[Mild Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t read Avengers vs X-Men #0 or #1, you might want to before you read this. Nothing hugely dramatic is given away here, but events in the books are discussed.]
I finally got my hands on the Avengers VS X-Men prologue and first issue this week, and I’m happy to say that Marvel looks to be learning from its previous mistakes and triumphs, and are setting themselves up for a pretty kick ass throw down.
In AvX #0, we’re introduced to characters on either side, pre-conflict, as each team is facing an unwelcome homecoming of sorts. Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, returns to action after her meltdown of global proportions and a long disappearance. She connects with some old friends, but is turned away from Avengers’ Mansion pretty unquestionably. The X-Men are preparing for the return of the intergalactic cosmic force, The Phoenix, by preparing the most likely candidate for its host, Hope Summers. Scott Summers, Cyclops, is especially wary of the Phoenix’s return, as it killed his first wife, Jean Grey, the last time they fooled with such a cosmic power.
In both situations, the women at the center of the conflict, Wanda and Hope, are attempting to move on from the past and embrace what lies ahead for them and those around them. Wanda attempts to reconnect with friends, and to make amends for the betrayal and defeat they suffered at her hands years ago. Hope insists she is ready for whatever the Phoenix will throw her way, regardless of Cyclops’ warnings. And both women are flatly told they are wrong by the people around them. The Vision, Wanda’s estranged husband, pretty harshly tells her she is not welcome in her home anymore. Cyclops doesn’t believe Hope is, or perhaps ever can be, ready for what the Phoenix will do to her.
Yet in both cases, there are people near these women that stand by them, that see what they’re doing and hold open the possibility for retribution through self-determination. Ms. Marvel insists on taking Wanda to Avengers’ Mansion, and carries her off when she is left crying at their doorstep. Emma Frost continues to remind Scott that the decision to embrace or reject the Phoenix force still lies with Hope – not him, the X-Men, or mutantkind.
My biggest issue with last summer’s Fear Itself, and to a degree, 2009’s Siege, was that Marvel took no time in raising the stakes. The Asgardian god of Fear was in play right from Fear Itself #1, and the story shot from “everyday bank robberies” to “reality-ending inter-dimensional fear gods and technoNazi science armies” within a few frames. There was no opportunity to be drawn in, no true character conflict. All we saw was “definitely the good guys” versus “definitely the bad guys”, and we all knew how it would eventually turn out.
One of the things that made Civil War one of the best mainstream superhero comic stories of the past decade was that Marvel took their time in drawing us into the conflicts between the characters. We saw how Tony Stark’s and Steve Rogers’ hands were forced to make the plays they made, we understood that their beliefs dictated their actions and reactions. There were no “good guys” and “bad guys”, there were just opposing interests, and it made for an unbelievably compelling story.
So far, AvX is following that path. AvX #0 shows us the characters’ hands being forced to make the plays they are making. We see Cyclops’ desire to protect Hope and save mutantkind begin to take hold of him, driving him to compulsion and, perhaps, desperation. I also find the characters Marvel chose to serve as the centerpieces for each side’s conflicts in this prologue issue interesting.
Both characters are immensely powerful, so much so that the upper limits of their abilities haven’t yet been fully realized. Both have the power to change the world, literally or figuratively. Both were deemed too dangerous for their current environments, and both went away for a time; Hope Summers was raised by Cable in the future (comic books, ladies and gentlemen!), while Wanda was found years later in Latveria with amnesia. Their returns to the spotlight are going to be key factors in the events surrounding this super showdown and concurrent struggle with the Phoenix.
After establishing the players and interpersonal conflicts in AvX #0, Avengers vs X-Men #1 gets the ball rolling on the major conflict. Back in December, when Avengers vs X-Men was announced, I speculated what could bring these two teams to a head:
Something will happen, on par with Stamford, Connecticut, but directly involving mutants. The Avengers will ask Cyclops’ X-Men to stand down. Cyclops will refuse, citing species-wide self-preservation. A colossal stare-down will commence, ending with all-out war between the mutants and the rest of America’s super-humans.
