Avengers Vs. X-Men: Round 6

Written by Jonathan Hickman

Art by Olivier Coipel, Mark Morales, and Laura Martin

Letters by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

In Avengers Vs. X-Men: Round 6 we get our first glimpse of the "Phoenix Five" in action as they jet around the globe doing the seemingly impossible, bringing peace and prosperity to every corner of the Earth. But is everything as it seems? The Avengers — and even some X-Men — seem to think that the good deeds the Phoenix Five are performing are too good to be true. Judging by the reaction the Phoenix Five are getting from the ancient scholars of K'un-L'un, the Avengers might be right.

In one of the series' best cold opens so far, we finally get to see Charles Xavier's reaction to what his X-Men have become. It's kind of fascinating to see the interplay between Xavier, whose position as the leader of mutantkind has been supplanted by Cyclops — who takes as much of his leadership style from Magneto as he does from Professor X. The relationship between these three men is definitely at the core of the X-Men mythos, and it's becoming one half of the emotional heart of AvX. Jonathan Hickman is finally digging deeper into the motivations and consequences of what's going on in this series, and while there's a lot less smash-'em-up fisticuffs, there's a hell of a lot more depth of character, as Xavier beseeches Scott to understand the true price of power that seems to bear no cost. As each side of the conflict is driven to extremes, with even Captain America considering a lethal solution to the problem of the Phoenix Five, the truly powerful scenes lie in moments like Beast's major decision.

AvX #6 also finally sees some outside forces weighing in, with the Scarlet Witch playing a pivotal role in the issue's conclusion, and the scholars of K'un-L'un pressing the idea that Iron Fist has to take action. With this issue, AvX has become everyone's problem, so to speak, and so begs the question of where characters like the Fantastic Four (other than Thing) will fall when it gets down to brass tacks. There is a major morality play at stake here, and like the recent "Ends of the Earth" in Amazing Spider-Man, it forces the reader to ask the question of whether peace and prosperity can actually be achieved through coercion. Unlike "Ends of the Earth," the answer is a little less cut-and-dried, as the healing force whose motives are in question is controlled by characters who, until now, have mostly been benevolent. Marvel's hero vs. hero shtick wore out its welcome in the years following Civil War, and while it was almost a relief to return to a point where the villains were the guys you expected them to be, it's becoming strangely clear that Marvel's characters are at their most powerful when they don't get along. It's probably an extension of the Stan and Jack style of the dysfunctional family dynamic, and while a return to years of internal conflict doesn't particularly sound appealing, there's no arguing that Marvel is finally getting somewhere with the emotional core of this story.

Olivier Coipel is a more than welcome addition to AvX's cast of creators. His art carries a certain edge and energy that screams across the page, even in more subtle moments. His take on the revised outfits of the Phoenix Five is breathtaking (Cyclops's crotch aside), and there are so many terrific panels, scenes, and pages that it's hard to list them all. Even something as simple as a single panel shot of the founding Avengers is gorgeous under his pencil, and his usual collaborators Mark Morales and Laura Martin do their typically fantastic job of supporting and enhancing the linework. The art falters only during the issue's lone fight scene, when the panels get tight and the action is a little hard to follow. Unfortunately, that's a fairly big black mark on the issue, as that sequence is something of a climax, but the two pages that stand out are such a small fraction of the whole that it's not enough to detract too much from the overall experience.

Avengers Vs. X-Men is really shaping up to be about "choice;" the choice to take responsibility for your actions, the choice to do what you think is right, and what happens when that choice is taken away for what seem like the right reasons. As these choices are made, and lines are drawn, crossed, and drawn again, it's hard to find sympathy for anyone but characters like Beast and Hope, who, more than anything, have become caught in the crossfire. Unlike AvX's obvious forebear Civil War, it's a lot more difficult to pick a side in the conflict. The world is a grey area, and only becomes black and white based on the choices made by the people who inhabit it, and it's those choices that are driving AvX towards something potentially world altering.


Before Watchmen: Comedian #1

Written by Brian Azzarello

Art by J.G. Jones and Alex Sinclair

Lettering by Clem Robins

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Nobody laughs for the Comedian. Nobody cries for him. And perhaps the biggest missed opportunity for this Before Watchmen book? Nobody cares about him, either.

Unlike the previous two Before Watchmen prequels, Before Watchmen: Comedian #1 assumes you already know everything about Alan Moore's antihero, and proceeds instead to put the Comedian through his paces. It's interesting in a trivia sort of sense, seeing how Eddie Blake affected American history, but his emotions and motivations remain too opaque to hook readers.

Part of this issue's problem is the disconnect between the script and the art. Brian Azzarello and J.G. Jones are both stellar craftsmen in their own right, but having an issue that is populated largely by historical figures doesn't play to Jones's strengths. Inking himself, this is definitely a different-looking style for Jones, feeling far thinner and less lush than, say, his halcyon days on Wanted. Yet the content does elude him. Eddie Blake's relationship with the Kennedys is the focal point of this issue, but the family hurts more than helps. They're just off-model enough to be distracting, not human enough to elicit sympathy or admiration when the inevitable occurs.

It's only when Jones is allowed to have some action — it's a quick sequence, with panels turned at an angle like a fast-paced Transporter flick — that the heat comes back. But unfortunately, the emotional moments return shortly thereafter, coming off as flat even as it tries to emulate original series Dave Gibbons. While Gibbons was a master of composition — he always kept his subject in focus — Jones occasionally leaves dead space.

