Thursday, October 07, 2021

The Journey Ends (III)

Uncanny Avengers

The first volume of Uncanny Avengers carries a great deal of weight - a frankly enormous amount of weight on its shoulders. That the first volume reads as well as it does is a minor miracle. It’s only sometimes a bad book but the impact craters from where it runs into the ditch are visible from orbit. Although it has its problems I don't want to leave you with the impression that the story has nothing to offer. Perhaps it seems more interesting in hindsight precisely because it was so thoroughly mooted by circumstances. The book itself stood out as stylistically and thematically conservative next to Hickman or Bendis on either side. It left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths due to thematic elements which occupy a fleeting amount of panel time. It's a mixed bag. A very mixed bag. 


Rick Remender had been knocking around the company for a few years prior to landing the gig, with highlights his run of Uncanny X-Force and the “Frankencastle” saga that spun out of the Dark Reign promotion. Whatever else the man may be guilty of he still made the Punisher into a giant green Frankenstein, and for that we will be forever grateful. (No joke: his Punisher is pretty great.) Now, there are many forms Uncanny Avengers could have taken, including one dealing more directly with the events of Avengers vs X-Men. However with the exception of the dispossession of Professor X’s deceased brain that launches the plot there’s no direct connection to AvX. (Bendis’ X-Men books dealt with some of that more granular aftermath, to be fair.) The form Remender’s book did take was that of a sequel to his Uncanny X-Force, more specifically that series’ Apocalypse plotline. This wasn’t a bad idea by any stretch. The series is more generally concerned with taking the X-Men to account for the disastrous consequences of becoming ever more insulated from the rest of humanity. There’s no single storyline of the era that typifies the moral quagmire of the period than Remender’s X-Force so it makes sense to start there. 

Remender’s Uncanny X-Force was technically the third relaunch of X-Force this century. The first was an unmemorable six issue mini from 2004 featuring a reunion of series creators Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza. The second ran from 2008 to 2010 and featured an updating of the concept, leaving behind Cable but keeping roughly the same attitude. Written by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, the series earned a reputation for Grand Guignol violence and gore during a particularly bloody minded period in the franchise history. The series was, after all, about Wolverine leading a black ops squad of hardened killers (and, uh, Rahne Sinclair) operating out of the aptly-named Utopia. Although that probably doesn’t seem from the description like my kind of thing, Clayton Crain’s delightfully gruesome, kinetic art elevated the enterprise significantly. The follow up, Remender’s Uncanny, launched the same year the previous iteration wrapped, with a slightly different focus. Whereas the previous X-Force had been a mostly humorless exercise in frothy grimdark, Remender’s follow-up was both more droll and more dynamic, although it still faltered in places. The art throughout is often superlative, with top-shelf work from the likes of Esad Ribic, Phil Noto, and Jerome Opeña.

Before getting lost in the thicket of plot and character, it’s worth pointing out that the art throughout most of the run of Uncanny Avengers runs the gamut from very good to superlative, and precisely none of my criticism of the series plot and themes reflects on it. That the series looks so good in places is primarily down to MVP Daniel Acuña. His work took a while to grow on me, I admit, but grow on me it did. The panels can be cramped sometimes but generally the pages read well and the characters are very expressive. He colors his own work, and exceptionally well. Also draws a very nice Rogue. The opening arc is drawn by John Cassaday. I haven’t always cared for his latter-day material - a staginess always present in the early work comes to dominate, particularly in his X-Men. Figures look stiff to me, a tendency I didn’t notice so much on Planetary but which became distracting for me beginning with his Astonishing. Steve McNiven pops in for a few issues in the middle of the run, solid as ever. We perhaps underrate him on the basis of his consistency.

Uncanny X-Force

Please, make no mistake, when I say that Uncanny Avengers was about taking the X-Men to account for their actions during the Utopia era, I mean that in the most literal way. There’s a scene where Captain America finds out the X-Men have been running a black ops squad (more than one, actually) and he reacts about as well as you could expect. Certainly further fuel for discontent among those X-Fans inclined to feel the slight, but it worked for me. It’s not a subtle message but one the story well conveys: the X-Men actually did cross important lines, lines that people acting outside the law shouldn’t be able to cross with impunity, and there needed to be consequences when it happened. That there weren’t consequences at the time is how the original problem grew into an even bigger problem. There’s probably a deleted scene devoted solely to them explaining the plot of Necrosha to Cap, blinking rapidly as if he’s had a hemorrhage. 

However even if the series is rather unambiguous in that framing, the narrative is also careful to show at every step the degree to which the Avengers themselves become compromised and lose perspective as the stakes become increasingly personal. There’s no small hypocrisy involved here and it becomes clear the moment the Grim Reaper shows up - he’s Wonder Man’s brother, after all, zombie and occasional partner to Ultron, and he hates anyone standing next to dear Simon as a matter of general principle. X-Men villains don’t have a monopoly on vendetta. That seems a fair shakeout after years of conflict: the Avengers are unambiguously right that the X-Men need to hold themselves to higher standards, but those same Avengers also learn the very swift lesson that wading wholeheartedly into X-Men problems often means arriving too late to find Captain America solutions. That means having to live with the consequences of bad decisions made in the heat of a crisis.

It doesn’t help that as the story proceeds it becomes clear that Thor is every bit as implicated in the unfolding atrocity, and for infinitely more petty reasons than the extremities of survival to which the mutants are regularly pushed. To his credit, however, Thor has always been more of an ally to the mutants than is generally recognized, due in a large part to Claremont & Simonson’s 80s collaborations. He demolished the Marauders during the Mutant Massacre, which is certainly more than you did. The series reveals an old school rivalry between Apocalypse and Thor dating back to the first millennium, as well as the existence of the great axe Jarnbjorn, a weapon capable of killing Celestials. One imagines the existence of such a weapon should have come up at some point during the Fourth Host of the Celestials (ca. Thor #300), but one imagines in vain. To date no one has been called to account for this misstep. 

The X-Men have a hair trigger because they’re used to being dismissed and expect it as a rule even in the face of genuine good faith, and are additionally so used to operating outside the law they have no perspective on their own blind spots. The Avengers are defensive because they feel guilty for allowing the problem to go so far and are already implicated in ways they did not initially recognize. They do not understand the degree to which their public status insulates them from the lived conflict that remains the X-Men’s everyday reality - and this is true even for putative mutant Avengers like the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. They’re increasingly over their heads as the internecine conflict entangles them. Pretty solid character work, as far as it goes. Basically the same dynamic the liberal establishment maintains with every marginalized group.

Rogue & Wolverine

Where are the devils? Oh, the details! In broad strokes these ideas make sense. In specific the work misses as much as it hits. As with most stories hinging on conflict between the Avengers and the X-Men dating back to the beginning of time, the premise of the tale depends partly on characters acting selectively out of character. Here at least the series has an excuse of sorts for everyone acting brittle and defensive - the X-Men have just lost a war. They shouldn’t have been fighting the war in the first place and they lost because they lost perspective. That the X-Men acknowledge the Avengers were in the right, and lose a great deal in so learning, doesn’t help it go down any smoother in the aftermath when the latter essentially begins dictating terms to the former.


To add to a combustible premise, the Scarlet Witch joins the cast and has to deal with what happens when Dr. Doom frames you for genocide and every other mutant on the planet has a hard time letting go of that. That means in practice lots of arguments between her and other mutants, specifically Rogue. She’s on the scene and just happens to have a lot of anger following the murder of Professor X at the hands of one of her most trusted friends. Sadly for Wanda, Rogue has no other place to put that anger than the woman who spent her entire career scrupulously avoiding ever fighting for other mutants. Cue hijinks? Not really, no. 

At the risk of inviting modern cliche the first stretch of Uncanny Avengers deals with the immediate aftermath of massive trauma. Each character is processing what happened during AvX - to say nothing of everything else that happened across the previous decade. To add to the theme Captain America experiences ten years in another dimension in between issues of this run, due to events in his own series which was at the time also being written by Remender. Even if those specific events are immaterial to the present story the sense of shock and loss is palpable across the cast. So perhaps we forgive a bit of the abrasive tone in that light, given that the characters are the worst versions of themselves and at times it’s not particularly pleasant to read. More on that in a moment. 

