Sunday, February 09, 2014

Review: Uncanny Avengers Vol. 1: The Red Shadow

Unity is a laudable concept, but it's maybe not the sexiest word to have in the title of a Marvel fight comic, which is why the Rick Remender-written Avengers comic that spun out of the events of Avengers Vs. X-Men borrowed the traditional X-Men adjective "Uncanny" and added that the popular proper noun "Avengers" for Uncanny Avengers. Rather than being called something like, you know, The Avengers Unity Division, which is technically the name of the particular faction of heroes starring in this book (See the Olivier Coipel-drawn panel above).

The premise is pretty solid. Following the world-wide war between The Avengers and the X-Men of that particular event series, Captain America thought long and hard about what his enemy Cyclops said about he and the other non-mutant heroes steering clear of mutant issues for years (which probably had more to do with Marvel editorial and the fact that Captain America had his own titles and the X-Men had theirs than with Captain America's own personal beliefs in mutant civil rights).

To help do his part to fulfill the dreams of the late Charles Xavier (who, you remember, was killed by the Phoenix force-empowered Cyclops at the climax of Avengers Vs. X-Men), Cap decides to form a superhero team that is half Avengers and half X-Men, with human and mutant heroes fighting side-by-side for the good of all.

And Remender chooses a pretty perfect villain for the first story arc, given that premise. The Red Skull (Or a Red Skull; if I read this correctly, this is a resurrected clone of the original Red Skull...?), who has decided to use mutants in America as the Nazis once used Jews, gypsies and other scapegoats in Germany, a sort of shared minority punching bag to unite the populace against and make them more easily ruled by a fascist strong man like, say, The Red Skull.

While the premise is strong and flows perfectly and naturally out of Avengers Vs. X-Men there is, of course, a problem with it: The Avengers have always included mutants in their ranks, at least since their first major line-up shake-up in the, uh, 1960s. That's when Captain America reformed the team as 50% mutant, with The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver joining him (and becoming among the longest serving Avengers in the team's history). Original X-Men Beast had a pretty good run as an Avenger, and Wolverine's been on the team for almost a decade now. Namor served a stint, and Storm was an Avenger for at least five minutes.

While Remender does a fine job writing the mutants in his roster, they seem more like the characters he was assigned, ones that no one else was using too prominently on their X-Men or Avengers teams, and, for the most part, they're therefore not really the X-Men or the mutants who seem like they are most ready to graduate into the sort of superhero one typically might associate with Marvel's A-List superhero team, or ones particularly well suited to a PR effort or sincere mission to live Xavier's ideals.

Of the four in the first story arc, which comprises four-fifths of this collection then, we get long-time Avengers The Scarlet Witch (who has never really had much to do with the X-Men formally) and Wolverine (who is on most Avengers and X-Men teams already anyway).

The more interesting choices are Rogue, who has some pretty serious issues with Scarlet Witch, given that whole "No more mutants" thing that decimated the mutant population and, in a roundabout way, set the stage for Avengers Vs. X-Men and the death of Xavier, and Havoc, the horribly-costumed brother of Cyclops, who is a fairly minor character in the Marvel Universe as a whole, and thus an interesting inclusion on an Avengers team, especially as its leader, which is what Captain America has made him (Although immediately has trouble taking orders from someone else, since he's always the leader of all his teams).

The non-mutants on the team, at least in that first arc, are, of course, Cap and, um, Thor, who is either a god or an alien, depending on whether you're an ancient norseman or not, and therefore doesn't really fit with the mission statement so well.

With the fifth issue, more characters are added: Japanese mutant Sunfire, a nice addition in how random and previously un-affiliated he is with the Avengers, and human heroes Wonder Man and The Wasp.

Backseat driving the line-up aside, Remender does a nice job of selling the premise and justifying the inclusion of most of the members, giving them interpersonal conflicts and alliances right out of the gate (Thor being maybe the only exception; he's merely written as the cartoon character he usually is).

The plot of the first arc includes a pretty shocking splash page ending to the first issue, and an extremely silly point that has a nice gross-out component and goes a bit further in making the Red Skull someone the X-Men might want to fight (Actually, I'm not sure why all the X-Men teams didn't go after the Skull...beyond, you know, different titles and Marvel editorial).
DC's not the only publisher who can play the gross-out grand guignol game.
He and his new super-hero team, which is filled with characters with Peter Milligan/Grant Morrison sounding names like The Goat-Faced Girl, Dangerous Djinn and so on, rob Xavier's grave, remove his brain and, somehow, fuse it with Red Skull's brain to give him Xavier's mental powers (it's sorta glossed over how exactly that works, given that the Red Skull's skull is the same size as everyone else's skull; that is, big enough for about one brain).

