The Age of X Dialogues Part Five -- Age of X Universe #1

Welcome back to two of your favorite Comics Should be Good bloggers geeking out over alternate reality X-Men fun! “The Age of X Dialogues” where Kelly Thompson and I discuss every issue of the “Age of X” storyline. We continue this week with Age of X Universe #1...

Chad Nevett: We seem to be getting later and later with these posts. But, no matter, we’re here to discuss Age of X Universe #1, the first issue of this two-issue mini-series that provides a little bit of background on the ‘Age of X’ world, focusing on the Avengers of this world. Now, I was looking forward to this issue quite a bit being more of an Avengers guy than an X-Men guy. That, and we’ve seen all of the alternate X-Men! New alternate characters! And this issue had plenty with Captain America, Iron Man, Ghost Rider, Spider-Woman, Invisible Woman, Hulk, Punisher... and some of your ‘favorite’ mutants getting slaughtered. Take THAT, Maggott! Still, something about this issue felt off to me. I haven’t quite been able to pinpoint it. Maybe I’ll figure it out in this conversation. What did you think, Kelly?

Kelly Thompson: I think that overall it was pretty successful, but that there was no way it had a chance of living up to what’s going on in the ongoing story for me. I get that it’s just supposed to function as smaller pieces of the whole and that I should just consider it as like a bonus, but what can I say? I’m greedy! It’s hard when someone gives you something you like so much, as I do with this alternate reality storyline, that I find myself wishing that these Age of X Universe books (and Age of X Alpha) had just been able to be more of what we’re seeing in X-Men Legacy and New Mutants...rather than somewhat unsatisfying background shorts. I preferred the Avengers story here because it at least tied (and felt it would continue to tie in Age of X Universe #2) very closely to the back story of Fortress X...so that really worked for me. But the Spider-Man tale felt like a waste of space.

I’ll also say that while I was surprised by some of the characterizations and directions in the Avengers tale, like for example Sue felt pretty real and interesting to me, some of the characterizations felt a little flat and cliche, as is wont to happen in short stories where you have to get in and out so quickly.

CN: Not tying in directly wasn’t an issue for me. I knew this series wouldn’t be a direct tie-in to the main story, nor should it be. This is a nice little bonus treat for those interested. You’re totally right about the Spider-Man story. I can see what they were going for, but it did nothing for me. I do like that they tried to include another short beyond the Avengers main story to flesh out this world even more and give us a look at characters not touched on. Unfortunately, Spider-Man’s story was dull and never progressed beyond a quick one-sentence summary.

The Avengers themselves had some interesting characters. I think this version of Iron Man has potential and created some funny moments with the split between the artificial intelligence and his decaying/crazy mind. Captain America is the character I’m torn on. I can see what Si Spurrier is going for here with a Captain America that isn’t as confident in this world, isn’t as used to leading a team, but it doesn’t feel right. What happened to make him so unsure and... weak? I think Spurrier mentioned in an interview that this is Steve Rogers, so I don’t know what’s going on.

One thing I do want to know is how Frank Castle is still in the military. That seems like a story with potential.

KT: Well, just to be clear, I understand it’s just supposed to be bonus stories, it’s just that because I didn’t like them as much as the regular stuff, they feel less like bonus material to me and more like lost opportunities to expand on the other stuff that I’m loving.

Yeah, I don’t want to harp on the Spider-Man thing, but there’s really nothing about it that was interesting. I agree that they were trying to cast a wider net and show a larger world perspective, but since it was only the two stories (Avengers and Spider-Man)...it didn’t quite work in that way even.

I agree that the Iron Man take was interesting, fascinating in fact. I found the Hulk take and backstory we got to be a bit tired though and they just kind of glossed over Jessica Drew and made her into a dull Black Widow knock off. I didn’t hate what they did with Cap here, but I think that’s because my exposure to Captain America is really minimal, so I have little basis for comparison. If you say it doesn’t feel right, I’m sure you’re correct about that. The character definitely did feel unsure...I assumed this was because he had basically been tasked with exterminating American citizens and regardless of this world, that’s a hard thing for him to come to grips with, no?

The Frank Castle thing was interesting...I’m not sure we’ll get more of it though...maybe.

Also, I know you prefer Avengers, so I’ll try not to go all gah gah for X-Men here, but I thought the track into the Avengers story i.e. through Legacy’s memories, which suggests that she absorbed all of them before they died is fantastic. Imagine what kind of character that makes Legacy...even if the actual power fades (as it seems to), she still retains all the knowledge and memories...that makes her an even more fascinating character (and even more powerful) than ever before. Mike Carey really gets Rogue and her potential. He’s never afraid to use her in really interesting ways, I love it!

