In-Depth: ‘Avengers/X-Men: AXIS’. And How It Went From Exciting to Stupid in the Blink of an Eye!

Posted: December 3, 2014 in COMICS
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I have to admit to having been a little sceptical about Avengers/X-Men: Axis when it was first being talked about. I hadn’t even intended to read it; but then, goodness, what a fun ride it was proving to be.
A guilt-ridden Tony Stark, a tortured Magneto getting back to his most interesting, a cool-as-hell Doctor Doom, a gigantic Red Skull, and much more besides. And then… and then it all went so very, very wrong with Avengers/X-Men: Axis #4 (more on that shortly).
But of course I should’ve known the good times wouldn’t last.

I’m aware, however, that most commentators refute any assertion that Axis was even any good to begin with, most seeming to regard it as an overblown, over-hyped, over-extended exercise in excessive Marveldom. On that point, I tend to agree; with all the tie-ins and expanded releases, nine issues for the central series seems excessive. I’m saying that now particularly in the context of how much of a quality-drop occurs in Axis #4. In truth, the first two issues of  the central series aren’t necessarily paragons of greatness either, though they have their moments; Axis #3 is probably the best in the sequence for various reasons that I will get to shortly.

A healthy amount of cynicism when it comes to big comic-book events and crossovers is surely an understandable hang-up of the older reader; especially one who’s otherwise been enjoying a run of mostly linear, self-contained titles lately (Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Daredevil). The recent Death of Wolverine saga, for example, though it drew my interest at the outset, was actually largely disappointing as story material.

In terms of Axis, I haven’t had much exposure to Rick Remender’s work, despite his popularity, though I’ve not been too moved by Uncanny Avengers in general. I also never got around to reading the original Onslaught story from years ago, as that was around the time I was beginning to drift away from comics as a teenager (and wouldn’t come back until many years later). But with the prospect of a Red Skull centered epic and with Magneto figuring so heavily in the event, I was drawn inexorably to the bright possibilities like a moth to a flame.

This post deals in-depth with the first four issues of the main Axis event, along with Uncanny Avengers, Magneto, Loki: Agent of Asgard and some of the other tie-ins and lead-ins from other titles. Needless to say, there are mild spoilers.

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Now some of the first half of the Axis marathon (“The Red Supremacy” portion) equated to some genuinely fun reading. I say ‘fun reading’ in the sense of basic enjoyment and not in respect to any great concepts or any particularly high level of writing. It helps that I’ve always been a fan of the Red Skull, considering him a great, old-fashioned villain. I mean even just on the surface of it, the idea of a Nazi from the Third Reich with a red skull for a face was always going to work as potent villainy from day one. The fact is that he hasn’t always been written effectively, but at the basic level he’s among the top-draw villains from the Marvel pantheon. I may sound childish saying it, but just his face alone still unsettles me. So there’s something so unsettling and yet so logical about the Marvel Universe’s go-to Nazi supervillain wanting to cleanse Mutants from the face of the earth.

And it also creates one of the most obvious ideological clashes in the form of Magneto, the world’s most radical Mutant freedom fighter coming head to head with a proper, old-school Nazi maniac. This Magneto/Red Skull clash proves to be the high point of the entire affair (so far anyway), and regardless of how bad the rest of the story might get (if Axis #4 is anything to go by), I almost feel that just reading that early part of the storyline was worth the effort. And seeing the Red Skull blown up to about forty times his normal size as Red Onslaught carries with it a basic, child-like level of awe; admittedly this isn’t sophisticated comic-book territory we’re in, but that doesn’t stop it being fun.

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Beyond the more sober, serious elements of Magneto #10 and #11 and Uncanny Avengers #25, it’s this appeal to the child-like fan-boys in our nature that makes the good parts of the Axis storyline click.

It mostly isn’t cerebral, and I doubt it’s intended to be. There’s also something slightly arousing about having characters otherwise as disparate as Magneto, Doctor Doom, Loki, the Enchantress, all hanging out as a tag-team; though admittedly again that’s probably the inner eight-year-old in me reacting to the obvious novelty element that usually accompanies a big crossover event.

