Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014
by Paul in x-axis
Before we go further, I repeat the gratuitous plug. You can now buy tickets for our live show on 31 May – details in this post.
A+X, then. The anthology has finally succumbed to the inevitable. These six issues will make up the anthology’s final collection (which is where the title comes from, in case you were wondering).
It’s a series that has always been more interesting for what it says about Marvel’s publishing philosophy than for the actual stories it contains. You could be forgiven for thinking that A+X is a series that was only launched to try and capitalise on the surprising success of AvX: Versus, in an attempt to squeeze yet more money out of the company’s two top franchises. At first glance, that’s very much what it looks like.
Yet a purely mercenary approach would not have resulted in A+X. It’s an anthology of short stories, a format that readers have never shown much interest in, and certainly not in recent years. It compounds that by not only failing to have any particular significance in wider continuity, but by actively promoting that one of its key features. In these two respects, A+X was a doggedly uncommercial title.
Books like this would seem to be the result of the tension between Marvel’s desire to milk the core brands to breaking point, but recognition that they can’t just produce umpteen identical X-Men comics. That results in an ever expanding search for something else to stick an X on, and there comes a point where that search meets an editorial desire to produce an anthology title, coming towards its from the other direction.
This is not to say that A+X was ever particularly successful. In fact, it was largely forgettable. Given the wide range of characters available, the formula of one Avenger and one X-Man should have made for a wide range of potential stories; the reality was an awful lot of stock team-up stories or even just random vignettes, with a bit of banter between the two stars. It gets tremendously repetitive after a while.
Mind you, this final batch does have a few that stick in the mind, for better or worse. Filed firmly under “worse” is Howard Chaykin’s Black Widow/Emma Frost piece, which is simply abysmal; a desperately unfunny sex-themed thing that feels decidedly like the work of somebody who has weird hang-ups about women, and in which everyone acts out of character because his women only have one personality, and it’s only got one trait. Admittedly, Chaykin shows a better grasp than many of this book’s contributors of how to get a complete story into the space available, but I wish he hadn’t bothered.
Rather better – at least in terms of the character dynamics – is Max Bemis and David Lafuente’s Spider-Man/Magneto story, which makes something worthwhile out of their respective takes on being reformed villains. And Sean Ryan and Goran Parlov’s Spider-Man/Psylocke story, in which the real Spider-Man finds himself with a badly injured Psylocke whom he barely knows, and worries that he might be the only person there when she dies, has a great emotional hook. What it doesn’t have, though, is much of a plot; regrettably, A+X does little to undermine the old cliche that Americans don’t know how to write short stories, lacking the rigorous training in the ways of Tharg that is so often credited with hammering economy into the minds of British writers.
One might expect, then, that the serialised Captain America/Cyclops team-up which ran through these six issues would have a bit more content to it, being the equivalent of three issues of regular comics. And it is; there’s certainly plenty going on in those six issues. Whether they add up to a great deal at the end of the day is another matter; Gerry Duggan and David Yardin’s story has quite a few good moments, but feels terribly random with hindsight.
It opens with Captain America and Cyclops both being abducted by a helpful Skrull who wants to alert them to the fact that Cadre K – yes, the Skrull X-Men from the Alan Davis run – are on Earth and, ooh, probably planning something nasty. This first issue seems to be setting up a reasonably smart idea to justify the team-up: the heroes’ squabbling destroys the only available device that can verify somebody as Not A Skrull, so they have to trust one another because everyone else could be an impostor. But the story loses sight of it almost immediately, bringing in the likes of Ant-Man, Emma Frost and the Stepford Cuckoos. Not only does that dilute the team-up, but wheeling out a bunch of telepaths completely removes any possible tension about spotting the shape changers, which is the Skrulls’ whole schtick.
Cadre K turn out to have no particular plan at all, other than look after those cows from the 1960s Fantastic Four that are apparently still clogging up the food chain. The Skrull who set the heroes after them doesn’t have a plan either; it seems to be just a misunderstanding. Dr Doom shows up to be the actual villain, but his main objective is to capture some Skrulls for investigation even though he already had one at the start and seems to have finished with him.
There’s not a huge amount at stake here, and Cadre K are wrenched into an awkward role when the story asks us to believe that they’ve come to America because Xavier spent so long telling them how wonderful, diverse and welcoming it is. Duggan needs Cadre K to say these things so that Captain America can greet them as wonderful new Americans in spirit, but does it really make sense that anyone got that sort of impression about America from listening to Professor X, a man who devoted his entire life to shielding mutants from an America that isn’t up to dealing with them? (“And then, my students, the government sent more killer robots after us! But oh, they were diverse robots. In America, no matter who you are and where you come from, you can grow up to be in a secret government program devoted to the slaughter of my people. That’s what makes America so beautiful.”)
It does have its moments, though. Captain America starts off convinced that Cyclops murdered Professor X, to the point where he refuses even to call Cyclops by his codename, and treats the time travelling younger version as the legitimate version of the character. By the end, he’s become convinced that Cyclops really was out of his mind at the time, but still wants to bring Scott in – not because he thinks Cyclops deserves punishment, but because he still thinks there needs to be a trial. The Stepford Cuckoos, while hardly in character, have some cute lines baiting Cap about his age. And the rather haywire nature of the plot only really becomes apparent in hindsight. Still, it’s hardly a classic that you should be going out of your way to hunt down.
Unfortunately, these final six issues are a fairly good representation of what A+X had to offer. There are some sparks of inspiration here, there’s relatively little that’s truly bad, but there’s an awful lot that’s simply ordinary, not to mention rather unfocussed. There surely have to be better formats for an anthology title than this.