Comic Picks By The Glick

Uncanny Avengers vol. 1: The Red Shadow

April 14, 2014

A little over a year and a half ago I wrote an article about Marvel’s plans to collect the first four issues of this series in a $25 premiere hardcover.  Their plan, at the time, appeared to be finding a way to squeeze every last sale they could out of their biggest ongoing series launch of the year and that included getting tradewaiters like me to see buying the single issues as a better value than waiting for the collected editions.  Though the first issue of “Uncanny Avengers” launched at over 300,000 copies due to the hype, the creative team of Rick Remender and John Cassaday, and the 22 variant covers that issue had, it still wasn’t enough to topple issue #100 of “The Walking Dead” as the biggest seller of 2012.

Since then, several notable things have happened.  The first volume of this title was subsequently indicated to collect its first five issues, bringing it more in line with other Marvel trades like “All-New X-Men” and “Iron Man.”  Its profile has also fallen dramatically from its launch, and it has been mired in a couple of minor controversies -- one of which will be discussed later -- despite getting some good reviews.  Most importantly for me is the fact that its first volume is now available to read in softcover and I get to see if it’s worth reading beyond all of the things I’ve just mentioned.  The short version is that yes, I was entertained by what I read here even if it doesn’t offer anything dramatically different than what I usually get from my superhero comics.

The story picks up in the wake of “Avengers vs. X-Men” with the funeral of Charles Xavier.  We see Wolverine’s speech about the man and how his dream was failed by those closest to him intercut with scenes of Alex “Havok” Summers visiting his brother Scott in a S.H.I.E.L.D. prison.  These two events are connected thematically as Havok encounters Captain America and Thor on his way out.  It turns out that Scott’s accusation during the crossover that Cap and co. haven’t done enough to help with human/mutant relations did strike a nerve and he wants to do something to rectify that.  That something happens to be starting up a new Avengers/X-Men “Unity” team led by Havok to show human and mutant superheroes working together for the betterment of all.

With a grand idea like that, it’s going to need something big to prove itself against right off the bat.  A suitable threat manifests itself in the form of a new incarnation of the Red Skull.  I won’t spoil the details of how he has returned (mainly because they’re really obvious), but he sees the divide between humans and mutants as a perfect flashpoint for inciting the hatred that will serve as the foundation for his new reich.  The Skull is not alone, though, as he has help from his genetically-altered S-Men and thanks to a little graverobbing he also has Professor X’s most important asset to help him in his quest.

If you’re doing a story that’s built around people overcoming hatred and intolerance for the greater good, then the Red Skull certainly makes for a very appropriate villain.  His presence also speaks to the idea that one of the interpretations of the “X-Men” concept is as a metaphor for racism and having them team up with the Avengers to put him down is a solid idea for their first outing as the “Unity” team -- the term “Uncanny Avengers” is never used in the comic.  I also like the fact that this iteration of the Red Skull appears to be more about sowing chaos and fear through the populace to achieve his goals as opposed to crackpot schemes and a reliance on secret WWII-era death machines.  That’s due in a large part to the new abilities he acquires here as well as his chief henchman Honest John The Living Propaganda, but I like Remender’s new take on the villain and will be looking forward to seeing his inevitable return in this title.

As for the good guys, we get an eclectic team made up of the six heroes you can see on the cover:  Cap, Havok, Thor, Wolverine, Rogue and Scarlet Witch.  This is meant to be Havok’s coming-out party as the team leader and he gets some choice heroic scenes in the main story that establish his style as a traditional square-jawed brand right down to the effectively inspirational speech he gives to everyone nearby in the city at the end of the conflict.  The roles of Rogue and the Scarlet Witch appear to be a showcase for the difficulty the team is going to have in coming together as the former still hasn’t forgiven the latter for the “No More Mutants” bit.  I have no problems with that as both come off as being written well within their established personalities.

