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Jason Aaron’s Run on Wolverine & The X-Men – Avengers vs. X-Men (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Wolverine later in the month, we’re taking a look at some classic X-Men and Wolverine comics every Monday, Wednesday and Friday here. I’m also writing a series of reviews of the classic X-Men television show at comicbuzz every weekday, so feel free to check those out.

Wolverine and the X-Men is one of the best comics that is being published by Marvel at present. Along with Waid’s Daredevil and Fraction’s Hawkeye, it’s a celebration of the strange and surreal side of comics. Jason Aaron doesn’t get enough credit for his character work, but his handle on the wonderfully wacky side of the X-Men mythos makes Wolverine and the X-Men a joy to read for anybody with an open mind and a willingness to try something a bit different.

Although the Avengers vs. X-Men tie-in issues are hardly the best place to witness Aaron’s artful approach to the franchise, often feeling a little disjointed and more all-over-the-map than usual, they still contain a lot of what makes Aaron’s work with the characters so appealing.

Burn, baby, burn...

Burn, baby, burn…

Aaron’s own Schism was intended as a relaunch for Marvel’s mutant titles. Of course, this being contemporary comics, the line has undergone another relaunch since then, with Brian Michael Bendis taking over Uncanny X-Men and launching All-New X-Men. However, Schism essentially split the X-Men in half. Half stayed on the island fortress of Utopia with Cyclops, while the other half ventured back to New York with Wolverine to start a school.

However, the event wasn’t just an excuse to split the characters into two different groups. It also allowed the franchise to explore two very different aspects of the X-Men at the same time. Kieron Gillen continued his superb run on Uncanny X-Men with a relaunched title, offering “the extinction team”, a bunch of characters identifying themselves as mutant superheroes out to save the world. Meanwhile, Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men played to a very different concept of the X-Men as a comic book franchise. He wrote about mutants as a dysfunctional community within a school.

Ice to meet you!

Ice to meet you!

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the two approaches to the team hark back to the early part of the 2000s. Gillen’s “mutant superheroes” feels like the logical successor of Joss Whedon’s fantastic Astonishing X-Men, while Aaron’s harks back back to the slightly early surreal and experimental period of the X-Men line, as embodied by Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and Peter Milligan’s X-Statix. A cynic might observe just how deeply the past decade had damaged the X-Men as a franchise that it took so long for the House of M status quo to essentially circle back to where the franchise had been over a decade ago.

However, given the quality of the comics, it’s hard too complain too much. Aaron acknowledges that he’s pitching Wolverine and the X-Men as a spiritual successor to the work of Milligan and Morrison by recruiting members of their supporting casts. Several of the students from Morrison’s New X-Men can be spotted here, along with Aaron’s delightfully gonzo creations. He has also found a way to include Doop, the break-out character from Milligan and Allread’s underrated masterpiece X-Statix.

It's everyone vs. everyone!

It’s everyone vs. everyone!

There’s a lot to love about Aaron’s work here. For one thing, there’s the sense of fun about the whole thing. He’s writing about a bunch of massive dysfunctional characters packed into a tight space together, trying to survive. One of the recurring themes throughout the publishing history of the X-Men has been the balance between conformity and individuality. Mutants aren’t like superheroes. They are part of their own social group, which evolved into a subculture with Morrison’s guidance. At the same time, each character is individual, and manifests their mutation in an individual way.

Wolverine and the X-Men feels like a celebration of the diversity on offer in the X-Men as a franchise, essentially recognising that mutants are a collective formed of outsiders. They are people who don’t fit into the community where they were born. Aaron ever makes a conscious effort to underscore how unique each member of his cast is by drawing in mutants from beyond the stars, allocating considerable page-time to characters like Kid Gladiator or Broo the Brood.

In the SNIKT of time...

In the SNIKT of time…

These might not be human mutants, but they belong to two alien cultures that are undoubtedly part of the X-Men mythos. They are X-Men, and their diversity should be celebrated. It’s amazing how well Aaron can sketch character outlines in a minimum amount of space. Wolverine and the X-Men has a truly impressive cast, and yet they all feel unique. They all have their own voices or roles or functions.

That said, Aaron seems to have a bit of trouble when to comes to characters outside that group. The first tie-in issue has Aaron writing Captain America visiting the school. The superhero isn’t around too much, but his dialogue and his conversation don’t seem organic. Aaron can’t seem to find his voice quite as easily as he can write the faculty and staff of the Jean Grey School. Still, it’s a minor complaint.

Cold.

Cold.

What makes Aaron’s writing so fun is similar to what makes Waid’s Daredevil such a great read. Aaron completely understands and recognises the tropes of superhero storytelling, but he never feels confined by them. He celebrates them, and has great fun doing so, while acknowledging them for what they are – tools and tricks of telling this kind of story. His characters will frequently acknowledge the absurdity of the situation facing them, but not in a sly or subversive way. It’s just a nice way of acknowledging the narrative rules of superhero comics.