Character-wise, as far as everyone else involved in this story goes, it’s broadly a mixed bag, which is always the case with densely-populated ‘events’. You can’t have that many characters around and write all of them effectively; that’s always been the case though with stories of this type. And actually Axis does a better job of it at times than a lot of past Marvel events. Even some of the smaller involved players have some nice moments; Nightcrawler bamfing in to save Stark from one his own sentinels in Axis #2, for example, or Deadpool’s scattered comic-reliefisms (shit, even Doom gets some of the wittiest lines here and there). But others, such as Cyclops, suffer the classic setback that often occurs when characters are being written by someone other than their usual writers. Over the course of the storyline, however, numerous characters – Genesis, Havok, Loki – get decent coverage. And Rogue particularly gets some nice moments, which is always a good thing.

More generally speaking, some of the psuedo-scientific ideas underlying the story are a little shaky – again, something most comic-book readers are used to; but as far as this first ‘Red Supremacy’ half of the series was concerned (up until Axis #4), none of it is overly bothersome.

One of the first criticisms aimed at Axis by numerous comic-book commentators is the sheer scale of the thing; 9 central-story issues, a four-part add-on called Revolutions, and numerous tie-in issues of monthly titles from Captain America to Loki: Agent of Asgard, with further off-shoots like the Hobgoblin and Carnage limited series. I, needless to say, haven’t tried to read everything, but have limited myself to the main Axis series (having passed on Revolutions), the Magneto and Uncanny Avengers lead-ins and the Loki: Agent of Asgard issues (only for the sake of Doctor Doom initially). OK, I admit to also having checked out the first Hobgoblin issue out of novelty-based curiosity.

I hadn’t even been keeping up with the Magneto series prior to this, despite having read the first three issues earlier in the year. I haven’t been a huge fan of Magneto as recently written; or as currently drawn (Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s art in the Magneto series doesn’t do it for me; though it may be an acquired taste) – there’s something really off-putting about how he looks these days when not helmeted – though he was in the old days by far my favorite comic-book character. The way Magneto has been so central to this Axis event has been really good for the character though, serving as something of a restorative act and imparting the Magneto mythology with some new life. The Magneto monthly series has been decidedly bleak in both tone and content from the very beginning, but Magneto #10 was a particularly grim affair.

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Any interaction between Magneto and the Red Skull is automatically fascinating to me, due to the inherent, deep-seated dynamics of Schmidt, the real-life German Nazi supervillain taunting and provoking Magneto, the forever embittered Holocaust survivor.

That early page in #10 featuring Quicksilver, Crystal and Luna Maximoff along with Wanda and Vision in Magneto’s memories played to the nostalgist in me, sending me back to my formative era of reading X-Men and Avengers comics (Blood Ties in particular). That whole issue, with its subjective nightmare torture for Magneto, proves to be a timely and fascinating exploration of Magneto’s damaged psyche, reminding us of how complex and engaging a character he once was and can still be, with his own rich mythology. For a long-time Magneto fan who’s been struggling to enjoy the character in recent years, #10 was something of a refreshing experience and may draw me back to the title on a more regular basis again. This entire issue, all taking place inside Magneto’s tortured mind and memories is genuinely nightmarish and unsettling, from reliving the death of his daughter Anya to being chased by Nazi dinosaurs (that last bit sounds ridiculous, but in the context of the nightmare is genuinely unsettling).

His experience through #11 is a little less engaging, but it creates the key twist in the story; troubled by Rogue’s observation that he, Magneto, is no different to the Red Skull, Erik goes through some troubled soul-searching and self-pity, questioning whether there has been any worth to any of his actions over the years. Freshly encouraged, however, and coming to realise that he perhaps best serves his people as the villain and not the hero trying to do ‘right’, Magneto sets off to gather a squad of villains from all over the world to go to Genosha. The final images of Magneto #11, showing the legion of ‘bad’ guys and girls arriving at Genosha is true fan-boy stuff, but in the good way.