The good parts of Remender’s Uncanny are good. The problem is that the book isn’t just made of good parts. The good parts are, roughly, the parts dealing with Kang and the Apocalypse Twins, and the bad parts are those dealing with the Red Skull and what eventually becomes Axis. Split down the middle you find the character work. Some of the interpersonal work is very good. Some of it is so bad it broke the internet when it was published. Will we be exploring the issues involved? Only in the most abstract. After almost ten years the dated discourse on prejudice seems even more dated, even as the shape of the controversy makes a hell of a lot more sense.

Uncanny Avengers

Let’s talk about the good before the bad. Will we be getting to the bad? It will be mentioned in passing . . . What I like about the series, unambiguously, is the way it works hard to dovetail the histories of the two franchises. I recognize some older heads might take umbrage to liberties here. If you’re one to glance askance at recent retcons you will probably roll your eyes mightily at the news that Kang and Apocalypse, with his Clan Akkaba, have been at war for a very long time. But it makes perfect sense, takes nothing away from what is known while building on what we have already seen. Particularly 1996’s Rise of Apocalypse miniseries that already tied En Sabah Nur to the reign of Pharaoh Rama Tut. The good Pharaoh was one of Kang’s early identities, but just one, and oh boy are there a few. The links had been there all along. It’s an additive development that introduces a more organic connection between the two teams. Immortals and time travelers are natural enemies, everyone knows that. 

(If you read Young Avengers you’ll learn even more about the connections between Kang’s identities and the Scarlet Witch’s family, and if you read Young Avengers: The Children’s Crusade, you’ll learn about how the aforementioned Dr. Doom was the mastermind behind the aforementioned House of M. Sort of. It’s complicated. You should probably just read Young Avengers, it’s pretty good even if it doesn’t have Rogue. Pobody’s nerfect!)

This is all part of a long chain of events leading back to 1963’s’ Fantastic Four #19, the first appearance of Rama Tut during the Fantastic Four’s first journey to ancient Egypt. That one adventure has been elaborated and expanded by later developments involving Kang, Dr. Strange, the West Coast Avengers, Moon Knight, an alternate Fantastic Four, our Fantastic Four (again), apparently according to the Wiki at some point Killpower (sans Motormouth??? That’s even a thing?) . . . a whole lot of people, in other words, have traveled back in time to one specific moment in our ancient history. Which just happens to also be the precise moment En Sabah Nur first manifests his mutant abilities. Weird coincidence, I know! The idea that all these subsequent iterations across fifty years are still, at heart, crossover tie-ins to one issue of Fantastic Four that was published during the Kennedy administration, well - that’s my favorite part of the whole enterprise. A discourse community spread across half a century dedicated to riffing mountains out of seeming molehills, all playing a game of one-upmanship to see who can fit the most angels on the head of a pin. My people, whether I like it or not. Whether they like it or not.  

Another development I enjoyed was the marriage between the Wasp and Havok. It made a lot of sense, honestly - he’s just her type, a blonde himbo with great power who’s also juuuust a little bit less capable than she is. Havok gets points from me simply for not being his brother. They even have a kid together, the disappearance of whom remains a dangling plotline from the series that I do not believe has yet been pulled. But could be at any time! One imagines there are multiple parties who might be interested in the fruit of a union between the Summers clan and the extended family of Henry Pym. Not like both families don’t have enemies obsessed with genealogy and inheritance. Just saying, don’t come to me crying when you get your wig permanently flipped down the road - it’s all fun and games until Ultron shows up on Krakoa calling Jean Grey his auntie. 

Perhaps Jonathan Hickman remembers that Ultron and the Phalanx once had a very successful and mutually advantageous partnership. Seems like the kind of thing he might have made a Post-It note about, you know, for his graphs. See, it’s not like I don’t understand Hickman. On the contrary, I think I understand very well the way he thinks. He’s Grant Morrison if Grant Morrison had constructed an eccentric mystical philosophy not out of the Illuminatus! trilogy but the Chilton Auto Repair Manual for a 2004 Chevy Aveo. I see the thought process but the results he kicks out are unerringly pessimistic in a way that makes me thankful I never use Reddit for anything but video game tips. Anyway, as I write this Hickman has just announced he is stepping away from writing any of the X-Men books he relaunched, ostensibly because Marvel and his fellow creators were reluctant to move on from the first part of the initial outline of his run. (The fact that he finds his creator owned work more fulfilling probably plays a role as well.) I think we can reasonably infer from the available evidence that the reason he left was in fact the editors’ refusal to allow him to use Ultron, because they said the evil robot was “too scary.” Perhaps we can get a rumor site to run with that.

Uncanny Avengers

The third connection between franchises - after the rivalry of Apocalypse and Kang and the Summers / van Dyne marriage - involved integrating Rogue directly into the ongoing soap opera of the Avengers, the saga of which Remender picked up from the later Bendis era and did his best to nurse in Hickman’s dereliction. Rogue now has more in the way of a personal stake in the lives of Wonder Man, the Scarlet Witch, and the Wasp - to say nothing of Carol Danvers - than to all but a handful of X-Men. Rogue had already been absent from the main stream of the mutant plot for years by the time she joined the Avengers, set off to the side in Legacy. Although she wasn’t absent from the X-Books during her tenure with the Avengers neither was she a driving force. There are whole generations of X-Men she barely knows, and as I’ve continuously alluded, her sitting at an angle to the teams’ traditional leadership structure is a mostly unacknowledged sore thumb in the status quo. Think about the fact that she’s a non-entity on Krakoa and absent from leadership despite having just >checks notes< led the Avengers for a couple years and saved the world multiple times, most recently as of Hickman’s launch during 2018’s No Surrender crossover. That’s also where she straight-up murders Corvus Glaive, puts her fist through his chest on-panel. Number one guy of none other than Thanos himself! You’d think that would at least give people pause prior to dismissing her from consideration for leadership. But she’s busy being married. Ahem.

They made a great job in the years following House of M of showing precisely the ways in which the character was misused by her team and underutilized by the company. Her joining the Avengers was an overdue development. It certainly makes more sense in a vacuum than Wolverine. Her problem with the X-Men is that she has no patience for the team’s traditional management philosophy, top heavy and riven by ideology. When first offered a leadership role in 2000 - during the early days of Claremont II - her first reaction was to demur. Power holds no appeal. She talks to Xavier as an equal and feels no qualms at holding him to account when he falls short, isn’t afraid of Apocalypse, dismisses Mystique entirely. Very little connection to any Summers or Grey family drama - Rogue didn’t even meet Jean Grey until she’d been an X-Man for half a decade. Her and Kitty Pryde hated each other from the moment the former joined the team, despite their later ostensible civility (more on that, as you can imagine, later). Her great contribution to mutant liberation doctrine was the golden insight that Magneto really just needed to shut up and look pretty. Maybe he should smile more? Among the X-Men she appears at times the sole principled anarchist in a house split down the middle between frustrated liberals and pious tankies.

Now, however, she’s had Wonder Man living inside her head for a year, ergo has been inserted into a de facto love triangle - the obstacle between him and the Scarlet Witch, who if you recall, already got on really well with Rogue. Also on that tip, her relationship with Magneto created natural antagonism with his once and former children - I know that’s been changed, but seems too much a load-bearing pillar to remain permanently altered. (Ditto for Franklin Richard not being a mutant. There are always good reasons in the moment, but in five or ten years those reasons will no longer be applicable. Some people liked Guy Gardner as a Vuldarian. When the Cinematic Universe needs reasons to tie the X-Men to the Fantastic Four and the Avengers those connections will return very quickly.) She led the team against Henry Pym and Ultron at their worst. Part of the Wasp’s arc, from the beginning of the first volume of Uncanny Avengers to the end of the third, was more or less her learning to trust not just the other X-Men but Rogue, specifically. Once Janet does she comes to recognize Rogue as one of the team’s best leaders. They become buddies. Buddies. 


