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Avengers vs. X-Men – Consequences (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Wolverine this month, we’re taking a look at some new and classic X-Men and Wolverine comics. 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.

Avengers vs. X-Men: Consequences feels like it really should be a light event cash-in, designed to generate some quick sales off the popularity of the latest gigantic crossover story arc. However, writer Kieron Gillen takes advantage of the five-issue miniseries’ location – situated between Avengers vs. X-Men and Marvel’s high-profile Marvel NOW relaunch – to turn the comic into something of a transition. It represents a clear shift from Kieron Gillen’s run on Uncanny X-Men to the relaunch of the book (and the spin-off All-New X-Men) by writer Brian Michael Bendis.

Oddly enough, thanks to Gillen’s skill, Consequences plays out as a character-centric storyline, capping off Gillen’s work on the mutant hero Cyclops and positioning him for his role future role in the shared Marvel universe.

Cyke out!

Cyke out!

Interestingly, Cyclops has had a pretty clear character arc at Marvel over the past decade. The character’s actions and motivations have remained surprisingly consistent under writers like Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and Kieron Gillen. Building off the characterisation of Cyclops during the Chris Claremont era as the teenager not quite ready for the weight of responsibility placed on his shoulder, Scott Summers has been developed as a hero who has been somewhat warped and skewed by the expectations heaped upon him.

I’ll concede that I am not generally a fan of the direction that the X-Men comics took between House of M and Second Coming. Making mutants an endangered species and awkwardly resetting the status quo to what it had been during the seventies felt like it hobbled a franchise that was supposed to be about evolution. More than that, the X-Men comics always worked best as an exploration of the dynamics between the majority and minority.

Good luck...

Good luck…

Trying to set things back to how they had been at the height of the franchise ignored the fact that the relationships between the majority and minorities had changed in modern society. It made the franchise seem less relevant and less insightful. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men had played with the idea of mutants as a subculture, similar to racial subcultures around the globe, with questions about assimilation and appropriation more pressing than fears about being rounded up and wiped out.

Turning the X-Men into a series about a species facing extinction undermined a lot of the relevance that powered the franchise. Matt Fraction tried to find workable hooks by moving the team to San Francisco and later casting them as their own mutant state, but it never quite worked. However, it did do wonders for the character of Cyclops.

Good talk...

Good talk…

In many ways, Scott Summers is very much the mutant counterpart to Captain America. He’s cast as the leader of a particular group within the Marvel Universe. He’s the one who makes the tough decisions. He’s the one who must make the life-or-death calls and who frequently finds the weight of the world upon his shoulders. However, since Claremont’s iconic run, the X-Men comics have prided themselves on a very particular brand of dysfunction. As such, it makes sense for Scott Summers to be a truly dysfunctional counterpart to Captain America.

If Steve Rogers was a patriot, a soldier recruited to save his country, and given the means and the training to do so, Scott was thrown in at the deep end. His fellow mutant prisoner, perhaps the clumsiest plot device deployed by Gillen in an otherwise tightly-plotted miniseries, makes the point that Scott Summers didn’t have the healthiest of childhoods. He was enrolled in the Xavier school when he was fourteen. The mutant prisoner compares it to “a gang”, and – while Cyclops objects – it’s not too far off the mark.

Have we got a breakout character?

Have we got a breakout character?

After all, Xavier trained his students – little more than children – as his private paramilitary. In Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men, there was no questioning of that decision. This was just what happened in superhero comics. In more modern superhero stories, however, it’s interesting to look at the past with a more cynical eye. When Scott single-handedly overpowers a gang of non-mutant prisoners trying to shank him, he explains that it was something he learned at school. “That must have been one hell of a school,” his inmate colleague concedes.

No wonder Cyclops ended up so messed up. He was taught this from an early age. I’ve really enjoyed Gillen’s take on Cyclops as a man trying to handle the weight thrust upon him by circumstance, living in the ruins of the new world that was promised to him as a child. Unlike most of the X-Men introduced by Claremont, Cyclops never had too much life-experience outside the school. He didn’t learn much beyond Xavier’s promise of a bright future for mutants.