“This damn school gets attacked more than anything I’ve ever seen!” Wolverine complains in the very first issue. (Although, to be fair, the school only really gets attacked once over the course of the tie-ins.) Aaron also has Spider-Man point out that fans complaining about the cynicism of Avengers vs. X-Men obviously don’t remember the Silver Age.

X-Men Assemble!

X-Men Assemble!

“Remember the old days when heroes would cross paths, have a little misunderstanding and fight for a while, then put aside their differences to team up and save the day?” he asks during a brawl, drawing attention to the fact that “hero vs. hero” events are just an extension of that same principle. Iron Man and Captain America might fight in Civil War, but they’ll have reconciled their difference by Siege. Cyclops might end Avengers vs. X-Men as a villain, but it’s unlikely that he has lastingly damaged any long-term relationships.

I think this cuts to the root of why Aaron’s writing works so well here. He clearly loves the heightened absurdity of superhero comics, revelling in little details like “Deathlok as hall monitor!” or “a dragon at the DJ decks!” or “Doop as defender of the realm!”, but there’s a very sincere emotional core to his work. None of his characters are one-note jokes. Toad, the school janitor and long-time comic relief, finds something approaching happiness. Broo’s fate is heart-breaking. Even single-panel shots like the sentient lawn Krakoa offering Dust a bunch of flowers are strangely affecting.

No claws for alarm...

No claws for alarm…

Aaron hides it well beneath a layer of wry self-awareness or absurdist comedy, but Wolverine and the X-Men wouldn’t work if it wasn’t entirely heart-felt. It’s clever, shrewd, witty and well-observed. However, it also feels strangely genuine. The situations might be ridiculous – the logical extension of putting all these crazy people in a school together – but it all feels true to character. And Aaron is a great character writer, particularly when it comes to misfits and outcasts.

His work on Wolverine is probably the best character-work that Logan has received since Chris Claremont departed the X-Men line in the early nineties. There’s a very clear and logical development to the character arc Aaron has plotted for Wolverine. I’m not a big fan of excessive continuity overlap, but I do like that Aaron and Rick Remender are thematically consistent in their portrayal of Wolverine, and that the two are well able to pick up one another’s story threads.

Explosive action...

Explosive action…

Wolverine and the X-Men runs into some trouble crossing over into Avengers vs. X-Men, which we’ll talk about in a moment. However, despite some fumbling with structure and pacing, Aaron does manage to find something close to the emotional core of the event. As Wolverine wryly observes at one point, the event isn’t so much pitting two of Marvel’s highest-profile teams against one another as it is “X-Men vs. X-Men.”

More than that, though Aaron ties it all back to the character arc he has plotted for Wolverine, as the clawed one finds himself facing the fact that he might have to kill Hope Summers, for the greater good. Children have been a vitally important theme throughout Aaron’s work on Wolverine as a character. They were the subject of his first arc on the title Wolverine, and they were the basis of the fight in Schism. The first arc of Remender’s superb Uncanny X-Force also revolves around the murder of an innocent child, a decision which haunts the team for the rest of the run.

Chill out...

Chill out…

It also explains the choice of Aaron’s villains here. I know that fans are divided on the Hellfire tots, but I think they’re vitally important to Aaron’s themes. These are children who aren’t children. They’ve lost their innocence. “They may look like children, but they gave up childish things long ago, Scott,” Emma explains. Children are supposed to be innocent, while Kade Killgore and his allies are very clearly not. They’re a perversion of an ideal, the flip side to the inherent optimism of the Jean Grey School.

More than that, though, there’s a reason that the “sacrifice a child for the greater good” dilemma has come up so often in Aaron’s X-Men related work. If the children represent innocence and idealism, the sacrifice of that innocence in what’s presented as an impossible choice represents the purist form of cynicism. Wolverine, as a character, is inexorably linked with the cynicism of nineties comics, when the medium was dominated by brutal and cynical anti-heroes who mistook brutality for complexity.

You've gotta be kidding me...

You’ve gotta be kidding me…

So putting Wolverine in a position where he’s asked to kill a child to save the world is a vitally important character beat for Aaron’s work with the character. His work on Wolverine is aimed at fleshing the character out and making him more than just the embodiment of nineties cynicism. So Wolverine’s eventual rejection of the choice is a huge character moment, and it does a lot to justify how extensively Aaron has tied into Avengers vs. X-Men.

“I’m Wolverine,” the character monologues. “They tell me I’m the best there is at what I do. But since when does that include killing kids?” It’s a beautiful moment, because it takes the most cliché part of Wolverine’s character (“… the best there is…”) and dares to question why it is so deeply linked with murder and brutality. Indeed, even Wolverine himself acknowledges it as character growth. “There was a time I could kill anyone anywhere for pretty much any reason at all,” he confesses. “But that time’s gone.”

