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Digging through the Dumps: ‘Avengers & X-Men: AXIS’

For this edition, we delve into an epic Marvel crossover that’s got all heart and not enough brains.

Welcome to another edition of “Digging through the Dumps.” Here, our authors search the darkest, dustiest bins for the worst of comics history. But lo, this is no exercise in Reddit-esque humiliation, but a chance spit-shine these turds and uncover new value and meaning. With a little time and a good scrubbin’, even garbage can become a treasure.

For more from “Digging,” be sure to read the entry on DC’s “New Talent Showcase” #14.

Issue/Series: Avengers & X-Men: AXIS (Issues #1-9)

Publisher: Marvel

Release Date: October-December 2014

The 411: While the crossover event is as essential to the Marvelverse as Captain America’s shield, there was a noticeable uptick in scope and size in the 2010s. Age of X, Infinity, Siege, Fear Itself, Infinity Wars, Spider-Island, Secret Wars – these world-spanning events aren’t just a primo sales boost but a chance to tell stories in the biggest sandbox possible. Yet in terms of sheer editorial brilliance, few events proved as wildly potent as AXIS.

The premise is genius in its simplicity: heroes and villains swap morality, with the righteous heroes turned hyper evil, and the ne’er-do-wells made pure and decent.  From that gimmick sprung all sorts of possibilities for great storylines, meditations on basic human decency, commentary on the art of rehabilitation, and generally great moments with heroes and villains left twisting in the wind. The best crossovers always foster a fundamental shake-up to the Marvelverse, and AXIS proved to be among the most daring events (on paper, at least).

The Awful & The Ugly: As it turns out, the final execution leaves a lot to be desired. AXIS is a prime example of what happens when creators try to translate ideas across such a massive canon (rich with complex characters and storylines) and not much else.

Quick Note: I’m focusing primarily on the core nine-issue miniseries. Mostly because there’s a lot going on here to unpack, and only partially to prevent my own oversaturation. That said, I still perused some of the 20-ish tie-in titles – which includes the “March to AXIS” story and random issues of Deadpool, Avengers, and Magneto – and they’re perhaps the least offensive. Several of them do a serviceable job in perpetuating the storyline, especially with regards to fleshing out the action and layering in fresh intrigue. But also because they’re relatively small issues, and even the blandest offerings quickly return to “normal” continuity.

Of the extended list, perhaps AXIS‘ single greatest crime is the dialogue. Say what you will about Rick Remender – he’s been accused of outright prejudice and misogyny in his work – but he’s clearly solid enough. It’s his dialogue, however, that drives home an essential point about the downside of AXIS: it tries far too hard in the most excruciating ways. The dialogue’s the worst marriage of Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon writings, all snappy pop culture references delivered in rapid-fire succession, as if every hero and villain also staffed at Buzzfeed. It’s fine in very small doses, but the book is dominated by this irksome back-and-forth, and it not only comes off as forced but damages the impact of such a profound trauma in the Marvelverse. Sure, humor is necessary given the severity, but it just feels like Remender needed some mechanism to distract from an under-formed or overly clunky script. When he does get more serious – writing about hate (a lot) and letting characters bear heaps of newly-surfaced drama – it still often feels like bad Shakespeare written by angsty pre-teens.

Yet you can laugh at even the most awkward of dialogue (and you will for sure), but other crimes are far less humorous. Because the dialogue only exemplifies a large issue: the creative team attempting to make something more than the material contains/presents. Without getting too deep into a fairly complicated plot, the Red Onslaught – the merged consciousnesses of Red Skull and Charles Xavier – attack the Avengers and X-Men. To put him down, they cast an inversion spell, blending chaos and order magic, which causes the main story’s (and this is the technical term) kerfuffle. That specific event is unceasingly at the heart of the whole story – and not just to foster a sense of consistency, but because there’s no shaking that plot device. It’s so overwrought and so unfalteringly geeky that it takes the entire book thrusting it into your face to make it land even remotely. We can’t forget about the inversion, and everything it means and the value tied directly to it, to the point there’s little room for the actual emotional fallout of the story. I’m reminded of something like Marvel Zombies, which basically said, “There’s a world with zombies in – here’s that story!” (I’m oversimplifying, sure, but it’s a great example of economy.) AXIS could certainly use similar brevity to suss out what mattered most – like, human drama.

Perhaps the reason the premise is so present is that AXIS is a poorly paced book in general. It takes 3-4 issues just to get things really in motion, and when it does happen, you’ve either already figured out the inversion or assumed something else and felt that accompanying tinge of disappointment. Even then, the really good bits are saved for the final two issues, with the bulk of the great action and genuine character development saved for the finale itself. It’s understandable that they wanted to give AXIS a lot of room – there’s a lot going on, and it needs the space to breathe with so many cooks in the kitchen. Yet the story drags regardless, which is confounding given that this doesn’t have to be such a complicated story to require so much building and editorial planning. There’s a way to tell this whole story in 3-4 issues, and that kind of minimalist approach cuts down on the meandering bits (the build-up and the middle chunk) while leaving ample room for the emotional arcs and subsequent exploration. Not that proper pacing or a compact run-time would’ve saved the day, but it could have helped hide more of the weaknesses.

Finally, a list of random things I also didn’t like: hippie Deadpool; the flippant approach to Spider-Man as a consistent force of good; Thor’s dialogue (including special speech bubble); not making a bigger deal of Iron Man’s return to booze; Old Steve Rogers as both hero and dead weight; the lack of purpose behind New Nomad; Sam Wilson’s inconsistent morality; and Kluh, among many more.

