Thursday, August 09, 2012

Riding the Gravy Train 19 (New Avengers #29)

This right here is the high point of Avengers vs. X-Men. Throughout his time on the Avengers titles, Brian Michael Bendis has used the Illuminati to varying degrees of success. The group, through its various incarnations, have led to some of the Bendis's smartest writing and some of his worst. The mini-series devoted to the group's actions at different points in the past was pretty terrible on almost all levels. The original one-shot was interesting in the way it showed the beginnings of the group, but fell apart near the end. Bendis tried to recreate the concept with Norman Osborn's Cabal at the beginning of "Dark Reign." Most recently, the Illuminati was revealed to the Avengers in Avengers after the Hood stole the Infinity Gems that they each kept hidden. There, Captain American first condemned the concept of a group like that before agreeing that it was necessary and joining.

If you're unaware, the Illuminati is a group of heroes that meet from time to time to consider problems that affect the world as a whole and decide how best to solve them. It's a smart idea, one that takes the idea of superheroes to a logical place, one that, on the surface, seems like it's too far, but, upon reflection, isn't actually any different than anything the superheroes do. And every time someone like Captain America tries to act like it is, he stands revealed as small.

The emergence of the Phoenix Five actually makes for an interesting counterpart to the Illuminati. They are, basically, the same leap that the Illuminati was from the Avengers/X-Men/Fantastic Four, but from the Illuminati. They seek to reshape the world, affect large change, except they do it overtly rather than covertly as the Illuminati preferred. None of this is stated directly in New Avengers #29, but the underlying sentiment that there isn't necessarily anything different or wrong about what the Phoenix Five are doing is seen throughout. Is it that the Phoenix Five are, somehow, evil, or is it that Captain America sees himself small and weak next to them, jealous that they can affect more positive change on the world in a week than he has, perhaps, ever done?

This issue is a series of conversations as people arrive and depart. Captain America has called a meeting of the Illuminati, particularly for Namor, hoping that they can all talk to Namor and convince him to turn on the X-Men and see the error of his ways. Given that Namor still has the Phoenix here, I think we all know that that doesn't happen. But, even if he were still a host of the Phoenix, no one would really think that that would happen. In the comic, only Captain America thinks he'll actually show up at all.

What impresses me most about this comic is that it's the first that I've read to step back and really try to examine the various implications of what's going on in Avengers vs. X-Men, what that means to these characters, and how it fits into the larger context of the Marvel Universe since Bendis took over the Avengers books. If Avengers vs. X-Men is meant to be the culmination of culminations, this is the first comic that seemed like it was trying to make that explicit instead of simply confusing repetition for allusion.

The inclusion of Reed Richards and Charles Xavier is what sets this comic apart. Xavier has made some small appearances in Avengers vs. X-Men so far, but this is where you see what he truly thinks of what's happening. The anguish he suffers over his dream perverted, of his first student and the man that's basically his son (despite their estangement in recent years) setting himself up as dictator of the Earth. Xavier's reactions in the main series to what's happening have never quite felt clear/explained because of the demands there. Here, he's bitter and angry, pissed off that the other all blame him for what's happening and even more pissed off because he agrees with them. His angry rant is great and a brief moment where that character actually felt like he mattered for the first time since... when was the last time Charles Xavier actually meant anything to anyone? In a sense, his appearance in this issue addresses that: this is all his personal failure. His falling out with Scott Summers, his basic excommunication of sorts from the X-Men and the mutant community... it has allowed for this situation to happen and this is the payoff of those earlier stories. Even if the payoff is a man looking at what he's created and realising that he fucked up. He fucked it all up and, now, he has to decide what to do. Bendis offers no solution or answers, and that's rare.

Richards's contribution is that of logic and reason: just because you assume that the X-Men will become corrupt with power, doesn't mean that they will. At that moment in time, there was no reason to think that Cyclops and the others had anything but good intentions. After all, the only actions they'd undertaken that seemed 'off message' were their skirmishes with the Avengers and the Avengers had as much to do with causing those as the X-Men (probably more). Instead of continually poking at Cyclops and trying to undermine his work, what would happen if Captain America and the Avengers joined them, tried to help and, in the process, work to keep them from losing sight of their goals with corruption? Richards lays out a compelling argument for stopping the fighting and working with the X-Men, even raising the events of Civil War as evidence of the a previous time when Captain America and Iron Man decided that violence was the solution to an argument with friends and allies over different ways of seeing the world. It's an implied shaming, a moment where Richards reminds them (and us) that Civil War and the ensuing fallout taught them nothing.

The final scene between Captain America and Namor, along with the opening sequence, is Bendis trying to reconcile Namor's behaviour with the fact that people like Cap continue to consider him a friend/ally. In a sense, Cap's problem is also his strength. He is a man of the past, so things like loyalty are hard for him to shake, but that also means that he struggles with change. He doesn't trust new. And that's understandable. He's had more new than most people could ever hope to see and, to a certain extent, he probably thinks all of it is worse than what he used to know. That means he stands by the man he fought side-by-side with in World War 2, but it also means that Namor has a point when he says that Cap's problem could be that he fears what the world will look like soon, because he doesn't know if there will be a place in it for him.

On the surface, New Avengers #29 is an issue that should present the Avengers's perspective (something that's been lacking in the tie-ins), but, instead, critiques it while contextualising Avengers vs. X-Men into both the Avengers and X-Men's recent histories. This is a story that's the result of both Charles Xavier's failed dream, and the inability for Captain America and Iron Man to allow change to happen except on their terms. It's the best issue of the entire Avengers vs. X-Men event so far.

Next week: Avengers vs. X-Men #10 and Avengers #29.