The other problem with the Kennedy connection is that that's all Azzarello has to humanize Eddie Blake. Without that connection, we've pretty much seen this exact act in the original Watchmen, down to Eddie searching desperately for a drink when his world falls around him. If anything, Eddie seems a lot mellower than either his teenage self or his Vietnam days — when did this loose cannon seem so tame? Even his killing of an American icon just seems sleazy and half-heatedly exploitative rather than a shocking, horrifying revelation.

You can't win all of them, and it seems that the third time is not the charm for Before Watchmen. Whereas the first two installments stood on their own two feet as accessible, standalone stories, Azzarello and Jones lean a little too heavily on Alan Moore's original text, leading to a story that emulates the tone but never really hits the right note. And that's the sad punchline for Before Watchmen: Comedian #1 — we're not laughing on the inside. We're not even crying. The reality is even worse — we're not reacting at all.


Saga #4

Written by Brian K. Vaughan

Art by Fiona Staples

Lettering by Fonografiks

Published by Image Comics

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

When you have an opening scene and a startling page that introduces you to a sex planet, you know you're in for something a bit different. Saga has set the bar for creator-owned books and stories, and shows no signs whatsoever of putting on the brakes.

With the revelation of Marko being engaged to another woman from the cliffhanger of the last issue, Alana did not take that well, as any woman wouldn't. The dialog between the two is endearing and doesn't come across as forced. You get a more understanding about their relationship and how much in love they really are. The issue is actually halved between the heroes, and the villain that we've seen before, The Will, but here he gets a moment to really flesh him out. We've seen his reputation mentioned before and how talented he is at assassinations, though in this issue we're introduced to a whole new side to his that sort of makes us root for him. Saga #4 ends with a nice dramatic moment, but in this story, it's a good bet that nothing is what it seems.

Brian K. Vaughan flexes his creative wings here, and puts us in an environment that no other book on the shelves can take us. The idea of a planet where your most perverse dreams can become reality is quite the visual experience. I'm not sure what is going on in half of those panels, but having The Will just not say anything during any of his exploration of it, is an interesting touch. How Vaughan has constructed this mysterious character is just fun to watch it all play out. What he's done for Marko and Alana's relationship is some of the best dialog I've read all year. Only four issues in, and these two feel like old friends or the series has been going on for much longer; they're just so fleshed out. The Alana/Izabel dynamic just adds the right amount of humor and wit to the story to balance out the dramatics and gore in the issue.

The visuals and design of everything just comes at your eyes and you can't pull away easily. That is the magic of Fiona Staples' style. How she takes you from one part of the galaxy to the next with such panache is stellar. Her use of cinematic angles and great facial expressions tell a great story, even with certain characters never saying a word or having a sound effect added to them. The nature of the planet Sextillion is something you won't forget easily. The colors and bright lights with some alien freak-a-leaks is something of the most unique pages I've seen in a while. Everything she puts on paper seems so alive.

Saga #4 proves that this book has only really just begun telling its story, and with the pace it's keeping, it is surely one book not to be missed. Vaughan and Staples are quite the duo and bring to you a story of compassion, mystery, enchantment, teenage ghosts, anti-hero freelance mercenaries, and prostitutes that are just heads and legs. Thanks, comics.


Next Men: Aftermath #44

Written by John Byrne

Art by John Byrne and Ronda Pattison

Lettering by Neil Uyetake

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

In Next Men: Aftermath #44, John Byrne doesn’t say “goodbye” to these characters but he put them away more ceremonially than he did back in 1994 when he ended the original series. Their story really ended six issues ago but Byrne has used Aftermath as a coda to give one final and odd curtain call to the characters, bringing them all together for one final time but not even really doing that. Titled “Crazy Quilt,” there’s probably not a more apt description for this issue that feels like the thoughts of a storyteller who has a lot to say before the end of the issue.

Byrne’s whole approach to his return to Next Men has been puzzling. The original series in the early 1990s felt like him trying to reclaim the mainstream from the Image founders. The stories were solid superhero fare. Since he relaunched the series over a year ago, Byrne’s approach to the characters has been that of a writer and artist returning to unfinished business. In some ways, Next Men has been an obligation hanging over Byrne for two decades and it ended up being one that he decided to have fun with.

For the last couple of issues, the Next Men, possibly alternate versions of the team and a menagerie of other characters have been wandering around this ever-changing tableau, unsure of where or when they are. How this relates to the story before this when the Next Men seemingly rewrote history to ensure that they wouldn’t exist still remains a mystery as Byrne pushes and twists the characters as far as they can in this final issue and answers only a few of the questions he’s posed. Thanks to a reality-altering character, you’re never even too sure who in this book is real and who is just a memory of a happier time.

A lot of the narrative sleight of hand that Byrne does in this issue are repeats of what he’s done in this series over the last 20 years but without the threat of having to neatly reset everything to normal for the next story arc, Byrne demonstrates a playfulness in this series that was often missing from his overly-serious storytelling. Without that next issue where he has to continue the story, Byrne ends up not telling the Next Men’s story but a story about story. With Sandy, a girl who can mold reality to whatever she wants it to be, Byrne creates a story that explores the wants and wishes of his characters and shows how those have formed the core of Aftermath.

With this last issue, Byrne tries to see how far he can bend and break these characters one more time before snapping them back into some sense of normality in the end. He gives his characters an ending they deserve even if it isn’t one that aligns greatly with how he originally started out the series. While Next Men has always been about desire and longing, Next Men: Aftermath #44 pushes those themes into some puzzling meta-commentary on comics in ways that the book was never really about. But the story that Byrne left dangling almost 20 years ago has been told over and over again during the time these characters were in hiatus. In returning to chronicle their end, Byrne screwed with the series status quo but took his readers on a wild ride into an imaginative world of superheroes, history and the possibilities of what he could have done with these characters.

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