Thursday, October 11, 2012

Darkness Risen

About two years have elapsed since Marvel's last sales-goosing relaunch of Avengers and X-Men titles. As of this second week in October, 2012, the House of Ideas is at it again. The uneven "Heroic Age" gives way to "Marvel NOW!" and we benefit with the thrilling Uncanny Avengers, a clever mash-up of the two super-teams.

Actually, it's more than clever. More than a fanboy's McNugget-scented ravings during a full moon. This merger is deftly organic. It's the result of mutant Scott Summers' dark possession by the Phoenix, a nearly unstoppable cosmic force. Under its destructive influence, Summers killed the beloved Charles Xavier, peace advocate and father figure to mutants everywhere. In this first new title of many (rolling out in the next few months), creators Rick Remender and John Cassaday let the healing begin.

Remender is a brilliantly ballsy choice to write such a high-profile title. His pulpy sci-fi motifs, best seen in Fear Agent, Franken-Castle and Uncanny X-Force, are a sinister pirouette away from Marvel's courtship of mainstream readers via the bored-but-still-typing Brian Bendis. This is evinced on the first page of Uncanny Avengers, as we see the hands of a mystery villain replace a man's brain with machinery. "Evolution is no whisper humming in the background," says the baddie, "It is the true substance of our every motive."

This grisliness, clearly not for everyone, leads immediately to Wolverine standing before a portrait of Charles Xavier. We're reminded here why it is every writer's privilege to work with Cassaday. His gift for subtle facial expression hammers home the comic's funereal tone, and Wolverine remembers Xavier's faith in him. "I know what they've done to you, and the animal they created. The Wolverine. But I can see the deeper places in a man's soul-"

Writers worthy of scripting Cassaday's painstaking draftsmanship are few. Joss Whedon, The Anointed One, did so with clipped elegance in Astonishing X-Men. Before that, Warren Ellis directed the artist to probe the world's infinite weirdness in Planetary. Here, Cassaday imbues Remender's heavyweight imagination (typically enlivened by less grounded artists) with ferocious gravity. Scott Summers, former X-Men leader Cyclops, has been imprisoned in a ruby quartz room that negates his ability to blast beams from his eyes. He also wears shackles and gadgetry on his head to reinforce that he's hated and feared above all other mutants. When his brother Alex visits, they argue coolly. "I spent my entire life fighting for Professor X's dream, Alex. I learned better." His brother answers, "You didn't learn anything. You forgot everything Charles taught you. And then you killed him."

Later, Captain America and Thor approach Alex (also known as the mutant hero Havok) and ask him to join a new team that will show the public humans and mutants cooperating for a better future. He initially refuses. Then a mutant terrorist named Avalanche attacks, sporting a scar around his head that hints at a connection to the lunatic on page one. The battle is a gritty, finely choreographed scene, worthy of Cassaday's prior accomplishments (though he does rely comfortably on scanned-in office buildings). The scene blends into the Scarlet Witch's voice-over, but with Havok on the cover (along with Wolverine), we'll assume he takes Cap's offer.

Back at Xavier's Westchester grave-site, Rogue and the Scarlet Witch snipe at each other until a fresh quintet of monstrosities attack, the Goat-Faced Girl and the Insect among them. Their aim is merely to distract, however, and while I won't give away the brazenly grotesque ending, I will say that the Red Skull's not going down easy. His new power stems not from an artifact, but an augmentation. Next issue, he'll be a hotly revving hybrid, much like Uncanny Avengers itself.

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