Cap, Thor and Wolverine appear to be on hand to give the team some A-list credibility as they mainly occupy supporting roles here.  That’s fine as Remender is good at balancing a large cast and making sure that everyone has their moment to shine.  So in addition to the funeral speech at the beginning of the story, we see Wolverine as the only person who’s able to get one in on the Red Skull during the conflict.  Thor has a much more difficult role to manage as he has to be seen as being strong yet not the kind of “instant win” button that having a god on the team would allow for.  The writer is a bit less successful in managing that as the opponent he’s matched off against is a generic strong guy, though Thor is shown to be as susceptible to the propaganda/mind control antics of the story as the regular humans.  In one of the story’s more memorable moments, Cap shows that he isn’t even thought it’s strange seeing the character in a non-leadership role within the team.  Still, the reason for this is well-explained here and it sets up an interesting brand of tension between how he’ll be able to handle not being in charge if Havok starts making decisions he doesn’t like.

So what we’ve got here is essentially a well-executed example of a fairly standard superhero story.  Heroes who don’t necessarily work well together form a new team, a familiar threat shows up for them to fight, then they defeat him and show the world that there’s hope for them all.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before yet Remender makes it all work well enough by effectively setting up the conflict, writing the characters well, and moving it all along at a brisk pace.  He also keeps things from getting too grim thanks to some cleverly-timed one-liners as well.

However, aside from the main story’s lack of originality, there are a couple issues here.  One is that the Red Skull’s henchmen aren’t really fleshed out all that well.  Save for the aforementioned Honest John, most of them come off as fairly generic villains who are only distinguished and defined by their powers and appearance.  While Remender showed in “Uncanny X-Force” that he can write a team book well, it would appear that even he has his limits with how large a cast he’s able to work with effectively.  There’s also the fact that the write loves spelling things out for us in the captions.  Sometimes this works well, as we’re told what the initial victim’s of the Red Skull’s attack on New York are thinking before they die.  Other times, it feels very melodramatic and on the nose as the exact toll of the conflict is explained to us in text during the final pages.

Fortunately Remender is working with an incredibly accomplished artist in John Cassaday who can sell just about anything with his art.  Even if his work isn’t as meticulous as we’ve seen from him in the past, he imbues each panel with the right amount of gravitas to enhance its strengths and account for its weaknesses.  Given that Cassaday seems to be busy with Hollywood commitments and cover art these days, the art he provides here serves as a great reminder that he’s one of the best in the business.

That’s not all, though, as the final issue collected here serves as a decent low-key transition from the previous arc into the next.  It starts off with Remender picking up on a plot thread from “The Dark Angel Saga” before segueing into showing us how the new X-Men are settling into Avengers Mansion.  The best part about this issue is how it delves into the public relations issues that need to be managed with the team, such as addressing how two former members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants are now a part of it.  I liked seeing this brought up here since PR is also a key part of the message this “Unity” team is meant to be conveying.

Then you get to Havok’s speech to the public and Remender proceeds to put his foot into his mouth.   This issue got some unwelcome attention when it was originally published after the character stated how he saw the word “mutant” as divisive and said that we were all “humans of one tribe” while the “m-word” represented everything he hates.  I’m taking these things out of context, yet while it’s clear to see that this speech was intended as a missive of “we’re all in this together-ness” it really misses the mark.  Rather than embrace diversity, it comes off as an entreaty for mutants to stay in the closet and try to pass for human instead of embracing who they hare.  Putting these words in the mouth of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Havok is even more misguided after we’ve had a story where mutants who couldn’t “pass for human” were brutally murdered.

Frankly, I’d love to see the character get called out on his speech in the next volume though the fight that ensues after it leads to a bigger problem in the context of the characters’ and their world.  Were I a betting man, I’d say that Havok’s speech is likely to get pushed into “We shall never mention this again” territory given that it’s a relatively small part of the issue.  At least the rest of it is solid, and artist Oliver Coipel is impressively together with his art here.

Now I will be back for the second volume as I did enjoy what I read here in spite of its issues.  Much to my pleasure, this upcoming volume even offers a better price-to-issue ratio here as it collects seven issues for the same cover price.  It also raises the question of whether or not this will represent the series hitting its stride with the introduction out of the way, or give Remender more chances to insert Havok’s foot into his mouth.  Given his track record with “Uncanny X-Force,” I’m willing to favor the former and the fact that the next volume features art from Daniel Acuna makes it very appealing to me.  So consider me onboard with the ongoing adventures of the “Unity” squad for now.

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