This first story arc is drawn by John Cassaday, a talented artist with a few collections of pretty high-quality X-Men comics on his bibliography, but probably not someone you want on a monthly comic book, as evidenced by the fact he draws only the first four issues of this collection. The fifth issue is drawn by Olivier Coipel and Mark Morales, and is an all-around stronger piece of work, although I suppose I should take into account my preference for Coipel's more fluid, energetic style over Cassaday's, but it's a well-drawn book, from start to finish.
I love the way Cassaday draws the Skull's smile.
The previously-mentioned grating occurring between Avengers history and the expressed goals of this Avengers team aside, and some over-narration aside, Remender does a pretty fine job on the for that one, now-infamous scene in #5, in which Alex "Havoc" Summers makes his "M-word" speech.
Shut up, Alex.
Those who care about the issue have all already had their say long ago, when #5 was originally released as a single issue, so I don't want to get too deep into it here, but it doesn't really work in context any better than is sounded out of context.

Remender has Havoc state during a press-conference that he doesn't like being identified as a mutant, and thinks that the world "mutant" itself is, in fact, a divisive term, meant to separate mutants from the rest of humanity, and he would prefer to be thought of as human rather than mutant. Putting aside whether or not that's a thing the leader of a The Avengers Unity Division showcasing human and mutant hero working shoulder-to-shoulder would or should say, and putting aside (Hey, I've done a lot of putting aside with this book!) how that works if you extrapolate the mutant metaphor the way it's generally extrapolated (replace the word "mutant" with "black" or "Jewish" or "gay" or "Mormon" or "teenager" whatever, and there's no way that speech doesn't sound pretty weird, and potentially offensive to a lot of folks), Havoc and/or Remender sort of fuck up two important points in that little speech.

First, Alex refers to mutant as "the M-word," which in the traditional reading of the X-Men metaphor would make it equivalent to "the N-Word," and "black" and "N-word" sure as hell aren't the same thing, nor is "Jewish"/"K-word" or "gay"/"F-word" or "Mormon"...I actually don't know any offensive terms for Mormons. If you know any, please, don't tell them to me. If there is an "M-word" in the Marvel Universe, it's "mutie," as in "you stinkin' mutie," not "mutant.

Second, mutants literally are a separate species than human beings in the Marvel Universe...aren't they? I am not the most well-read Marvel reader (I've "only" been reading Marvel comics for about 15 years now), and X-Men continuity is an especially confounding area of comic book knowledge for me. Also, I'm not a biologist, and know even less real-world science than I know comic book science. But that said, it was my understanding that the mutants in the Marvel universe had their own scientific classification—Homo sapiens superior—which would make them a distinct organism separated by species from Homo sapiens (i.e. human beings), no? Don't Marvel's mutants share a genus with human beings (Homo), but have their own species (superior, or sapiens superior).

Like, look at Neanderthals. They share a genus with humanity, but are generally considered a different species, Homo neanderthalenis...although Wikipedia says that's not exactly settled science, and that some believe them to be not a distinct and separate species than Homo sapiens, but a sub-species, classified as Homo sapiens neanderthalenis. At any rate, whether Marvel's mutants are their own species or a sub-species of humanity, what Alex says sounds pretty contrary to what Marvel history I know. (And man, when you factor in the Celestials in mutant evolution and all that ancient aliens shit, it's reeeaaaaallllly hard to make equivalences between the real world and the Marvel universe).

Anyway, that speech was a super-dumb part of an otherwise pretty good comic book.

Now look at this crazy looking Neal Adams variant cover:
Wow. I don't know exactly what it feels like to have a cloned Nazi monster with chunks of Charles Xavier's brain grafted on to his own trying to mentally dominated you with psychic powers, but that Adams image at least gives me a few clues to go on.


JohnF said...

Neal Adams has clearly lost his marbles in the last couple of years.
Yeah, Marvel has been kind of ambiguous about the Mutant thing, going back to the '60s. A lot of them still self-identify as human, and the lucky ones like Alex Summers get to look like super-handsome humans AND have awesome powers. But mutants definitely are not humans. In recent years we've seen a lot more that are not as lucky as Alex, and can't pass as human without an image inducer or whatever.
It also doesn't help the discussion to note that humans and mutants can interbreed with no problems.

Jeremy said...

I really did not like this first story arc much at all, but the last 5-6 issues have really been knocking it out the park, so stick with it.

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

In biology one of the most common definitions of a "species" is that two creatures are different species if they are incapable of producing fertile offspring together. I'm not familiar enough with X-Men continuity to know if this issue has ever come up, but I've never heard anything about mutants not being about to have children with normal humans, or about the offspring of mutants and normal humans being sterile. So, if you go with the "biological species concept" mutants are the same species as humans.

Shriner said...

I feel the opposite from Jeremy -- I thought the first arc was interesting, but the current arc is just going on-and-on-and-on...

esteban138 said...

Well, sapiens and neanderthals could successfully reproduce as well, with certain traits found in modern humans (red hair, for example) now being traced to possible neanderthal origin, so sub-species would probably be the best definition.. That said, I don't think anyone other than Morrison and Ellis ever gave it much thought while writing X-Men.

Rev'd '76 said...

Havoc's back in his old duds, I see. Wish the headpiece were more extravagant / in line with the original. His little gloves look absurd. Other than that, nice to see the status of the MU is quo...