Wolverine and the Avengers...

Wolverine and the Avengers…

That is, in a nutshell, part of the beauty of Wolverine and the X-Men. Many cynics point out how strange it is to see a former borderline sociopathic assassin charged with caring for the next generation. Even Captain America can’t quite believe it during his visit. “This is Wolverine’s school? Can’t be. This is way too… nice.” The once problem child has settled down. He’s bought a nice house and become strangely respectable in his old age.

Wolverine is evolving and growing, and moving past his relatively shallow past characterisation. Aaron did something neat when he tried to account for Wolverine’s membership of so many Marvel teams, turning a sales gimmick into a neat character hook. Wolverine is evolving from psychotic loner to responsible father figure. It’s growth. It’s one of the best parts of Aaron’s work on the character, which might be some of his most impressive work at Marvel.

I hope the school makes the cut...

I hope the school makes the cut…

The only real problem is that Aaron’s whimsical plotting and loose structuring don’t lend themselves well to constructing a tie-in to a massive crossover, let alone a tie-in that lasts eight issues out of the series’ first eighteen. (For some reason, the superlative collaboration with Mike Allred wasn’t included as a tie-in, despite the fact it was only slightly more loosely related than some of the issues here.) The issues collected here are consistently fun, frequently impressive and more-than-occasionally beautiful.

It’s just that the connections to the whole Avengers vs. X-Men crossover seem a little inconsistent. Aaron’s structuring as he attempts to balance his own cast of characters, plot arcs and the demands of a massive plot arc occasionally feel a little strained. Aaron is great with themes and big ideas, but tying into something like Avengers vs. X-Men requires a level of structural discipline which doesn’t quite fit smoothly with Wolverine and the X-Men.

Hammering home the point...

Hammering home the point…

Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men was able to tie into the event much more successfully, by structuring the crossover issues into three acts. The first and the last dove-tailed into the event, featuring the usual fleshing out of moments from the main event comic. This allowed Gillen to smoothly nest his own story in the middle, and to pay off various ideas he had been building throughout his run. Of course, Gillen had the advantage of his run on Uncanny X-Men ending with the crossover, while Aaron’s work on Wolverine and the X-Men continues past the big event, requiring more seeding and set-up.

Still, Aaron’s tie-ins seem a little disjointed and all over the map. He doesn’t necessarily fill in logical gaps in the story as he tries to balance fleshing out character and motivation with his own plot points and development for his supporting cast. The best of the issues are generally quite far from the front lines, focusing on the developments in the school and with the supporting cast as this madness unfolds. The weaker elements feature Aaron trying to awkwardly shoehorn the Shiar into the middle of a crossover that is already large and overwhelming.

The parting of the waves...

The parting of the waves…

Still, it’s not a fatal flaw, and Aaron’s work is stellar whenever it focuses on character. Devoting an issue to a date night between Kitty Pryde and Colossus is an inspired choice which ties in directly to Avengers vs. X-Men without ever feeling like it loses the identity of the series. Similarly, the  decision to focus one-shots on side characters like Doop (not branded as part of the crossover) and the Hellfire Club (branded as part of the crossover) works very well.

It’s also nice that Aaron takes the time and care to flesh out the motivations of Cyclops as a character. One of the problems with Civil War was that Iron Man’s position tended to get drowned out, with his more reasonable philosophical position undermined by decisions best described as “psychotic” and “fascist.” Cyclops is portrayed as something approaching a dangerous religious fanatic (a comparison Wolverine explicitly makes here), but Aaron allocates an issue of the crossover to a conversation between Wolverine and Cyclops.

Child's play...

Child’s play…

“I want the same thing you do, Logan,” Cyclops confesses. “I want a better world. For all of us. Especially for these kids. And like you, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get there. Even if I can’t get there myself. Even if I lose the man I once was somewhere along the way.” It’s a nice moment because it acknowledges that what Cyclops really wants to be is that hero Charles Xavier always promised him he’d grow up to be. There’s a strange honesty there, and a concession that he knows what is at stake.

That said, Aaron also finds a way to rather wonderfully bring it all back to Schism. Wolverine is defined by his inability to kill Hope, his unwillingness to treat an innocent child as collateral damage or a means to an end. In contrast, Cyclops is more than willing to ask Rachel to become a soldier again, to push her back into the hellish life she once tried to escape as a simple means to an end. It’s a subtle way of contrasting the two, and it firmly identifies Wolverine as the more heroic of the two, despite the sympathetic hearing given to Cyclops. Then again, the book isn’t called Cyclops and the X-Men.

Staying sharp...

Staying sharp…

I’m looking forward to the inevitable deluxe collection of Aaron’s work on Wolverine and the X-Men. It really is a fantastic little comic book. In the meantime, I guess this will have to do.

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