20th Nov2012

Let’s Talk About AvX, Baby

by Will

I had no interest in reading Avengers vs X-Men. Correction, I had no interest in paying for this story. Luckily, due to the fortuitous acquisition of a digital code, I didn’t have to worry about that. I mean, why look a gift horse in the mouth? I have to say that it didn’t suck as much as I expected. There’s no way it was riveting enough to warrant a 12-issue, bi-weekly series, but it was a decent collected read. It is not, however, without its problems. The biggest problem with AvX is that it’s based on a shaky premise. You’re to assume that Jean Grey died during the original Dark Phoenix Saga, but that’s not the case. No, you see, her most recent death occurred during Grant Morrison’s run back in 2003. Sit back, true believer, as they don’t talk about this anymore.

A little over 10 years ago, Marvel was headed by Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada, and they were making big moves. This was still somewhat the “bankruptcy era” (can you believe that? The company that just made a billion dollars from The Avengers was once bankrupt!), so the pair needed to generate cashflow. Under Jemas’s reign, three important things happened:

1. The Ultimate Marvel Universe was created

2. Jemas “co-wrote” Wolverine’s origin, in the aptly named Origin

3. Grant Morrison was essentially given control of the X-Men

At this point, X-Men had pretty much been coasting on recent events. Wolverine had “died” but turned out to be a Skrull. Cyclops had just come back from the “dead” (although he wasn’t really dead – he had merged with Apocalypse during “The Twelve” storyline), with a new attitude and long hair. It was clear that the franchise needed a new direction, and Morrison , fresh off his JLA stint, was still pretty edgy at that time. So,  Uncanny X-Men ended up with Chuck Austen and a rotating cast of questionable artists (Kia Asamiya?!), while they renamed “adjectiveless” X-Men to New X-Men with issue #114. Can you believe that?! A new direction WITHOUT a renumbering! Only Red She-Hulk gets that treatment now. In the beginning, Morrison was paired with Frank Quitely – ya know, the artist who draws everyone like they’ve been in the tub too long. And right out of the gate, Morrison did something that would plague the franchise for the next 10 years. You see, his story focused on mutants as the next stage of human evolution. Not only did he introduce the concept of the “secondary mutation”, where a mutant could further evolve, gaining more powers (see Emma Frost’s diamond form), but he also stated that the writing was on the wall for humanity: homo sapiens would be extinct within 5 years’ time. While this was to lay the groundwork for mutants, this also amped up the anti-mutant hysteria that had taken a backseat in recent years. Now humans were desperate as they were about to die out, while mutants got a bit pompous as they were about to inherit the Earth.

Morrison was on the book up through issue #150, introducing crazy concept after crazy concept. If you thought his DC stuff was weird, just go back and read his X-Men stuff. He introduced Magneto “imposter” Xorn (more on that, later), he fleshed out the student body of the kids at Xavier’s school, like Beak, and he also gave us Beast’s catlike secondary mutation. In one of his final arcs, “Planet X”, Jean Grey becomes the Phoenix (for the first time, if you’re to believe the retcon. After all, that supposedly wasn’t Jean who had assumed the power back in the 80s. Remember that for later), and battles Magneto. In the battle, she’s killed and Wolverine cuts off Magneto’s head, in a move that had been brewing since Mags took out Wolverine’s adamantium almost 10 years prior. THIS was the true “death” of Jean Grey.

In Marvel’s mind, however, Morrison simply did too much. So, they’ve spent the past few years trying to ignore any and every thing that occurred during his run. It turns out Wolverine didn’t decapitate Magneto, but rather Xorn who was simply impersonating Magneto. So, that absolves Magneto AND allows him to continue to be in the books. Emma’s “secondary mutation” diamond form? It was a lie. That was a manufactured change. The series retained its numbering, but returned to the adjectiveless title. But the biggest can of worms was the whole “next stage of evolution” matter. During Morrison’s run, almost every baby born was a mutant, which was turning mutants into the majority rather than the minority status they’d held since the franchise began. I think this was something that Jemas OK’d rather than Quesada because once Jemas was out of the company, Quesada frequently remarked that he wanted to put the X-Men “genie back in the bottle”. This was finally accomplished in the House of M miniseries, with the help of Scarlet Witch. By uttering “No more mutants”, the mutant population of the Marvel Universe was reduced to approximately 198 people. With that, most of the Morrison “damage” had been contained. Except for Jean.

