(a) Steve Epting
(i) Rick Magyar
It took a relaunch of a series during a line-wide retooling with a brand new creative team for Marvel to get me to notice Black Panther, and by golly, it worked.
I've never been a Black Panther fan -- he's a character who has simply never appealed to me. That being said, I've never disliked Black Panther, either. Jonathan Hickman and Steve Epting's New Avengers #1 changed all that with a stellar interpretation of T'Challa that highlights his intellect and grace while simultaneously kicking off an intricate new narrative that brings the Marvel Illuminati back together for the first time since before Secret Invasion.
During the latter half of his tenure as Avengers head writer, Brian Michael Bendis' multiple Avengers titles started to bleed together in terms of narrative structure and character choices -- each series seemed to feature the same cast of heroes, only shuffled around depending on the arc and/or team. Really, there wasn't much of a difference between how New Avengers (Vol. 1-2) read and how Mighty or Secret Avengers read. Hickman has killed two birds with one stone with his Avengers/New Avengers one-two punch by reigning in the number of Avengers titles while also providing two unique storylines, each with a narrative flow distinct from the other.
After a brief introduction and history of the group known as the Illuminati (including a rather ominous monologue about death from Mr. Fantastic), New Avengers #1 takes us to the jungle of Wakanda as a trio of young adventurers have come to the end of their quest to be new Makers. While Hickman doesn't come out and tell us what 'Makers' are, per se, context clues can lead us to assume that the title is important in Wakandan culture, and that it has something to do with bettering society as a whole by venturing out past the national borders. Without skipping a beat, Hickman delves right into the situation that will bring Marvel's most powerful figures back together: our universe is about to collide with another.
Knowing ancient Sumerian will be a boon for anyone reading this issue, as the language is used rather liberally throughout the story. T'Challa discovers that an alternate Earth is hanging above ours. How and why this other Earth can't be seen by the naked eye doesn't really matter at this point. What's important is stopping whatever's happening from happening. To complicate things even more, a band of militaristic soliders descends onto our Earth, from the one hanging in the sky, speaking Sumerian like everyone should know what they're saying. It turns out they can speak English too, but they seem to prefer to talk amongst themselves in the ancient tongue, and that's got to be more than just a coincidence. Without breaking a sweat these new enemies quickly dispose of Wakanda's new Makers, leaving T'Challa to fend for himself and stop the destruction of Earth. Who does one call in for back-up for a task such as this?
Jonathan Hickman's approach to the Avengers is mesmerizing. In one hand with Avengers, he's building the biggest, most expansive Avengers team to date, while in the other hand with New Avengers, he's telling the story of the most hidden and shadowy group of 'Avengers' ever. New Avengers #1 bucks the pitfalls of a focused first issue, as well. For a team book, starting things off by only focusing on one character is usually a big mistake. Focusing on a less popular/mainstream character such as Black Panther is equally risky. Similarly, using a rather narrow and specific plot points (the Illuminati) from embedded continuity can also repel new readers. In all of these instances, Hickman masterfully trumps the missteps by providing effective explanation through showing rather than telling. It's okay that Black Panther is the focus of this issue because he's a surrogate for the reader in terms of understanding what's going on. We're given basic exposition, then it's all about the well-paced storytelling.
New Avengers #1 is exciting. It's subtle and underscored to juxtapose the grandiose and larger-than-life Avengers. Less is more with Jonathan Hickman. Instead of spreading himself thin by penning three, four, five Avengers titles, he's consolidated down to two series that are already show a whole world of promise Bendis could never achieve. This is how the Avengers should be, and Jonathan Hickman is providing it in spades.