To top it all off, of course, there’s her intimate connection to one of the single most traumatic events in the team’s history, a chain of events that began with the truly awful Avengers #200 and was only ever resolved after Kurt Busiek reintegrated Carol to the team at the turn of the century. Rogue wasn’t the reason Ms. Marvel left the Avengers but she was the reason Ms. Marvel retired as an Earth-based superhero for twenty years.

Uncanny Avengers

As for the bad . . . well. There were as I mentioned two distinct plots running through the series: one of those plots involved Kang and the progeny of Apocalypse dueling through history and across alternate futures, features the Celestials destroying the planet, as well as a gruesome on-panel death for Rogue. (Don’t worry, she gets better.) It’s a twisty-turny time travel epic whose plot is about undoing itself, a staple of both franchises, albeit in vastly different ways. One team is all about fighting Kang and one team is all about fighting to prevent nightmarish alternate futures, so the story of Uncanny Avengers becomes Kang fighting to undo a nightmarish alternate future. QED.

The other plot featured the aforementioned Red Skull stealing Charles Xavier’s telepathy. In the first place - oh, damn, that sounds like a windup. Hah. I guess it is. The Red Skull who appears here isn’t actually the Red Skull, but yet another version, this one a clone of the original who wakes up in 2012 straight from 1945. Siiiiiiiiggggghhhhhh. Why go with a new variant of a character who already has a few imposters running around? You’re just adding paragraphs to the Wiki. The real Red Skull was last seen as a disembodied spirit at the end of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run, if I recall the kind of metaphysical dead-not-dead from which any writer worth his salt should be able to weave a yarn of grand return. But nope, we’re doing the clone. Not like the fact that he was a clone was ever really relevant, either. Later on Sin starts hanging out with the clone of her old man, basically more or less going along with the whole thing. One assumes there isn’t reason for her to be attached to any particular iteration over another, can’t imagine a lot of cozy in-jokes in the Schmidt household. 

But that’s a small matter, ultimately, as the clone factor is only briefly relevant - a bit of hash for the cataloguers. More pressing is the degree to which the book is devoted to exploring issues of prejudice and discrimination. And, before we get to the bad, it’s worth mentioning that it’s not entirely bad, and the book’s opening arc is probably the best treatment of the theme in the whole series. The Red Skull shows up with Xavier’s brain (or at least the telepathy parts) and starts a race riot in the middle of the city with a few ugly words. Was it supposed to read as “over the top” in context? We’ve been on the other side of the looking glass for so long that the Skull’s incitements have become regular features of our political landscape. Remender gets it right in that the mechanics of demagoguery are every bit as simple as what we see on the page. Simpler, even. In reality the Skull wouldn’t have needed Xavier’s telepathy to gin up a riot against a hated minority, just Facebook. 

It’s when the book stops to think too hard that it gets into trouble. Alex Summers is situated as the central figure in this argument, a mutant intimately connected to and yet also critically distant from the traditional X-Men hierarchy. He’d spent a good part of the last decade in space, missing out on much of the Utopia period by dint of spending a season in the cosmic end of the pool. In reality these are precisely the reasons why Havok turned out to be a terrible choice to lead this very public team of Avengers. He is indeed a privileged mutant, able to pass completely for baseline human, and possessing that rarest of rare attributes among X-Men - not just a job but an actual career. He’s an archaeologist! He has an advanced degree and in many respects his day job is better and more interesting than being a superhero. Not the usual X-Men dilemma.

Uncanny Avengers Annual

In our real world, the prevalence of relatively privileged specimens in leadership positions at civil rights organizations warps the mission. Respectability politics come into play. All that is actually a great setup for a solo book: mutant who (perhaps selfishly?) turns his back on the internecine drama of that community - and much of that struggle - to return to his awesome day job as globe-trotting archeologist across the Marvel Universe. Doesn’t that sound interesting? Rogue clearly isn’t the only character to be hurt by the X-Men books’ long-standing inability to develop individual characters. It’s like they don’t even exist anymore outside their position on teams. Fans like it that way? Seems terribly sad. 

Say what you will about the Avengers, but from the very beginning with Captain America the book has been designed to develop and rehabilitate established characters for further use. It doesn’t always work and can fail spectacularly, as during Bob Harras’ tenure as writer, which “developed” Sersi, Crystal, and the Black Knight so well they were radioactive for a solid decade. (He somehow managed to ruin the Avengers while also simultaneously running the X-Men into a ditch. Impressive.) But this is one aspect of the franchise history that both Bendis and Hickman used well. Both writers introduced pet favorites onto the team who found success as a direct result of getting the call. Remember when Luke Cage and Wolverine seemed terribly off-model for the Avengers? Now they’re mainstays. (Spider-Man and Spider Woman on the contrary had already spent time alongside if not with the team so they didn’t seem that odd to me. Spider-Man had been a reserve Avenger since 1991.) Likewise, during the same period that Rogue served on the Unity Squad Sunspot was also an Avenger for almost a decade, Cannonball for a while with him. 

(Shang-Chi joined as well during Hickman’s term but I remain convinced he was a poorer fit than any of these other unlikely additions, at least to judge by how he was used in his first years as an Avenger. I arrive at this judgement from observing that writers started giving him hokey hi-tech gimmicks almost immediately upon him joining. These tech workarounds emphasized in a perhaps unintentional way that the writers may themselves have not understood why he was on the team.)

Anyway. Captain America picks Alex to lead the team based on the fact that he’s a handsome white guy who has led before and already has media training, dating from his tenure on X-Factor in the early 90s. Although it doesn’t really come up in the course of Remender’s run, it’s important in that Havok’s incarnation of X-Factor is one of only a small handful of mutant teams to have ever presented any substantial public face, which they maintained even down to the Avengers-esque press conferences. The X-Men might have done better all along if Chuck had had the foresight to hire a press agent. That’s a big part of Cap’s thinking in putting Havok front and center, in any event.

This worked about as well as it ever has in the real world, which is variable depending on how large a handicap you give someone who is manifestly bad at all aspects of his job. Seriously: name a team Alex Summers has headed which hasn’t shaken apart in weird ways. He’s led a few! The Unity Squad avoids this fate because Rogue is there to take over when he, uh, turns evil, and she proves to be a better leader than Alex (in Volume 3) to such a wide degree that the previous tenure really stands out as the last gasp of a mediocre reflexive patriarchy. (In more ways than one.) And that’s even adjusting for the fact that she’s also terrible with the media. She’s still not quite as bad at talking to reporters as Alex, and she murders a man on camera during her first press conference.

Uncanny Avengers

To wit: there is a notorious sequence near the beginning of the run where Havok addresses the media, during which commences a brief exchange on the subject of prejudice. This climaxes with Alex making a speech where he takes off his mask and appeals to the commonality of human and mutant to lower the temperature in a discussion of grievances. At which point, if you recall correctly, the internet exploded in the general direction of the writer, for reasons which should by now seem very familiar. (This was issue #5 of the first volume, early 2013.) One of the most privileged mutants in Marvel’s stable was trying to steer the conversation away from thorny conflict and towards a peaceful resolution that ended in some kind of agreement on amorphous common principles. Principles which can often seem commendable in a vacuum but which in context become rudimentary and condescending. Refocusing an argument away from specific controversy to general commonality may occasionally defuse tempers in the short term but is much more likely to further entrench misunderstanding, representing enforced amity used as a tool of privilege to muffle dissent. I’m simplifying immensely. What did he actually say? 

. . . I see the very word “mutant” as divisive. Old thinking that serves to further separate us from our fellow man. We are all humans. Of one tribe. We are defined by our choices, not the makeup of our genes. So please don’t call us mutants. The “M” word represents everything I hate. 

Then a reporter pops up, “Well . . . If you don’t want to called ‘mutant,’ what should we call you?” At which point Alex Summers, handsome blonde All-American Alex drawn with the utmost charm by Olivier Coipel and Mark Morales, cocks his head a little bit and smiles, wryly . . . oh yeah, he’s got this one. Batter up, pitch, swing - “How about Alex?” Home run. It’s Miller time.

The Grim Reaper bursts onto the scene at that point and things get violent. Rogue murders Wonder Man’s brother on live TV but the damage had already been done. 

