Wednesday, October 3, 2012

My Pull List - Why AvX Fails

I know I haven't been writing comic reviews for the past few weeks. At this point, I'm so far behind that I probably won't play catch-up and just start with new reviews in a week or two.

Still, the event "Avengers Vs. X-Men" wrapped up today and I wanted to give my final thoughts on the event as a whole.

I think that few would disagree that the event was at the very least underwhelming. I would go so far as to say that it was a massive failure, but we'll get more into that later. First I want to talk about event comics in general.

What Makes a Good Event?

Marvel has done many big event series over the past couple decades or so, and while I haven't really followed ALL of them, I'd say that the majority of them failed. However, there are two that stand out to me as generally working rather well. "House of M" and "Civil War".

While "House of M" is generally well-liked by most Marvel fans, "Civil War" tends to have a more mixed opinion. While I certainly don't think it's perfect and while I definitely think it has some major flaws (and is indirectly responsible for a lot of bad things) I think that it fits the criteria for a good event comic.

So what makes a good event comic?

In my opinion, the first major criteria for a good event comic is that it must be built around a truly momentous occasion that has far-reaching consequences throughout the Universe. "House of M" was built around the massive depowering of  90% of all mutants at the hands of Scarlet Witch. Until today, this was still a major issue throughout the universe. "Civil War" was built around the registration of superheroes in the universe, the death of Captain America, and the unveiling of Spider-Man's identity. While most of these things ended up being retconned, they still directly affected a great deal within the universe for many years. "Secret War" and "Dark Reign" were direct results of this event. We got the return of Bucky, new Avengers teams, and a number of other things. The consequences mattered.

However, other less successful events have a tendency to not really be about anything all that world-changing. "Secret War" only ends up shattering Tony Stark's image and giving Norman Osborn the power to take over S.H.I.E.L.D. and replace it with H.A.M.M.E.R.. This would have been a big deal if we didn't already know that this basically wasn't going to last. Even the characters in the books knew that this wasn't going to last. And sure enough, it lasted just long enough to bring out "Dark Reign", which only changed things back to normal rather than have any real effect. "Fear Itself" literally accomplished nothing. The only thing that changed was that Thor died (again), but that barely lasted a couple months.

The reason this is important for an event comic is because when all of these characters and all of these story arcs converge, the writers have the power to do just about anything. The options are almost limitless. If nothing happens as a result, then it's really just much ado about nothing. Why bother reading it?

Of course, this criteria alone is not enough. To use an example from DC Comics, "Flashpoint" resulted in a massive change in the entire universe (the relaunch), but honestly, this part was tacked onto the end. The rest of the story has nothing to do with it.

So the second criteria is that the event has to EARN the big changes that it will introduce. This is what "Flashpoint" failed to do. And, to a degree, "Civil War" falls short on this as well. While "Civil War" certainly earns a number of its big changes, it did not really earn the resolution. Cap's realization that his fight was hurting the country he loved really came out of nowhere. There was no big reason for why he wouldn't have realized this sooner (ideally before Goliath got killed). And in that regard, it also didn't earn Cap's death, which also came out of nowhere (admittedly, this happened directly AFTER "Civil War", not during, but still).

While "House of M" largely took place in a fantasy world, it was a reflection of each characters desire. At at the heart of it was Wanda making the wish of her father come true. Seeing this fantasy crash down around her and everyone she loved drove her to finally snap and take away mutant power from the universe. It absolutely earns this page:

Essentially, the consequences at the end of the event aren't enough. We have to be able understand and come to terms with those consequences by reading the event in its entirety.

And finally -- and this is where "Avengers Vs. X-Men" creates a whole new definition of failure -- the event needs to have a singular vision and style. "House of M" was drawn by Olivier Coipel and written by Brian Michael Bendis. Bendis also wrote "Secret Invasion" and "Dark Reign". "Civil War" was drawn by Steve McNiven and written by Mark Millar.

