Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book issue of significance. This week it’s the sixth issue of Avengers Vs. X-Men. Written by Jonathan Hickman (Fantastic Four, The Manhattan Projects) and drawn by Olivier Coipel (House Of M, Siege) with a digital Infinite Comic by Mark Waid, Yves Bigerel, and Carlo Barberi, it’s a turning point not just for the summer crossover, but Marvel as a comic-book publisher.
Avengers Vs. X-Men (AvX) has proven to be a fun if insubstantial summer blockbuster, but #6 is when the event evolves into something bigger and better. The first five issues suffered from beat-’em-up videogame plotting, but the five writers found a way to give the story emotional weight by focusing on Wolverine, Cyclops, and Hope, the mutant messiah. The Avengers may get top billing, but this is an X-Men story, building on plot points and themes from last summer’s Schism. Just as Schism built on years of X-Men history, there’s a sense that all the big Marvel events since 2004’s “Avengers: Disassembled” have led up to AvX.
(There are two hurdles the non-superhero comic reader will have to jump over before being able to really get into AvX: First, accepting that a giant firebird is a legitimate threat, and second, figuring out who the hell everyone is. For those really committed to overcoming these obstacles, there are three essential stories to read: Uncanny X-Men’s “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” House Of M, and the aforementioned Schism. All three are available in collected editions, in print and digitally, and might even be at your local library. AvX spends times recapping these stories for the more casual reader, but everything will be a little easier to swallow if the history is already there.)
After four issues of the teams freaking out about the Phoenix coming to Earth, the big bird landed last issue. Instead of inhabiting Hope like everyone predicted, the Phoenix Force split in five and possessed Cyclops, Emma Frost, Namor, Colossus, and Magik, the heavy hitters of Uncanny X-Men’s “Extinction Team.” The development is just the latest in a string of mid-crossover character transformations, with the Avengers getting Tron-inspired makeovers in Fear Itself and Blackest Night painting the Justice League with all the colors of the rainbow. Jonathan Hickman’s greatest achievement with #6 is establishing the Phoenix Five as more than just cosmetic changes for familiar characters, beginning the issue 10 days after they came to power and started changing the world.
Jonathan Hickman has become one of comics’ big-idea writers, telling epic superhero stories that build on years of history in an organic, surprisingly personal way. The weight of the past is immediately felt in this issue’s opening sequence, which features the return of a major figure who has been lingering in the background for much of the past two years: Charles Xavier. Meeting with his former rival Magneto in the floating palace that is now Cyclops’ Utopia, Xavier discusses how his former pupil has changed, and not necessarily for the better. The Magneto-ization of Scott Summers has been a major plot point since House Of M, and while many fans have complained that he’s becoming a tad too psychotic, there’s a reason why the character is more prominent now than ever before. Taking inspiration from his name, Cyclops’ writers have made his singular, unwavering vision his defining characteristic, and with the Phoenix Five he has the opportunity to realize a world where mutants are no longer hated and feared.
Unfortunately, massive displays of power are an easy way to be hated and feared, and although the Phoenix Five preach a message of altruism and compassion, they have no concept of how their actions affect the international balance of power. In a way, the Phoenix Five represent the forward movement of the Marvel universe while the Avengers are the status quo that is holding that evolution back. Major changes are a scary thing for a comic company, but without taking steps forward, how can Marvel expect to grow? Rumors of a Marvel relaunch have been denied by editorial, but it would still be interesting to see a considerably different Marvel universe by the end of this series. With the exception of Spider-Man, Marvel doesn’t push the reset button; the Marvel universe of today is distinctly different from 10 or 20 years ago, but that history is always there. The Phoenix Five are obviously a temporary development, but they provide an opportunity to make lasting changes to the Marvel universe. Hopefully the writers take full advantage of that opportunity by the end of AvX.
