Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Uncanny Avengers #1. Written by Rick Remender (Uncanny X-Force, Secret Avengers) and drawn by John Cassaday (Planetary, Astonishing X-Men), it brings Marvel’s blockbuster superteams together for the start of the new Marvel Now! relaunch. Warning: spoilers for the character death at the end of Avengers Vs. X-Men #11.
“This ain’t a reboot. It’s a new beginning.” Those were the words of Marvel Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso when he announced Marvel Now! in July, firmly establishing that the slew of first issues would not dramatically alter character continuity à la DC’s New 52. Rather, the majority of the titles would be relaunching with new #1s as well as new creative teams, debuts that would be gradually introduced at about an issue a week from October to February. The publishing schedule is more manageable than DC’s 52 new issues in one month, giving readers the opportunity to check out a smaller number of first issues each month. Perhaps the biggest difference between DC and Marvel’s initiatives is that Marvel Now! is built around writers being asked which artists they would like to work with and on what characters, an approach that has led to potentially inspired pairings like Mark Waid and Leinil Yu on Indestructible Hulk, Matt Fraction and Michael Allred on FF, and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie on Young Avengers.
For Marvel Now!’s flagship title Uncanny Avengers, Rick Remender teams with John Cassaday to bring the Avengers and X-Men together after a summer of fighting. It certainly ain’t a reboot, but it may not be the strongest new beginning either. Serving as an epilogue to this summer’s event crossover Avengers Vs. X-Men, this first issue deals heavily with the death of Professor Charles Xavier and rebuilding the fractured relationship between the two superhero teams. Reading AvX is helpful, but reading a 12-issue miniseries as a preface is a daunting thing to ask for a New Comic Book Reader, that mythical creature who supposedly emerges from dark movie theaters after seeing the latest superhero flick, filled with the insatiable need to consume graphic fiction. There’s no recap page, but by following the suggestion on the cover and using Marvel’s AR (short for “Augmented Reality”) app, readers can pull up a video recap of events leading up to and during AvX. It’s the best use of the AR app to date, giving a surprisingly thorough account of the history of the X-Men and how their relationship with the Avengers has changed over the years.
The recap’s focus is on the X-Men, and with Uncanny Avengers, Marvel is giving superhero fans what they can’t get at the movies: Avengers and X-Men working together. The Marvel Studios films are able to exist in the same universe, but with Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and the X-Men at Fox and Spider-Man at Sony, the company’s biggest characters are separated in Hollywood. Marvel Comics’ greatest strength is its shared universe, distinct from DC’s because it was developed organically rather than being the product of multiple publishers’ characters being acquired and folded into former continuity. While the X-Men have had ambassadors in the Avengers, most notably Beast, Wolverine and, most recently, Storm, the Uncanny Avengers team is evenly split between X-Men and Avengers, one of whom is a mutant. And yes, almost the entire team is made up of characters who have appeared in movies, with the exception of Scarlet Witch, who has barely been in any comics for the past five years.
This team’s first-time Avengers are Rogue and Havok, the latter an off-kilter choice that Remender finds a logical explanation for not just recruiting, but putting in a leadership role. Alex “Havok” Summers has experience as a government agent from his work with X-Factor, and as one of the late Professor Xavier’s earliest pupils and the brother of mutant terrorist Cyclops, he’s in an ideal position to help mutants redeem their public image. Wolverine and Rogue—who initially debuted as an Avengers villain—have checkered pasts that put them out of the running, but Havok’s pretty mug is the face that Captain America thinks could make the world love a race they’ve hated and feared for too long. It’s also a face that looks much like those of Steve Rogers and Thor: blonde hair, blue eyes, chiseled jaw. Ironically, Marvel’s newest half-Aryan superhero team is pitted against the Red Skull, the Nazi maniac who has made mutant elimination his newest cause.
Uncanny Avengers’ first page loudly declares that this book is not for kiddies. Five widescreen panels show a man having his skull cut open and a part of his brain removed, rendered in drippy detail by John Cassaday. As he puts a device on the half-brain, the unseen surgeon delivers a monologue about evolution and hatred as a natural response that reminds the inferior species of one truth: “Kill them before they kill you.” The man being operated on is the earth-bending mutant Avalanche, now outfitted with a mind-control device that causes him to upend a significant portion of downtown Manhattan then throw himself to his presumable death. A villain who turns mutants into suicide bombers isn’t a good thing to have when new mutants have started popping up for the first time in years, and by the end of the issue, Red Skull has his hands on two new subjects along with the brain of one recently deceased Alpha-level telepath: Charles Xavier. Remender ends the issue with plenty of questions: How is the Red Skull alive? Who are his superpowered henchmen? How did he get Charles Xavier’s corpse? It’s a strong cliffhanger that adds a sense of permanence to the death of Xavier, a character who has “died” more than once before.
