Best Shots review: Avengers #39 harkens back to a more sword-and-sorcery dominated Marvel era

Avengers #39
(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

The Avengers of 1,000,000 BC start to kind of look like the X-Men of 1,000,000 BC in the mawkish and overwritten Avengers #39, the prologue issue of the incoming 'Enter the Phoenix' arc. Though graced with a pulpy, fairly charming old-school look from the art team of Dale Keown, Scott Hanna, and Jason Keith, Avengers #39's reads rather dour. 

Avengers #39 credits

Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Dale Keown, Scott Hanna, and Jason Keith
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Focusing on the Stone Age Jean Grey (explicitly named here as 'Firehair'), Jason Aaron details the grim origins of the first generation of mutants. On paper, the idea is solid enough, and continues to weave through his Avengers era thesis of "there were/will always be Avengers."  

But as the story progresses, the less it feels like an Avengers story and the more it feels like an X-Men story as Aaron gathers a whole gaggle of Stone Age mutants alongside Firehair, led by a benevolent and pacifist psychic called the Highwalker in a "Tribe Without Fear". Sound familiar? Further similar is the 'epic' and grounded tone of the issue, which harkens back to Aaron's Thor and Conan days. But a poor imitation at that. While the artwork is occasionally impressive, Avengers #39 continues the title's tendency to try too hard. 

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Starting with the good, Avengers #39 certainly has its own neat visual tone, setting it apart from the usual superheroics of the title. Penciled by The Incredible Hulk's Dale Keown (who returns to the title and era after issue #29's first flashback to 1,000,000 BC), Avengers #39 harkens back to a more sword-and-sorcery dominated Marvel Comics and it marks a nice change of pace. 

Though the script doesn't do terribly much with the ancient setting, in fact overwriting throughout most of it, choking the pages with constant, hand-holding narration, Keown and the rest of the art team really show out here. Adapting well to the more naturalistic and grounded setting, Keown and company propel us through a pulpy Planet Earth inspired look at Firehair's birth, abandonment, and subsequent adolescent life of being literally raised by wolves. Keown even sweetens the pot a bit with his keen monster/character design, providing slightly familiar but wholly interesting designs for the rest of the mutant tribe. 

But as the artwork is scaffolded to the overwrought script, Avengers #39 largely fails as a single issue experience. Absolutely packed with purple prose and dour plotting turns, Jason Aaron's efforts here fail to inspire much excitement for the incoming 'Enter the Phoenix' event. This is frustrating because this issue should be right up Aaron's alley. Banished for her 'difference' (read: red hair), Firehair is left to die in "The Burned Place", Aaron's focus point for the savagery of this BC setting. But instead of death, Firehair found a new family, mixing her genesis as a mutant with a fair amount of Conan the Barbarian energy, which is quite fun for a bit. 

But as the story goes on, Aaron packs more and more words into the caption boxes, heavily narrating the very easy to follow visual storytelling of the panel layouts and plonking hefty boxes of text onto them to boot. Even worse, the narration never really adds that much to the overall experience. There is a neat bit of character work between Firehair and the Highwalker in which Firehair uses actual language for the first time, connected by their minds and the Highwalker's kindness, but it never really gets off the ground beyond that. 

Making matters even worse is the intensely dour and easily predictable fate of the Tribe Without Fear. Faced with an ancient world that hates and fears them, the tribe is attacked and naturally killed, spurring Firehair to call to the ancient Phoenix and seek to build a "new tribe" to protect both powered and unpowered people. Again, on paper, it is a solid idea and one that could have some real texture to plot around with. But here it's just another foregone conclusion, willed into being simply because Jason Aaron needs to finish setting this up for the incoming next arc.  

While the opening of this Avengers title had a developed strength and sense of wry self-awareness, 39 issues later we find the title losing a lot of its steam. Not exactly the position you want to be in heading into a massive year-ending event, but with Avengers #39, you have to play the cards you are dealt.  

Read our list of the best Phoenix Force hosts in all of Marvel history.

Freelance writer

Justin Partridge is a freelance journalist who can be found at GamesRadar+ and Newsarama writing reviews about the best comic books out there. He's also known to put his encyclopedic knowledge of the industry to work by exploring some of the biggest events in comic book history.