Posted on Sunday, December 2, 2012
by Paul in x-axis
I’m taking the opportunity presented by the current wave of relaunches to make the jump from print to digital as each book comes round for a relaunch. This is fortunate, as I’m still waiting to receive the books from this week that I ordered in print, but by this point, that’s just Gambit and X-Treme X-Men, neither of which is exactly the focal point of the schedule. What we do have is the second issues of no less than four Marvel Now titles. Oh yes, and an annual.
A+X #2 – The first issue of A+X sold remarkably well, inheriting the top ten sales of AvX: Versus, of which it is ostensibly a continuation. I’ll be fascinated to see how long that lasts, considering that (notwithstanding Jeph Loeb’s vague gestures at foreshadowing in issue #1) it now seems pretty clear that this is simply going to be an anthology of self-contained stories united solely by the theme of team-ups between Avengers and X-Men characters – a line which is getting increasingly blurred anyway. In quality terms, this is probably for the best; A+X is simply a playpen in which creators can do whatever they feel like for a few pages, and the format here is far less restrictive than the very limited Versus. But books like this don’t have a track record of sales success, so it’s hard to imagine A+X sales holding up once readers and retailers figure out what the book actually is. If, somehow or other, it bucks that trend – well, more power to it.
The two stories in this issue are throwaway stuff, but they do deliver as fun shorts. First up is a Black Widow/Rogue story by Chris Bachalo – unusually, credited for the story as well as the art. It’s straightforward; Black Widow’s day off is interrupted by a Sentinel, Rogue comes to the rescue, they squabble, then they team up. But Bachalo writes pretty good dialogue, he sets up his jokes well, and generally he looks like he knows what he’s doing. It probably helps that he’s comfortable with doing large numbers of panels per page, so he can get more into the available space without seeming to rush. And of course he’s chosen a very simple set-up to begin with, since it’s really just there as a backdrop for the duo to squabble over anyway. It’s traditional team-up territory, but skilfully done.
In the back-up, Peter David and Mike Del Mundo have Tony Stark offering Kitty Pryde a job, and stumbling upon some stray Brood who weren’t mopped up in that recent Wolverine and the X-Men storyline. David knows how to use the available pages – his Iron Man is suitably smug, and the central story offers a reasonably inventive way of defeating the Brood that doubles as a way of giving him his comeuppance. Del Mundo seems surprisingly at home here; he’s not done that much interior work that I can recall, other than a fill-in issue of Uncanny which seemed a little awkward, but here he’s clearly less concerned with trying to work in a house style, and delivers exaggerated yet elegant characters that play well to Iron Man’s persona.
There’s not a huge amount of depth to either of these stories, but they know what they can do in the space available, and they do it well while looking good. That’s about as much as you can ask for from a book like this.
All-New X-Men #2 – Brian Bendis spent the whole of his first issue finally building to the Beast travelling back to recruit the 1960s X-Men in the closing pages (despite that being the one plot point that was heavily promoted in advance, but that’s not Bendis’ fault). If the first issue suggested that Bendis was juggling his subplots better than in Avengers, well, this issue isn’t so encouraging, since what we get is literally an entire issue of conversation scenes with the 1960s X-Men. They react to Beast; they come to the present day and react to that; they talk among themselves; they decide to go and face Scott. And that’s pretty much your issue right there, along with the present day Beast being promptly sidelined by his mysterious and convenient health problems.
Of course, in taking this approach, Bendis is focussing on the bit which ought to be interesting about having the original team come to the present day. There’s a fair case to be made that he’s better off just doing it in undiluted fashion rather than trying to work it into an action story, and it’s certainly pacing that’ll work in the collection. On balance, I think he gets away with it, especially considering that it does end with the promise that we’re moving on to the confrontation in the next issue.
A more contentious area is whether the characters actually are reacting appropriately, or whether they’re just doing what the story requires of them. Bendis is really writing a folk memory version of the original team rather than trying to mimic their behaviour in the original series. That may be the right way to go; the style of the early Lee/Kirby stories is wildly out of kilter with today’s Marvel Universe and unless you’re wanting to foreground a metatextual angle, the team have to be filtered through a modern sensibility. They’re not really the X-Men from the comics of the 1960s, they’re the X-Men from an early point in their history as continuity now stands in 2012.
Bendis has taken the characters from a recognisable scene in X-Men #8, and it’s obvious why he’s chosen that scene – he doesn’t want to use Professor X, and this is the earliest point in history where the team are separated from him without some crisis being involved. Unfortunately, his research on other aspects of continuity seems a little more dodgy. Some of the dialogue suggests he thinks that Scott and Jean were already dating at this point (and the art sure has them hugging a lot). They weren’t – the original set-up was a romantic triangle with Warren as Scott’s rival, which was still being used as a major plot point up as far as issue #26. If anything, the fact that they ended up together should itself have been a big character moment for all three. But Bendis doesn’t write it, by all appearances because he doesn’t realise it ought to be there.
