So, here we go. With the far-too-anticipated Age of Ultron storyline sputtering to an unimpressive end, we're now getting Marvel's second attempt at a big summer event series with the arrival of Infinity #1, from writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Jim Cheung.
This six-issue story rises from what Hickman has built with his work on Avengers and New Avengers. The latter title has been the more compelling book so far, as it deals with the new Illuminati's efforts to ward off incursions from other dimensions by destroying the offending doomed worlds before they can destroy ours, as well as the war between Wakanda and Atlantis. The former series has been a bit more opaque and harder to follow in its introduction of a wide swath of new characters, including The Builders - the villains of the first arc who are now team members of the Avengers, thanks to the inexplicable new Captain Universe, who rose from nowhere to become a cryptic fairy godmother to the team and convinced those ancient Mars-squatting entities not to re-terraform Earth and give it a brain.
With Infinity #1, we open with the Illuminati destroying yet another world, with T'Challa lamenting what he's become, with their combined intellect seemingly being unable to come up with any viable way to save these doomed worlds, and reduced to destroying them to preserve our own. Then we go to Titan, the home of Thanos, where we learn of his Outriders - slavishly devoted master assassin monsters - and his henchman, Corvus Glaive. It seems a planet named Ahl-Agullo has risen again after it was destroyed by Thanos, and Glaive is sent there to establish dominion, to demand a tribute from them to avoid a repeat of their destruction. A protection racket, but the payment isn't any simple currency. The tribute required is sacrifice. The tribute is death.
We then follow an Outrider to Earth, where we see how it blends into shadow, becomes incorporeal, and spies on everyone from the Avengers to the X-Men to SHIELD.
We witness another group of Builders - rogue, it seems - attacking and destroying the planet of Galador, home to the fabled Spaceknights. The Not-ROMs fight valiantly, but to no avail. Not even the arrival of Captain Universe can forestall the murderous robot Alephs from their task of razing the world - similar to what Thanos' mission seem to be of late, so one wonders at what, if any, connection exists between the two.
Cut to SWORD, collaborating with the Avengers and finding a handful of Skrulls living in an apartment in Palermo. They go down fighting, but they aren't the warrior kind, which makes it seem like something weird's going on. Whether or not it's connected to Jason Latour's Infinite Comic Against The Tide, a digital tie-in to Infinity #1 wherein more Alephs are attacking a Skrull world while the Silver Surfer aids their resistance, remains to be seen.
The Outrider then journeys to Attilan, and begins an invasion of Black Bolt's sleeping mind to try and learn his secrets, which includes the Illuminati, the destruction of the Infinity Gems and something about "hidden kings and a lost queen."
Captain Universe has returned from the destruction of Galador in a restorative coma, and SWORD leader Abigail Brand has footage of other rogue Builders attacking a Kree outpost. She factors in all the recent information of these attacks and determines that Earth is their eventual target - which Ex Nihilo of the Friendly Builders seems aghast over... and that's weird, given how cavalier he was in earlier issues of Avengers about the genocide of Earth in favor of his new life forms. This whole Builder thing may require a re-reading of Hickman's Avengers up until now in bulk.
Black Bolt wakes up and fends off the Outrider, tearing its arm off, but not destroying it before it flees back to Titan.
The Avengers decide that the rogue Builders must be intercepted and dealt with before they reach Earth, and Iron Man is left behind to once again concoct some doomsday contingency plans - something he's getting understandably tired of. Even Tony Stark can get event fatigue.
The Outrider returns to report back to Thanos, who apparently has a council of five called "The Black Order" serving him, which includes Glaive, a blue woman with Galactus-esque headgear called Proxima Midnight, a jagged beast-man called Black Dwarf, a slender gray being called The Ebony Maw and another blue person with the rather uninspiring sobriquet of Supergiant. The Outrider tells them that Black Bolt "hides what Thanos seeks." This leads Thanos to set his sights on Earth - much to the consternation of his gathered servants, as Earth has a reputation for being impossibly resistant to alien efforts to mess with it. However, Glaive implies that the discord within Attilan, the schism with the X-Men and the fresh absence of the Avengers makes it high time for The Mad Titan to make his move.
Infinity #1 is a solid start, even though it's almost entirely set-up and it sacrifices the Spaceknights as fodder for threat-building. The Spaceknights were cool, and now there's little hope we'll ever get ROM back (come on, Disney - you can't get the rights from Parker Brothers? You're Disney! You have Star Wars!) Thankfully, Hickman takes some time to refresh us on who his players are (something Avengers seems to lack from month to month), illustrate the kind of omega-level threat both Thanos and The Builders are, and bring us up to speed on what the deal is with Black Bolt and his five wives. Hickman's writing is of a particular mood a lot of the time, ominously and unsettlingly epic, and his usual employment of high-minded headiness is often engrossing but sometimes impenetrable. Infinity #1 lets us in on the ground floor, and we're grateful for that. because it's likely going to shoot past the top floor and into the stratosphere by the time it's finished winding through his Avengers books and reaches Infinity #6.
Jim Cheung's artwork is in top form. His Outrider is Alien-leven skeevy, his Not-ROM designs are really cool (and getting as close to ROM without being ROM as is probably possible), and he seems to be constantly improving with differentiating his faces, although given the massive cast of his prior books, like Avengers: The Children's Crusade and Avengers vs. X-Men, he's gotten a lot of practice in. His alien creatures are imposingly creepy and his Thanos is unnerving. He keeps smiling.
Infinity #1 isn't something that knocks us out with its first issue, because Hickman isn't that kind of writer. Hickman is a builder himself, and he's letting us see all the threads he's weaving first. Infinity is not a front-loaded book like most event books tend to be. Instead, Hickman is likely orchestrating it so, for once, the last issue of an event series is the one that knocks us out.