Review: 'Uncanny Avengers Volume 1: The Red Shadow'

Uncanny Avengers Volume 1: The Red Shadow

Marvel Comics, $24.99, color, 136 pages

Reprinting Uncanny Avengers #1-5 (Dec 12-May 13)

Writer: Rick Remender

Artists: John Cassady, Olivier Coipel

Wow, what a disappointment.

Admittedly, the disappointment is a result of high expectations: I really looked forward to this book, which seemed to be a dream come true for this long-time fanboy. I've wondered for 40 years why the Avengers didn't draft more X-Men, which would not only add more firepower to the Avengers, but would be good for the X-Men too, who would achieve the acceptance they've been fighting for at a single stroke.

In fact, Marvel itself toyed with the idea in the '70s in an issue of FOOM which was set 20 years in the (then) future. The writers imagined a late '90s Marvel that included a title called Spectacular Spider-Man, for example, which came true. It also included a blurb for an issue of Avengers in which Cyclops (!) quits, because they passed him over for the chairmanship!

Now, I'm not an idiot. I understood why it didn't happen: Marvel had two successful franchises and didn't want to dilute them by blending them. But within the stories themselves there was no reason the two teams should act as if there was a wall between them, and that fact that they did always tickled at the back of my brain.

And now that itch is being scratched. And it's being drawn by John Cassaday and Olivier Coipel! Huzzah! It's a dream come true!

Except that it's not very good.

Writer Rick Remender has always been hit or miss with me; he often has good ideas, but his stories are often clumsily engineered to achieve outcomes that make me say "Oh, come on!." When you can see the gears and levers of storytelling, I call that "seeing the little man behind the curtain" (as in Wizard of Oz) where you are reminded as you're reading a story that you ARE reading a story, instead of being sucked into the faux reality of it. You're noticing the tricks instead of falling for them.

A classic example of this was Remender's run on Secret Avengers, which I lambasted HERE. Again and again, the story would throw something implausible at me without explanation, and I became acutely aware I was reading a story, and not a very good one. Poof went any suspension of disbelief, as well as interest in how it was going to end.

But even there, Remender showed his talent for interesting ideas. The Monsterverse -- a universe where the Avengers were all movie monsters -- was visually interesting and worth an LOL chuckle or two.

Much the same occurs in Uncanny Avengers. Remender throws a couple of flashy ideas at us that I really liked. For example, the Red Skull steals Charles Xavier's brain! OK, it's utterly implausible that the Red Skull could somehow weaponize a dead mutant brain -- I mean, if he could do that, why stop with Xavier? Dig up every dead superhero and supervillain in the world and go to town! But, OK, he can somehow do this, and it's a cool plot element -- it's really icky, and other characters react in over-the-top fashion (the return of Berserker Wolverine!), and it's a lot of fun.

On the other hand, Remender once again throws a bad guy at us who can't be plausibly defeated. Not only is Red Skull Professor X now, but he's got a gang of super-powered thugs who individually are almost unbeatable. Of course, they will be beaten somehow, but given Secret Avengers, I doubt it will be plausible. Not that we'll know from this volume, which is only part of the story.

And, believe it or not, I'm not going to complain about that. I am bugged that Marvel is now collecting fewer issues per collection than previously, for the same price. It sucks, but I understand inflation.

No, my chief complaint is what I complained about in Secret Avengers, that Remender seems to have an idea where he wants the story to go, and he forces it in that direction, even though it's not organic and sabotages suspension of disbelief. In Secret Avengers, the flaw was making Hawkeye the central character and hero-of-the-day, even though he should have been a wet smear on the pavement fairly quickly. In this one, it's making Alex "Havok" Summers the leader. And it just doesn't work.

In the first issue, Captain America decides he needs a pretty mutant to be the face of a combined X-Men/Avengers squad. And he drafts Alex Summers to be that face.

