Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Avengers vs X-Men #1 review

It's coming ....

That's what massive, intrusive blurbs on Marvel covers have been telling us for months, and now it's here. The Phoenix Force is at the centre of Marvel's big 2012 crossover, in which Earth's Mightiest Heroes fight the Children of the Atom. The prize is Hope Summers, supposed mutant messiah, the woman expected to kickstart the fortunes of Homo Superior following their decimation by a maddened Scarlet Witch.

The opening chapter gets off to a pleasingly flashy start as the cosmic entity arrives on a planet far from Earth, its bird-shaped energy signature enveloping all, erasing all. On Earth, a member of the intergalactic Nova Corps crashes down, wrecking a passenger jet and knocking the top off the Chrysler Building. The Avengers manage to save hundreds of lives in a convincing display of power. 'It's coming' is the Corpsman's only cry before passing out, but the distinctive taint of the Phoenix Force tells the Avengers what 'it' is. Captain America and Iron Man brief the President of the US on the threat level - the devastation of New York doesn't merit a mention, apparently - and assure him they're throwing their big guns at the problem, hopefully intercepting the entity before it reaches Earth.
Meanwhile, on the isle of Utopia, X-Men leader Cyclops abuses Hope with his lunatic training sessions (click on image to enlarge), sparking a spontaneous display of power. A Phoenix-like charge knocks him across the training ground. Soon Captain America turns up, demanding that the X-Men hand Hope over to the Avengers before the Phoenix reaches her. Rather than point out that he's likely too late, Cyclops refuses, blasting Cap. Cap's response, 'Avengers Assemble', summons a SHIELD heli-carrier and over a dozen of Earth's mightiest - including Cyclops' former partner Wolverine. And the image of the Phoenix fills Hope's eyes ...

And there you have it. Lots of sound and fury, and a great comic if you ignore one or two things.

  • Such as the rewriting of Marvel history to ignore all the manifestations of the Phoenix Force since the Dark Phoenix Saga, meaning Rachel Grey, the living mutant with the most experience of the entity and a teacher at Wolverine's school, doesn't get so much as a mention.
  • Such as the retcon that the Phoenix never inhabited Jean Grey, but created a duplicate body and left an injured Jean at the bottom of Jamaica Bay for months. It's back to Jean having been taken over, corrupted and killed by her own hand.
  • Such as the idea that rather than simply wipe out a world, the Phoenix creates something new. Here, Cyclops plucks out of the air the notion that the Phoenix will somehow re-seed the mutant 'race' rather than raze the planet and every last person on it.
  • Such as two teams who have worked together many times, and shared several members, confronting one another with super-testosterone rather than simply making a phone call and suggesting a round-table pow-wow.
  • Such as the cliffhanger of the Phoenix, apparently welling within Hope - she already manifested its image and power in Avengers: X-Sanction #4. And, oh, in this very issue. Is it coming, is it here? Danged if I know, but I am at least trying to care.

I expect Marvel would say ignore these points, relax and just enjoy a blockbuster adventure, but the company crows about how, unlike DC, it's never done a big reboot of its universe. Yet here dozens of stories are wiped away, and character arcs erased. And this in an 'event' co-written by Marvel's 'Architects', the writers supposedly so much better than the rest of the company talent pool. Could the combined wit of Brian Bendis, Jason Aaron, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker and Jonathan Hickman really not give us a story using the Phoenix that acknowledges the past, without getting smothered by it?

The script is by Bendis, and it'll likely please his fans. Sure, the Avengers come across as pretty childish when not in battle, but that's Bendis' Avengers for you. His Cyclops, while a nutter, is at least in line with the more extreme end of Scott Summers' obsession-fuelled bonkersness of recent years. On the other hand, Wolverine is terribly mopey at the prospect of a Phoenix return, rather than the feisty fella we know him to be. But I do like Bendis' Captain America, he's firm but fair, withholding his sledgehammer until convinced Cyclops is a nut needing to be cracked.

John Romita Jr is a good choice for penciller, having experience drawing both the X-Men and Avengers series. The big moments, such as the Phoenix manifestations and arrival of the heli-carrier, suit his bombastic style, and the pages as a whole are decently inked by Scott Hanna. There's thought been put into the body language of Hope, and in just two panels the pair makes an alien child's recognition that the End is Nigh almost unbearably poignant.

Kudos, too, to Laura Martin for a bold colouring job, and Chris Eliopoulos for some fine lettering. A minor demerit, though, to whoever decided to letter the story title over the fold, making it look as if we're reading AVENGERS VE RSUS X-MEN,

A far bigger annoyance is the regular appearance of a distracting AR flash over the artwork. Get to the end of the book and a house ad tells us it's Marvel's way of signalling the spots at which we should direct our phones and tablets in order to experience Augmented Reality. Really? We're going to be thrown out of the story regularly in order to be reminded that there's a new technical gimmick in town?

Find another way, Marvel.
I suggest dumping the whole idea - I had a look at the AR moments and rather than enhancing the story, they distract from it. Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso (above) teleports in and out to pat Marvel on the back. Brian Bendis tells us about his favourite scene. We see a mini-profile of Hope. Pencils turn into inks. And so on. I was expecting flashy effects, but the most exciting moment comes as blobs circle the screen and the world LOADING appears. Really, don't bother.