And while Bendis knows that Jean didn’t have telepathy at this point, he unfortunately seems to believe that she just doesn’t know about it yet. That involves disregarding her entire origin story, which has Xavier coming to her rescue after her telepathy drives her mad. Granted, that story was itself a whopping retcon which didn’t sit easily with any of the early issues, but it has been the established version of history for over thirty years. Having her start to read minds simply because she’s told that she can, doesn’t work; she knows perfectly well that she can do this, and she’s had the power switched off to preserve her sanity. I’m fairly relaxed about writers being unaware of backwater stories from decades ago, and taking continuity in broad strokes, but even on the broadest and most generous approach, there’s no excuse for not knowing your characters’ origin stories.
A charitable reading, of course, would be that errors this glaring have to be deliberate, and I still wouldn’t rule that out – after all, these X-Men have to be explained away somehow or other, and either they’re getting their memories erased or they’re turning out to be from a different timeline, in which case all bets are off. But do I trust Bendis and his editor enough to give them the benefit of the doubt on that? Hmm. If I look past those points, I kind of liked the issue – ignore the continuity problems and take the book entirely on its own terms and it works well enough. It only runs into problems if you insist on trying to treat these characters as the 1960s X-Men. But then, isn’t that the premise?
Astonishing X-Men Annual #1 – It may be billed as an annual, but what this issue actually contains is a normal length story plus a reprint. The main feature, by Christos Gage and David Baldeon, has Northstar and Kyle on honeymoon in Paris, which is interrupted when Obscure Terrorist Group #1423 sends its henchmen to assassinate relatives of the X-Men around the world, and Northstar is hauled into racing around the globe to fight them while the rest of the team stay in the hotel room to keep watch on Kyle.
It’s a rather contrived set-up that Gage uses as an excuse to let Kyle have conversations with each of the other regulars, and discuss how a relationship with a civilian could work out. That’s surely a discussion that would have come up with Kyle moved in with Northstar, rather than when they got married, but it’s still the more interesting material – largely because of what Gage thinks the regulars might have to say about the topic. Karma laments about how her life has affected the younger siblings she’s meant to be taking care of; Gambit has no civilian family or friends and thinks that’s probably for the best (there’s Cecilia Reyes, I guess, but she’s at least got powers); Iceman tried having a real life and found it didn’t really work out; Warbird looks down on non-combatants on principle; and Wolverine (who does have a history of supporting characters winding up dead) finally gets to encourage Kyle to stick with it.
That’s a good use of the book’s cast to further the theme, particularly considering that Gage is working with characters who were chosen for him. There’s a risk, though, of Kyle himself not being interesting enough to sustain this sort of focus. He’s triply damned when it comes to making him interesting. He’s in a relationship that’s required to symbolise Marvel’s corporate approval for gay marriage, so he has to be a Nice Bloke. It’s a relationship with Northstar, whose inherent spikiness needs a more cuddly character to balance him out and serve as voice of reason. And to the extent Kyle has a storyline of his own, it’s about his feelings of inadequacy due to normalcy. All these considerations necessarily push him in the direction of blandness, and I’m not convinced this story solves that problem; it’s notionally his story, but it really uses him as a springboard for the X-Men to talk about themselves.
Still, the book’s got nice art from David Baldeon, who’s good with conversation scenes; and it’s got interesting ideas about some of the X-Men, which is enough to carry the story.
The back-up is 1992’s notorious Alpha Flight #106 by Scott Lobdell and Mark Pacella, the story where Northstar came out as gay – something that had always been fairly heavily implied, but not previously stated outright. This got a lot of attention at the time, since it was still a fairly unusual move in 1992. While a positive move in that sense, the story has a pretty dire reputation among fans, and now that I’ve actually read it, I can see why.
The story has its heart in the right place, but it’s painfully clumsy in the execution. Northstar finds an abandoned baby whom he takes to the hospital. The baby turns out to be HIV positive. (It’s a story about gay people in 1992, you just knew HIV was going to be involved.) The Canadian public rally in support for the innocent little baby. This provokes an attack from a retired Canadian superhero called Major Mapleleaf who is bitter because his son died of AIDS, and he didn’t get the same sympathy because he was gay. Northstar then spends the remainder of the issue fighting the ageing stereotype while they debate whether high profile homosexuals have a moral duty to come out, an argument which Northstar ultimately accepts.
