Brian Michael Bendis writes the Scarlet Witch story, which follows Wanda Maximoff as she tries to readjust to life as a solo superhero. After being largely absent from the Marvel Universe for the past six years, Wanda’s return is a welcome one. Thankfully, Bendis doesn’t write a Wanda who’s wallowing in self-pity, and while she’s appropriately apologetic for her past actions, she’s dealing with the consequences instead of running from them. It’s a strong but slightly melodramatic story (the robot tears are a little much), and other than Ms. Marvel’s odd valley-girl dialogue, the script avoids the pitfalls of Bendis’ other Avengers work.
Hope’s half is handled by Jason Aaron, who shows that his time with Wolverine and the Jean Grey Institute hasn’t made him any less adept at writing the cast of Cyclops’ Utopia. Hope has become fiercely dedicated to the commando lifestyle that Cable ingrained in her, and this issue looks at a typical night of Hope’s vigilante addiction. After fighting Cyclops and stealing his jetpack, Hope beats up the Serpent Society until her fists are bloody, and her signs of rage don’t bode well for a planet that is about to get a visit from the Phoenix. That cosmic firebird loves angry redheads. Aaron has a strong handle on Hope’s younger voice, and excels at showing her ferocity in battle: He deserves an award for “Best Use of a Headbutt,” because Hope’s forehead sees a lot of action.
After #0, the Bendis-scripted Avengers Vs. X-Men #1 starts the plot moving, beginning with the Avengers assembling to save New York City from the crash landing of cosmic superhero Nova. He brings the message of the Phoenix’s forthcoming arrival, and the Avengers head to Utopia to bring in Hope and hopefully save the planet from annihilation. Cyclops sees the Phoenix as a potential asset for the nearly extinct mutants (shades of Israel there), and refuses to hand the girl over, responding to Captain America’s request with an optic blast that should have an announcer yelling “Fight!” in the background. The Avengers show up, the teams get ready fight, and then it’s time for #2. It’s not the most complicated story, and Cyclops is portrayed as a little too insane, but the shot of a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier looming over Utopia, packed with Avengers, is enough to stir up anticipation for the upcoming fisticuffs.
Marvel is putting its top talent on Avengers Vs. X-Men, and artists Frank Cho and John Romita Jr. pencil the first two installments. Cho is an ideal fit for the female-centric #0, and he again proves himself much more than a cheesecake artist. His pencils toe the line between realistic and cartoonish, allowing for detailed environments and character models without sacrificing dynamic action or emotional clarity. One panel in particular stands out in #0, a small image of Vision telling Scarlet Witch to leave Avengers mansion that is modeled after the Vision’s first appearance on the cover of Avengers #57.
John Romita Jr. is one of Marvel’s most consistent artists, and he turns in some of his strongest work in recent memory with #1, using a more controlled line and allowing Laura Martin’s superb coloring to add depth to his images. Romita will be joined by Adam Kubert and Olivier Coipel for the rest of the event, which means the title is going to look gorgeous no matter what. If the quality of the writing can match that of the art, and the team of Bendis, Aaron, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction—and Jonathan Hickman suggests it very well might—Avengers Vs. X-Men could end up being much more satisfying than its simplistic title and concept would lead readers to believe.
As Flex Mentallo tries to rediscover the world of optimism and innocence that has passed him by, his creator Wallace Sage tries to kill himself with a drug overdose, and the two stories flow in and out of each other. Morrison’s surreal, abstract tendencies work well to capture the disorientation of both characters, whether it’s Flex’s inability to adjust to a new culture or Wallace’s complete loss of physical and mental functions. As Wallace drifts closer to death, the story becomes increasingly fragmented, with alternate timelines and realities weaving together to form a complex, elegant tapestry of superhero ideas.