I mean I don’t even care about Carnage or some of those characters, but it still works a treat both visually and in terms of the theme: of the ‘bad guys’ coming in to save the day where the heroes have failed and being the last hope to save the world from the ultimate evil. A team centering on Doom, Loki and the Enchantress, but including Mystique, Deadpool, Carnage and Hobgoblin among others. Hell, even Jack O’Lantern shows up, which is worth a little smile.

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Having this legion of super villains (I’m so tempted to call them the Super Friends; or the Legion of Doom) come to the rescue of the beleaguered heroes makes Axis #3 the high-point of the central series. “Once again it falls to Doom to save the world,” Victor says, with no levity intended. Brilliant.

Uncanny Avengers meanwhile is a series I’ve only been intermittently keeping up with, but Rogue’s telepathic encounter with the ‘essence’ of Charles Xavier – with the top half of his head visible sliced away – in Uncanny Avengers #24 is on just the side of absurd to work alright; and aside from that provides a rather sweet, if surreal, moment between the two of them. I’ve not been a fan of Uncanny Avengers in general from what little I’ve read, given lackluster characterisation in general, but particularly in regard to the series’ X-Men portion. I just have a hard time buying the versions of Rogue, Havok or Wolverine I’ve seen in Uncanny Avengers’ pages.

The absolute high point of the entire Axis saga so far, however, is Uncanny Avengers #25 and the confrontation between Red Skull and Magneto.

For starters, this issue’s depiction of the Mutant concentration camps really visually and tonally brings home just what the nature of this atrocity and the Red Skull’s evil is. What Schmidt is doing plays right into the very core of who Magneto is and always has been as a character and right to the heart of Magneto’s worst fears. The fact that all of this unfolds in the rain also helps to impart it a bleak atmosphere throughout, the grim surroundings almost certainly bringing to the fore old memories of the Holocaust for both characters. But the real fascination is in the Red Skull deliberately and callously taunting Magneto, knowing full well what drives the Master of Magnetism and everything that forged him in his tragic past as a victim-child of Nazi Germany. Schmidt revels in this, utterly remorseless. As he taunts Magnus more and more with each measured word and callous look, we can see Magneto’s blank, almost numb-looking face and we know the rage is building within him.

When Schmidt demands Magneto kneels – bows – to him (in that classic Dukat/Sisko way) and when Magneto complies, we know this is the lowest the once proud Erik Lensherr could possibly get: literally bowing to a monster of the Third Reich who is now intent on visiting a Holocaust upon Mutantkind. As a longstanding X-Men and Magneto enthusiast and natural sympathiser to the Mutant cause, something in my gut reacted, having to watch Magneto doing that. But of course moments later Magneto, with his powers newly restored to him, assaults the Red Skull.

The big “I am MAGNETO!” declaration on page 12 might look silly out of context, but in the context of the story works as a fairly meaningful moment. Magneto then proceeding to coldly and calmly murder the Red Skull is probably the highlight of this entire Axis business. The fact that he consciously chooses to do so without using his ‘filthy’ mutant powers, but by simply pounding Schmidt’s face repeatedly with his fist, is also a meaningful thematic touch.

Whatever the prevailing view is of the Axis event as a (vastly over-extended) whole, it has given us one of the classic Magneto moments in the character’s history (in my opinion), which isn’t something I’ve been expecting lately.

The way he also casually uses his powers against Havok and his own daugther Wanda when they try to stop his act of vengeance was very reminiscent to me of old-school Magneto and was pleasing to read on that level. That sight of the apparently dead Red Skull laying there in the rain with Magneto, Havok and Wanda standing over him is an effective one, while Rogue’s disapproving assessment that he (Magneto) is no different to Schmidt sets the guilt-ridden, self-doubting course of the rest of Magneto’s key part in the Axis saga.