Jean Grey was a founding member of the team, and her absence was conspicuous. At the same time, Marvel was going through a “dead means DEAD” empty promise, so they couldn’t really pull the trigger on bringing her back. It also didn’t help that her death occurred during an era that they no longer wanted  to acknowledge. I’m not even kidding when I say that – as convoluted as X-Men history may be, they go to great lengths to not even try to talk about what happened during those years. A few things have been maintained, such as the destruction of Genosha, for story beats, but the real meat of those years is ignored. During this time, they really started implying that Jean WAS the Dark Phoenix, which was true when it was written, but had since been retconned to imply the Phoenix simply impersonated Jean; Jean Grey was underwater in a cocoon the whole time. So, Marvel has instead decided to pretend that Jean actually died during the Dark Phoenix Saga. Or at least, that’s what you’d be led to believe if you read AvX. They retconned the retcon!

Here’s the main stuff you need to know: after the whole 198 mutants thing, no more mutants were being born. Instead of being the next stage of human evolution, mutants were now an endangered species. Cyclops became the Mutant Moses, leading the remaining mutants to the “nation” of Utopia. One day, a mutant baby was born, and Cyclops saw this baby as the messiah. Hope, as she was called, would somehow be responsible for the return of the mutant race. That story played out over the course of 4 years, and you can read Messiah Complex/Messiah War/X-Men: Second Coming if you want the whole story. Since this is a year with a number in it, Marvel returned to the well of the Dark Phoenix Saga. The Phoenix, which is an omnipotent yet destructive alien firebird, needs a host and it’s coming for *gasp* Hope. Knowing that the Phoenix will probably destroy Earth, the Avengers want to stop this, while Cyclops believes that this is the final ingredient that Hope needs to kickstart the mutant race. And 12 issues of fight ensue. At around the midpoint, Tony Stark smashed the Phoenix into 5 pieces, which then chose 5 separate hosts: Emma Frost, Cyclops, Namor, Colossus, and Magik. More than any of the rest, Cyclops wrestles with the hold that the force is having on him. While the Phoenix Five start out “fixing” the world’s problems, they eventually become power mad and the Avengers set out to stop them. And get their asses kicked. For sentimental story beats, Cyclops visits the part of the moon where “Jean” sacrificed herself during the Dark Phoenix Saga. He even envisions her during his final battle with Professor Xavier. Yadda yadda yadda Hope and Scarlet Witch save the day. Oh, and mutants are back! New, shiny mutants!

The big problem is this Jean stuff. Marvel has teased her comeback several times over the years, whether it was Astonishing X-Men (which actually heralded the return of “dead” Colossus) or Phoenix: Endsong (which featured the death of one of the Stepford Cuckoos). They’ve already said that she’s not dead, but went on to live in the White Hot Room. To use Stargate terminology, she ascended. She’s on a higher plane, so she’s better than human now. So, bringing her back to life would be a demotion. Let’s add the fact that the Scott & Jean relationship wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. Sure, they’ve dated since the early days of the franchise, but the 90s were not kind to that couple. Cyclops had psychic affairs with every telepath with tits on the team, while Jean and Wolverine were getting closer. If you read X-Men at the time of Scott & Jean’s marriage, you’ll see that they had NO business getting married. They were that couple who thought a ring would fix all their problems. At the end of the day, if we’re being honest, Scott & Jean’s relationship had run its course. If the current Cyclops stories revolved around his regret for neglecting her or even his regret for psychic infidelity, fine. But they don’t. Instead, they try to paint Jean as his One True Love. The One That Got Away Because She Committed Suicide On The Moon. And that’s simply NOT what happened.

