Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: Avengers & X-Men: Axis

Well, I really liked the logo.

Perfectly designed so that the "A" can be read as an "S" and an "I" when upside down, whoever designed the Axis logo has transformed the word into one that looks the same upside down or right side up. It was rather well used for the covers of the nine-issue event miniseries, most of which featured two characters on either side of the word "Axis," so it could be difficult to tell at a glance which way was up and down at a glance (On the cover of this collection, only the tiny little Marvel logo and "Bonus Digital Edition Included" tag let you know whether it's the heroes or the villains who belong ton the top).

It also fits with the overall premise of the book. The word does not refer to the Axis Powers of World War II, as one might reasonably believe, given the fact that The Red Skull is the major villain of the series, but rather a fixed line of reference around which something could rotate (Note the line through logo, completing the "A"). Here, the axis is that of morality or alignment, to use the role-playing game word for it.

Unfortunately, the rest of comic isn't nearly as inspired or well-executed as the logo and cover designs. This is both a shame and somewhat surprising, because the basic premise is so simple: The heroes have become villains, and the villains have become the heroes.

Now a large part of the problem with writer Rick Remender's Axis plot is that as simple as the above premise sounds, its set-up, fall-out and resolution are extremely complicated, in terms of incident. There's that, and then there's the fact that the demands of a nine-issue limited series meant to act as the spine of a line-wide cross-over event don't really make for the ideal exploitation of that premise.

The two pages of synopsis marked "Previously..." at the opening of the first issue, which include six large panels taken from other books and paragraphs of text accompanying each, start during the climax of Avengers Vs. X-Men and the killing of Professor Xavier by a Phoenix-possessed Cyclops, and the rest of the events are from Rick Remender's own Uncanny Avengers series (Aspects of the story of Axis actually go back even further, to incorporate the events of House of M...and some bullshit X-Men comics from the nadir of Marvel Comics in the '90s, but the big stuff is all from Uncanny Avengers).

To summarize that summary, just as Captain America had put together his half-Avengers, half-X-Men "Avengers Unity Squad," The Red Skull had stolen Xavier's corpse and somehow stuck Xavier's brain into his own head, giving him super-psychic powers.

Most of Uncanny Avengers dealt with the fall-out of that–with a diversion into the Apocalypse business Remender seems to always be writing–and, when the series ended, Magneto had killed Red Skull on Genosha, where the Nazi super-villain was in the process of building a concentration camp for mutants. Somehow smashing the Skull's skull in released "Red Onslaught," the Red Skull version of Onslaught, who, um, I don't know, Wikipedia that shit, I guess.

Axis proper opens in Los Angeles, where The Avengers Unity Squad and some other random-ish Avengers are fighting Plantman and trading tedious quips like they're all Spider-Man all of a sudden ("Assume anything green is your enemey, Avengers." "Even kale?" "Especially kale." I guess The Kale Growers of America should have bought that ad space in Marvel comics when they had the chance!).

The Avengers start to bicker, and then start arguing pretty savagely with one another, and then outright fighting. This is mostly due to the influence of Red Onslaught, who is sending psychic hate waves all over the world, but it starts gradually, and the make-up of these Avengers are so new and foreign to any other Avengers books I had read that I don't really know how they all get along anyway (The Vision is there all of a sudden; The Hulk is there and he has seemingly gone through his bi-annual personality re-vamps; Thor is here, and he's lost Mjolnir but hasn't yet lost his arm, so I guess the Thor in this entire series is taken from somewhere in the middle of Thor #1; Sam Wilson is now Captain America).

Iron Man continually uses "raincheck" as a verb, something he does throughout the series, so I'm assuming it's just a weird writing tick of Remenders, and none of the editors decided to say, "Hey Rick, I think this eighth instance of Iron Man saying 'raincheck' is a bit much. You're starting to sound like Claremont here, with your constant repetition of the same slang."

The Avengers eventually get their shit together, thanks to a psychic-blocking doodad of Iron Man's invention, and while the entire world breaks into random rioting, they eventually trace the hate-waves back to Red Onslaught on Genosha, where Magneto and a handful of X-people are already fighting him.

