When Words Collide: Discussing "Avengers Vs X-Men," Splash Page Style

Mon, October 8th, 2012 at 12:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
15

I've been a regular reader of the majority of the Marvel line -- at least the core titles -- since the Joe Quesada era began over a decade ago. And during that time I've kept up with all the line-wide events, and even some of the smaller crossovers, even if I haven't written a lot about those. None of them made any of my end-of-the-year "Best" lists, but I mostly enjoyed them as mid-range superhero books that attempted an epic scope. But with "Avengers vs. X-Men," I just completely lost interest.

I read a few of the issues and then just ignored it. Clearly, it was part of a general apathy I felt toward most Marvel and DC "mainstream" comics over the past year, and I just wasn't interested in keeping up.

But as the final issue of "Avengers vs. X-Men" approached, I felt that nagging desire to get caught up. To see what I had missed. Unlike my recent experience with the DC Zero Issues, I found a lot to enjoy as I read the Marvel event, and I thought it benefitted from a marathon read the day before issue #12 hit the comic shops. It worked well in accelerated speed.

As part of my "getting caught up," I also checked out my former Splash Page partner Chad Nevett's blog posts on the series. He's been chronicling "Avengers vs. X-Men" as it has come out, writing about each issue and the spin-offs with, maybe not enthusiasm, but attention.

So I wanted to talk to him about the series, and do an old-fashioned back-and-forth Splash Page conversation, like we used to do when things like "Final Crisis" seemed to be endlessly fascinating. But our conversation quickly turned to more of an interview, as Chad had plenty to say about "Avengers vs. X-Men" and how it stood in the pantheon of other superhero events. But also, he had things to say about the series that I haven't seen much addressed anywhere else online.

Here it is, then, Chad and I talking about "Avengers vs. X-Men" now that it's completed, with Chad providing more than his fair share of intelligent observations about what it all means:

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Tim Callahan: I've felt burned out by "Avengers vs. X-Men" since the first few issues, but you've been reading the whole thing all along, and you've been reading many of the tie-ins as well. Not only that, but you've been writing the most comprehensive take on the series I've seen online, which, honestly, I haven't read until recently, because I had given up on the series months ago.

But I recently got caught up -- with my reading of "Avengers vs. X-Men," and with your "Riding the Gravy Train" posts -- in preparation for the final issue of Marvel's big, pre-NOW! event.

And I'm tempted to say, Chad, that this series ended up being better than I thought it would be on almost every level. I liked it more than any other Marvel event from the past decade. It has a more satisfyingly complete feel, even if it probably doesn't make any sense when you break it down and look at the level of, oh, specific character decisions.

Still -- it was big and grand and it made Cyclops super-awesome for a while. I'd say it's the best Marvel event since "Secret Wars II." I mean that sincerely, by the way. "Secret Wars II" is its own kind of wonderful.

Chad Nevett: Not 'many' of the tie-ins -- all of them. I have read every single "Avengers vs. X-Men" comic that Marvel has released. The only things that I haven't read are those online-only "Infinite" add-on stories. What's been nice is that I was already reading the Avengers and X-Men titles that tie into this event (save "Avengers Academy" and "X-Men Legacy"), so it's not like I had to go out to my way too much to get the entire event.

My perspective has been a little different from yours, because I've been inside this thing every week, not just reading every new comic related to it, but writing about the event as well. By the time we hit the finale this week, I was burnt out completely and generally frustrated with how predictable and mundane the whole thing turned out to be. In the pre-issue 12 "Riding the Gravy Train" post, I laid out what I assumed would happen in the final issue and, aside from one small detail about Hope remaining the Phoenix and leaving the Earth, I wasn't wrong. Part of that is from having read the previous 59 issues of this event and there only being so many directions it could go. But, mostly, it's because, once the five X-Men became co-hosts for the Phoenix, the story went down a fairly predictable path. The back half of the event was pretty much what a lot of people expected it to be after the 'Phoenix Five' were born.

And, as I told you in an e-mail, "The Infinity Gauntlet" is the best Marvel event period. Nothing touches it.

Ah, "Infinity Gauntlet"! That bears some discussion, definitely, especially in comparison to "AvX" and how everything stacks up, and even how the approach to event comics 20 years ago compares to the approach to event comics now. It's a whole different group of guys at Marvel than it was back then, so it almost seems silly to say, "Here's how Marvel has changed the way it approaches events," or whatever, but I think the comparison is worth making. Heck, I brought in "Secret Wars II" as a point of comparison, so clearly nothing is off the table here.

But would you agree that "AvX" is the best Marvel crossover since "Infinity Gauntlet"? Is that your stance?

