Evolving the “Versus”: “Wolverine & the X-Men #10”

The Jason Aaron-Chris Bachalo collaboration on “Avengers Versus X-Men… Versus X-Men” is a tie-in to Marvel’s early-summer megaevent. Maybe some background is in order.

Avengers Versus X-Men, stylized as AVX, sees Marvel’s two major superhero teams trapped in a war logic of infighting while a galactic level threat approaches Earth. The infighting ensues from two wildly different views. The first, Captain America’s, Iron Man’s and Thor’s, the view of the Avengers in other words, sees this the approaching cosmic entity as a threat. In the build up to AVX cosmic-cop Nova Paul Revered his way to Earth to warn that this approaching entity has destroyed every planet in its path to get to Earth. And now, Earth is next.

Scott Summers, leader of the X-Men holds an entirely other, darkly optimistic view. This is no unknown threat approaching. This is the Phoenix, a cosmic manifestation of death and rebirth. And entity that has had a special relationship with the X-Men since the very beginning of the X-Men. The Phoenix always seeks a mortal avatar and since Chris Claremont’s legendary run in 70s-80s, that avatar has been mutant telepath and X-Man, Jean Grey. Although aware of the destructive capacities of the Phoenix, Scott Summers chooses to focus on the potential for rebirth.

It’s been a hard few years for mutants in general and telepaths in particular. A chaos-magic spell cast by Scarlet Witch Wanda Maximoff caused the mutant x-gene to be simply deleted in all but 200 individuals. In the blink of an eye, mutants went from being on the cusp of becoming the dominant species on the planet, to the endangered list. That was until the birth of the first mutant after the event that came to be known as “M-Day”.

Hope, this young mutant newborn, was then raised in the future only to return as a teen during the events of Second Coming. And Hope’s return saw mutant x-genes automatically turn on, all over the world. It was as Steven Spielberg put it during is now famous acceptance of the Oscar for Schindler’s List, “…the best drink of water after the longest drought”. And now, just a few months down the line in narrative-time, could there be any doubt that the Phoenix has returned, ostensibly seeking out Hope as its new avatar, in order to reignite the mutant species?

Those are the broad strokes. The finer details would always have played out in the pages of Wolverine & the X-Men. Since it’s here that the story of the X-Men who split with Scott Summers’ increasingly militaristic outlook, the X-Men who left Utopia and returned to commodious environs of Westchester, NY where the original School for Gifted Youngsters was founded, is taken forward. After the events of Schism, Wolverine, Beast, Iceman, Kitty Pryde and others returned not only to Westchester, but to the founding ideals of the X-Men; to educate mutant children and young adults, preparing them for a world where they are hated and feared.

Wolverine and Beast then, are particularly crucial to the working through of AVX. While they’ve split from Scott Summers’ mutants-only island colony of Utopia, they’ve both maintained active Avengers status. Issue #10 of Wolverine & the X-Men then draws together two conflicts. The obvious conflict about where Wolverine stands in this current conflagration. But also the deeper unresolved schism between Wolverine’s way of looking at the world, and Cyclops’.

As with the Captain America guest-appearance issue last month, Jason Aaron achieves a profound, brooding, character-driven drama, laced with a conflict that never comes to blows. This take on developing a richer backstory to AVX is richly rewarding. It provides a deep and rich focus on the “why” of each scenario, it makes conflicts seem personal, it allows the readers to get a sense of the ethical stakes in the matter. Other Marvel books’ tie-ins have taken to presenting AVX as a series of prizefighter-bouts, not at all unlike the popular Marvel/CapCom videogame. With Jason Aaron’s “Avengers Versus X-Men… Versus X-Men”, we come to understand more clearly why these bouts matter.

But of course, the runaway hit here is Chris Bachalo’s masterful artwork. Panels don’t simply run left-to-right, top-to-bottom, they bound and leap and fly across the page. The fold the space of a page the way, just one generation ago, those who read comics on paper once folded the physical page. Bachalo brings in astounding angles to reframe dynamic tensions within each panel, and within the story as a whole. And provides clear, wide, open spaces within the panel to contrast the actions of the characters. This is the multiplication of complexity, and the installing of Wolverine & the X-Men to the level of work of art. And despite the complex form Bachalo’s art takes, despite its ongoing pull towards the avant-garde, the story itself remains imminently accessible. Simply put, this is the rich, visual storytelling we’ve always deserved.

Between Aaron and Bachalo, you can easily sense the hand of masters at work. And it’s this mastery that enables the genre of Wolverine & the X-Men not only to survive, but to flourish. You’ll ask yourself, as you always do, “When I’m reading Wolverine & the X-Men, what am I reading? How is the story about a school for superpowered kids interesting?”. Uncanny X-Men is about confronting global threats. Daredevil is about fighting crime syndicates that have now globalized. Fantastic Four is about taking those first steps into a larger galaxy, where we may not yet be prepared for the threat level we encounter. But Wolverine & the X-Men?

Between Aaron and Bachalo, the story is as clear as the genre is simple. This is a book about building something that seems to draw all the wrong kind of attention–the attentions of those vested in power, with a vested interest to tear it down. Whether those others be the New York State School Board, Wolverine’s longtime rival Sabertooth, an alien xenobiologist, the newly reformed Hellfire Club, Captain America or even Cyclops, the answer is always the same. When the real fight comes, it comes without violence, because it is a fight for the better idea.

RATING 8 / 10