Dust to dust...

Dust to dust…

In many ways, the most interesting aspect of the post-House of M status quo has been watching Scott Summers deal with the fact that his promised utopia was pretty much dead, and that he’d never be the bold champion of peace that Xavier had hoped he might be. Instead, he finds himself operating as the leader of a mutant nation facing the threat of extinction – a generation away at best. As such, the character’s descent into something approach religious fanaticism seems like a clever development.

And Gillen writes this version of Cyclops well. He manages to walk a very thin line. He doesn’t glorify Cyclop’s fanaticism. There’s no question that what Cyclops believes is dangerous and unhealthy. Gillen never makes the mistake of treating Cyclops as a hero, or even allowing Cyclops himself to entirely believe it. At the same point, Gillen makes sure he’s not reduced to a simple two-dimensional bad guy with generic motivations and a taste for monologuing.

Claws go in, claws come out...

Claws go in, claws come out…

The reader is invited to question and to probe into what Cyclops actually believes. Gillen is never clear-cut, and he avoids giving us a direct line inside Cyclops’ head. There is the hint of ego in his posturing, the desire for martyrdom – but is that desire rooted in the genuine belief that he has done what he set out to do, or is it anchored in a sense of guilt? Wolverine suggests that both are at play, making Cyclops a wonderfully challenging character. Does he believe everything that he says? Is he just rationalising his actions to himself?

One of the nicer sequences features a confrontation between Wolverine and Cyclops, with Cyclops trying to goad Wolverine into killing him. He delivers precisely the sort of melodramatic over-wrought monologue about how he’s closer to Jean than Wolverine ever was, but Gillen puts a shrewd twist on it – this isn’t just posturing from Cyclops, nor is it the simple objectification of Jean Grey, turning her into a token for the two to fight over. This is Scott Summers playing with Wolverine’s expectations for his own ends.

Jailhouse mutant...

Jailhouse mutant…

Positioning Scott Summers as the heir apparent to Magneto (and Wolverine as the successor to Xavier) is a rather ingenious twist, and I’m surprised at how much sense it actually makes. After all, Scott has spent his entire life being taught by Xavier that mutants are the next evolutionary step and has seen human prejudice and hate first hand. That’s bound to mess him up. On the other hand, Wolverine came to Xavier fully formed, and Xavier healed him – made him a better man than he might otherwise be.

It makes a great deal of sense, and one of the stronger aspects of Avengers vs. X-Men is the fact that Scott Summer’s role as designated antagonist didn’t feel quite as blunt and awkward as it did when Mark Millar cast Iron Man into the role of bad guy in Civil War. Whereas the characterisation of Iron Man during Civil War led to years of writers trying to “fix” the character, and undo the damage done, the treatment of Cyclops here actually increases the potential to tell interesting stories using the character.

Suit up!

Suit up!

I’m looking forward to seeing Bendis writing Cyclops in Uncanny X-Men and All-New X-Men, if only because the writer tends to work well with these sorts of lost souls. However, Gillen will be a tough act to follow, and Consequences is worth reading as a fond farewell from Gillen to the X-Men franchise. There’s even a nice little subplot involving the character Hope, who Gillen guided through a run on Generation Hope, adding to the sense that this Gillen’s grand goodbye to this corner of the Marvel Universe.

(The writer moved on to Iron Man following the Marvel NOW relaunch, and Tony gets a few nice little scenes here which might hint at what Gillen has in store for the character… or might not. I know that Gillen’s work on Iron Man has been somewhat controversial among purists, which is generally a good sign in mainstream comic books, indicating it will at least be bold and experimental. It doesn’t really say that much about quality, but I’ve learned to give Gillen the benefit of the doubt.)

A Brant new day...