Because I'm looking at a list of Marvel events from the past decade, and counting just the major, line-wide stuff, working backwards, we had "Fear Itself," "Siege," "Secret Invasion," "World War Hulk," "Civil War," "House of M," and...that's about it. Even "Infinity Gauntlet" wasn't really a line-wide event. It was a Defenders event, at a time when there wasn't even a "Defenders" comic being published.

Well, I'll say right off the bat that Jim Starlin is the best event comic writer ever. Bar none. He did three of them and even the weakest of the bunch ("The Infinity Crusade") is structured to smartly, so well, that it blows most events out of the water. He was amazing at taking what should have been a two-issue Warlock/Thanos story and expanding it to a six-issue event main series (double-sized issues at that) along with a variety of tie-ins. He would pad out the events with plots involving the regular Marvel heroes chasing red herrings and running around, ultimately, doing nothing of any value. Reread those events and you quickly see that the only characters that actually matter are usually Warlock, Thanos and the main bad guy after Thanos joined the good guys in his own way. They were the most padded out comics that I can remember seeing, in terms of plot. In terms of content, Starlin was very good at making that padding seem like it meant something and was as engaging as possible. Stack him up against any other writer who's done three or more events (and that's, what, Bendis and Johns?) and it's no contest. I'd say it's no contest against any other event writer, but I imagine that's where more debate would come up.

Out of the Marvel events you've mentioned, "World War Hulk" is the only one that I haven't read. Out of the rest, the only ones that I read extensively past the main series were "Secret Invasion" and "Siege," where I also read the Bendis-written tie-ins. So, I mean, it would be easy for me to say that "Avengers vs. X-Men" is better than those other events when it's the only event that I've read in its entirety. I guess I'd have to ask: are we talking about the entire events including tie-ins or just the main series? I haven't reread anything from "Avengers vs. X-Men" yet, but I can imagine that the writing and art changes issue-to-issue on the main book helps it read as smoothly as other event series where the creative teams are constant. (Of course, if we're talking the entire events, I may have to back off my stance that "Infinity Gauntlet" is the best since I haven't read any direct tie-ins for it aside from the comics Starlin wrote leading into it and leading out of it.)

Okay, this "best event" rating is all just leading nowhere anyway, since we could talk in circles about it all day. But if I peel apart your rating system, and think of the way I would classify things, the most interesting aspect of any event is...what?

For you, it seems that you're really just a big fan of what Starlin is up to, so seeing him do his stuff is just going to get your attention automatically. "Infinity Gauntlet" is the most pure Starlin of all the events he worked on -- resurrecting his essential conflict from the "Warlock" days and reviving it for a new audience that also acts as kind of a coda on what he'd done before -- but have just reread "Infinity Gauntlet" in preparation for our chat on this topic, it's weak by what I would call my own standards of "event quality."

I'm not saying I dislike "Infinity Gauntlet." I enjoyed rereading it, especially since I have now read all that old "Warlock" stuff, which I hadn't when "Infinity Gauntlet" originally came out. But it seemed like Starlin doing Starlin, with the help of George Perez and Ron Lim. It didn't seem like a "legitimate" event book, since everything was just undone and washed away and it was really just back to Thanos and Warlock at its core. The Avengers and X-Men and Defenders and anyone else who joined in -- like, oh, all the Kirby cosmic characters -- didn't matter at all.

With "AvX," the status of the Marvel Universe was a major player. You could see the gears of the series churning to address the major moments of the past decade, and since it ends with the resolution of an ongoing plot from the first of the Joe Quesada-era events -- by reversing the "No More Mutants" to be "Yeah, More Mutants" -- it feels more vital to the Marvel Universe.

Even the things that are done and undone in "AvX" seem to matter more than the sideline, outer space occurrences of "Infinity Gauntlet."

But, as I said, I didn't have to suffer through months and months of "AvX." I just basically ignored it and read it all at the end and thought, "Hey, this was actually not so bad after all." I guess what I liked about it was that it took the swerve with the Phoenix force and didn't become about a massive attack force vs. an extra-terrestrial threat. It became about the Marvel Universe dealing with its own internal issues, amplified, as the Phoenixed-up X-Men attempted to bring about the utopia they've been striving for all this time, while the "heroes" really showed themselves to be forces in service to the status quo who were compelled, by their nature, to prevent any real changes to the way things are. It was smarter than "Civil War," by a factor of ten, in other words.

But maybe that's still not even close to enough. Then again, I can't imagine a way "AvX" could have resolved -- and yeah, you nailed it with your predictions -- that would have made sense for the Marvel Universe, unless the company really wanted to change everything. And they clearly have no interest in smashing up their properties.