Once the Avengers, a random calvary of X-Men and other assorted character (Sue Storm, Nova, Medusa) start dog-piling on Red Onslaught, he unleashes his secret weapons: A pair of Stark-built Super-Sentinel robots, specifically designed with Civil War-related counter-measures pulled from Stark's sub-conscious brain via Skull's super-telepathy and built as the ultimate superhero-fighting and capturing countermeasure.

It works beautifully for a while, until Magneto comes up with a brilliant plan: If the robots are designed specifically to take down superheroes, they won't be able to deal with supervillains, and so he brings a completely random assemblage of villains to the party (Mystique, Sabertooth, Enchantress, Loki, Doctor Doom, Deadpool and, most randomly of all, Carnage, Hobgoblin, The Absorbing Man and Jack O' Lantern, whose new design I liked a lot...I really like characters with pumpkins for heads in general, though).

If this strategy sounds familiar, you may remember when Grant Morrison used it in 1998's JLA #17; that's the one where Prometheus takes down the Justice League using special, anti-superhero stratagems programmed into his brain, but is helpless to defeat Catwoman, as she's a villain. It worked fine as a few panels of a one-issue story, even if it does fall apart if you pick at it. It shouldn't matter if you classify the person swinging a bullwhip at your genitals, as Catwoman did to take down Prometheus, a "hero" or a "villain"...the defense against bullwhips would still be to either block them or dodge them, whoever's swinging them).

It's really just a reason to get some villains in the scene for the big switcheroo, of course, (And that at least explains why Magneto didn't just pick up some old allies from his Brotherood of Evil Mutants, but also picked out random Spider-Man villains who someone else somewhere in Marvel editorial had plans to put in Axis tie-in miniseries).

The plan is to have a couple of magic people cast a spell reversing the tiny bit of Xavier that's in Red Onslaught with the dominant Red Skull personality, giving the heroic bit control and reducing the evil bit.

It doesn't go according to plan, exactly. It works, dismissing Onslaught and rendering Skull unconscious (and presumably with Xavier in the driver's seat and Skull now tied-up in the trunk), but it also affects everyone on the island. As I said, good guys are now bad guys, and bad guys are now good guys.

And here we come to a problem.

What exactly does that mean? The idea seems to be that every hero has a little piece of evil in them, and every villain a little bit of noble, altruistic goodness, and that the spell simply reversed the proportions, bringing the evil out of all the heroes and making them bad, while bringing the good out of the villains and making them good.

This is really much more of a DC Comics concept though, as most DC villains are just evil-with-a-capital E. Over the years, layers of psychology have been given to the likes of Black Adam, Lex Luthor and Sinestro, but whatever their motivations, they're essentially rotten apples, characters who either want to rule the world or rob banks. They may have more justification than, say, The Joker, but they're just no damn good, in the same way that despite paranoia or overzealousness, DC's heroes are all good, upstanding, saintly citizens (something Geoff Johns and other writers have been rebelling against as much as possible of late, but no matter how many Parademons and monsters you have Aquaman and Wonder Woman kill in battle, they're never going to be anti-heroes like Wolverine, The Punisher and Ghost Rider).

For some of the affected, it is as literally true for them as it is for Red Skull. Genesis, the clone child of Apokolips that Remender introduced in Uncanny X-Force and has been part of the cast of Wolverine and The X-Men, apparently does have a literal seed of villainy in his inner-workings, and this spell "inverts" his Genesis and Apokolips identities (and appearances).

But it doesn't work so well with, like, anyone else. Magneto and Dr. Doom, for example, haven't really ever been evil-for-evil's sake, at least not since the mid-60s, and while both often commit despicable acts, they have always been justified in the minds of the characters, and able to be rationalized to others (Magneto especially of late, as he has literally been on the X-Men team for the last few years). No one's a villain in their own minds, and all that.