What is interesting in hindsight is the degree to which Alex’s good-hearted but also resolutely clueless inability to engage with any but the most superficial reading of an ideological rift presents a perfect example of this manner of subtle derailment, familiar from a decade of intensifying discourse on these subjects in our own world. The problem in this formulation becomes the conflict that results from the problem and not the problem itself. The only people walking away content from that exchange are people whose goal was not fixing the problem but smoothing the disagreement. Usually just makes things worse. 

No one gets the assignment of a huge new launch coming out of one of the company’s biggest-ever crossovers thinking, “oh boy, time to get yelled at by people online!” A common dilemma and a very familiar pattern. The arguments in this comic and around this comic both follow that pattern pretty well. An initial attempt at good faith discourse is marred by pitfalls as the conditionality of that good faith itself is questioned, fairly or no. A defensive crouch sneaks into the discourse partway through the series. Ideological conversations become more deliberate and effortful. There are long passages which read less like real conversations than and more like balanced and researched (if hardly unbiased) polemics. A few issues later (issue #9) a heated conversation between Rogue and Wanda unfolds thusly:

Wanda: No one group owns persecution, Rogue. 

Rogue: But telling any group not to be proud of who they are - 

Wanda: Alex didn’t tell anyone not to be proud of whom he or she is. Don’t extrapolate your own version, listen and speak to what the man actually said. He was asking people to see the person first . . . and to not judge anyone based on any one trait.

A little later in the same conversation: 

Rogue: He’s asking people to forget their history - to assimilate! 

Wanda: What history? Assimilate into what?

Rogue: “Normal” human culture. 

Wanda: As opposed to what, normal mutant culture? 

Yadda yadda yadda, another page later they are still talking and we have clearly entered the “shower conversations with straw men” segment of the program. Rogue ends the conversation yelling, 

All I hear is rationalizing from the witch who tried to wipe us out. You ask me, deep down, in the center of your belly, you’re ashamed of what you are - Maybe you do think things a would be better if there were no more mutants?  

Points are made? In fairness it probably isn’t to any writer’s strengths to have to deal with massive negative blowback to what was, in the context of the story, a relatively minor thematic sidebar. But therein lies the rub - even if it doesn’t take up much of the story’s running time, a great deal of how people find themselves reflected in these stories depends on just such minor sidebars. People form intense personal connections to different aspects of the core premise of the X-Men, an emotional spectrum that simply doesn’t exist for the Avengers. That’s one reason why those particular arguments rarely produce winners. Rogue doesn’t always come out the best from these arguments and is often portrayed as headstrong (which she certainly is) beyond the point of reason, with vision occluded by trauma and grief. Is she being used as a straw woman to reiterate one side of fraught arguments in just such a way as to allow the writer to explain himself in light of then-recent online discussions? That’s why Campbell’s soup is mmmm-mmmm good.

Uncanny Avengers

As I spent a lot of time (probably an otiose amount of time) discussing previously, as awkward as they may be these are still important conversations about the world of the kind that are supposed to take place in X-Men comic books, either explicitly or allegorically. Worth noting again that even Claremont struggled when his series moved past dealing in metaphors and attempted frank discourse on matters of actual social gravity. Everyone remembers Kitty saying the “N”-word, after all, a family favorite from way back. God Loves Man Kills is a bit turgid if we’re being honest with ourselves. The X-Men can be heavy-handed, which is occasionally a drag and sometimes even (as in the examples at hand) tone-deaf and aggravating, but those sensations are themselves part and parcel of the franchise. What I’m saying is, don’t linger too long on these sections and you won’t be disappointed when Uncanny Avengers fails to resolve the racial tensions of a lonely nation. In this respect it’s a representative artifact of the manner in which the national discourse around these thorny topics was beginning to cohere - or, perhaps better to say, failing to cohere - in the early evening of the Age of Obama. The specific individuals chosen to represent those arguments and institutions utterly failed to rise to the gravity of the moment and we still live in the rubble of the consequences. 

The book does mount an argument, unwitting or no, as to why these kinds of imbroglio rarely produce satisfying results. In real life terrible arguments stemming from deep divisions don’t also culminate in long adventures where people have to learn to live as a team in order to survive. The Avengers and the X-Men start getting along better because they have to do the work of seeing the world through each other’s eyes and learning to communicate in order to save that world. People in small groups who have to cooperate for immediate survival usually find ways to resolve differences. Absolutely shocking revelation, I am aware. Sadly the solution doesn’t always scale, as recent events in our own world may attest.  

Which brings us to the final stretch of the series, after the far more gratifying Apocalypse / Kang thread has wrapped. Yes, I speak of AXIS. Do you remember AXIS? This is what it was all leading towards. And, you know, if we’re being frank, a big reason this series hasn’t lingered in the public consciousness like other runs of comparable quality is that it climaxes in a giant wet fart of a crossover that somehow reads as rushed despite two years’ buildup. The cookie, sometimes that is how she crumbles. 

Just what is AXIS , anyway? Why not just ask the me of October 2014, writing for the AV Club? 

Whenever the subject comes up, Marvel swears the only reason it does so many crossovers is that people continue to buy them. Check out any of Axel Alonso’s Q&As or Tom Brevoort’s Tumblr, and there are many variations of the same complaint: Too many events! To which Marvel replies: If you don’t buy them, we’ll stop making them. So the phrase “event fatigue” gets thrown around by long-term fans sick of the constant hype machine, but it really doesn’t mean anything, because new events always sell like gangbusters. Someone’s buying them. 

A Long Conversation

Event season is no longer limited to the summer. Event season is now every season. Original Sin preceded Avengers & X-Men: Axis #1-#2 (Marvel), and Axis itself will be supplanted by the conclusion of “Time Runs Out” and a new Secret Wars in the spring. Secret Wars will last the summer, and at some point soon there will surely be an announcement of what the post-Secret Wars fall 2015 crossover will be. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose . . .

Axis at least has the virtue of emerging as the organic conclusion to two years’ worth of ongoing story in one of Marvel’s flagship books, Uncanny Avengers. The events of Axis have been telegraphed since almost the first issue of that series: The Red Skull, having stolen the psychic power from Charles Xavier’s corpse, has somehow managed to transform into a new incarnation of Onslaught, surely everyone’s favorite ’90s event villain.

That this was all Magneto’s fault, and that the birth of Red Onslaught was the direct result of Magneto committing the completely understandable “mistake” of crushing a Nazi to death under a giant rock, is a nice touch. The story tries to throw a bit of shade at Magneto for murdering the Skull in cold blood, but really, implying a Holocaust survivor isn’t justified in killing the Red Skull is an indefensible supposition.

All of the themes writer Rick Remender has woven together over the course of Uncanny’s run are here: humans and mutants cooperating against anti-mutant hysteria, the necessity of forgiveness, and the persistence of memory. The problem is, now that the main event has arrived, the story itself chooses a terrible moment to run out of gas. Would this story have been better if it had been “just” a focused mini-event restricted to the pages of Uncanny Avengers? We will never know.

The “hook” of Axis, above and beyond being the climax to Remender’s run on Uncanny, is that with the heroes out of commission, it falls to the villains to save the day. That’s not a bad hook on which to hang a story, all things considered—and it works here because the Red Skull is one of only a handful of characters Dr. Doom, Loki, Magneto, and even Carnage might put their differences aside to throw down against. If the solicits are to be believed, at some point in the story the world is turned upside down (on its axis, one might say), and the villains really do become heroes. (Rumors seem to indicate Sabretooth will be permanently—or “permanently”—changed enough to join the post-Axis lineup of the Uncanny Avengers.)


Axis 3

That the series is already one-quarter over and we still haven’t gotten to the hook is a problem. So far we’ve seen the Red Onslaught just about murdering the heroes, Magneto gathering a team of the world’s most powerful villains, and not much else. Remender suffers at times for being a deliberate plotter, but the first two issues of Axis read as if Jonathan Hickman took a pass at the scripts to cut down on the amount of interesting events per issue. 
It doesn’t help that the Red Onslaught’s great plan amounts to stealing some of Tony Stark’s old blueprints to make adamantium-coated hero-killer Sentinels. (Tony made a lot of really good decisions during the Civil War.) The story reminds us that Tony doesn’t remember writing the plans because his brain got rebooted during “Dark Reign,” which doesn’t do a lot to ameliorate the fact that he should still have known that designing special super-Sentinels has never, ever gone right for anyone in the history of comics. And super-Sentinels remain as interesting an antagonist as they’ve ever been, which is not a lot.

