Nick Spencer and Mark Bagley take an incidental and almost forgotten moment from “Secret Avengers” and finally begin to see it through in “Avengers Standoff: Welcome to Pleasant Hill” #1. After a somewhat contrived opening featuring the Winter Soldier, the story evolves into a decidedly non-standard and compelling altered-reality tale. Pleasant Hill is a seemingly perfect place to live, but there are hints that indicate otherwise, and Spencer and Bagley’s exploration of them makes for a strong issue despite relying on oft-used tropes.
“Avengers Standoff: Welcome to Pleasant Hill” #1 includes a lot of common elements from the “Gothtopia”-meets-“The Truman Show” motif: the perfect suburb, conformance to a happy standard, a pervasive sense that it’s really not all that perfect or happy underneath. In fact, it’s pervasive in a straightforwardly obvious manner; Spencer doesn’t try to drag out any kind of great mystery here. Beyond the central character’s necessary discombobulation after awakening with no memory in this strangely placid place, Spencer actually lets on fairly early that there’s some unseen force behind all of this. Rather than going through the motions before upending readers with a predictable twist, he instead focuses on a mystery of an entirely different kind, one that readers don’t even know is a mystery until the very end of the issue.
Spencer makes a clever implication straightaway and it totally changes the dynamic of the story once the truth is revealed. It’s the kind of surprise that recharges the issue and demands a reread, which yields a completely fresh and different perspective. Bagley includes a couple of panels whose relevance might not be completely understood until this surprise is unveiled. His tendency to use a standardized facial likeness on many of his characters works to the benefit of Spencer’s story; combined with Spencer’s setup and colorist Paul Mounts’ touches, the story never provides any reason to question the presumed identity of the issue’s main character. Inker Scott Hanna nicely delineates Bagley’s pencils, giving Pleasant Hill that utopic look on its surface, but also a more sinister feel in its darker spaces.
Both Bagley and Spencer play up this clever deception with the introduction of another character, whose seemingly sloppy attempt to conceal his identity is another crafty misdirection that embellishes the issue’s eventual payoff. Before the premise can get tiring, Spencer unveils the nature of the Pleasant Hill, partially revealing what has transpired but still leaving plenty to tell. For now, though, Spencer and Bagley have grabbed readers with a familiar premise that’s surprisingly fresh and refreshingly surprising in “Avengers Standoff: Welcome to Pleasant Hill” #1.