27 Sep 2012

From The Vaults: THE X-MEN VS. THE AVENGERS #1-4


While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections and are always worth revisiting...

THE X-MEN VS. THE AVENGERS #1-4
Writers: Roger Stern & Tom DeFalco
Art: Marc Silvestri, Josef Rubinstein, Keith Pollard, Christie Scheele & Max Scheele
Marvel


Matt C: It would be stating the obvious to say a lot has changed in the world of comics since the 1980s (that's a whole other article in itself!) but as a compare and contrast exercise to highlight some of the differences it's worth taking a look at the The X-Men Vs. The Avengers miniseries from 1987 next to the Marvel's juggernaut event book for 2012, Avengers Vs. X-Men, which concludes next week. It features many of the same characters but while The X-Men Vs. The Avengers has a lot that's familiar to contemporary eyes, at the same time there are a handful of elements that make it feel decidedly like a relic from a different era.

Perhaps the most readily apparent of these elements is the appearance of a third superteam that actually have a fair bit to do and wouldn't be out of place as an addition to the books title if it weren't for the fact that, in the late '80s, a comic called The X-Men Vs. The Avengers Vs. The Soviet Super-Soldiers probably wouldn't have sold too well. This book was released towards the tail end of the Cold War, so while ostensibly the Soviet Super-Soldiers are considered a hostile force, they're not painted as villainous Commies, but rather patriotic heroes who are all about doing the right thing by their country. So really, as the story centres around the attempts to apprehend Magneto for the sinking of the Leningrad (in Uncanny X-Men #150), the Soviet superheroes have more in common with the Avengers (both trying to bring the Master of Magnetism to justice) than the outlaw band of mutants harbouring the supposedly reformed supervillain. The difference is the Avengers want Magneto tried in the world courts whereas the Soviet Super-Soldiers want him to face the harsher Russian judicial system where his guilt is not going to be questioned, putting the teams at loggerheads.

It's not an overtly political tale but it does see writer Roger Stern inject some generally impartial commentary to support the three separate viewpoints amongst the required fisticuffs to keep things interesting. As Stern was writing Avengers around this time it's clear he has a good handle on the characters but he also displays a good understanding of the X-Men's team dynamics, and back then it was always interesting seeing how writers other than Chris Claremont approached the most popular superheroes in comics. Marc Silvestri wasn't a big name at this point (he would make his mark during his tenure on Uncanny X-Men straight after this mini) but his talent shines through here, even if Joe Rubinstein wasn't the best inking match and the colour scheme was a bit too garish (his cover to issue #2 remains a striking and memorable image though).

It was perhaps never destined for classic status, but it was a decent read for the first three issues, although how well it would have concluded with the original creative team is something we'll never truly know. Due to editorial disagreements over the direction of the story, Stern and Silvestri were pulled off creative duties with Tom DeFalco and Keith Pollard roped in to replace them at the last minute. Editor In Chief during that period, Jim Shooter (who was highly likely to have been the architect of this change) is credited as 'co-plotter'. It's a shame because within the first couple of pages of #4 it becomes blatantly apparent that something had gone awry and it practically reads like a different book entirely. Stern has been quoted as saying "the story was supposed to end with Magneto showing himself for the bastard he really was" but instead we're left with the status quo largely unchanged, Magneto let off the hook with the aid of a mind control device (a lame plot contrivance if ever there was one!).  Even putting the editorial tampering to one side, it's a poor conclusion to the story that verily screams 'hack job'.

One of the most apparent things when looking at this mini next to its 2012 counterpart is how much things have shifted in the popularity stakes. Back in the '80s, nobody could touch the X-Men, but the last decade has seen the Avengers gain a lot of ground, enough to knock the mutants off a top spot they once rarely shifted from. Also, in the last several years, the X-Men have kind of moved into their own pocket of the Marvel Universe getting on with their own 'events' but rarely mixing it up with any of the other superheroes from the House of Ideas. With AVX, Marvel seems to be redressing the balance and the forthcoming Uncanny Avengers series suggests the publisher want their mutants back in the central spotlight again, a place where they permanently existed in the '80s.

There's a sense of scale that exists in AVX that its predecessor didn't come close to. Although it also existed on a worldwide stage, The X-Men Vs. The Avengers feels a lot smaller in comparison to the 2012 series, the stakes just don't seem quite as high. Obviously a large part of that is the story itself (AVX does concern the arrival of the near-omnipotent Phoenix Force after all) but you could also point to the rise of so-called 'widescreen' comics at the beginning of the century and how that changed not only how comics are now written but also how we read them. There's almost a quaintness to The X-Men Vs. The Avengers looking back at it now which wouldn't have been the reaction readers would have had on release.

The X-Men Vs. The Avengers had a fair bit of potential but it never got the chance to really deliver on it. AVX also had promise but its erratic quality (a too-many-cooks scenario resulting in a mix of high points and low points) has meant that, while entertaining for the most part, as a whole it’s never been entirely satisfying. If we have to wait another 25 years before someone decides it's time to put these two iconic teams at loggerheads with each other again, let's hope they will have learnt from past mistakes, because it's such a pure, thrilling  high concept you’d think they’d get it right the first time. Third time lucky then?

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