The cover by Jim Cheung uses one of comics' classic layouts, the two teams rushing one another, but it's too crowded to be effective. And it looks as if the opposite sides are having a sing-off.

All in all, this is OK so far as marketing-fuelled crossovers go, but awful if you care about Marvel continuity. And hasn't Marvel spent 50 years training us to care about such things?

13 comments:

  1. Oof. Sounds like it's a book I'll be happy to skip.

    When I first heard about this book, there was a little bit of a temptation to pick it up... but then I realized I don't have a handheld smart device, so wouldn't be getting the full value of the comic, anyway. Add that to the fact that it'll cost, what, $48 all told? Without crossovers?

    A few years ago, I cut Marvel out of my comics purchases entirely*, on the basis that I just can't afford to follow two universes. And if this series is supposed to draw me back in, I can't say I'm feeling the slightest pull.


    *I've relented slightly since then, for Daredevil. But every crossover puts even that excellent book on thinner ice.

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    1. I think you'll be on safe ground skipping this, Rob. I'll likely try a few issues, but the VS spin-offs hold no interest. Do I wish to read entire issue fight scenes? I would prefer not to.

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  2. Hi Martin

    Great review. It seems that a lot of the problems with Marvel's books now is that they are not character driven but event driven. So there's no reason to buy the books either side of the event because they are just treading water getting ready for the next bigger than ever, world-shattering event. It also seems that since fighting off the Skrulls, there's been a real need to eject any internal logic in favour of getting all the characters in place for the next event.

    I suppose that character driven stories vs plot driven stories is something that has been discussed since the year dot. However, as Marvel made their fortune from character driven stories, you would think that they would get the balance right.

    Unfortunately, and ironically, they have writers who seem to be acting more like schoolchildren, the "retreats" being the junior school playground where we would stand and discuss things like, "Wouldn't it be cool if Iron Man fought Cyclops? Who'd win?". More thought about the craft, because most of them are undoubtedly good writers (Brubaker's Criminal is wonderful), and less geeking out would be a welcome breath of fresh air in what has become a stale and fetid atmosphere in the House of Ideas.

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    1. Hi Marcus, cheers for the kind words. You're so right, Marvel's line has been suffering for years because books are either embroiled in crossovers or biding their time until the next one. Few are allowed to go their own way, develop their own voice. In years to come how many individual series will we be talking about as great reads? Daredevil, I bet. Journey into Mystery. And likely a few others, but not many.

      And yeah, those retreats sound like frat parties.

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  3. Marvel's official word is that it's either good stories or good continuity and you can't have it both ways.

    My problem with this comic is that it's just noise. It's dumb enough to be a Hollywood blockbuster, certainly, just not a good one, the direct lift of a meteor hitting the Chrysler Building as seen in the movie Armageddon illustrates that notion, but you are very forgiving and balanced in your review, Martin, moreso than I myself am inclined to be. Is it just me or does the Phoenix Force in AVX make no sense? Iron Man tells us "it latches onto a host and then destroys the environment", yet on page two and three it is quite clearly destroying somebody's environment already without a physical form, which doesn't actually detract from the feeling that the Phoenix Force plotline is just the Galactus plot from Rise of the Silver Surfer, and we all know how well that turned out.

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    1. 'Forgiving and balanced', Brigonos. That's a lovely thought. I try to assume creators have the best of intentions, believe that they really think they're giving us good stuff. And they probably have, and do. It's the editors I'd have strong words with, for letting so much poor quality work through.

      And you're dead on as regards the Phoenix and Galactus - good spot.

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  4. Haven't read an X-book in years and I don't like Bendis' Avengers (I'm all about Academy and Secret ONLY), so I was never going to get this. Good news, I'm not missing much.

    Is there something you hate I can read to repay the favor?

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    1. I'm pretty sure you've paid it forward with all the excellent posts on Siskoid's Blog of Geekery!

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  5. I remain the the tiniest bit more optimistic than you, Mart, over the continuity issues. There are enough upcoming chapters (and better scripters who care about these issues cough cough) than can address these questions...so I'm not ready to declare them retcons yet (as opposed to Bendis' famous laziness).

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    1. To be honest, I think I prefer retcons to laziness - at least with a retcon we can hope for a plan. With laziness, there's no hope.

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  6. "Sure, the Avengers come across as pretty childish when not in battle, but that's Bendis' Avengers for you."

    When I returned to reading comics from about a decade long hiatus one of the first comics I came across were the Bendis Ultimate Spider-Mans. I was blown away by the dialogue. Peter had always been a wordy and introspective character, and having him set in high school again and with Bendis' dialogue, it was pretty awesome. But having read a lot of Bendis on other titles it really gets tiresome doesn't it? Maybe it fit Spider-man's age and character, but it wears thin on a good chunk of the Marvel U.

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    1. I know Ultimate Spider-Man is widely considered his best work but I tried a few issues and wasn't bewitched by Bendis - too slow. Perhaps I should have another crack, in trade paperback-sized dollops.

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    2. Good point, it was indeed the TPB's that I read.

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