[2021 Tegan: Worth pointing out here that the reason Magneto needs to gather villains in the first place is that, because these Sentinels were designed during the Civil War by Tony Stark, they’re only programmed to fight superheroes. Hence, they are helpless against super-villains. That’s the logic. The Sentinels weren’t programmed to fight villains. That’s the plot. I’m sorry.]  

Fans of the original Onslaught saga (God bless them) will find a lot to like here, from the callback to the original story’s use of Sentinels as cannon fodder through to Adam Kubert’s dependable art (he drew the original Onslaught as well). Marvel is getting smart about these events and shipping them in weekly or near-weekly frequency, which is good, because this would be a pretty awful read month-to-month. Retailers will already have ordered the first few issues before they even know if the story is any good, even after having moved the order cut-off date. Good business model.

So how will it all end? Hopefully better than Original Sin (which, if we’re keeping track, ended exactly the way everyone knew it would from pretty much the first page). If this writer sounds cynical about the never-ending cavalcade of events, please forgive. A good event showcases a particular kind of widescreen storytelling superhero comics can do that very few other mediums even approach, although Marvel is currently giving it a try themselves in the world of film. Good events are exciting, and even mediocre events can be entertaining. Coming so hot on the heels of Original Sin, however, and with the juggernaut of a new Secret Wars breathing down its neck, Axis needed to be a lot more than this to read as anything more than Marvel hitting their quarterly sales target.

I have a terrible memory for my own writing, and have therefore come to value stumbling across good bits. “Cut down on the amount of interesting events per issue” made me laugh, I must admit - it’s like the me of 2014 knew just what points to make for the me of 2021. If that isn’t consistency I don’t know what is.  

So - yeah. There were two stories in AXIS, neither of them were that strong, and together the whole thing is just kind of a mess. One of them involves the Red Skull becoming Onslaught because apparently it was a bad thing for Magneto to kill him. In 2021 such an assertion is plain silly. In this day and age Captain America himself would probably grab the flamethrower to incinerate the body, because even in the context of the Marvel Universe itself the Red Skull’s ability to come back from literal death is beyond parody. He’s always back. He has a knack for it, even keeps a weird little freak hustling pretty much 24/7 to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible. (Arnim Zola, if you’re keeping track at home.) Plus, I mean. He builds a concentration camp on the ashes of Genosha. By all means kill the Red Skull. Go crazy, enjoy yourself. Chances are very good you’ll get another opportunity before long.

Uncanny Avengers

The two halves of the story seem more ill-fitted in hindsight. Spending so much time on real horrors with close counterparts in our world, a world in which the evils of prejudice and hatred  often seems intractable and ineradicable, really sits ill at ease with the idea of good and evil being concrete attributes which can be switched on and off like a light switch by a sorcerer. Which is what happens halfway through Axis. Suddenly the story that was about the Red Onslaught and genocide is about Carnage having a face turn. There’s a high-concept Silver Age feel to that gimmick, and while I’m not saying there’s no place for the occasional high-concept Silver Age gimmick - heaven forfend! - perhaps that place was not the climax to a two year saga of pride, bigotry, and mass murder.  

Worth mentioning, before moving on, that Remender’s idea of a heel turn for the X-Men involves the team calling a meeting where they announce they’re all on the same page with Apocalypse and are ready to start playing offense against the human race. Fun sequence, that. Wonder if it ever comes up again. 

Anyway. The first volume of Uncanny Avengers was an old-school jam in an era of the new. The second volume is only five issues long and immediately precedes Secret Wars. It’s not a lead-in, its devoted to establishing the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver’s new origin and it features the High Evolutionary. There’s no acknowledgement of the crossover other than a tiny Secret Wars logo on the very last page to indicate Remender’s time with these characters had come to an end. These comics were always going to be retconned, and perhaps by the time you read this they will have been. It’s not a bad story, in any event, featuring good work from the ever-reliable Acuna and an Avengers team that exists nowhere else, led by Rogue and featuring the Sam Wilson Captain America and the Vision alongside a temporarily good Sabretooth. The team that comes out the other side of Secret Wars bears little resemblance to Remender’s, as we shall see, although Rogue’s and Wanda’s character arcs do stay consistent between multiple volumes, as we shall also see. That’s what we’re here for, after all, and where we can look to wrap it up. 

We shall conclude with the observation that Remender holds the distinction of having written the worst line of dialogue ever spoken by Rogue. At the very beginning of the series, issue #2. The occasion for this line was Rogue, held captive by the Red Skull and his cannon fodder mutant animal people S-Men, escaping from her bonds. (The Red Skull’s cannon fodder mutant animal people S-Men are used this one time and never mentioned again, so far as I know), All well and good. The escape was effected by means of a contrivance involving spitting water out of a cup onto a water elemental, a bit of straightjacket dexterity accompanied by the line:

Thank Remy LeBeau and all those kinky bondage drinking games. 

Friends, life is suffering. This is known

This line has haunted me for almost a decade. As the years passed and I forgot much else of this book I still remembered that line, planted like a festering half-popped carbuncle on the ass of my mind. Is that something people would say? Speak those words out loud - does that conglomeration of syllables roll off the tongue or does it trip thuddeningly? Positively Dreiserian in its commitment to describing a hated phenomenon with great precision and a minimum of art. Perhaps people actually do such things, precisely - who knows? It is a large world, filled with depravity. Would anyone ever say that baldly explanatory phrase - “kinky bondage drinking games?” Perhaps this is simply down to the difficulty of conveying the chimera of memory through the meager medium of language. The scene is such that honestly . . . well, I don’t know why drinking from a paper cup without hands is a rare skill, especially as in this instance it involves simply splashing herself with water. Is it? Do you absolutely need to have sex with Gambit to unlearn our parochial flatscan vanilla water drinking habits? Any skill transferred by such means deserves no perpetuation. This place is not a place of honor . . . no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.


The first volume of Uncanny Avengers was a deeply imperfect book that nevertheless accomplished many important things. In wonkish terms of continuity and lore it may prove more significant yet, given a great deal of road is laid down here that has yet been barely driven. The nature of the book is such that although we speak of it in general terms as being Remender’s story, along with his artists, it’s probable that as much as a little or a lot of the plot and character beats were hashed out in committee. We can’t know, but this was a high profile launch coming out of an enormous crossover. That’s how this world works. I say that neither to castigate nor to exculpate, but to qualify the judgment that this isn’t Remender’s best. Not his worst, either! Thankfully, the wince-inducing crass humor that occasionally mars his work is mostly absent, largely shunted off to a skippable satirical Annual featuring the team crossing swords with Mojo. He’s good at plot-heavy page-turners with strong character beats - as “meat & potatoes” as it gets, for mainstream superhero books. As such this book is best when the pace is fastest and the concept the highest. When it stops to sit around and mull Uncanny Avengers gets lost in its own head. It fails to realize until the end that the real antagonist all along has been Alex Summers’ ascendant mediocrity, and that nothing was ever going to get better without a change of management.   

(“Skippable Mojo story” is a redundancy, I know.) 

That change of management would soon arrive. After the brief second volume, the third volume of the series that arrives on the heels of the Secret Wars arrives with Rogue firmly at the helm of a new and very different team. The first year of that book coincides precisely with one of the worst years in the company’s history, an annus horribilis that saw Rogue’s unlikely team of Avengers frogmarched through four of the company’s worst-ever crossovers - Inhumans vs X-Men, Standoff!, Civil War II, and, yes, Secret Empire. It is a testament to the strength of the series’ creators, primarily Gerry Duggan, that the book recovers. What could have been a car wreck becomes a trial by fire leading to profound personal triumph for Rogue. What could have easily been a muddled and forgettable interlude instead becomes her finest hour.