The immediate emergence of Schmidt reincarnated as the Red Onslaught at the end of Uncanny Avengers #25 admittedly yanks us harshly out of what had been a bleak, measured, engaging sequence and right into more silly-feeling comic-book territory. But there was probably no other way to do that reveal, in fairness.

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Meanwhile Loki: Agent of Asgard #6 and 7  were a surprise pleasant diversion for me, having not previously read any of that series. I seldom tire of Doctor Doom – he was the main reason I read those issues. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Doom just might be the coolest villain there is in the Marvel Universe and everything that makes him so compelling was displayed across these two issues. Writer Al Ewing seems to have a really good handle on Doctor Doom and might even be a natural candidate for chief steersman of any prospective Doom solo title (which I seriously hope is being discussed). I was also easily won over by the Jorge Coelho/Lee Loughbridge art style for the books and am tempted to jump on to this title beyond Axis.

While most of the best parts of the overall story occur in tie-ins and lead-ins, Axis #3 is as good as the central series seems to have gotten before taking a massive nose-dive in Axis #4.

If I had a major gripe, it would be that Mystique should’ve had far more coverage; but that aside, Magneto, Doom, Loki, Deadpool and Enchantress all get their page-time and their uneasy alliances make for fun reading (the Doom/Loki thing established in Agent of Asgard #6 could have a lot of long-term potential). It generally is the villains and not the ‘heroes’ who get the best lines and best interactions; any Doom/Loki dialogue is almost guaranteed to be more interesting than anything Sam Wilson, Wanda or Havok is saying at any given time. While we’re on that point, I don’t get the appeal of Sam Wilson at all, even as Falcon letalone as Captain America – he is one of the dullest characters in MU history.

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At any rate, the eventual defeat of Red Onslaught is suitably dramatic and having Doom play a central role is almost as satisfying as seeing Magneto slay Red Skull in Uncanny Avengers #25.

From this point on enjoyability starts to wane. The shift from The Red Supremacy half of the series (#1 – 3) to the Inversion part seems to have included a major quality shift too.

From the very point in #3 where the Red Onslaught is defeated, the story starts to go awry, as if the Red Skull/Magneto dynamic was the principal nexus holding all the rest of it together. It’s not that I have a problem with the Avengers and X-Men falling out over what to do with Schmidt, but the fall-out as written, particularly Alex Summers’ reaction and Wasp’s lack of reaction, just doesn’t ring true. It feels too much like situations and characters being contrived to fit a story plan rather than things happening in a believable or organic manner. Which is not to say what the remainder of the story might turn out like, but #4 made me sigh audibly with its contrived falling out, combined with one unbelievable character action after another.

The X-Men unamimously deciding to follow Apocalypse in a survival of the fittest campaign against humans. The Avengers deciding to execute the Red Skull. Falcon punching Nick Fury in the face? All of it reeks of falseness. It’s ironic, admittedly, that I’m perfectly happy to accept a T-Rex sized Red Skull owning Charles Xavier’s mind on the one hand, yet on the other am unable to accept the events of Axis #4.

And then came #4 and it just got really silly.

And the naive, devoted reader sighs, rolls their eyes, but reads on because – altogether now – “we’ve come this far and now we must see it through to the end.” Every comic-book reader has thought that to himself or herself at some point or another and Axis definitively hits that point in #4. To go from Axis #3, which I was really genuinely enjoying, to Axis #4 feels extraordinary; as if the creative team from the first half of the series had been secretly replaced by Skrull infiltrators.

Axis #4 feels like a story suddenly being written by a six-year old comic-book fan who wins a competition to write at Marvel. That’s the level we drop to.

Apart from the cheap thrill of the image on page 18 of the full-grown Apocalypse (really Evan Sabah Nur) declaring “Survival of the Fittest” with his arms around the Summers’ brothers, practically nothing in Axis #4 is anything other than embarassing.

