We know that "The Heroic Age," which arrives in May in the wake of Siege, is intended as a turning point for the Marvel Universe.
Enough of that "dark of age despair" -- Marvel's words, not mine -- that began more than five years ago with "Avengers Disassembled." No more mutant genocides or civil wars or supervillains leading government agencies. Oh, no.
"Heroes will be heroes again," Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada told USA Today. "They've gone through hell and they're back to being good guys — a throwback to the early days of the Marvel Universe, with more of a swashbuckling feel."
So that much is clear. But what are we to make of the promotional image the publisher released Wednesday? Are the nine characters the new lineup of the flagship Avengers title, or do they simply represent a cross-section of the Marvel Universe?
There's a good indication that it's the former:
1. A cross-section of the Marvel Universe would almost certainly feature "hot" characters like Wolverine and Deadpool, or instantly recognizable ones like The Hulk. Plus, surely more women and minorities -- even one minority -- would be represented. Why use Beast from the X-Men when there's Storm, Emma Frost, Rogue or Kitty Pryde? Why use The Thing from the Fantastic Four when there's the Invisible Woman?
2. With two possible exceptions -- Gorilla-Man and The Thing, with caveats -- all of the characters have established histories with The Avengers.
Now for those caveats: The origins of Agents of Atlas lie in June 1978's What If? #9, which imagined an Avengers team fighting evil in the 1950s. Those heroes were brought into the Marvel Universe in the 1998-1999 miniseries Avengers Forever. The Thing has a tenuous claim to membership, too. He accepted a nomination to join the West Coast Avengers in the mid-1980s, but left before the team took a vote.
Thor and Iron Man are, of course, founding members. Captain America joined a few issues later, joined in Issue 16 of the original series by Hawkeye. Black Widow originally became an Avenger in 1973, and again, more recently in May 2007's Mighty Avengers #1. First-class X-Man Beast joined in 1975, providing comedy relief through his friendship with fellow '70s recruit Wonder Man. And then there's Spider-Man, who accepted reserve membership in 1991 before becoming one of the original Secret Avengers more than a decade later.
In short, these nine are a less-random Avengers lineup than, say, Wolverine, Luke Cage, Echo, Doctor Strange, et al.
3. If "The Heroic Age" ushers in, as writer Brian Michael Bendis said, "a tonal shift to optimism," what better than a dynamic created by The Thing, Spider-Man, Beast and Gorilla-Man to add a little balance to the more staid natures of characters like Captain America, Iron Man and Thor?
Glancing at a couple of message boards, it appears that more than a few readers are zeroing in on Captain America: Who's in the Alex Ross-designed costume worn by James "Bucky" Barnes for the past two years? Some have pointed to eye color as evidence -- I don't place much stock in that, as coloring errors happen all of the time -- but I think the apparent lack of guns points to the newly returned Steve Rogers. Besides, why get the Old Gang (Cap, Iron Man, Thor) back together if it's not really the Old Gang?
What I find more interesting, though, is who's in the Hawkeye costume. I'm no robotics, or prosthetics, expert, but that left arm certainly appears to be bionic. Just like a certain sidekick-turned-freelance assassin-turned-Sentinel of Liberty. It's now guaranteed AN AVENGER WILL DIE!! in next week's Siege #2. My money is on Clint Barton -- again -- with Bucky by the end of the miniseries or the beginning of the new Avengers title, I don't know, honoring his memory by donning the purple-and-blue tights. (For the record, the Marvel website says Clint has blue eyes; Bucky has brown. Guess the eye color of Hawkeye in the promo image. C'mon, guess.)
Of course, with a single tweet from Bendis, my careful reading of the tea leaves could be proven nonsense. In which case, let's pretend I never wrote this. Still, it beats squinting to make out eye color or signs of Photoshop patchwork.