Hmm... I think you're right to an extent about why I love "Infinity Gauntlet" so much and why I consider it 'better' than every other Marvel event. I'm a big Jim Starlin guy, and that's Starlin's best event. But, I think his ability in taking what is a small story about the characters he's interested in and bringing in the rest of the Marvel superheroes is part of what makes it so great. It's so big that everyone has to be involved; and, it's so big that most of the heroes that join in are useless. That, to me, makes it 'better' than any other event, even "AvX," because it recognizes a fundamental truth about the Marvel Universe that isn't touched upon too much: Earth may the center from our perspective, but it's really just a small little planet with a bunch of small little heroes that, at a certain scale, are of little use. Not a message that I think a lot of people would think qualifies as criteria for making a 'best' event, but it seems more honest to me.

In many ways, "AvX" is the opposite of that. The Phoenix, a cosmic force beyond comprehension, one that destroys planets at will, travels across the universe, because a bunch of mutants on Earth suddenly stopped being mutants? That is placing Earth squarely at the center of things in a manner that I can't help but roll my eyes at. What is so special about mutants on a universal scale that demands they be brought back? Why this specific race on this specific planet when so many other races and planets die without a second thought? It's so disproportionate and random with the only explanation being, "Because these are the characters in the comics Marvel creates," that that central flaw (by my standards) makes it hard for me to fully invest in the event. It's like Starlin uses the structure of the event book to tell a story that's bigger than the usual Earth-bound superhero story and makes it clear why it's bigger than the typical Earth-bound superhero story; it's epic, because it's epic.

I like the idea that "AvX" closes the circle on what began in "House of M," but I don't see why that makes it a better event than any of the others. That makes for a clean conclusion to the thrust of events we've seen over the past decade and, certainly, "AvX" has had numerous elements from those events. It was like a crazy mash-up of them all in many ways.

In your "Riding the Gravy Train" posts, you were pretty critical about some of the choices made by the characters in "AvX." Do you think that this series was yet another case where characterization was forced to bend to larger forces -- and that the story was false because of that?

While there is plenty of truth to the idea that it's impossible to say "Character A wouldn't do that" when, in fact, Character A is shown to do that in a comic, and a writer writing it so, and an artist drawing it so makes it happen and thus it does become something a character would do, there's also, when you're dealing with characters who have been around for decades, a sense of an established characterization that might feel contradictory to when the character does in an event book where the plot machinery is more important than individual character choices.

I know you have some thoughts about Captain America, in particular, and his relationship to Scott Summers. But is the way Captain America acts in "Infinity Gauntlet" somehow more true than the way he acts in "AvX"? Are there any examples in "AvX" where the characters drove some of the larger plot points and remained true to themselves? Does that even matter?

Now we're getting into the stuff that kept me going during the second half of "AvX." I've written about this a few times, but to boil down my view/argument/thing-I-originally-said-to-fill-a-post-and-came-to-believe-is-true: Cyclops was right. The final issue is nothing but proof that Cyclops was 100% correct in the first issue of "Avengers vs. X-Men" and, yet, somehow, he became the villain. At the beginning of the story, he told Captain America that the Phoenix was coming to Earth to bring back the mutants and use Hope as its host. Captain America called him crazy (and with good reason, I might add) and, so, they fought. But, when the Phoenix arrived and was 'broken' by Tony Stark, it possessed five different X-Men who claimed that they were simply holding onto the power until Hope was ready for it, which, again, is true. During this time, the Phoenix Five did a lot of good things, but four of the members proved corrupt and were stripped of their power. However, Cyclops never wavered until issue 11. Up until that point, he continually kept the others in check, told them to be patient with the Avengers, and, generally, only reacted to the violent attacks of the Avengers. In issue 11, he was again attacked and, surprise, surprise, was finally pushed to the point where he overreacted to their attack, killing someone who was actively trying to assault his mind (self-defense?) and, generally, getting really pissed off at the heroes who wouldn't even try to work with him, who automatically assumed him crazy and corrupt… despite the fact that he was right. In the end, Captain America, after having known Hope for all of two weeks, decided that she was more trustworthy than Cyclops, a mutant superhero he's known for years and fought besides dozens of times, and allowed Hope and the Phoenix to do exactly what Cyclops said they would.

Cyclops is the hero of "Avengers vs. X-Men" and Captain America is the villain.