While the dilemma of what to do with the captured Red Skull – whether to kill him or not – could, in the context of more mature storytelling, be a fascinating issue for the heroes to morally clash over (echoing perhaps Captain America, Iron Man and co and the Kree Supreme Intelligence dilemma at the conclusion of the classic Operation Galactic Storm two decades ago), what we have instead in Axis #4 is a silly ‘good guys turned bad’ scenario with no grey area or complex issues or dynamics (except Jarvis trying to stand in their way). This whole ‘good guys turn bad’, ‘bad guys turn good’ premise of ‘Inversion’ just makes for really bad reading; as I said, like a concept developed on the spur-of-the-moment by a juvenile mind.

It actually ends up encapsulating the (usually erroneous) view some non comic-book readers have of comics being silly or childish. That’s the level we’re talking about. And then, when I think it couldn’t get any worse than that, we get one of the worst things I’ve seen in a Marvel comic for a long time: Kluh!

That’s right, Kluh, the extreme extreme version of the Hulk (or “the Hulk’s Hulk”, as they call it), complete with awful dialogue and dumb ‘accent’. I’m not even sure it makes sense, but even if it did it’d still be irritation of the extreme type and is one of the dumbest things I’ve witnessed in a while. ‘Kluh’, get it? ‘Hulk’ backwards. Clever.

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So a word on the visual side of things; Adam Kubert’s handling of the main series is as solid and familiar as we’d expect, colorists Matt Milla and Laura Martin also imparting to everything a lifeful, often glistening feel, with some striking panels and images scattered across the first two books. Kubert particularly seems to render Magneto really well; much more comfortable to look at in fact than Maggie is portrayed in the Magneto solo title. Leinil Yu’s work on Axis #3 and #4 is more affected, dusty, unpolished, but still suitably compelling to look at. Jim Cheung and Justin Ponsor’s cover art for Axis #4 is particularly striking, however. It’s worth noting also how good Jorge Coelho’s art on Loki: Agent of Asgard is, with its sometimes evocative texture and tone. But again you often end up with a mixed bag when characters are being rendered by someone other than their usual illustrators, which is the case a few times over the course of these books (though not in regard to Coelho, who renders Doom pretty nicely).

In closing, the first four issues of the Avengers/X-Men: Axis mega-event are predictably a mixed-quality affair, with #1 and #2 moving along with suitable momentum and moments of excitement and #3 hitting a genuine quality peak. Axis #4, on the other hand, arrives like an unwelcome kick in the nuts, with all the childish silliness and bad characterisation you’d associate with the worst Marvel events over the years. All that and we get ‘Kluh’ too!

In actual fact the best parts of the Axis crossover so far occur away from the main series, particularly in the pages of Loki: Agent of Asgard and the Magneto solo title.

Meanwhile the drop in quality in Axis #4 doesn’t mean for certain that the remainder of the series will be terrible (I’ve avoided reading spoilers elsewhere). And I’ll read on of course, see it through like a true, loyal trooper; but it’s hard to imagine it being salvaged at this point.

Which is a shame, as it was going pretty well for a while; or at the very least had some genuinely great moments. Of course it isn’t the first overblown crossover event to go pear-shaped after some initially good build-up. Nor will it be the last. Ah, the pitfalls of expecting too much of our comic-book events.

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Comments
  1. I gotta say I really hated the first few issues of AXIS; and then, as you say, it got even worse–!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hortah01 says:

    I was read magneto prior to Axis and I agree with your opinion on it (and the art wasn’t doin it for me either). I haven’t read any of the axis series (I am a corny spider-man fan so I chose Spider-verse over it), but I have enjoyed The Superior Iron Man spinoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. hortah01 says:

    I hadn’t read much since about that era but I read the last few issues of Amazing spider-man (I think 694-700), then I read the entire Superior spider-man (Which is Doc ocks mind inside of Peter Parkers body) and the first 12 issues of that are really good, then it lulls a bit, but the last 5 or 6 issues (26-31 I think) are really good. Then it goes back to Amazing Spider-man, and the first trade of that just came out so I would pick that up.

    Liked by 1 person

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