Neither of these two villians seem affected at all by the spell, really...except during one scene later in the book where Doom addresses his people in Latveria and apologizes for being such an evil tyrant to them; in personality and relationships with other characters, though, he remains unchanged.

Deadpool is also unaffected; he's there because he sells books, but his "inversion" affects his fashion more than his personality, and so he continues to talk utter nonsense and behave as usual, he just now talks with hippy slang.

Why this is such a problem is that the inversion happens in issue three, which means Remender still has six issues to fill with good guys-gone-bad and bad guys-gone-good.

Now, if this were an old-school, summer annual style event, with two oversized bookends, the story might work much better. Imagine issues #1-3 of Axis compressed into a 48-page Avengers & X-Men: Axis #1, and then every title's annual telling a story about the individual characters now that they've had their alignment's switched around, concluding with Avengers & X-Men: Axis #2, where the problem is resolved and almost everything goes back to normal, save a plot thread or three to explore in future issues of ongoing series.

But Remender doesn't have that option, and so he has to keep going. And that means he has to essentially keep the Avengers and X-Men operating as teams, which doesn't really work if they are all suddenly evil (well, he didn't have to, I suppose, but the book would have been particularly disjointed if it spent the next four or five issues spending a few pages on 40 different characters one at a time).

The now evil core group of Avengers (plus Medusa, because Marvel's trying to push The Inhumans) stay together, but wipe a bunch of the characters off the board by capturing almost all of the non-mutant characters. They repeatedly say they'll stick together because it serves their interests, but it's not clear how.

A few do go their own way, at least temporarily: These include Tony Stark, who rather than just being randomly evil like most of his peers, has his selfishness and arrogance amplified. He's basically the character he was at the start of the first Iron Man movie. It's weird that Remender picks and chooses which characters have motivations for their actions, specific aspects of their character that change, while others are just bad guys for no reason.

Then there's the Hulk, who develops a Hulk's Hulk (not unlike the Null that appeared in Matt Fraction's short-lived Defenders revival), unimaginatively named "Kluh," who has black skin, a white mohawk and glowing red lines around his torso, looking vaguely like one of The Worthy from Fear Itself.

Meanwhile, The X-Men decide to overthrow humanity for, um, some reason, wiping them all out. Apparently, the inversion of all of the X-Men's heroic natures is...that they are genocideal maniacs? (This doesn't work too well, considering that almost none of the evil mutants have ever wanted to go quite that far).

The wild cards in this new round of Avengers vs. X-Men fighting are Spider-Man, Nova, Old Man Steve Rogers, the latest Nomad (Rogers' son, apparently? I've never heard of him) and, of course, all of the villains-turned-good.

After much fighting, including one–just one–character being able to reverse his own alignment-reversal to go back to being good again by pure force of will, the remaining good guys and bad guys-gone-good are able to cast another inversion spell, this one putting everyone back to normal.

The only exceptions are Iron Man, who is able to use his technology to shield himself, and the two guys standing next to him: Havoc and Sabertooth. Iron Man would go on to star in Superior Iron Man (and presumably be restored to good again before or during Secret Wars), and the other two characters will presumably be dealt with in Remender's relaunched Uncanny Avengers, which prominently featured Sabertooth on the cover.

So in the end, it was a very simple, rather fun idea, but a very small one, and it didn't really work in the complicated, serious Marvel Universe, nor to support an event book of this scale.

I suppose some of the tie-ins might have been good, though, particularly if they offered their writers the opportunity to do more with the inverted moral alignments than Remender does here. That is, if there are tie-ins that explore how an inverted Sam Wilson or Nightcrawler differs from the regular version, aside from just being a psychotic know, if other writers do with other characters what Remender does with Iron Man and pretty much no other character in this series.

The artwork is unfortunately all over the place, and isn't even divided by acts or arcs within the series as a whole. Adam Kubert, Leinil Francis Yu, Terry Dodson and Jim Cheung all pencil the book, but come and go randomly. Kubert's there for the first, second, seventh and parts of the ninth issue, for example. Yu for the third, fourth, eighth and part of the ninth. There are nine different inkers (no, not one per issue; don't be silly) and five different colorists. It's all pretty okay artwork, and the book makes visual sense, but hoo-boy does it read like a deadline-dodging, last-minute jam book thrown together at the last minute. It's a sharp contrast to the story, which Remender was building to for years.