But, I wouldn't say that that's the story that Marvel tried to tell, would you? Which is what I found frustrating. You can't present a seemingly off-balance/crazy character in the beginning like they did with Cyclops and, then, have him actually be right the entire time. They were some hints about that at the end of the event (more in the latest issue of "Uncanny X-Men" than in "Avengers vs. X-Men" #12), but it's a fairly messed up way to present a story and suffers a little from the semi-recent idea at Marvel that Captain America Cannot Be Wrong. No matter what, that's the one character that is never wrong even when he's clearly wrong.

"AvX" is very much of its time, rooted in two oddly conflicting ideas that have taken hold during the past decade. On one hand, you have the idea of a growing intermingling of the superhero community. Most of these guys have been around for a long time, worked together quite a bit and known each other, at least in passing. There's a growing familiarity amongst the heroes, brought on in a big way by Brian Michael Bendis's tenure on the Avengers titles. And all of that makes sense. But, there's also a tendency to have the same heroes go from simple disagreement to brutal violence. "Civil War" showed this quite clearly where no one stopped and said, "Hey, I agree with this new law, but I'm not going to fight people who were my teammates yesterday," which is what I assume most reasonable people would do. Instead, it was all-out war, because, apparently, no one can solve any sort of disagreement without violence (given the lives superheroes lead, that's not entirely surprising, but it's also fairly pathetic and unheroic). I mean, one of the 'best' (very subjective use of that word) Marvel comics I read during the past decade was the issue of "What If?" about "Civil War" where one of the stories showed what would have happened if Tony and Steve simply sat down and talked out a compromise instead of fighting. It was a brilliant deconstruction about how awful, in one respect, contemporary superhero comics are. I mean, come on, wouldn't the logical thing have been for Cyclops and Captain America to simply agree to take Hope off planet and set up a place where they could meet the Phoenix and prevent any mass damage to the planet from occurring? You know, team up and work together...?

There's a level of consistency between Captain America in "Infinity Gauntlet" and in "AvX" in that both stories involve him standing up to a cosmic, god-like figure and proving completely useless in the face of such overwhelming power. However, in "Infinity Gauntlet," he was facing off against someone who has killed half of the universe and been a threat to the Earth numerous times before. In "AvX," he was taking down an ally who, up until that point, had been proven entirely correct and was actively working to make the world a much better place. So, no, I wouldn't exactly call the characterization consistent in any meaningful way.

I do think you're absolutely right, and I love the way you break down the role Captain America plays (and has played) in the Marvel Universe with these events.

I've been thinking about something else related to this, as I consider a pop culture landscape riddled with superheroes and movies like "Avengers" and "Dark Knight Rises" doing enormous business, along with many of the superhero movies that have come before. And I look at how these movies are structured, and what they're about, and all the superhero movies that have been hugely successful, from "Spider-Man" to "X2" to "Dark Knight" to "Avengers," these are all about heroes assembling their forces (or pulling themselves together amidst the chaos) to fight an external threat that promises to destroy the city or world.

So I look at that -- the same story repeated again and again, but with different flavors and different costumes -- and it seems to me that the average person would also look at those movies and assume that's what superhero comics are like. But they really aren't. I have a giant stack of comics here sitting next to me, and other than "AvX," very few of them are about massive outside forces threatening the city or the world. They are about secret societies or groups of dudes with personal vendettas. They are about inner-team conflict and mysteries about who is this one guy or gal, and what does he or she want? They are about characters trying to re-establish some status quo or about a black ops group going to this exotic place to capture this guy who might be a threat down the road.

The kinds of massive, world-shaking stories that comics are known for are almost exclusively reserved for event comics these days. The average superhero comic isn't anything like the "Avengers" movie.

So the event books then become these cinematic, enormous stories, and they follow the same old pattern of heroes pulling together and fighting some immense threat, and because the threat has to build logically -- or somewhat logically -- out of what has been established in the "regular" comics, they are trapped in this cycle of taking the insular stories and blowing them up to a widescreen event-comic canvas. So the "massive outside force" threatening the world in "AvX" is really just a larger-scale version of the same kinds of inner-party squabbling that has been going on in the Marvel Universe. Cyclops has to be the fall guy -- and has to do something bad to screw up the utopian vision -- because in the Marvel Universe the mutants need to end up as outcasts or else they're just another group of costumed characters with nothing to distinguish them from the masses.

I guess, ultimately, I like "AvX" for its transparent attempts at commenting on the past decade of Marvel events and then failing against its own inevitability. Scott Summers, even with near-omnipotent power, can't break free from the bonds of what's required of him as a corporate character. And Captain America, mascot for contemporary Marvel, keeps him in line.

Reading it monthly -- with all the tie-ins! -- would have probably crushed my soul, though. I have no idea how you were able to sustain any kind of interest for that long.