A Brand new day…

Indeed, one of the things most fascinating about Consequences is just how candid Gillen is. It’s very clear that not only is this the very definite end of an era (an ending that began – to a large extent – when Schism signalled a return to Morrison-ian and Whedon-esque values), but that this is also a return. With Avengers vs. X-Men out of the way, it seems like things have returned to how they were for the X-Men comic books in 2005, so that things may finally pick up where they left off. The attempt to set back the clock is finished. We now return, seven years later, to your scheduled programming. This is a regression of a regression.

There’s a definite sense that this represents the end of an era. Cyclops is no longer a fanatic waiting for a mutant messiah. The status quo that began with House of M is officially over. At its best, Consequences feels like it allows the character space to breath after a gigantic blockbuster, giving a sense of what it must feel like in the eerie calm left in the wake of a passing storm. Hope explains how there was so much riding on her, and now it’s all over. “And now I’m just… normal,” she explains. It’s like the strange morning after the party to end all parties.

Cyke goes psycho!

Cyke goes psycho!

Gillen suggests that Cyclops is being stripped of everything that validated his earlier conduct. “You are just another criminal,” the warden explains, making reference to “the reemergence of mutant births” as the factor which makes him less special than he might otherwise be. Cyclops is no longer the guiding light he once claimed to be. He isn’t even the first mutant to be incarcerated in the prison. “Think of that,” the warden teases. “You’re not even prisoner one, Mr. Summers.”

There’s something slightly playful in the way that Gillen plays this out. In a way, Cyclops is a character lost in a moment between two arcs. Avengers vs. X-Men wrapped up his character arc from Messiah Complex, and we’re not quite at the stage where he’s a mutant rebel yet. He’s a character without a purpose, caught in a miniseries between two much “bigger” character moments. He’s listless. He’s without purpose. “I’m dead weight now,” he argues. “I’ve done everything I can do.”

Cross him off the list...

Cross him off the list…

It’s a surprisingly interesting take on the character, and a shrewd way of writing a book tasked with bridging two massive initiatives. The only significant misstep that Gillen makes is in providing a friendly prisoner for Cyclops to get to know. From the moment the other mutant is introduced (with a suitably generic mutant power), the miniseries pretty much telegraphs Cyclops’ character arc. It’s clear where it’s going, and the ultimate fate of the character is no surprise.

Still, Consequences is intriguingly candid about what it is doing. It’s a step backwards, an attempt to rewind a particular editorial direction for the franchise. Gillen channels Morrison quite overtly, with Cyclops overtly referencing Magneto’s martyrdom during that run, and suggesting that he may too be reappropriated by mutant subculture. “In a few years, some rebellious little kid is going to turn up at your school with me on his t-shirt,” Cyclops taunts Wolverine, making an explicit reference to Morrison’s New X-Men. “‘Cyclops Was Right’.”

Talk about your rose-tinted glasses...

Talk about your rose-tinted glasses…

Indeed, Gillen makes it clear that the franchise’s bold new direction represents a return to core values. “This isn’t like how it was before,” Magneto offers at one point. “You’re wrong,” Cyclops corrects him. “Hated. Feared. And saving the world. Tell me what’s changed.” This isn’t really a bold new direction for the franchise. Rather, it’s a return to an interesting status quo that was interrupted by editorial meddling. The Uncanny Avengers era of the X-Men owes a conscious debt to the work of Morrison, Milligan and Whedon, probing the question of what it must be like for mutants to exist integrated into the wider Marvel Universe, instead of existing in their own private pocket.

Consequences works well as an epilogue to the House of M era of the X-Men, a reflective little character study in the wake of the gargantuan Avengers vs. X-Men. It also serves as something of a taster of things to come, and perhaps a promise that things are back on track. It’s a shame that Gillan appears to be (mostly) done with this corner of the Marvel universe, but it’s nice that he was given five issues to tidy up his left-over plot threads to pave the way for his successor. Consequences is the kind of epilogue that every big crossover would be glad to have, but few are lucky enough to receive.

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