Somewhere in there, there’s at least an attempt to grapple with worthwhile issues. Unfortunately, the whole thing is rendered by Mark Pacella in an eye-searingly terrible Rob Liefeld pastiche that completely stymies many of the attempts at emotion, and the script saddles Northstar with such excruciating dialogue as “Do not presume to lecture me on the hardships homosexuals must bear. No one knows them better than I. For while I am not inclined to discuss my sexuality with people for whom it is none of their business – I am gay!”
It’s awful, and it’s not just a case of styles changing – this was seen as a poor example of the 1990s style even at the time it came out, and in any event it’s a style that was never exactly suited to heart-rending “issue” stories. It holds a certain interest as a bizarre curio, but that’s about it.
Uncanny Avengers #2 – Despite the awkward seeming premise, I’m enjoying this one so far. It probably helps that Rick Remender isn’t spending too much time on selling the merged team concept, and putting the focus more on his Red Skull story. While he’s here because he’s a villain from the Avengers’ side of the Marvel Universe, the Skull is a villain who makes sense as an X-Men opponent. Remender wisely plays down the Nazi iconography in favour of just making him a full-bore unrepentant bad guy; it’s not that he doesn’t have motivations, it’s just that they come from a philosophy that’s clearly not intended to provoke any degree of sympathy. And while you can make the case that he should have taken an interest in mutants long ago, the short answer to that is one of dramatic licence: he wasn’t interested in mutants because he was a Captain America villain. That sort of criticism is valid as far as it goes but really falls into the same territory as “why don’t the public feel the same way about superheroes who aren’t mutants?” The answer is “because anti-mutant prejudice isn’t part of the premise of Avengers“, and if that makes the Marvel Universe a little bit incoherent, well, so it goes.
Actually, Remender does have a go at addressing some of these points. So we have Thor, for example, explaining that he’s previously assumed that the mutant issue would sort itself out in due course, but now he’s planning to take a more direct interest. Still, it’s probably best not to think about it too hard, since there’s not much Remender can really do in these opening stories that ought to be any more dramatic than some of the things that have happened in the past. I get the impression he’s trying to sell Avalanche’s attack in issue #1 as a major turning point, and I have a bit of trouble getting on board with that; I don’t see it as sufficiently out of the ordinary for that, given the sort of things that happen routinely in the MU.
Much of this issue focusses on Wanda and Rogue as the Red Skull’s prisoners, with the Skull (now boosted by telepathy from you-know-where) trying to convince Wanda that they can work together to get rid of the mutants again, which, after all, is what she wanted, right? I like the way Remender is using the Skull’s power-up simply to make him more persuasive; it’s more interesting having him nudge characters than simply seizing control of them. Then again, it does seem to slightly duplicate one of the Skull’s new henchmen, who has the fabulous name “Honest John, the Living Propaganda”. That’s a fabulous concept for a villain, and it shows Remender continuing to play to one of his strengths from X-Force, by taking the sort of crazy ideas that might have seemed at home in the Silver Age, but presenting them in such a way that they don’t seem retro.
Cassaday’s art also seems to improve on the first issue; the Skull is the sort of ridiculous design that doesn’t necessarily play to his strengths as a photorealist artist, but when it works, the grin works. His designs for the Skull’s followers are a nice departure from superhero convention as well.
So far, so good.
X-Men: Legacy #2 – Perhaps the relaunched title most likely to divide readers, and certainly the one that represents the biggest commercial gamble among the X-books. This issue, Legion struggles to regain control of his mind and bring his rogue personalities back under control, then encounters a strange creature from the future who’s apparently trying to manipulate Legion so that he does something he’s meant to do in the future. So there’s a main story in the outside world, intercut with Legion in his own mind trying to rebuild and capture the personalities with the useful powers.
It’s too early really to tell where any of this is going; at this stage Si Spurrier is still positioning Legion as a viable protagonist with an agenda and some degree of self-control. The format of having Legion take on his rogue personalities one at a time in order to gain access to the powers that they represent could be a good set-up, though it occurs to me that all of this contains the questionable assumption that the “core” Legion personality is any more real than the rest of them are. Perhaps they’re coming to that; has he really been selected as anything more than the personality least likely to do damage while he’s in control?
The claustrophobia inside Legion’s mind is well handled, though there are still issues with a slightly one-dimensional villain, and several curious references that suggest Spurrier really does think Legion is Scottish, not Israeli. Perhaps he’s confusing him with Proteus, which would be understandable.
At the moment, this is more of a book with the potential to go either way, than a title which is clearly working. The jury’s still out.