CN: I did like that route into the story as well. That actually seems to tie into the larger story in a subtle, clever way: now we know how Legacy is just so good at tactical thinking. She has the memories and experience of Captain America! Of course she could outthink and evade everyone trying to catch her! It never occurred to me before that that was odd, but it was. Why would she be so adept at avoiding capture? So good at using her powers in a strong, tactical manner? Simple: Steve Rogers.

KT: So that’s what one of those insults wrapped in a compliment sounds like...huh?

CN: I’ve seen Rogue as the greatest tactical thinker in the world. Escaping from a group of people who can track her via vital signs, body heat, etc. seems probably a little beyond her. It would be beyond most people. Her having the memories/skills of Captain America gives that a bit more realism. God forbid Rogue not be awesome in all ways, right?

KT: Well, I wasn’t trying to be snarky, I was trying to be funny, but swing and a miss I guess.

So, no, I don’t think Rogue should be “awesome in all ways”. I DO think that being able to steal any power/knowledge/essence whatever being your “mutant gift” means that Rogue being good at being Rogue means something very specific - in the same way that Cyclops being good at being Cyclops means something specific, or Wolverine being good at being Wolverine means being something specific. In Rogue’s case that means being a tactical/creative thinker is what makes Rogue good at being Rogue. Knowing how to instantly take what new knowledge and power you are given, long term or short, and use it to your advantage would be something not only built into your DNA as the survival skill that comes with having that mutant power, but it would also be something you would learn over time to be very very good at. The same way Wolverine is good at say...killing. Or Cyclops is good at say...bossing people around.

I guess I would add that when you have the ability to hold onto the memories and knowledge of every single exceptional person you’ve ever absorbed it’s gonna make you pretty “awesome in all ways”...or at least pretty fucking well rounded.

But you know, I didn’t mean for this to be a Rogue is great/Rogue sucks pissing contest. The girl has her haters and her lovers, and neither camp is likely to ever be swayed to think differently. So we can cut this fanboy wank stuff if you like...

CN: It’s just too much fun. I just like playing the jerk sometimes to amuse myself.

Moving on, one of the things that I don’t think this issue did too well was balancing the plot and the characters. We get little teases of both, but not enough of either to really be compelling. It felt like things were struggling to get going, like there wasn’t as much here beyond ‘look at how things are different.’ There were a lot of quick ‘punchlines’ as it were, not as much substance. You mention the idea that Captain America is possibly reluctant, except that doesn’t seem to be the case. He seems like a true believer... and, yet, he also seems reluctant. There isn’t a strong sense of what he thinks or believes in here. He seemed to personify the comic in that sense. It never finds its focus and pulls you in.

Though, I did love Sabretooth...

KT: Yeah, I would agree with you on plot and characters not balancing here. I guess the problem with this issue for me boils down to the only thing I really liked about it was the alt reality aspect of seeing characters in a new light, which I’m obviously a fan of. Everything else left me a bit cold. It’s not a BAD book, it’s just “eh”.

You’ve made a nice analogy between this comic’s problems and Cap’s problems. What are you a writer or something?

CN: HA! You nail it by basically saying that the ideas of the alternate reality characters are great, there’s just not anything beyond that. It’s a bare bones simplistic plot and not much to any of the character except what we see on the surface. That almost makes me think that two issues won’t be enough, that this could have been three or four issues to really give these characters and their situation a chance to breathe. But, then, it would have been almost as long as the main story, so...

What did you think about Koi Pham’s art? I’ve never been a big fan of his work. It’s very hit or miss. He can draw some really strong action sequences, but his characters often have these perfectly round globe heads with smushed faces that look so silly. I keep waiting for someone to rip Captain America’s head off to play basketball with. Then again, he nailed Sabretooth’s weird, deformed look. That was probably my favorite visual of the issue.

KT: I’m not really a fan of Pham’s work either. There are always some nice aspects to it - here I really liked the way he (usually) rendered Sue’s body and even clothing, and I agree that the Sabretooth design was inspired, certainly the best visual from the entire book - but overall it just doesn’t work for me. I agree with the frequently smushed face thing, which is just bizarre. But I think my bigger complaint is the inconsistencies, especially in the faces. Sometimes Sue or Cap looked one way, two panels later they looked pretty different. Additionally, this story had a potentially really amazing fight sequence, and instead it was completely pedestrian, not to mention pretty weak from just a clarity standpoint. The Spider-Man story was equally uninspired and inconsistent I thought...and frequently straight up awkward and stiff. Great art on this issue wouldn’t have saved it for me, but it certainly would have helped.

I guess I feel that if there were more issues we would probably be getting a pretty different story...but maybe that’s naive. And you’re right, much longer and it would compete with the regular series, so that’s not really a fix.

