Superheroes as anti-heroes – if it’s done properly, it’s a concept that can brilliantly carry a less-than-esoteric story.
Take something like X-Force; with most of the cast of characters being friendly, cuddly and downright heartwarming mutants like Wolverine (SNIKT bub), Fantomex (a sociopathic cloned hitman) and Warpath (a friendly Native American with a begrudging ability to kill people and a not-so-begrudging love of KA-BARs), it’s established fairly early on that the “heroes” are seemingly acting in our best interests whilst undertaking courses of actions that we’d be more likely to attribute to someone like the baddies of Sin City. They kill, they pillage and the assassinate all in the name of the greater good while little pieces of their hero status flake away like old paint until only the morally ambiguous murderer remains. Done poorly it’s a worn-out trope, but done properly it can elevate a story from “pretty good” to “enthralling”, like the difference between discount chardonnay and a bottle of Moet.
As it happens, two recent releases tackle the idea of the superhero as anti-hero. I was planning on taking them down on separate reviews but on reflection they do overlap quite a bit, and not necessarily in a way that’s displeasing. In one corner, we have the morally deficit band of all-American asshats that are Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers, and in the other are the Westchester rejects, the maniacal mutants that make up Brian Bendis’ Uncanny X-Men.
Anyone remember BioShock Infinite? You know how the main characters traipsed across multiple realities as easily as a Grand Theft Auto character might hijack cars on a freeway? That’s pretty much the backbone of New Avengers; a bunch of realities are splurging together and causing all kinds of interdimensional shenanigans. This galvanizes Marvel smartmen Reed Richards and Tony Stark into leading a band of buff brothers across universes in order to save their own, potentially at the cost of several hundred other neighbouring ‘verses who happened to be minding their own business at the time, to prevent some kind of multiversal entropy thing. There’s a rather helpful (pfff) diagram of the whole affair later in the book that helpfully illuminates how truly and utterly bollocksed the Marvel Universe is if they fail, and the whole thing gets a cherry on top with the team’s need to ally with an evil telepath, con Black Panther into abandoning stewardship of his home and mind-rape Captain America while they’re at it (it makes sense in context…sort of).
Uncanny X-Men goes for a comparatively more grounded feel, with mutant fugitive Cyclops getting the hell out of dodge following the events of Avengers vs. X-Men with three of his fellow former compatriots, being Emma Frost, Magneto and Magik. They hit upon the world-beating idea of starting their own academy for gifted youngsters in the wake of Charles Xavier’s death, taking in several outcasts from across the world and training them in the ways of
the Force how to use their mutant powers. Unfortunately, since they’re considered villains by every corner of the Marvel U, they have to contend with efforts to stop them made by the “good guy” X-Men led by Wolverine, the seriously pissed off Avengers and even a kidnap attempt by freakin’ Dormammu (the closest thing the Marvel Universe has to Satan).
As much as I love Hickman and his attention to character arcs amongst a backdrop of universe-ending scale, I’ve got to give Uncanny X-Men the story point. The New Avengers are presented as anti-heroes, yes, especially after they wipe Cap’s memory and go against orders not to fiddle with all the multiversal crap going on, but the X-Men are significantly more “villainous” (and even that’s not the right word) yet presented in Revolution as sympathetic and, to a degree, relatable. They’re not shining golden boys and girls, misunderstood by the bigger, meaner Avengers kids in the sandbox, but they’re not the bone-deep criminals they’re represented as in other Marvel books like All-New X-Men and Uncanny Avengers. They’re people who’ve done some bad stuff but are still at least a little bit redeemable at the core, and they genuinely believe that what they’re doing now is going at least some way towards rectifying the mistakes they’ve made. It’s an engrossing, fascinating character study of these guys (particularly Cyclops and Frost) that really shines a light on what makes them tick.
That aside, Uncanny X-Men gets the point because Bendis – who I’ve previously established can be extremely hit or miss when it comes to his comics these days – finally wrote a recent release that didn’t make me want to set fire to it.
No use beating around the bush – New Avengers snags it. Steve Epting nails the art beautifully, putting me in mind of the good old gritty days where he illustrated Captain America. The darker tone of the book compared to Hickman’s other Avengers title is matched by Epting’s great use of shadows, slightly washed-out skin tones and good but not overwrought use of a shadier palette. I am a little biased when it comes to a book Epting’s written since he’s just that damn good.
Conversely, I’m also a bit biased when it comes to artists like Uncanny X-Men‘s Chris Bachalo. I didn’t like the art back in his Wolverine and the X-Men days, and I still don’t like it now. It’s a little too odd, striking a balance between cartoonish and abstract in a way similar to Emma Rios of Captain Marvel fame. Granted, it does look a bit better and less visually confusing than it was in WatXM but it’s instead hindered by the constant (and misguided) use of diagonal panels at strange moments in the story. I’m all for trying something different, but there comes a moment when pretentious artiness needs to not put the story flow in the trunk of its car.
To say it’s a tough call is an understatement. Do you prefer abstract, almost meta dialogue that strongly evokes weird-ass writers like Grant Morrison, or something more conversational and realistically-oriented in a manner similar to Dark Avengers and early-career Joss Whedon? New Avengers and Uncanny X-Men, respectively, deliver on either front, and it’s hard to pick a clear winner when they both have the ability to make me laugh, suck air through my teeth and lament the inclusion of 21st century teen lexicon (though that’s more a problem Uncanny X-Men suffers).
New Avengers feels like a high stakes, intensely thrilling multiversal end-of-the-world story with dialogue to match, thankfully never relying on disaster movie cliches or wording that evokes characters from the Transformers movies dramatically worrying about the impending apocalypse with terrified eyes and overwrought string backing music. Uncanny X-Men is more a return to Bendis’ Dark Avengers days, not only as an anti-hero/villain text but also through conversational dialogue peppered throughout the supernatural superheroics of its protagonists. Both books represent different parts of the anti-hero spectrum, and both work exceedingly well in their respective wheelhouses. Which is why…
There isn’t one.
Seriously, go read both of them. They might both match in the theme of anti-heroics and morally questionable protagonists, but as stories in that particular subgenre they stand far enough apart to be entertaining on their own merits while presenting something fresh. New Avengers can have a slightly muddled and techno-babbly story at times, and Uncanny X-Men‘s art suffers through use of an illustrator better suited to a Picasso imitation festival, but on the whole both books are supremely enjoyable. It’s really refreshing to see books coming out of Marvel’s relaunch that give us something a little different, rather than DC’s current strategy of re-releasing all their good, virtuous and noble heroes as nothing other than what they were before the New 52 maligned our favourite Bats and Supermen.
Also, I’d just like to point out that Brian Bendis has earned back all the points he lost after All-New X-Men. Remember how much I despised All-New and lamented Bendis’ fall from grace after his sterling work in Dark Avengers and Daredevil? Well, he’s recouped his losses with Uncanny X-Men. That’s how bloody good this book is.
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
BEST QUOTE: “Let hope die, you fools. It’s time to embrace oblivion. We are already dead.” – Namor
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
BEST QUOTE: “I wish we had a superhero from Australia that wasn’t kangaroo-themed. That seems pretty lazy.” – Eva Bell