Whereas the first five issues were characterized by explosive action sequences, #6 takes some time to assess the changing situation. Alliances are shifting, with Beast and Black Panther siding with the Phoenix Five as Hope makes the decision to leave Utopia behind. Iron Fist’s relationship with the Phoenix is becoming more prominent, and with Immortal Iron Fist writer Matt Fraction scripting next issue, it will likely become an even bigger plot point. Iron Fist has become an intriguing wild card in this series, but he’s nothing compared to Scarlet Witch, who finally enters the action this issue. Wanda’s chaos magic has become the biggest deus ex machina in comics, giving her godlike power that makes her the Phoenix Five’s biggest threat, and her time away since House Of M has considerably amplified her mystique.
The partnership between Hope and Scarlet Witch that develops at the end of this issue pushes the plot in a new direction, showing that the writers have no intention of staying in one place for too long. Cyclops’ final words, “No more Avengers,” suggest a return to the fight-centric narrative, but #6 proves that there’s more to this series than just superheroes punching each other. There’s plenty of that, but underneath it all is a story about what one man will do for equality, and how infinite power can corrupt that dream.
The first five issues featured some of the best art in John Romita Jr.’s venerable career, but the meticulously detailed, highly cinematic pencils of Olivier Coipel elevate the book to a new level of visual spectacle. The Phoenix Five’s world-changing displays of power are depicted across stunning splash pages, contrasting with the busier page layouts of the dialogue-heavy scenes. Coipel is an artist that can do it all: anatomy and facial expressions are spot-on, environments are fully realized, and action sequences are dynamic and powerful. The designs of the Phoenix Five are unified through a medieval influence, and Coipel’s ability to render realistic clothing makes the new costumes a cosplayer’s dream. This is the artist’s first project since last summer’s The Mighty Thor, and the time he’s spent on this title shows on every page. He’s a perfect fit for Hickman’s ambitious script, adjusting his storytelling as the plot jumps from a floating mutant sanctuary to the Oval Office to a mystical secret city out of a kung fu movie.
AvX #6 is a $3.99 book that completely justifies its price tag, featuring 36 pages of story and a code to download the digital copy of the issue, which includes Mark Waid, Yves Bigerel, and Carlos Barberi’s Infinite comic, “…In A Handful Of Dust.” Marvel’s Infinite Comics initiative is the most exciting thing coming out of the publisher right now, with Mark Waid applying the digital techniques he’s learning over at Thrillbent to mainstream superhero comics. The first Infinite Comic (available with AvX #1) showed how a digital comic could use the form to create an action sequence unlike any other, and the second outing begins experimenting with how the form can be used in a more nuanced, character-centric way.
“…In A Handful Of Dust” is the Cyclops story that AvX needs to tell, showing his personal struggle to hold on to his humanity as he becomes more powerful. With new telepathic powers, Cyclops tries to have a moment of quiet, teleporting himself to the moon, specifically to the exact spot where Jean Grey took her life to save the universe from the Phoenix. He recreates his dead ex-wife out of moon dust and wonders if he’s started to come unhinged, and moon-Jean reminds him that he’s using his mind powers to turn a bunch of sand into his therapist.
Digital comics pioneer Yves Bigerel is credited with co-plotting and storyboarding, and there’s a distinct relationship between the movement of the plot and the flow of the images. One of the most impressive displays of this occurs at the start of the comic, when Cyclops is floating above Utopia, watching his fellow X-Men engage in recreational activities as he begins his personal crisis. The base image stays in the background as panels are layered on top, zooming in on Cyclops as people’s thoughts begin to invade his mind. With each swipe of the finger, the panels zoom in closer to his face as the thoughts become inescapable. When he can’t handle it anymore, Cyclops simply teleports himself to the moon, and all the overlaid panels disappear to show the initial image of X-Men playing, but now Cyclops has been replaced by the red energy residue left in the wake of his teleportation. The entire scene takes place within the span of seconds, but the artwork breaks down that moment to show just how crippling Scott’s new power has become.
As impressive as the main story of AvX #6 is, the Infinite Comic is the real Big Issue this week. It’s a completely different reading experience than a print comic, using technology to give the reader more control over the action while making that action smoother than ever. “…In A Handful Of Dust” is essentially one long conversation, but Bigerel’s storyboards present the information in imaginative new ways. The very first Infinite Comic began with question: “Are you ready for the future of comics at your fingertips?” That’s not just empty hype; it’s a serious question for the entire industry.