Flex Mentallo is one of Frank Quitely’s earliest works, but it’s not easy to tell from the artwork, which is as meticulously rendered and distinctively designed as his current output. The art lends clarity to the story, but Morrison’s plot also pushes Quitely to create increasingly strange images that reveal the breadth of his artistic talent. His anatomy is flawless and the amount of detail on each character is staggering. Try counting the hundreds of tiny hairs that blanket Flex’s body or the multitude of wrinkles on the Lieutenant’s face. Despite being an early work for both creators, Flex Mentallo feels fresh and exciting, and surprisingly appropriate for the current state of DC’s superhero line.
It’s a clever commentary on modern society’s growing reliance on technology, and while these gadgets make life easier for Ethan, he finds himself wanting to be challenged. The book tries to recreate Ethan’s wonder by incorporating illusions by magician Jon Armstrong, and while it’s an interesting conceit, the execution could use more fine-tuning. Terry’s magic tricks aren’t guaranteed to work for the reader, which has the potential to lessen their effect in the story. Beginning each issue with a panel of black is a simpler but no less effective way that Smoke And Mirrors recreates the experience of a magic show, as if the comic book is a blacked-out stage waiting for a magician to walk onto it.
Costa does a lot of world-building in the first issues, but Ethan’s character could stand to be fleshed out further, particularly his motivations for apprenticing Terry. The mystery of how Terry, who seems to come from our universe, ended up in Ethan’s world is the most intriguing thread of Costa’s story, along with the gun that appears at the end of the first issue. Browne’s artwork in #1 is solid, but shows significant improvement with #2, where he begins to experiment with layouts. Despite a few instances of awkward anatomy, his characters are expressive, and his design sense for the book’s magical settings has an arcane Apple aesthetic that perfectly matches Costa’s script.
Despite its influences, Ross’ story doesn’t feel stale, largely because it’s so fully realized. Following the example of Saga #1, it’s a double-sized issue for only $2.99, and it’s one of the densest superhero reads of the year. The first page handles a huge chunk of exposition with an online article about the reality-television show that shares the comic’s title, complete with comments from passionate readers complaining about new rules and past eliminations. After a brief glimpse of the birth of the stoners and an introduction to the arena, the story shifts to the main character, Tommy Watts, the only stoner born with a power rating of zero. Like Katniss Everdeen, a twist of fate thrusts Tommy into stardom, and the first issue ends with him stuck in an arena designed to murder him, hopelessly outgunned against a horde of bloodthirsty opponents.
The major draw of America’s Got Powers is the hyper-realistic artwork of Hitch, who makes the transition to creator-owned comics after years at Marvel and DC. It’s clear from the start that Hitch is intensely committed to this project, and without any sort of creative restrictions, he’s opted to show off—and it’s beautiful. Character moments read clearly, and the action in the arena is brutal and chaotic for the contestants, but easy to follow for the reader. His penchant for modeling characters after celebrities continues, with David Tennant and Ed Harris making appearances, but his style is so cinematic that movie stars don’t look out of place on the page.
After working on solo X-books like X-23 and Daken: Dark Wolverine, Liu shows what she can do with a large cast in Astonishing. She assembles a diverse X-team, and her first issue focuses on gay Canadian speedster Jean-Paul “Northstar” Beaubier (a glaring editorial error changes his name to “Jean-Claude” halfway through the issue) and mutant doctor Cecilia Reyes. Jean-Paul’s relationship with boyfriend Kyle and Cecilia’s budding flirtation with Gambit are the heart of the book, and Liu has an ear for natural dialogue, bringing these superheroes down to a human level. The book’s depiction of a gay relationship is especially noteworthy, and Liu gives Jean-Paul and Kyle a dynamic not much different from Lois Lane and Clark Kent or Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. (Maybe Jean-Paul and Kyle will last longer than those two couples.)
Liu is joined by artist Mike Perkins, whose clean, detailed pencils work with the dialogue to make the characters look and sound like real people. Perkins’ pencils are almost photorealistic, but he’s able to give the characters a sense of movement that prevents them from appearing stiff and posed. That realism in the relationships and artwork enriches the superhero elements of the issue, which look to take more prominence as the arc continues. If Liu and Perkins can maintain that delicate balance, Astonishing X-Men will be a book deserving of its superlative title.