There hasn’t been a catastrophe on par with Stamford, but the powers of the world are scrambling to prepare for something far greater: the return of the Phoenix, an event with the potential to destroy a sleepy little suburb in Connecticut along with the entirety of human civilization. The stakes are certainly high, and the reader believes it. Captain America and the Avengers agree with Cyclops that Hope Summers is the most likely target for the entity’s host.
Where they disagree is in how to deal with this knowledge. The Avengers want to take her into American federal custody, for her protection. The X-Men believe she, harnessing the power of the Phoenix, can re-establish mutantkind as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage. We see Captain America, with the Avengers behind him, asking Cyclops and the X-Men to stand down. Cyclops refuses, citing not self-preservation, but species-wide elevation. Both teams’ hands have been forced, each acting in their own self-interests.
Marvel has done everything right in starting Avengers VS X-Men that they did right with Civil War. We see what motivates the key players, their personal priorities and drives. No one has been “turned evil” – all the characters are still true to what their beliefs were before this conflict, and we get to see what happens when those beliefs are thrown out of line and against each other. There is an imminent, world-ending threat on the line, but the conflict is not in stopping it. Rather, the drama in this story arises from the differing reactions to this threat, exactly what Fear Itself and Siege failed to grasp. I see extremely good things coming from AvX, should the story continue down this road.
Outside of the storytelling, there are other things to praise. Frank Cho’s art on AvX #0 is emotive and clean, and Jason Keith’s coloring gives it a slick polish. John Romita Jr’s art oftentimes gets dismissed as boxy and distracting, but I disagree. I see his pencils as a callback to another age of comic book art, the natural evolution of Jack Kirby or Romita Sr through a modern lens. And there are few other artists who can draw scenes of widespread, explosive destruction better. The splash page of the Phoenix destroying an alien world that serves as the title page for AvX #1 shows the chaos and instantaneous fiery death the Phoenix brings. Scott Hanna and Laura Martin bring color to his lines that manage to highlight his strengths without distracting the reader.
But while I’m on the topic of the art, I have to comment on the major complaint I have with the series thus far. This seems to be the first story line (at least that I’ve seen) utilizing Marvel’s new “Augmented Reality” tags. Big, grand splash pages and important scenes have a little “AR” tag in the corner. The idea is to scan this tag with a camera-equipped smartphone in order to get in-depth creator commentary, exclusive trailers, and other content that is meant to “enhance and change the way you experience comics”.
I love extras, I do. I want to hear the creators discuss their process, how they drew the book, how they decided what would happen, etc. But I don’t want to be reminded that I’m reading a comic book in the middle of the Phoenix absolutely annihilating a peaceful alien world. I want to be immersed in that tragedy. I want the hairs on my face to be singed by the Phoenix’s cosmic furnace of rage. The last thing I want to be reminded of while experiencing a planetary death is an iPhone app.
This is indicative of a growing, troubling trend throughout the entire Marvel brand: great storytelling interrupted by incredibly intrusive and distracting marketing. There have been attempts to integrate their real world presence into their fictional product. I laugh every time I see Stephen Colbert pop up in the background somehow, and the Secret Invasion Skrull advertising campaign was genius.
But I hope this “Augmented Reality” fad dies quickly, preferably before the end of AvX. Give me the extras! Make them exclusive to the app! No problem at all. But put that on a page at the end of the book, not in the middle of scenes. Imagine if every important moment in your life had an accompanying smartphone tag. You’d be driven mad.
From a storytelling and art perspective, Avengers vs X-Men looks to have everything that makes the Big Comics Event great. The characters and their motivations have been introduced well, the stakes are believed, and the artists are, as usual, good. Brian Michael Bendis and his team have this story well in hand. If Marvel can manage to let good storytelling take precedence over hawking their new wares, they’re sure to have another blockbuster on their hands.
Image courtesy of ADB Designs