The opening sequence, drawn by Kubert, is particularly weird, as all of the pages have extremely wide borders filled with the Axis logo repeating over and over like the comics panels were being framed by Axis wrapping paper.

It is a nice logo, though.


So anyone have any recommendations for Axis tie-ins to pursue in trade? Were any of them any good? I remember thinking the Hobgoblin mini looked intriguing when I saw it in the shop, and I'm curious about the new Jack O' Lantern.


Marc said...

I like the logo in an abstract, aesthetic way, but it still doesn't look like the word "Axis" to me. I spent the week after it was announced wondering what the hell kind of name "Sixis" was for an event comic.

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

"Hobgoblin" was very entertaining for the most part. There was an ongoing subplot in the Spider-Man books at the time about Hobgoblin supplying wannabe supervillains with gear, costumes, and code-names for a price. In the tie-in he changes to supplying wannabe superheroes. It deals with him running this business, and having to fight his villainous former clients who are angry that he cut them off. "Carnage" also had some good moments.

In terms of how character's moral alignment changes, I found it made a little more sense when I literally pictured their alignment rotating around an axis. In other words, if you picture "neutral" as the center, what side of the center they are on changes, but the distance from it remains the same. Magneto was ambiguously good, so when he is rotated he becomes ambiguously evil, and therefore appears unaffected. Carnage, by contrast was extremely evil, so he becomes a saint. I'm not sure that explains everyone though.

doron said...

As far as I can tell Iron Man, Havoc, and Sabertooth are still inverted. Sabertooth will probably stay a good guy and be part of the wolverines. Pepper and Tony fight in superior Iron Man but I'm pretty sure he is still inverted by the end. Remender relaunched Uncanny Avengers and Havoc wasn't in it. He shows up once Bendis's X-men and is just melancholy. Since Remender is leaving marvel if I had to guess writers will just drop the whole inverted havoc and iron man post secret wars, especially since Bendis is taking over Iron Man. Its a shame because I liked Jan and Havoc together.

Eric Lee said...

I would highly recommend the Carnage and Hobgoblin Axis tie ins (which fortunately is packaged as one big trade).

As for the actual series itself, it is really terrible. Like, this is the Sharknado of Marvel event comics. As you said in your own review, it is random, the inverted heroes are ludicrously evil sounding, and just plain sloppy. For example, Nova was also present at the inversion only to be...not?? Or Havok remained inverted and evil and whisked him and the Wasp away to places unknown only to have Havok come visit Cyclops and hug it out a few pages later??

Brian said...

Axis: Hobgoblin was a really fun comic that looked at the idea of the marketability of the superhero concept in a properly-over-the-top way. It struck me as one of those few-sentence Mark Millard pitches, but done by guys who like superhero comics instead of take a piss of them. Even outside of the disappointing event, that mini was a surprise favorite of mine over the past year (and did a good job of explaining all the background of the characters in play within it — I think you could hand it off quite well to a new reader; it's a shame that it got lost in the shuffle of Axis).

Anonymous said...

Everyone's already rec'd Hobgoblin [and, to a lesser extent, Carnage] so I'm going to throw out AXIS Revolutions #1. This miniseries was launched alongside the main event title, of course, and had each issue split into two parts each following a different character.

The first part of this issue follows Spider-Man, one of the uninverted heroes, and is therefore pretty straightforward and not that interesting. Everyone is dicks and Spidey has to deal with them, ho hum.

The second follows Doctor Strange and Wong and it is hilarious. Written by Si Spurrier and drawn by Tan Eng Huat it features the crankiest Stephen Strange you have ever seen. It is wonderful and I highly recommend it. You should be able to find a trade paperback that collects every issue, as I read it in that format while chilling in a bookstore one day.