Historically, Marvel tends to have its events written and drawn by the same team. DC tends to be more collaborative with the art, but they still tend to stick to one writer.

Really, until AvX, we've never really had an almost entirely collaborative event before. Maybe Marvel decided that it wanted to try something new. Well, that's fine, but I hope they've realized that it doesn't fucking work.

Why AvX Fails

Now that we've covered the necessary criteria for a good event comic, let's jump right in and see where AvX goes horribly wrong.

First of all, the consequences of the event are pathetic. Xavier is dead, but so what? He's been so far removed from the X-Men franchise for the past decade or so that he might as well have been dead already. Besides, I doubt it will last. Cyclops is in prison, but once again, that probably won't make a huge difference. But no, the whole event was building up to the destruction of the Phoenix Force and the return of mutants. So really, all it did was undo "House of M".

Second of all, even with its incredibly small and inconsequential list of consequences, it failed to earn any of them. Cyclops' heel-face-turn is just plain awful. "No one but Joss Whedon knows how to make him interesting, so we'll just make him a one-dimensional bad guy and disregard his decades of growth as a character and a leader." Xavier's death does not mean anything significant other than "Cyclops is evil now" and it doesn't happen as the result of any significant change or decision. Finally, the reversal of the Decimation and the destruction of the Phoenix Force could have worked if it was the entire point of the event, but it really wasn't. The point of the event was just creating excuses to kill time and get heroes to fight each other for twelve issues. Issue #0 did a great job of establishing that maybe Hope would actually evolve as a character. But no, she basically just does what she was more or less intended to do from the beginning: absorb the Phoenix and fix the mutants. The only growth she gets is a training montage and a few speeches about how she wants to just be herself, but we never really find out who that person is.

And then, on top of the entire event being almost completely pointless, the decision to bring in four artists and  five writers was a massive bust. The tone and style is all over the place. It's difficult for an artist and a writer to work together and really GET each other. It's nigh impossible to have a different team on almost every single issue and maintain a singular style and tone that carries throughout. Yes, TV series can sometimes manage this, but they usually have a showrunner who exists in order to give the series a consistent tone and vision.

My guess is that either AvX was written by committee with no singular individual taking charge, or it was organized by editorial mandate. So either the problem was a lack of leadership or the leadership from someone who's more interested in the big picture and the bottom line than the actual quality of the story and consistency of the characters.

But really, these are just the technical failings of the event. There are also much more damning problems that have to do with the formula of this event.

With Friends Like These...

"Civil War" was a big deal because it pitted hero against hero. This sort of thing hadn't really happened before, at least not on a scale that massive. Both sides were understandable to a degree. The underlying question of the conflict was, "How much responsibility should be expected of the people who we consider to be heroes?" Is it right to treat the people who've saved the world more times than we can count as though they are walking time bombs? It's an interesting question and there's no clear right answer. That's what made "Civil War" compelling.

The problem is that "Civil War" was a massive success and so just about every event since then has been about pitting heroes against heroes. It's pretty clear that Marvel has been under the impression that the only thing people like better than seeing all of their heroes fight together is seeing their heroes fight each other.

Sorry, but NO. Marvel can't keep pulling this out every event. The events can't just be excuses to get heroes to fight each other. That's just... tacky.

And I'm not saying that heroes CAN'T fight each other in an event comic. I'm just saying that the underlying conflict has to be compelling. It can't just exist for the sake of creating excuses to fight.

And really, that's all that AvX is. One big excuse to have characters fighting each other. I mean, it's the fucking title of the event. And what is the big central conflict? The Avengers are worried about the Phoenix and what it might do to Hope and the rest of the world. The X-Men overreact and refuse to cooperate. So then they fight.

The basis of the ENTIRE CONFLICT is fear of what MIGHT happen and neither side wanting to trust the other. That's it.