Saving Graces: For the most part, AXIS is an enjoyable story – if you deliberately ignore the blaring missteps. Because there’s some moments in here that make you feel something resembling satisfied – the ending bit with Sabretooth musing on morality, the dynamic and story of Genesis/Apocalypse, and how certain “lesser” characters (Quicksilver and Nightcrawler) get a chance to shine in new and interesting ways. There’s something about these sporadic diamonds in the rough that demonstrate a vital element of crossovers. So much of their value, and if they’re well executed or not, has to do with just such tiny moments, instances of transcendence where readers learn something or get to experience fresh insights regarding their favorite hero/villain. There’s not necessarily enough to make AXIS a “good” book, and even a boatload wouldn’t be enough to sustain interest. Still, it hints at what lies in the heart of a proper story and its progression. AXIS has a solid framework and great formula that could have been implemented with more thought and overall efficiency.

Still, there were instances where the story actual landed. Where we got heroes or villains operating in service of the book and exploring what it means to be truly good and evil. Irksome as the character may be, the inverted Deadpool – like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider mixed with Tony Robbins –  delivers one of the better speeches (just before being torn asunder). It’s a touching mediation on the flexibility of the human spirit, and the flame that we all carry in us to make a better world. Cheesy, yeah, but that’s kind of what you wanted from this story. Strip away the plot devices and the ’90s-inspired attitudes and the endless cheese and just give us a thrust kick to the ol’ heart-box. A good crossover should be the opposite of those cheese-stuffed pizzas: a satisfying experience beyond all the hullabaloo. These moments, like the fight between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson, do a great job of drawing out essential ideas (namely, exploring the mettle of friendships and how we view duty versus obligations). These pure instances where we learn something new about humanity from these heroes, and try and re-calibrate ourselves accordingly. It’s not an entirely perfect process, but AXIS delivers enough to be disappointing if not plain ol’ stinky bad.

Fail as he may have with most of the dialogue, Remender succeeded at least partially with some of the characterizations. In some cases, the inverted characters are just awful – Sam Wilson, especially, is the worst kind of soap opera fiend, while the good version of Mystique loses all color and intrigue in her “aww shucks” form of heroism. And in some cases, there’s only slight changes with the more morally nebulous folks (Sabretooth, Absorbing Man, etc.) That said, there’s bright spots abounding. The inverted Loki feels truly organic in his approach, dealing with what he’s done and years of insecurities and trying to be more good and just. When he goes toe-to-toe with Naughty Thor, there’s a moral victory that feels rewarding because it remains close to the character’s core. Similarly, the bad version of Iron Man is wildly intriguing. Yes, he’s just as murderous as his ilk, but his descent into darkness is more nuanced, with Stark clinging to a sense of greed and gluttony that feels in line with character, making his “journey” and its fallout all the more thoughtful and alluring. It’s not apparent at all times, or in every character, but these proper instances do a lot of the heavy-lifting for the book’s sense of impact. Just enough meat and potatoes to get the gears a firin’ and show us the fragility of Marvel’s heroes (and ourselves).

Rather than a random list of goodies, I figured I’d end with one quick thought: I like the book’s complete lack of finality or lasting impact. Sure, folks like Sabretooth and Stark may continue reeling from the experience, but generally everything seemed fine and as if the universe had already moved on. That seems like the opposite effect one should expect with these events, but it totes works. It’s either a commentary on man’s greater dichotomy, or these are all psychic landmines to be uncovered later. (Or, more poor writing, but I don’t think that’s the case. For once.) Something about this frivolous nature feels perfectly in line with this half-cocked morality tale.

What Have We Learned?:

  1. 4 separate issues to get going is an eternity in the comics world.
  2. Morality is a slippery slope that we all stumble down.
  3. Sometimes it’s better to have more well-rounded villains so you don’t have to use, like, Hobgoblin and Jack O’Lantern V.
  4. In the case of dialogue, less is waaaaay more.
  5. Civil War is the gift that keeps on giving. As a result, all subsequent stories pale in comparison.
  6. If it takes more than 50 words to explain the story’s plot, return to the drawing board pronto.
  7. Jerky Tony Stark is essential for most successful crossovers and events.
  8. Red Skull is a great villain, if you basically leave him as is. If you need a mega-powered baddie, go find someone else.
  9. Yes, even Deadpool can be made silly to the point of being ineffective.
  10. If you want to break people’s hearts and/or get them thinking, give the character’s A) time and spacing and B) the proper ammunition.
  11. Scarlet Witch is a solid character, and deserves attention as she deals with (post-M-Day) drama that’s central to the story’s plot and emotional aims.
  12. You’ve heard of Chekov’s gun, right? Remender’s gun should say, “If you mention the Extremis app, it can’t be resolved in a dang tie-in issue.”
  13. Seriously: less. is. more.

Final Thoughts: Hating something is easy (and sooo fun). There’s at least part of the human brain hardwired to dole out venom toward things it finds severely wanting. But what if there’s more pity or regret attached than outright bile? That’s sort of how it is with AXIS – there’s plenty to hate on, but at the end of the day, I can’t help but feel what I’m most angry about is what could have been. The story feels close enough to something genuinely insightful that it makes any missteps feel all the more damaging. If only a few things had been adjusted, then there could be a story worth falling in love with, even its huge flaws made somehow charming or endearing.

If nothing else, AXIS is a clear lesson about the nature of “bad” comics: the difference between the dumps and an eternal place on the bookshelf is very slim. Good ideas are great, but there’s something more that makes books truly lasting. It could be a matter of timing, or something about the greater context following the book’s debut. These titles don’t exist in a vacuum – for good, bad, or otherwise – and recognizing fact that is important in how we process the work and the titles we either stan eternally or bash ferociously.

Bad Elevator Pitch: AXIS is what would happen if Friedrich Nietzsche and Rob Liefeld teamed up to write a spin-off of Freaky Friday.

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