Looking back over the past decade of Marvel events, the only one that really qualifies as a legitimate 'big external threat' is "Secret Invasion" and even that had elements of internal problems with Skrulls posing as heroes. But, really, that was just your basic alien invasion story, not too different on the surface from what happened in "The Avengers." The other events were all outcroppings of what was going on in the comics at the time and built up to be larger than the regular monthly stories. "AvX" is a quasi-return to an external-driven event given that the Phoenix is the starting point, but that seems to be some brief lip service to the idea of an external threat before, as you point out, descending back into internal issues that aren't really about anything than the inner workings of these titles.

I was aware of some of the commentary elements in "AvX" that you mention, but they're a lot less apparent when you're inside this thing every week. It does bring to mind one of the other problems I had with this event: it was, partially, built on the real world editorial realities of publishing these comics and using that as 'characterization.' One of Cyclops's big complaints is how the Avengers weren't around for a lot of the big struggles that mutants face, and that's true. That's absolutely true. Except... they only weren't there because those events happened in X-books and no one wants to read an X-Men story that ends with the Avengers swooping in and saving the day. In an effort to make the X-Men corner of the Marvel Universe as interesting as possible, they are segregated as much as possible -- as you say, they need to be outcasts -- and to use that as motivation for character action seems like a cheat to me. Again, I guess that goes to the difference between 'how I think these characters would act' and 'how these characters act in the comics that are published,' and that's all personal speculation.

Being inside of this thing every week (save for the two weeks where no "AvX" comics came out) and having, what, five more weeks left to go, hasn't been that bad. I guess that's because the worst "AvX" comics have been "Avengers vs. X-Men" and "AVX: VS" (an example of how atrocious fight scenes in superhero comics truly are), while most of the tie-ins have been fairly good. I wasn't a fan of Christos Gage's contributions to the event, but his heart obviously wasn't in it. Really, it was Kieron Gillen, Brian Michael Bendis and Jason Aaron doing some pretty good work on 'enhancing' what we saw in the tentpole main series. Now, there were some major issues with contradictory scenes and events (I'm still not sure who thought that Rick Remender's Kree story in "Secret Avengers" worked in the same event as Bendis's Noh-Varr story in "Avengers" given that it's basically the exact same thing twice... literally) and the odd issue that was just empty fluff. But, there was also "New Avengers" #29 where the Illuminati meet and we get the most intelligent and well-reasoned discussion about "AvX" in any of these comics -- particularly when Reed Richards tells Cap and Iron Man that, as far as he's concerned, Cyclops and company are making the world better and he won't turn on them until he sees some reason to do so.

Also, it was (and still is) a writing exercise. Take what I'm given every week and try to write something interesting and new. Those projects are always fun, except when they're about "Countdown," I hear.

I wouldn't know. I only read every single issue of "Countdown" as it came out. But it's not like I wrote about it every week. But there was that one guy who tried and then abandoned the blog after, what, like a month or two? That was back when the internet ruled supreme and all comics were amazing or terrible or both.

Any final thoughts on "AvX" and its legacy? Does it make you more, or less, interested in what's next for Marvel now that you've lived deep inside the Phoenix-drenched core?

It was Andrew Hickey, I believe. He put up a valiant effort, fought the good fight, etc., etc., etc., but... alas, it was too much for him! For any human being!

Unlike the period of "Civil War" to "The Initiative" to "Secret Invasion" to "Dark Reign" to "Siege" to "The Heroic Age," there isn't a strong "AvX" to Marvel NOW! connection. Marvel NOW! is designed to be much more of a 'fresh start' after the past eight or so years. "AvX" was the end point of a specific era (basically the 'Bendis Avengers Era') and Marvel NOW! is what happens next with pretty much every major title getting a shake-up of some kind. That disconnect means that I don't really associate the two much. I look at the Marvel NOW! books as very much their own thing and am treating them much like I did the launch of the nu52 from DC where I'll buy what looks interesting and ignore what doesn't.

In my mind, "AvX" hasn't quite ended yet. I still have the entire "Consequences" series to read, along with any epilogue issues in the ongoing titles that seem applicable. I don't think I'm quite ready to sum it all up, discuss its legacy, or anything like that. My God, Tim, it's only been two days since issue 12 came out (or, five when this column goes up)! That seems a bit early to be talking legacy, doesn't it? I'll save that talk for a month from now when the event and its follow-up books are all done. I will say that it's been very interesting to read an entire mainstream superhero event like this and I'm already half-dreading, half-anticipating putting together a definitive reading order for the whole thing. Even though Marvel ignored my "Secret Invasion" reading order, maybe they'll use this one when they decide to do a giant omnibus containing everything.

Always the optimist. That's Chad Nevett.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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