I'm sorry, but conflict predicated on heroes being assholes to each other is not interesting. Hell, even the conflict in "Secret Invasion" pulled this off better simply because the nature of the attack was designed to create fear and distrust and it came right on the heels of "Civil War", so they were still pissed at each other. In this case, the only reason the Avengers and the X-Men fight is because Marvel can't make a 12-issue miniseries and a fuck-ton of tie-in comics based around a matter that can be easily talked out.

The other problem is that unlike "Civil War", there's always a particular side that's blatantly in the wrong. For the first half, the Avengers are demanding to take an innocent girl into custody by any means necessary. They think they can stop the Phoenix. They're obviously wrong. Their attempt to stop the Phoenix cause the X-Men to take in the power. At which point, the X-Men are in the wrong because they are corrupted by the power.

So basically the event can be summed up as, "Everyone was an asshole. The End."

And more importantly, the conflict has no direct relation to the central point of the story, which is to finally end the Decimation and get rid of the Phoenix Force. The only conflict that should be present is the conflict between mutants and the rest of the Marvel superhero community. And yes, AvX TRIES to do this, but it fails.

It is an interesting point of contention that the mutants are treated differently from the rest of the superhero community, and that could have been explored. We could have had a conflict that took shape in some way other than a massive battle royale. The Avengers and X-Men could have agreed to put aside their differences and try to put a stop to the Phoenix Force. Obviously, they would fail, and then the Phoenix Force could put an end to the Decimation. In other words, the event should have started with where it ended up and then explored the consequences of the sudden reversal of the Decimation. I mean, the mutant community has been backed into a corner for the better part of a decade now and their sudden resurgence would definitely shift the weight of the superhero community. The superheroes have only just recently been regaining public favor after the double-fiasco of "Civil War" and "Secret Invasion", and to have the "mutant menace" suddenly jump back into the public eye could put pressure on them to get it contained. Meanwhile, the mutant community could simply ask why the rest of the superheroes could earn the trust of the public but the mutants can't. Why is it that the source of power is so important? Why are mutants more feared just because they are born with the power? Real conflict can come from that and it would have had a lot more potential than what we ended up with.

And more importantly, why does the conflict have to be directed at other heroes? The Marvel Universe has no shortage of villains, many of which could stand to get a little more exposure and development.

What Did Work

Not everything in AvX was a complete wash. If you read my individual reviews, you'd see that there were a number of issues that I really liked. I think that overall, the writing is rather good. Except for Romita, all of the artists do work that ranges from good to excellent. Taken individually, some of the issues work rather well. The event simply doesn't work as a whole.

I did appreciate that Marvel didn't flood the comics with splash pages of hundreds of heroes fighting each other like "Civil War" and "Secret Invasion" did. It was smart enough to keep all the big brawls contained in their own tie-in series. It also didn't put in too many Editor's Notes. That is to say, there are few moments where they shamelessly plug tie-in comics saying, "Find out what this character is talking about in THIS COMIC". They managed to make this story complete and self-contained. From a logistic and marketing perspective, this series was well-organized.

Moving Forward

So in an effort to try and replicate DC's success with their New 52 relaunch, Marvel is gearing up for "Marvel NOW!", which is a relaunch in the sense that they are restarting most of their series and shifting around their writers and artists, but they aren't relaunching the continuity. AvX is kind of designed to lead up into that relaunch, but it kind of doesn't. Like I said, nothing major changes. Cap decides to create ANOTHER new Avengers team, this time the Uncanny Avengers which will add more mutants to the roster, but that's about all that AvX establishes.