I said it on Twitter, and I’ll say it again: it’s like Marvel writers have never experienced a natural breakup. Marvel relationships end either because of aliens or the devil. Cyclops and Jean can’t be together. Enter: alien firebird. Spider-Man and Mary Jane can’t be together. Enter: Mephisto. Xavier & Lilandra can’t be together because she is an alien.

If you’re a casual or new reader, none of this will matter to you. You probably didn’t even notice. It’s comics, and things are changed and ignored all the time. I just have a problem that this “event’s” premise is SO steeped in history (seriously, you’re required to know that the Phoenix has done some bad shit in the past) that it falls apart unless you omit 20 years of story. I don’t feel that’s fair to fans who actually know this shit and pay attention to it. As I said in the beginning, that was simply the biggest problem. Here are some others:

-Why did the other mutants just fall in line? Was this explored in the individual titles? It’s only hinted at later that the Phoenix Force compelled them, but this wasn’t an instant process, and there’s no scene dealing with this. Enough of them were around during the last Phoenix situation to know this is a bad thing.

-What, exactly, was the Avengers’ plan? Wolverine seemed to think Hope needed to be killed, but the rest acted like they were going to put her into custody. Had the X-Men not gotten the Phoenix Force, what were they gonna do with her? Hide her in a basement?

-Why the Hell did the Phoenix choose Colossus and Magik? Was it just because they were standing there at impact? I understand the other 3, but not these 2. If it had chosen Magneto, it would’ve been Game Over.

-The Uncanny Avengers concept doesn’t hold much weight when there’s an active team of X-Men running around. I mean, having mutants on the Avengers isn’t a new concept. Just ask Beast, Wolverine, Storm, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch…shall I go on? When it was first announced, it seemed bold because the Avengers and X-Men books were ending. Now, though, we’ve learned that there will still be a New Avengers team, as well as an adjectiveless team. Meanwhile, there will still be an Uncanny X-Men team. So, really, Uncanny Avengers is just matching bomber jackets away from being the early 90s Avengers team.

-I’m kinda unfulfilled on the Hope front. Spidey has a monologue about how when you’re an Avengers, one day you’ll get your moment to shine. It’s to set up the fact that this is Hope’s moment, but it just doesn’t seem to follow a through-line from where she came. If you go back to Messiah Complex and the following arcs, I’m not sure this is where that story was leading. It almost seems like the Marvel Bullpen decided to cash in their Hope chip to usher in this new era. I mean, Scarlet Witch first reappeared years ago in an issue of the first volume of New Avengers. Since then, she’s just been waiting in the wings to be in the exact place at the right time for this story to take place? Seems more editorially forced than it should have been.

-Where was Layla Miller? She “knows stuff” AND she can resurrect the dead. I know Madrox likes to keep his folks out of these things, but she’s the kind of character who would’ve shined in this story. Plus, to my knowledge, we’ve never seen her with Hope. I’d love to see how they interact.

-The K’un L’un Iron Fist stuff felt forced. I read every issue of Fraction’s Immortal Iron First, and even I was confused. Again, was this something covered in the Avengers books?

-Important things are just kinda glossed over. Whether it was Black Panther & Storm’s battlefield annulment or the destruction of Wakanda, it’s like Axel Alonso said “throw in all the things!”

-Again, I know these events spilled over into AvX VS, as well as the Avengers and X-Men books, but most of the characters are treated like cannon fodder. Unless you were Cap, Hope, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, or the Phoenix Five, you simply did not matter. You were there just to get punched and Phoenix blasted.

So, they finally did it. They got mutants back to a respectable, yet manageable number and they’ve changed the status quo of the Marvel Universe. You know, until next summer’s event. Again, if this had been released as an original graphic novel, it wasn’t half bad. It was not, however, worth a 6-month, bi-weekly, 12-issue, $47.88 sacrifice. Especially when you realize that none of it matters. After all, these are comics we’re talking about here!