Daniel Acuña’s art has always been slightly off-beat when compared to the ‘Avengers ideal’. That ‘Avengers ideal’ was established in the 1970s, first by John Buscema, but particularly in the late-‘70s and early ‘80s by fan favorites George Perez and John Byrne. Perez’s and Byrne’s linework was whistle-clean, and particularly in Perez’s case the backgrounds were admirably detailed. They may have only been delineating a cartoon universe, but by Galactus! they were going to make that universe seem as every bit as plausible as the one outside your bedroom window. The Avengers were the buddies that fans wished they had, smiles upon their faces, flying and bouncing into the air, once a month every month, no more and no less.
I love the ‘Avengers ideal’. I’d say that most Avengers fans do. To draw upon a point made once made by the incomparable Rob Liefeld, superhero fans love their pretty drawings. And Acuña’s art is pretty, though not in the conventional Marvel sense. Those realistic backgrounds are gone, replaced by watercolor landscapes that are more akin to an impressionistic gallery exhibition than a newsstand superhero book. In the scenes between Rogue and Sunfire, and the battle between Thor and the zombie Sentry, those backgrounds have transmuted into essentially all-color, which given those scenes take place off-world, also obviates the need to draw those tricky alien backdrops. Finishing off the two-step art approach, the figures are overlaid upon these patchy environments, and while they are more defined, all of their expressions are uniformly, incontrovertibly grim. Oh, they are grim … It’s as if Claremont’s emo mutants have infected the whole Avengers universe with their miserableness, except they went and had a semester at art school along the way.
Which is fine, as far as that goes – there’s certainly no saying that impressionism has no place in comic books. The problem arises when it is married to a plot that is barely interested in being a plot, or that thinks that clear, sincere plots are something that went out in the last century, before the cyberpunks made their influence felt. Some Apocalypse Twins are trying to free the mutants from the constraints placed upon their by homo sapiens (think Magneto, if he had instead originated as a pair of Xbox characters), and they are using the Scarlet Witch to help them do it. The Uncanny Avengers are scattered about, with a few of them facing off against the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, each of whom are simulacra of dead friends and foes.
Writer Rick Remender was on board for the last gasps of the previous volume of Secret Avengers, and he hasn’t really switched gears from that. For what is meant to be one of the most important titles of the Marvel NOW! era it’s remarkable how little of what happens here seems to matter, or seems like it is in step with the rest of the Marvel Universe. That approach works well enough if you are dealing with disturbed outcasts like Deadpool and Fantomex over in a pseudo-cult book such as Uncanny X-Force, but not so well if you are dealing with the team that is meant to be the nexus point of superhero human-mutant relations.
This particular issue is a step above recent issues in that I could at least remember most of the scenes after closing the book, rather than it all disappearing into an oblique, watercolored torrent. In part, that is helped by the resurrection of a familiar Avengers trope, the one-on-one ‘versus’ scenes between individual Avengers members and the opposition group, even if (as they have sometimes been in the past) the scenes are not explicitly labelled as such. Remender even steps things up a notch by putting these ‘versus’ scenes more upon a psychological battleground than a physical one, which also plays to Acuña’s aforementioned ‘impressionistic’ strengths. Hence, in this issue, we have Wonder Man against his evil dead brother the Grim Reaper, Wolverine against his evil dead son Daken, and Thor against, ahem… the Sentry, with each foe having a special reservoir of psychological torture for their matching hero.
Those first two battles particularly stick in the mind, as the Reaper questions Wonder Man’s recent turn to pacifism, and Daken plays on Logan’s guilt about his part in his son’s death. In fact, team those scenes up with the character interaction between Rogue and Sunfire, and this issue could be called, dare I say it, ‘good’, which according to this site’s ratings guidelines, meant I felt I had to move it up a notch in terms of scoring it compared to what I would have given previous issues. Though just to be clear, moving to the tried and trusted one-on-one ‘versus’ structure just meant that I could follow what was going on in each of those scenes, rather than giving me any more of a clue about what the overall gambit is. But even if I don’t remember a single moment from the rest of the storyline, at least I will remember a few moments from this component of it.
That being said, the quality of this issue hasn’t altered the general path of the Uncanny Avengers title in its post-John Cassaday phase. Before, I drew the comparison of the book’s style to cyberpunk, and its blurred plot threads and protagonists, but cyberpunk works in part because it is a genre that looks forward. By contrast, Uncanny Avengers is obsessed with Marvel’s past, and relentlessly mines it. In this issue alone, you have references to past stories involving Angel blowing up a town, the death of Wolverine’s son, the Sentry’s double identity crisis, and (oh no) Onslaught.
Readers new to Marvel comics (if there are any) must find this hopelessly impenetrable. This is not comics looking for new frontiers, this is comics crawling through its last days, carrying on when all the good stories have been told, a joyless kind of ‘post-comics’. Marvel Comics can go about proclaiming its NOW!-ness all it wants, it will eat itself if it goes on like this, and while it’s both unfair and overblown to lay the blame primarily at Remender’s doorstep, you have to wonder what the long-term strategy of this approach is. Long-time readers might appreciate the clever character moments in this issue, but what element of this title is going to appeal to other audiences? Remender’s meanderings might work with a ‘pretty drawing’ artist like Cassaday, and Acuña’s style might work with a more straightforward or original writer. For now though this title is on a fast path to becoming an endnote to the Marvel Age.