Really, I find myself incredibly underwhelmed with the direction of the Marvel Universe in the comics. Out of the 15 new series they're launching right away as a part of the "Marvel NOW!" relaunch, only 5 are solo titles. The rest are team-up books, and with the exception of the Fantastic Four and the Thunderbolts, they're all tied in some way to either the Avengers or the X-Men. "Uncanny Avengers", "All-New X-Men", "Avengers", "New Avengers", "A+X", "X-Men Legacy", "Avengers Arena", "Cable and X-Force", and "Uncanny X-Force". I mean, seriously? I'm a fucking comic fan and even I don't know where the fuck to start with this mess. Do we REALLY need this many teams? As a point of contrast, out of all the series introduced during DC's New 52, less than half are team books. DC has more solo titles than Marvel's upcoming individual titles put together. I know not all of them are any good and DC has problems of its own, but at least we get variety. If you don't give a crap about the Avengers or the X-Men, you have a very small list of characters to choose from. DC on the other hand has something for everyone. Horror, magic, fantasy, science, mystery, distant future, AND twenty different flavors of Batman. It's damn near impossible to find NOTHING that appeals to you.

And on top of that, the whole point of a relaunch is to give new readers a point to jump on. A new series that can be explained within a few pages or at most an issue. No excess baggage or cumbersome continuity littered with Editor's Notes. But if 2/3 of the relaunched/new series are all spin-offs of either the Avengers or the X-Men, then you kind of defeat the purpose. By making them spin-offs, they are inherently FILLED with baggage and continuity. If I don't know what the hell is going on with the X-Men or the Avengers, then how the hell am I supposed to jump into these new titles? Just giving them new titles, new creative teams and the #1 on the cover isn't enough to make them accessible. 

Say a new reader walks into a comic store. They just finished watching "The Avengers" on Blu-ray for the fiftieth time and so they decide that they want to check out the comics. Oh look! An "Avengers" title! A #1 issue! Perfect! ...Wait, what's "Uncanny Avengers"? Huh? "New Avengers"? "Avengers Assemble"? What? Why are there so many Avengers? Which one's the real team? Are they all real? I don't want to buy ALL of them. Maybe I should just get that "Avengers" one. That's probably the real one. See, it has Hulk, Iron Man, Cap, and Thor. It has to be the right one. But wait, "Uncanny Avengers" also has Hulk, Iron Man, Cap, and Thor. How can they be on both teams? Oh God. "Avengers Assemble" ALSO has Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor. Fuck this shit. Comics are weird.

Based solely on where the universe is at the end of AvX, I don't really think I care enough to jump onto any new Marvel comics. I'll check out the new "Deadpool" series and I'll keep my ear to the ground in case any of the new series get a ton of praise, but really, AvX didn't really make me want to find out what happens next. The only change that happened in Iron Man was that he became more spiritual. Cap was pretty much out of character throughout the entire event. Hulk has had less consistent character growth than just about any other character in the universe. Every new writer just basically does the same thing over and over and whenever someone changes something, the next writer just goes back to basics. I never really liked the Fantastic Four much and I really don't like Fraction. I don't have the slightest fucking clue what's been going on with Thor, and if "Fear Itself" is any indication, I don't really want to.

Never before has an event made me actually give LESS of a crap about the Marvel Universe than I did before I started reading it.

I know there's still some Marvel NOW! titles that haven't been fully announced yet that will come out in a few months. I'm sure we'll get more variety when that happens. But I guarantee that with the exception of a probable Guardians of the Galaxy title, they'll probably almost all be variations on X-Men and Avengers.

At least they aren't canceling "Captain Marvel", which I still enjoy quite a bit.

It really does baffle me that Marvel can be so good at managing its movie franchises and yet so completely inept at managing their comic book series.

But back to my original point. Probably the biggest problem with the Marvel Universe is that just about every single character is either an Avenger or an X-Something. The original idea of the Avengers and the X-Men was that they were somewhat exclusive. Only the best superheroes could be an Avenger and only the best mutants could be an X-Man. Now it's weird if you AREN'T in some version of these two teams. The fact that you can include virtually every major Marvel superhero in an event about Avengers fighting X-Men goes to show that MAYBE they need to reclaim their brands a little. Stop putting their popular characters on every team. Wolverine, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Cap can't be on every damn team AND have their own solo titles. Let some of the other characters get a chance to shine. Make each team distinctive.

Seriously, Marvel. Get your shit together.