Really? The brother of the mutant that everyone hates and fears? Whose power is really similar? Really, Cap? Really? Angel was busy? Kitty Pryde couldn't do a press conference? There are absolutely no pretty mutants who aren't related to Cyclops handy?

But we have to swallow it, even though it's the dumbest idea I'd heard that day. But then here's an additional rub: Captain America is on the squad. And he's NOT the leader? That's just silly. I always thought it was silly when Wasp or Scarlet Witch or somebody would be chairman and lead Avengers into battle, with Cap just another grunt. That's just inane: Sure they're CHAIRMAN, so let them chair meetings. When they go into combat, they should defer to the Super-Soldier! That's not an insult to Wasp or whomever, that's just common sense. Captain America's super-power, as it were, is leading people into battle, so let him use it!

But, OK, that happened. Cap put Havok in charge, as other people have been in charge before. So why does Remender make a point about Cap being a jerk when someone else is in charge? Rogue even says "He clearly doesn't like being given orders." Oh yeah? Since when? Did he hate being given orders in World War II by Allied Command? Did he hate being given orders by The Wasp when she was chairman? You can't have it both ways -- either he's a soldier who follows orders, or he isn't. This is poor characterization of one of my favorite characters, and worse, it once again throws me out of the story.

Also, because when Cap questions Havok's orders, he's right. But Remender has the dialogue indicate he's wrong. This occurs when Havok splits the team up to fight the Red Skull. Cap points out that splitting one's forces in the face of the enemy is bad strategy. He doesn't say it exactly like that; I'm saying it, paraphrasing SUN TZU. That's right, splitting your forces in the face of the enemy is not only bad strategy, it's been widely known as bad strategy for thousands of years! Because what happens when you split your forces is it allows what the military describes as "being destroyed in detail." Translated into English, that means "when you split your forces, it allows the enemy to concentrate all of his forces on each of your parts separately, so he always has the advantage of numbers, and you lose."

Which is exactly what happens. And the Avengers lose. There's a last-minute reprieve, and the Skull is forced to retreat, but in the main battle, Havok, Wolverine, Cap and Thor are all defeated individually. So, despite the dialogue telling us Cap was wrong, the battle shows us that Cap was right. If that was a plot point, it would be a pretty clever and subtle. But it's not. The dialogue and subsequent discussions indicate that Remender wants us to believe that Havok is a spectacularly good leader. Despite Remender's plot showing that he's not. Gah!

And, sadly, the art isn't what I hoped for, either. Cassaday is known for being slow, unable to do a monthly book for very long. And the four issues he draws here show us exactly why.

Cassaday's strength, it seems to me, is in rendering. His metal stuff is shiny, his eyes look wet, his cloth is warmly fibre-y. But when he's in a hurry -- like on a monthly book -- he can't do as much rendering. And that reveals his weakness: He's not very good at anatomy. He usually covers that up with spectacular rendering, but absent all that brushwork, you clearly see limbs that are out of proportion, or rib cages that seem to hook directly into hips, and that sort of thing. I was, as I indicted in my lead, disappointed. And, I'm sad to say, relieved when Oilvier Coipel took over for the fifth issue. It was quite obvious that someone needed to, and I love Coipel's work like ... well, like I usually love Cassaday's work.

I should mention the widely-derided scene where Havok says at a press conference that he doesn't like the word "mutant" and wants everyone to call him Alex. Yes, it's extraordinarily stupid. But I can see where Remender is coming from; if you substitute the word "gay" for "mutant" it makes perfect sense. But most gay people don't have super-powers and haven't recently conquered the world (See: Avengers vs. X-Men, subfile: Phoenix Force), so the scene in question is remarkably tone-deaf and inexplicable on its face. But I get what Remender was trying to do, even if he did it badly, so I'll give him a pass. Mostly.

I could go on in this vein, but it would be beating a dead horse. Uncanny Avengers isn't an awful book, but it's not as good as I wanted it to be -- and given what Remender has to work with, not as good as it should be. And that's a damn shame.

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