After the cataclysmic events of Avengers Vs. X-Men, Wolverine’s eulogy is a nice change of pace that allows Remender to look at the emotional impact of Xavier’s death. As headmaster of the Jean Grey Institute, Wolverine is now responsible for upholding the professor’s legacy, and with Cyclops in prison, Logan has become the leader of the entire mutant race. (Side note: This week’s Wolverine And The X-Men is one of the series’ best, with a devastatingly brutal ending. A perfect companion to Uncanny Avengers.) After Wolverine’s speech, the story checks in with Havok, who confronts his brother, now confined to a ruby quartz jail cell. The villainization of Cyclops was one of the most divisive plot points in AvX, and the character continues his descent into Magneto territory as he talks to his brother. Regardless of whether it’s a completely natural character choice, Cyclops as a villain/potential anti-hero is a definite change from Scott Summers’ pre-Grant Morrison days, and change is good in an industry as static as superhero comics.
That said, Uncanny Avengers #1 still offers a fairly standard superhero plot: New heroes talk about forming a team, threat appears that they team up to stop, some other heroes get attacked by same threat somewhere else, they join the team later. Wolverine broods about failing to accomplish Xavier’s dream, Captain America broods about not helping the mutants enough, Havok broods because he’s lost his brother and his mentor, Scarlet Witch broods over her responsibility for all this, and Rogue broods about Scarlet Witch’s brooding. Thor makes a joke about lattes, so it’s clear what role he’ll be playing on the team.
The Rogue and Scarlet Witch scene is the weakest part of the issue, and Remender’s impulsive Rogue is a bit out of sync with her recent portrayal in X-Men: Legacy. And Scarlet Witch calling out the X-Men for acting like martyrs is laughable coming from a character who’s been a one-woman pity party for half a decade. The two women are attacked by the Red Skull’s S-Men, a group of superpowered individuals including Goat-Faced Girl, a man who turns into an insect, living wind, and a huge mutant turtle (no sign of whether he’s a teenager or ninja). Like Remender’s Uncanny X-Force #1, this first issue introduces a group of new characters in service of an old foe, adding an element of mystery and surprise to the standard superhero story. Goat-Faced Girl and giant turtle-man may not sound like the most intriguing additions to the Marvel universe, but if Remender can turn the Punisher into Frankenstein’s monster and make it work, he can make the S-Men viable villains.
Cassaday makes his return to monthly superhero comics with this title, and his talents have been greatly missed. He balances spectacle and realism incredibly well, grounding these fantastic stories in a world that readers can relate to. His penciling for this issue may not be as detailed as his early work, but hopefully his newer, streamlined style will translate to him being able to keep up with a monthly schedule, at least for this first story arc. His new design for the Scarlet Witch is much more functional than her previous tights-and-unitard look, while Rogue appears in a slightly modified version of her X-Men: Legacy costume, losing the scarf and low-cut neckline to cover up her entire body. Havok’s new look is an updated version of his original costume, but there’s some odd detailing with the raised white sections around his waist; they add some variation to the all-black bodysuit, but look like two large slugs stuck to his sides. Wolverine looks essentially the same as he did in Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men, while Captain America and Thor have received slight alterations that bring them closer in appearance to their movie counterparts. Eventually comic-book fans are going to have to accept that these characters are going to resemble the versions that the general public has become acquainted with, but the cosmetic changes don’t matter. What matters is the people inside those costumes, and Marvel Now! doesn’t undo any of the significant changes characters like Scarlet Witch, Wolverine, and Rogue have gone through.
Uncanny Avengers #1 may not be as flashy as the Justice League #1, which ushered in DC’s New 52 last year, but Avengers is the start of a long-term narrative that builds on the past, while League offered an explosive beginning to a new universe. Justice League tried so hard to establish the tone of the New 52 that it forgot about the characters, but Remender gets to work with a cast that has already been developed. The history of these heroes is incredibly convoluted, but Remender creates a story that leaves all the busyness in the past while still taking advantage of the fact that it exists. Professor Xavier’s death means something to these characters, but it means something to the reader as well, who has likely spent as much, if not more, time with Xavier as Professor X’s fictional comrades. History is what informs the future, and Marvel Now! begins with a first issue that pays tribute to the past while promising great things ahead. And with upcoming books like two Avengers titles by Jonathan Hickman, Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic on Thor, and Deadpool by comedian Brian Posehn, Gerry Duggan, and Tony Moore, the future of Marvel Now! looks bright indeed.