If you weren't aware of the Avengers Academy before this month, you'd better be now. A couple of weeks ago, they had a giant-sized issue wherein they battled their way out of Arcade's Murderworld and their field leader Reptil got in good with Spider-Girl – and that same week, we got to see their makeshift prom in Avengers Academy #13, wherein Mettle and Hazmat started dating, Veil tried to soothe the bruised ego of Striker and even teachers Tigra and Giant-Man got into the act and hooked up. This week, the 'please don't turn into criminals' kids get a double-dose of Webhead's World as they run into the Sinister Six in Avengers Academy #14 and have the Wall-Crawler himself as a substitute teacher in Amazing Spider-Man #661.
It's hard to say which story comes first, since AA writer Christos Gage is stepping into ASM to fill-in for Dan Slott while the main Spider-Scribe gets caught up on the upcoming Spider Island event and making savvy use of that opportunity to plug his own book, but we'll go with AA #14 first, since that ends on a bleak note that seems to set up the desperation that Hank Pym mentions to get Spidey to sign up for a teaching gig once again. We open with Reptil feeling high on the team again after they managed to pull off a win against Korvac and seemed to find some respect and genuine affection for each other at the prom, so he pushes Tigra into letting them respond to a report that Electro was pulling some shenanigans in Paris. Of course, it's all a ruse, and they run into the entire Sinister Six, who have been popping up a lot lately because the new-look Dr. Octopus is up to something big – and he's out to prove that he deserves to be considered one of the smartest men in the world (and he's apparently put out by the fact that the Leader and MODOK didn't consider him such during their World War Hulks chicanery). Cue a big fight and the AA's inexperience proving far too easy for the Six to exploit to humiliate them and get off scot free – publicly defaming the AA in the process.
These kids can never have it easy, apparently – and that's the point. They're the At-Risk Avengers, a few bad breaks away from becoming supervillains themselves, and some of them seem far too bent that way to begin with to be comfortable. Finesse has no sense of empathy, Striker's a self-absorbed fame whore and Hazmat is bitter as hell about being stuck in a containment suit all the time. It's almost thematic that two of the least reliable Avengers are their teachers, too – Pym's history is well-documented, and Tigra used to be known for being a hedonist, which I guess is supposed to explain why she doesn't even seem fazed anymore by the fact that she was essentially raped by a Skrull disguised as Pym. No idea what's going on there, not touching it. The point is after the high of the prom, everybody here is hit with an immediate low – although given the combustible personalities, I would hesitate to say the nadir. Gage continues to walk that tense "will they or won't they" line about the choices these kids will eventually make, and it's effective in making us really pull for the good guys, despite how many mistakes they make.
That's why Pym brings in Spider-Man in ASM #661, who is apparently the poster child for overcoming mistakes (and might i just say I enjoy how much is being made lately of Spidey being perceived as a 'former professional wrestler' with this and over in Heroes for Hire #7). Despite Spidey's venerable status, he's still often thought of as a teen hero, and we see just how untrue that is when he steps in to try to knock the rust off his teaching skills only to find out that the clued-in teens of today do nothing but shoot holes in his origin story and make him feel old. Gage really illustrates to an almost saddening degree how realism gets in the way of classic comic stories when the kids can't fathom why he'd give up that old celebrity career and potential money – Veil thinks being rich would allow for more charity work and Striker thinks he could have gotten around the secret identity issue by setting up an LLC and a few shell companies to hide the trail and get paid that way. And Hazmat questions the concept of dating? Is that really a thing? Actual dates don't exist anymore? I find that hard to believe – even if courting has changed (and yes, I'm aware how antiquated the term 'courting' is, I'm doing a thing here), two people getting together to go out and do things seems like it still happens. So it's not about sipping phosphates down at the pharmacy anymore, it's still a date. At least Gage doesn't shy away from making his protagonists as annoying as actual teenagers can be.
In an effort to get out of the awkward generational-clash zone, Spidey takes the team out on patrol, watches them get a little reckless, then discovers they're playing right into the hands of the big bad Psycho-Man – always nice when a fill-in guy still gets to play with an ongoing subplot from the regular writer. It's entirely unclear what this guy's after, but it is clear that he's messing with all their heads and ripping their insecurities open something fierce – and that can't be good for these thin-skinned emotionally-fragile types. Once again, Gage has us desperately rooting for these kids to learn something from the classic conscience of the Marvel Universe, and we're certainly tuned in to see what happens next.
Sean Chen's art in AA #14 is a lot of fun, and the AA/SS fight is pretty damn entertaining. Striker vs. Electro is really cool, and hot damn, do you feel the impact when the Rhino slams head-on into Reptil in triceratops form. Reilly Brown over in ASM #661 seems to have some John Romita Jr. influence in his work, especially with Psycho-Man. It's solid, even if it doesn't have quite the same kinetic impact as Chen's.
All told, it's been a good month for the concept, if not the characters, of Avengers Academy. It's no easy feat to make a book about kid superheroes interesting to grown-ass men, but Gage is managing the task so far. Keep it up, sir.