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September 19, 2017

REVIEW: Welcome to Pleasant Hill


Avengers Standoff: Welcome to Pleasant Hill #1 (review)
Marvel Comics, April 2016
Writer: Nick Spencer
Review by Neil Raymundo, April 13, 2016

American comic book publisher Marvel Comics, at least within the past few years, has been determined to publish stories that are inaccessible to the average reader due to over-reliance on continuity. Like British science fiction, North American professional wrestling, and television soap operas around the world, a majority of the regular monthly audience is helplessly ensnared by continuity. These colossal, hyper-meticulous plots, sometimes lasting decades, can be a substitute for quality writing: suffering from a form of literary Stockholm Syndrome, that sector of the audience which is devoted to the continuity will not just forgive but will actively defend the injudicious publisher.

This new title, “Avengers Standoff: Welcome to Pleasant Hill #1” is the latest hostage taker, to extend the continuity metaphor. But in this instance the problem – and it is a systemic problem to the North American industry – is exacerbated by the fact that the comic is meant to be a prelude to an upcoming crossover event. Ludicrously, the setup requires its own setup.

The comic starts with the character called “the Winter Soldier” infiltrating a heavily guarded SHIELD facility (“SHIELD” being a futuristic spy agency) using credentials purloined from his former partner/mentor, the character Captain America, and then chancing upon an ambiguous experiment being done by a cadre of labcoat-wearing SHIELD staff. The experiment goes haywire and leds to the Winter Soldier’s capture by SHIELD agents.

The Winter Soldier, in Marvel Comics’ extensive continuity, currently resides in space, serving as “The Man on the Wall,” both the title of a comic we have previously and unsympathetically reviewed, and a code name given to the first line of defense against universal threats (and understanding the events that lead to his new status requires you to read the crossover event called ” The Original Sin”). In this title, the Winter Soldier mentions his role in passing, but provides no explanation as to his presence on Earth.

The comic then cuts to a different scene: a nondescript blonde man waking up with no recollection of who and where he is. The man is helped by a sheriff named Eva and told that he is in a place called Pleasant Hill. The writer, Nick Spencer, offers the reader a red herring, because the last memories the man has are of Captain America fighting a criminal organisation called Hydra and images of the Winter Soldier’s former alter ego, Bucky, being tied up. The suggestion is that the blonde amnesiac man, named “Jim” by the residents of Pleasant Hill, is, somehow, the Winter Soldier.

As for Pleasant Hill, it is exactly what the name expresses. This is an idyllic community with a happy populace and a zero crime rate. Regular readers of Marvel Comics’ titles will recognize that many of the residents of Pleasant Hill are named after established Marvel Comics characters. Everyone is suspiciously willing to help Jim acclimate to his new home, and are even helping him regain his lost memories.

Except Jim feels something amiss, resulting in frequent escape attempts that are foiled by SHIELD agents. It is obvious from the start that there is something more to Pleasant Hill, but the ever-present shadow of SHIELD agents, the appearance of a mysterious little girl that can bring dead birds back to life, and an invisible wall soon renders the truth manifestly obvious to Jim.

The lack of subtlety over the story behind Pleasant Hill does not detract from the quality of this issue. Jim eventually gives in and starts to accept his new life, until a fire breaks out in the community. Jim instinctively puts life and limb in danger in order to save an infant trapped inside the burning house. After saving the infant, he realizes that someone else is still inside the house and promptly goes back, meeting the person who started the fire: a masked stranger claiming to know the truth, and who gives Jim a location within the Pleasant Hill comminity where he cannot be tracked or heard by SHIELD.

The remaining pages are a corkscrew of plot twists– the true purpose of Pleasant Hill, the identity of the stranger, and the true identity of Jim. To Mr Spencer’s credit “Welcome to Pleasant Hill” then replaces all the answered questions with a new set of mysteries: what is “Jim’s” plan? Who is the girl in Pleasant Hill and why does she exhibit powers? And where does the Winter Soldier fit into all of this?

“Avengers Standoff – Welcome to Pleasant Hill” is not for casual readers, and this is a pity, for the story is solid and the premise of the main character being in a prison from which he should not want to escape is compelling, But for those hostages/aficionados who have supported Marvel Comics’ recent major comic book events and understand the continuity to date, the comic promises to be an intriguing and well-written ensnarement to what may be (yet) another big milestone continuity event amidst Marvel Comics’ flagship titles.

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