
Drawn by Kev Walker (#1-2, 4-5, 7), Timothy Green II (#3, 6, 9), and Tigh Walker (#8, 10)
Inked by Kev Walker, Timothy Green II, Jason Gorder, and Tigh Walker
Colored by Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Lettered by Joe Caramagna
Edited by Bill Rosemann and Jon Moisan
In the Marvel Years Rankings, we randomly select one story (anything from a single issue to ??? issues that make up a single story) to look at, with the ultimate goal of ranking every single Marvel comic book story from best to worst. The rankings are subjective and highly unscientific. They’re intended to be a fun way to kick off discussion, and introduce readers to new stories.
Avengers Arena launched at the very end of 2012. Seemingly inspired by the global success of The Hunger Games, Marvel decided to take a handful of their then-unused teenage superhero characters and force them into a battle to the death. The arena concept was brought together by longtime villain, Arcade – in a modernization of his 80s Murderworld concepts.
That series ended with 8 surviving members – the mutant X-23 (the only Arena survivor to have no role in Undercover), Hazmat (of Avengers Academy), Nico and Chase (from Runaways), Cammi (Drax’s companion from Annihilation), and (new characters) Death Locket, Anachronism, and Cullen Bloodstone.
As if the traumatic experiences of the Arena weren’t enough to haunt these characters for the rest of their lives, they emerge to find that the whole thing was livestreamed for the world to see.
Each Arena-survivor is dealing with their experiences in their own way, but none more self-destructively than Cullen Bloodstone – who has made it his mission to kill Arcade for all of the things that villain put them through. The other survivors team up to rescue him from the supervillain-run country of Bagalia.
Upon arriving in that country, they discover that Cullen has willingly teamed with the Masters of Evil, who run Bagalia. The teenagers are forced into a showdown with Arcade, and are all somewhat complicit when Hazmat kills the villain.
Marked as criminals for the murder of Arcade, the heroes are “rescued” by the Masters of Evil who want to offer the teens a chance at a different kind of lifestyle. A majority of the group agree to “accept” the evil offer, but just as a means of going undercover and ultimately restoring their good names.
Along the way, many of the heroes get seduced into the lifestyle of supervillainy, but Death Locket is the only one who goes full villain. All the rest manage to contact the Avengers and (more or less) save the day.
Dennis Hopeless did the impossible in not only making the cynical and gross sounding pitch of “Hunger Games for Marvel teens” enjoyable, but also one of the most emotionally-satisfying Marvel experiences of that era. This sequel had a lot to live up, and I think it succeeds in matching the emotional and dramatic highs of the first series – but with a few caveats.
Avengers Undercover mirrors Avengers Arena in all of its addictive, “must read the next issue” qualities. The characters are written distinctively and complexly, the plot speeds along at an always exciting pace, and the cliffhangers and twists are some of the smartest and most intriguing in the business.
Avengers Undercover has the binge-ability factor of the best TV shows, and it’s all due to the attention to character throughout. Nico, Cullen, and Death Locket are the three characters who are most tempted to the dark side in this story – and all of their behaviors are justified and believable. Nico is broken and needs a release for all of her anger, Cullen is blindly lashing out, and Death Locket feels like she finally belongs somewhere.
That character depth is just as true in the art as it is in the writing, at least when Kev Walker is illustrating. Kev Walker is just as brilliant here as he was in Arena, with expressive characters that make you feel every betrayal hit you squarely in the gut. The characters tell you all you need to know about their motivations in their facial expressions.
But for all that praise, there are the caveats I teased at the beginning. Avengers Undercover was prematurely cancelled due to low sales, truncating a 15 issue story into only 10 issues. Hopeless does an admirable job of condensing that story as seamlessly as possibly, but it isn't actually seamless either.
After 7 issues of excellent pacing and character progression, the last 3 issues are a pacing mess. The finale comes about almost out of leftfield, and a few less important characters (mostly Chase and Hazmat) are forgotten about in favor of satisfactorily wrapping up the more compelling character arcs.
Kev Walker also leaves the book after #7, throwing the book’s artistic consistency in the toilet. Timothy Green II did a fine job filling in whenever Kev Walker needed a break, but he’s not nearly the same caliber of artist as Kev. Even more devastating, Kev’s final 2 issues are filled in by an artist named Tigh Walker who just isn’t nearly as dynamic or expressive.
The rushed feeling of the final 3 issues don’t kill the story overall, but they make for a bit of a letdown to a series that was so unequivocally fantastic up to that point. The characters still mostly get their due, and the plot wraps up well, it just leaves a somewhat sour taste in your mouth after so much greatness.
New Reader Friendly?
I think you could pick up this series with no prior knowledge of the characters or story. But why would you? Avengers Arena precedes this story and is even better! Start with Avengers Arena then read Avengers Undercover.
Had Avengers Undercover been able to play out the naturally planned course of its story and Kev Walker been able to see the project through to its end, I think this series would’ve been in contention for that #1 spot on this young list. It’s that good.
But, the rushed ending and unsatisfying artistic changes really drags the otherwise great series down the list. Comparing it to the list, my first question is whether it’s better or worse than Ultimates: The Republic is Burning. While Ultimates is an experience that’s more consistent from beginning to end, I prefer the narrative ambition (and success) of Undercover over Ultimates’ all flash and style approach.
So Avengers Undercover enters the list at #5, above The Republic is Burning but below Superior Spider-Man: A Troubled Mind.
1. Spider-Man: Origin of the Hobgoblin
2. The Punisher by Greg Rucka Volume 1
3. Excalibur: The Sword is Drawn
4. Superior Spider-Man: A Troubled Mind
5. Avengers Undercover
6. Ultimates: The Republic is Burning
7. X-Men: Second Genesis
8. Iron Man: Sunfall
9. Iron Man: Rasputin’s Revenge!
10. Thor: Peace on Earth
11. Marvel Team-Up: Night of the Dragon
12. Iron Man: Old Soldiers
13. Avengers: 1959
14. She-Hulk: Heroic Proportions
15. Deadpool: Funeral for a Freak
16. Hulk: And Now...the Wolverine!
17. Avengers: In a Strange Land
What do you think? Agree or disagree with the ranking? Still need to read it yourself to find out? These issues of Avengers Undercover are available digitally free for Marvel Unlimited subscribers and for purchase at Comixology. The series is also available in two trade paperbacks.