Uncanny X-Men


Oh, What a Rogue

1. I Got No Clue What They Want to do With You (1995)

2. Hello Again (1990)

3. Make it With the Down Boys 

    I. Everything is Science Fiction (1963-1983)

4. The Journey Ends 

    Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV (2012-2018)

A Few Short Words About Carol Danvers

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Journey Ends (II)

Avengers 1

Now, the Avengers . . . the reason I like the Avengers is a much shorter conversation. It’s the Marvel book for people who really, really like their meat and potatoes. Sometimes it’s a $4 Reno strip steak and sometimes it’s a filet mignon, but by god if you belly up to the table for a hearty meal you will walk away full.

While it’s very easy to argue that the X-Men were in context a lesser effort by Lee & Kirby, the Avengers probably shouldn’t even make that list. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, after all, and was long before National even convened the Justice Society in 1940. Just put all the popular guys (and a girl) in one book and have them fight stuff . . . together. Worked for the Argonauts, worked for the Matter of Britain. If you doubt the perfunctory nature of the early Avengers stories, rest assured their actual origin as a team involves the Hulk undercover as a clown robot. Also, “origin” is probably putting it too strongly: Avengers #1 is simply the first time these people meet each other. Captain America climbs aboard in issue #4 and that’s the first time the book exhibits a pulse. It’s still a great story - a perfect reintroduction to a character who was most likely unfamiliar to the vast majority of their readers, complimented with gratifying daubs of pathos and topicality. An early highlight for the line. 

Avengers #4 is a perfect summation in one of both the the appeal and the limitations of the premise. At its most basic the Avengers is a workplace drama starring a rotating cast of people who have one of the worst jobs on the planet. Every time the book gets stale you can always upend the ant farm and throw in a few new specimens. Cap was the first new member and the drama of his introduction provides a replacement for the conflict with the Hulk that frames the series’ very beginning. Suddenly the team is an actual ensemble instead of merely a squad of fighters. When its done well, therefore, the Avengers offer the same pleasures as any other long-running workplace entertainment: set up a group of strong personalities, give them a common purpose, watch them bicker and make-out for years on end. These pleasures are not particularly bound to the premise and certainly not to the genre. It doesn’t have to be character driven, although it often is to more of a degree than is acknowledged. Sometimes the book eschews any reference to the long-running subplots of the core Avengers family, and there have been long stretches without any founding member present. It’s such a bog simple premise you can do just about everything with it. 

Avengers 4

The problem is, you can do just about everything with the Avengers, so long as you’re content for “everything” to mean the Marvel Universe and its precincts. If you’re not already in some way invested in the Marvel Universe as a discrete object you probably have little to no interest in the Avengers. Without prior investment in Captain America and his haunts, his return to said haunts will elicit little pleasure - until, of course, the marketing copy gets to work at manufacturing prior investment from a whole cloth. It isn’t the book for stylistic visionaries, and if that’s where your interests lie you will probably remain unswayed by any poetic evocations of the Buscema / Palmer team. And in all fairness the continuity of those core characters is pretty complex after half a century, in no way bound together by any common theme. If you don’t like those specific characters - Wonder Man, the Wasp, and the like - you will find little purchase for years at a stretch. 

So yes, I understand why the appeal of the concept for many has been limited through the years. Leastways until around 2004, at which point the traditional Avengers jazz was dialed back considerably. That’s the cutoff because that’s when Marvel decided they could make a lot more money with the Avengers if they took away the characters people disliked and added more characters people liked. Crazy, I know. If the characters you liked actually were Wonder Man and the Wasp, well, you were shit outta luck. 

You know by now, or you should: at heart I’m a hopeless traditionalist. Tradition can in this instance be a simple joy, manufactured out of of months and years instead of decades or centuries - but kids are suckers for just that kind of thing. If those blatantly cornball aspects of superhero comic books hold no appeal you will almost certainly remain unmoved by any recitation of “the old order changeth,” and nothing I can say will sway you to the contrary. Never forget Stan conjured that shit out of a whole cloth - the first time Tennyson's phrase was used in this context that “old order” was all of fifteen issue young. He did it because it worked.

Now, as I alluded, the problem - there’s always a problem. Of course there’s always a problem. Ah, well. The “problem,” such as it is, appeared in the aforementioned December of 2004 when Marvel launched New Avengers. Brian Michael Bendis’ reboot of the team eschewed almost all the traditions, saving the presence of one founder and Captain America (who isn’t a founder but is granted founder’s status in voting and procedure), in favor of a team composed of Wolverine and Spider-Man. There were also a few new additions to the team who were, if not quite sales powerhouses, popular characters in their own right previously not associated with the franchise, like Luke Cage, the Sentry, and the Jessica Drew Spider-Woman. With moody art by David Finch and a focus away from traditional Avengers foes in favor of shadowy conspiracies and decompressed action, the series accomplished what had seemed impossible for my entire lifetime. Not only were the Avengers selling better than the X-Men, consistently and not just a bump, for the first time in decades, the Avengers were suddenly cooler for the first time in . . . forever. 

The success of the original run of Bendis’ New Avengers was a remarkable thing at the time and still. In hindsight it doesn’t seem like much of a gamble, but then again neither does Ultimate Spider-Man. The success of that series forced Brian Hibbs to eat a bug after it made it to 100 issues of publication, and for that at least, I was there eating that bug too. I read the first half-dozens issues of Ultimate as they dropped and it was the sleepiest damn thing on the shelves. Stopped reading after the origin because it was so lackadaisical. Turns out people were hankering for just that thing. The further gamble a few years later of letting him cross all the red lines to vivisect one of Marvel’s most consistent, if not strongest, performers turned out to be not even a gamble at all. It remade the company, and if you think I’m exaggerating you weren’t around. 

It was a marvel, pardon the pun, to see the company cohere so fully and so enthusiastically around a new house style. Whatever adventurousness had fueled the early years of Quesada’s tenure drained as they realized the power of crossovers with the eagerness of early man discovering fire. It was only a matter of time once the success of New Avengers had been metabolized for House of M to be announced, and from House of M the seeds for the next decade of X-Men stories sewn like so much salt. From House of M in 2005 the Avengers in turn were on to Civil War and Secret Invasion and so on down the line until, finally, the streams converged again in 2012 with Avengers vs X-Men. That crossover represented the end of an era for the company, coming at the tail of almost a decade’s worth of Avengers stories by Bendis as well as almost a decade's worth of X-Men plotlines stemming from House of M. It was the last monster of its kind at the company until Hickman’s Secret Wars upended the apple cart in 2015. The scale and impact of that crossover was sufficient to have effectively swallowed all memory of Axis, the medium-scale crossover that emerged from the pages of Uncanny Avengers and preceded the Secret Wars by a mere half-year.

Avengers 16

At this point it is necessary to mention that beginning at least with House of M there developed a sense of grievance on the part of a certain segment of the readership who believed Marvel to be intentionally sidelining the mutants in favor of the Avengers. It’s generally a good idea to react with skepticism to these rumors as they almost never have any basis in fact. Fans are always resentful, its what we do. I resent the fuck out of Rogue wearing a red costume, for instance. That and a nickel will get me a cup of coffee. Was there a specific plan on Marvel’s part to torpedo the X-Men, at any point ever? Almost certainly not and I think the idea can be dismissed down the line. Businesses tend not to want major product lines to sell less, especially given the supposed slide begins before Marvel Studios had released a single film and before any purported rivalry between those later movies and the Fox X-Men films (or the Sony Spider-Man films, for that matter). 

However, with those very important caveats added, I have already indicated that I just don’t think the company understood the books very well during this period. They put them together in a crossover with the Avengers - House of M - after the Avengers had leapfrogged position on the sales charts, and one team limped out of that crossover in a severely diminished capacity. How was that supposed to look? New Avengers pivoted from House of M to Civil War and in that period cemented its status as both center of the line and epicenter of a new house style. The X-Men pivoted from House of M and the Scarlet Witch muttering “no more mutants” to The 198 and Decimation. House of M happened during Claremont’s last run on Uncanny X-Men and he didn’t stick around long enough to do anything with the premise. Doubt it held a lot of interest for the master. Ed Brubaker followed with a solid year of space stuff, already teed up by Claremont, that was itself overshadowed by the contemporaneous and far more well received Annihilation events. On the adjectiveless X-Men Peter Milligan dealt with some of the fallout of the event, which in practice meant a year of them sitting around the mansion surrounded by Sentinels. That’s the stretch where Gambit becomes a Horseman of Apocalypse, everyone’s favorite. No one wanted to do anything, no one could do anything with the post-House of M status quo. It sat there more or less inert until literally 2007, two years after the fact, by which point none of the core X-books were still being written by the same people who had been writing them in 2005 during House of M. Which means, in essence, the storyline was from almost the very beginning an inheritance shepherded by editors, primarily Axel Alonso.