I wonder, I mean, the thing we’re not really discussing here is that this is the first book for “Age of X” we’ve read that’s not by Mike Carey. I think that’s ultimately why it fails for me. It doesn’t have the same vision and focus of the other stuff we’ve read. It’s trying hard to toe the line, but it still feels out of synch to me.

CN: That could definitely be it. This is Carey’s little world and it’s got a certain feel and tone. I don’t think Spurrier is far off the mark, but he does seem to be going a little darker. It seems strange that the non-mutants come off as more depressed and angry than the mutants! There’s a sense of hopelessness to these characters that I’m wondering about. Would they be as depressed and hopeless? Would they be this dark? While things are worse in this world, shouldn’t they be more cheerful than the mutants they’re hunting?

KT: Yes, exactly. Tonally, these characters seem much darker and more disturbed than the “persecuted mutants”. Now, I get that they’ve been given much darker back stories (certainly Iron Man, Hulk, Sue, and Jessica Drew have at least) but that feels like it’s to service the plot to give them motivations to want to kill mutants, rather than a natural flow of what might have happened. I don’t know, maybe I’m overthinking it, and just wanting it to be...more. I think because the rest of the ongoing parts of Carey’s story in Legacy and New Mutants are feeling so tightly plotted and cohesive, not to mention pretty riveting, that my expectations are just really high.

That said, and I know I should be wrapping things up here and not starting a whole other thing...but why is Spider-Man being persecuted and lumped in with mutants (“post-mutie” is the term he uses) while “Spider-Woman” not to mention Hulk and Sue Storm are considered “acceptable”? I could buy that Spider-Man refused to work for agencies hunting down mutants or something...but the story doesn’t actually address that idea at all, so instead it just comes off as a kind of annoying plot hole...?

CN: Are those stories taking place at the same time? The main one is around the time Fortress X was constructed. I get the impression that the Spider-Man story takes place after that, once the government was satisfied with the mutants all being trapped in one place. It could also be that the Avengers all accepted sterilization since that seems to be the sticking point.

You touched on the darker back stories and what’s strange is that Spider-Man is Spider-Man. The differences don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. Sue’s changes come from a specific point, while the others all seem fairly random. Why the change to Banner’s origin when it happened around the time mutants started popping up? What about Tony Stark? What caused him to be so different here besides some quick throwaway reference that may or may not be true? Hell, given the way things have happened, wouldn’t there have been a previous Avengers group? There isn’t a clear point of divergence and that makes it hard to get a handle on who these people are and why they’re different.

KT: You’re right that it’s unclear when the Spider-Man story takes place and that could explain some of it. Still, I have trouble imagining any iteration Sue Storm accepting sterilization...and wouldn’t Franklin and Valeria test as “enhanced”? I have trouble believing Sue could get down for working for the government if they also killed her kids and sterilized her...but again, maybe I’m over thinking this.

The more I think about the Spider-Man story, the more it weakens the things surrounding it - you’re right, except for a pregnant Mary Jane and being hunted to a higher degree than usual - this was the exact Peter Parker we’ve always known, down to the costume and witty repartee. So what’s the point there? Just showing what’s happened to an A-list character? Even when it compromises other stuff around it? I think the changes to Hulk, Iron Man, and Sue’s back stories were clearly designed to make them have agendas against mutants...but that’s my whole point...that’s not a strong enough reason. As a writer it’s coming from a weak backward position to say “I need my characters to have motivation for X, therefore Y should happen to them” and that’s how some of these back stories feel. It’s more organic if you build these natural character histories and then see how the characters would feel/act/react etc. based on that.

Maybe that’s REALLY my problem with the issue. Carey’s story feels like this really tightly plotted vision that all works together organically and cohesively, and Age of X Universe feels like someone picked six really “hot” characters (seven including Spider-Man) and said “Throw those puppies in a blender and give me a great “Age of X” story that fits into what Carey is doing and will sell like hotcakes!” It feels backward.

Also, I said ‘hotcakes’, so I win this round!

CN: There are rounds? It’s called the Age of X Dialogues, not the Age of X Verbal Boxing Match... though, that would have been a better idea.

What we’ve been dancing around is that this comic doesn’t feel necessary. It comes off as a tie-in concocted to provide some Avengers content for this X-Men event. That’s not saying that everyone involved didn’t try their best, it’s just that there’s a sense that if this comic didn’t exist, the Age of X world would not suffer one bit. It doesn’t feel essential. And it’s not supposed to be essential, of course. Maybe it should be.

KT: Exactly. Although I’m glad the Avengers fan said it, not me - give it more umph!

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