Oh, wait, I’m sorry, I forgot something - Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men! Pardon my forgetting. That was the company’s big attempt to pump up the X-Books on the tails of the Morrison era. First issue of that dropped half a year in advance of New Avengers #1, coincided with Claremont coming back aboard Uncanny from where he had been during the Morrison years, holding down Extreme. The marketing copy for Whedon’s debut was rapturous in anticipation of a well-executed “back to basics” move by a then-beloved nerd celebrity writer. With almost two decade’s hindsight the run was a dismal failure. Instead of a bold new direction for the books as a whole Whedon arrived with a boondoggle about space aliens convinced Colossus was destined to destroy their planet.

Avengers Finale

There was in his sterile fan fic no spark to kindle further stories: he came on board to play with the toys and put them just the way he liked them. Then he got bored and took four years to put out twenty four issues of a monthly comic. The first issue of Whedon’s Astonishing saw print the month before Avengers Disassembled tore that franchise down to sprockets in 2004, the last issue hit shelves the same day as the final chapter of Messiah Complex in early 2008 (X-Men #207), already during the buildup to Secret Invasion. Additionally, the actual final part of Whedon’s story shipped even later than that, in a Giant Sized special that saw print in May of that year. It had gone from new flagship to irrelevant curiosity in, oh, the amount of time it took to ship five monthly issues in 2005. Which is still better than the four they shipped in 2007.  

It was hard not to see that a judo maneuver had been performed. In the 90s Bob Harras split the books off into a walled kingdom all their own, at a slight remove from the quotidian goings-on of the mainstream line. The removal was never really to anyone’s benefit but Harras, but it stuck. New management at the turn of the century kept the arrangement simply, one imagines, out of inertia. But then the world turned upside down and the Avengers started selling better. Suddenly the walled kingdom set off in its own exclusive corner was just set off to the side, period. Civil War was an immensely popular story in which the X-Men barely appear, save for Wolverine in his capacity as an Avenger. There’s a tie-in miniseries that features the X-Men gloating about the fact that, for once, the problem has nothing to do with them. They get to be the law-abiding bystanders sitting on the sidelines shaking their heads at the neighbors. One imagines it must have been very satisfying for the mutants in the moment, but probably less so sitting home on Saturday night when everyone else was out getting absolutely demolished at the cast party for Civil War #7. 

To the enduring surprise of anyone who remembers the Before Times, the Avengers under Bendis never wavered from their place at the top of the charts. He stayed on those books for eight years and in that time not only finished the initial run of New Avengers but also restarted the book in a slightly more traditionalist mold in 2010 - albeit still with Wolverine and Spider-Man, only this time fighting once again Kang instead of The Hand. Of course, that was all still before the movie, before 2012 and before the Avengers became the most popular superheroes in the world. Whedon had a hand in this, as he apparently found it more gratifying to direct movies than finish scripts in a timely manner. This wasn’t even the New Avengers, mind, but the classic knobs - Hawkeye and Black Widow! Even the god-damned Vision and Scarlet Witch became stars. The movie versions didn’t exactly play up traditionalist aspects of the franchise, however. Made the team an appendage of SHIELD. I believe it lacked the style and grace of the Hulk pretending to be a robot pretending to be a clown. 

House of M 1

The Avengers aren’t supposed to be cool. It’s supposed to be a book for wonks and oldsters. That the team is a bit square has always been part of the charm. The movie Avengers aren’t square. The movie Avengers aren’t harried adults juggling shitty personal lives, and possibly even outside careers, who have to fight with city planning and get yelled at by the mayor and deal with tabloid reporters. All those quotidian hassles are missing from the movies - the same hassles that help distinguish public superheroes in the Marvel Universe from gleaming demigods at an Olympian remove (or perched in their moon palace). There’s a peculiarly New York attitude towards celebrity at the heart of the most traditional incarnations of the comic book Avengers - a depiction of superheroes as celebrities consistently framed by a pejorative understanding of fame. This isn’t celebrity as an avatar of distant glamor but a picture of fame as a real-life hassle whose presence creates traffic jams and necessitates expensive repairs. Superheroes roll through your neighborhood like wrecking balls. 

A major difference between the Avengers and so many similar teams, for much of their history, has been the manner in which the Avengers purposefully choose to submit to the indignities of fame and inconveniences of bureaucracy. In those humbling gestures they of all their spandex brethren at times bear the greatest resemblance to actual civil servants. They get up in front of the cameras to introduce new members every time as if to say, “these lovely schmucks are why the Holland Tunnel is going to be closed for repair next month. AM Shock Jocks across the Tri-State area get your ‘Blunder Man’ material ready, it’s really not ‘if’ but ‘when.’” Even Bendis’ New Avengers did the press conference.

So with all this in mind? Really not hard to see why X-Men fans at the time may have felt aggrieved. If you grew up in a world where the X-Men were the dominant retail hegemon the very idea that the terminally dorky Avengers might one day surpass them both in sales and the world of multi-billion dollar movie franchises seems perverse. I love the Avengers and it seems perverse to me. Sometimes the old order changeth a bit too much. 

Now, keep in mind that the era leading directly into House of M was particularly fraught for the X-Books. The violent counter-reformation that ushered out Morrison’s run saw a brief period in 2004, around the launch of Whedon’s Astonishing, during which Chuck Austen was writing both main X-Men books. Insults heaped upon insults. Whedon was brought in to provide a bold new direction but he did not succeed and that failure impacted everything around it. Claremont and Milligan were sent in to replace Austen on the two main titles and staunch the bleeding, but the books had no direction during this interregnum and neither of those writers lingered past 2006.

Certainly House of M provided that direction, but it was not a direction organic to the books themselves. While again, I want to stress that I don’t believe for one moment the company was trying to sabotage the books, they couldn’t have picked a better plan to convince a certain breed of conspiratorial-minded fan that they were indeed trying their level best to do just that. The irony is that on paper it looks very much as if the Marvel brain trust were trying to give the mutant books what the mutant readers emphatically wanted: a strong direction with a long-term arc that would allow the books to regain focus and remain self-contained while also in theory enabling for more interaction with the wider Marvel Universe down the line. In practice what they got was, indeed, a strong, editorially-mandated direction that in practice more resembled a blind cattle chute into which they could shunt ambitious creators for the next seven or eight years. From the outside looking in was hard not to conclude that a rudderless period for the mutant books in the early aughts led the company to codify some of Harras’ worst tendencies in the name of stability. 

As someone who at least in theory liked both the Avengers and X-Men the period was quite confusing. I was cold on the mutants for years at a stretch and didn’t at all care for Bendis on the Avengers. Although I will concede he grew into the book he never grew on me. He never grew out of any of his worst tics in terms of static storytelling and dialogue, and while Alias and to a degree Ultimate Spider-Man were able to make a virtue of the approach I never warmed to it for the Avengers. He got lazier with his plotting as he went, with Age of Ultron serving as the absolute nadir of that immobile tendency. He has very little interest in the practical aspects of fight choreography, a puzzling blindspot for someone who has written action stories for over two decades. Do these sound like very old, very practiced complaints? Well. I’ve certainly made no secret of my feelings regarding his shortcomings as a writer of superhero stories. I’ve been complaining about him in public for all of those two decades now. One of my very first pieces in The Comics Journal was a review of his Daredevil. There’s a chance I have been complaining about Brian Michael Bendis longer than you have been alive. While I have no real dog in the fight of who sells more comics it is nevertheless puzzling to see your favorite book hit its commercial peak by jettisoning everything you love and doubling down on that thing you already dislike. 

Which brings us back, again, to Uncanny Avengers. Because you know all that stuff I said before about how significant the book was to the X-Men as a franchise, in theory if not in fact? Well, for the Avengers the release of this series was also the first time since 2004 the main books had been written by someone other than Brian Michael Bendis. Uncanny Avengers launched alongside Jonathan Hickman's reboot of the core Avengers books and the beginning of Bendis' run on the X-Men, and in that context was set up at least ostensibly as a new flagship equidistant between the company's two biggest franchises. (They also launched Al Ewing’s Mighty Avengers soon following, which I mention for the sake of completion even as I acknowledge it as another of many very promising ensemble pieces launched by Ewing to little or no sales response. He has deserved better all down the line.) In marketing if nowhere else Uncanny Avengers represented a new beginning for both teams. In practice, having no connection to the much larger-scale stories in Bendis' and especially Hickman's runs meant Uncanny was sidelined almost the moment it left the gates. The Avengers Unity Squad encounter neither the outlaw Cyclops of the post-AvX period nor intersect a single convergence in the build up to Secret Wars. They all met up for Axis but would probably prefer not to talk about it. (Do the Uncanny Avengers ever show up during the Bendis X-Men run? I tried to remember and subsequently stopped trying to remember.)

All New X Men

At this point its probably worth mentioning that Hickman’s run was in no way shape or form defined by classical tendencies. All of the parts of the Avengers that resemble an old house shoe, the parts to which my Pavlovian fan instincts respond, are precisely those parts that seemed to interest Bendis only a little and Hickman not at all. While there is much to recommend about Hickman’s time on the books its also a singularly terrible Avengers story in which over the course of about three years the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe slowly transform into super villains. It’s a story where Dr. Doom saves the day. No Tennyson in its soul, save perhaps a few grace notes allotted Thor along the way. It’s a dirge about the end of the world written by someone who doesn’t particularly seem to like the characters, which is a strange affect to pick up from everything the man has written. Outside, of a few refreshingly sentimental bits of his Fantastic Four. He doesn’t seem to like most of his characters - leastwise the work-for-hire folks - and even if the results can be interesting it’s still a weird look brah. 

Does he? Does he love these shards of valuable IP? Does that matter? No idea! I’m old and out of touch. I like to have my hand held like a wee bairn. 

The less said about the Bendis X-Men, leastwise by me, the better. I remain baffled by almost every single decision made at every point in that run. By the time it finished it seemed to me barely even begun, so little had anything in that sequence actually mattered - a few character pieces had hit, perhaps. Iceman came out of the closet, a positive development that unfolded in a less than salutary fashion, if memory serve. It has its defenders, just as every X-Men era, and I won’t go out of my way to antagonize them any more than I did at the time. Which was a considerable amount. Jason Aaron’s Wolverine & the X-Men on the contrary was precisely the remedy for years of dreary diminishing returns. A lighter book focused on a younger ensemble cast having wide-ranging adventures across the Marvel Universe? Just the thing at which the franchise always excels but to which it rarely commits. 

(Oh, yeah, I checked, the Avengers Unity Squad show up in All-New X-Men #12, have a brief encounter with the time-tossed Original Five X-Men. A plotline I’m still trying to get my head around! It’s been almost a decade. I hope to soon arrive at comprehension.)

So, finally, again, with trembling fingers, we approach the actual first issue of Uncanny Avengers . . . such a strange artifact! The main launch out of one of the biggest crossovers in industry history, an inflection point in a publishing schedule that had reached the end of a long planned arc and was just then beginning another. The book is the last in a chain of dominoes that began when Grant Morrison was brought on to revive the books in 2001. He killed a great deal of mutants and then also made a considerable number of new ones. For a number of reasons Morrison left the franchise in unquestionably enervated shape and they fell into a period of uncertainty after Whedon’s run failed to materialized coattails. The overreaction to this malaise combined with the sudden contemporaneous surge of the Avengers franchise pushed the company to commit to long-term structural changes to the mutant books. The end result, coming after a period of great creative freedom and no small experimentation, was the placing of a straightjacket across the X-Men, committing them to an extended period of maintenance in service of an untenable status quo. During the same period the resurgent Avengers titles enjoyed a long period of commercial ascendency before themselves entering a lull around the end of the decade. It is true both that people had grown generally bored with Bendis’ Avengers and that the post-House of M status quo had run its course in the X-Men books. Avengers vs X-Men enabled them, as much as possible, to shake the proverbial ant farm across the line. But from that perspective its hard not to see that Uncanny Avengers was already at its genesis a throwback to the preoccupations of a previous decade, spawned as it was from the sustained metafictional and commercial conflict between the company’s two strongest franchises. In addition of course to a rather hellacious fictional conflict. So many threads converge here and they also end here.

Bendis X-Men

Not only was the book an extended crossover between the X-Men and Avengers but between their histories as well. Bendis' run on the X-Men for me was marked by a rather strange unwillingness to engage with large parts of that history, which maybe wouldn’t have stood out so much if the run hadn’t at the same time been generally preoccupied with the theme of changing history. (A good rule of thumb for reading Bendis is to remember he always wants a tummy rub after referencing an old comic that didn’t come out when he was 12. Thinks he deserves a treat for it.) Hickman meanwhile certainly felt and feels comfortable rummaging around the entirety of the toybox, but not as I said with an eye towards any nostalgic reverence. His commitment to making sense of all the continuity, not just the stuff in which he is personally interested, is one of his more admirable traits. There's a degree of respectfulness to that approach that seems cousin both to Claremont's scrupulous sociality and Mark Gruenwald's friendly rigor. Bendis could take notes. 

But only to a degree, as Hickman’s approach can sometimes feel clinical and purposefully contrary, whereas at his worst Bendis’ enthusiasm for his characters still shines through. (At least the ones he likes.) Enthusiasm in comics can often serve a necessary concession to progress, at least to judge by the spotty track record of fans getting to write their most favorite characters. Regarding the Avengers, the argument could definitely be made that after an extended period of the books being one specific thing from one specific writer (desultory spinoffs notwithstanding), it was for the best they try something else entirely at their first opportunity. Hickman was definitely the man for that in the main line. But that still left fans of the Avengers qua the Avengers somewhat hungry, despite the rather half-hearted return to the more traditionalist elements of the late Bendis era. Anyone who cared about Wonder Man and the Wasp . . . 

. . . well, turns out they just happened to be in the same book that was responsible for dealing with the fallout of the last decade of X-Men stories having pushed that line far from its historical thema. The same book that was for that moment during the ascendancy of Jonathan Hickman also torchbearer for the traditionalist tendencies of the Avengers line after a long period of relative disuse under Bendis. And, most importantly for our purposes, the book that marked Rogue’s return to the team she completely tore apart, in the space of a few pages, in literally her first ever appearance, back in 1981. Whew! 

It must be mentioned with no small gratitude that neither Morrison, nor Bendis, nor Hickman (so far), showed or have shown any interest whatsoever in Rogue. She was apparently featured as a casualty in Morrison’s original pitch for New X-Men but Claremont saved her from being iced. She shows up for a memorable a cameo during Whedon’s run but otherwise escapes with her dignity. She’s gone when Bendis shows up and completely irrelevant to the design of Hickman’s various programmatic Houses and Powers (again, so far). I would like to sincerely thank all four of these gentlemen for this benign neglect, from the bottom of my heart. I don’t know how she managed to hit four cherries in that lineup but she surely did. 

The only problem is that in (so far!) passing largely unscathed through the grand reboots of four successive mutant auteurs, as well as being written off the main teams following Messiah Complex, she had and has effectively passed beyond the X-Men. She doesn’t have a place in the pecking order, she’s fairly unique for that position, and more than any other superteam in existence the X-Men really need a defined pecking order in order to function. Already by 2012 she had become surplus to that story even as they had been chary about committing her to another. Finally they found a new track by pulling on her very oldest thread.

Next: Profound Ambivalence


Oh, What a Rogue

1. I Got No Clue What They Want to do With You (1995)

2. Hello Again (1990)

3. Make it With the Down Boys 

    I. Everything is Science Fiction (1963-1983)

4. The Journey Ends 

    Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV (2012-2018)

A Few Short Words About Carol Danvers

Avengers Finale