I took a long look at the first three issues of Avengers & X-Men: Axis at ComicBook.Com before deciding to take a break. The series is sectioned into three distinct parts and it was possible that the second part, “Inversion”, would grow beyond the flaws found in the first part, “The Red Supremacy”. It left behind the endless battle on Genosha in order to focus on the central twist of the series in which the moral alignments of various heroes and villains are inverted. A lot has occurred in the course of three issues, with most of the Avengers being shrunk into a prison, Apocalypse leading the X-Men to conquer the world, and Steve Rogers seeking out villains to help save it. The change of pace and plot presented an opportunity for the series to redefine and improve itself.
But the problems with Avengers & X-Men: Axis #6 start on the very first page. It’s a four panel page without any art. Instead, the four panels are entirely black and covered by speech bubbles of Apocalypse recapping the events between Axis #5 and #6 before issuing an ultimatum. The darkness doesn’t play into some sort of reveal or function as part of the art either. On the very next page, the action begins directly after Apocalypse’s speech. It is an absolutely infuriating introduction.
Art is the fundamental element of comics. It is possible to have a comic without words, but not one without art. The choice to simply leave this page steeped in darkness, when it conveys no significant meaning and does not work in tandem with subsequent panels is revealing of the decision making process at play when making this comic. It is a choice based on speed and efficiency. The speech recaps the plot points necessary to move the story along, so artists Terry and Rachel Dodson were not bothered with telling the story as a comic. There is no concern for sequential storytelling or the fundamentals of the medium at play here. It is a recap pretending to be a comic when nothing could be further from the truth.
The first page of the issue is indicative of the flaws that consume the second part of this series. When reading comics that contain valuable intellectual property, there is always an element of commerce. Companies cannot give artists absolute freedom to do as they please with valuable commodities and the goal is always to make money. Yet Marvel Comics has recently succeeded in consistently blending commerce and art in comics like Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, Secret Avengers, and many others. Unfortunately, here there is no such concern for the story or art of the comic; it is a creation produced purely to make as much money as quickly and effectively as possible. There is not even a semblance of effort.
If the first page of Axis #6 is the thesis for this issue, then the rest of the work bears out its ideas. The artwork throughout the comic – Terry Dodson’s pencils, Rachel Dodson’s inks, and Edgar Delgado and Jesus Aburtov’s colors – is clearly rushed. It comes with the intense schedule of publishing nine oversized issues over the course of three months. There are a total of four distinct art teams working on this series and even industry stalwarts like Adam Kubert and Leinil Francis Yu have shown a sense of strain in their art. Every one of the artists contributing to Axis #6 is capable of far better work. Terry Dodson has been an excellent draftsman on cover and interior work in the past. That skill is nowhere to be found here. The rush to publish three issues each month in whatever timeline was available has pushed these creators far beyond their limits.
Despite the story containing some incredible locations and set pieces like San Francisco, Manhattan, Las Vegas, and a massive bomb that ought to rival the most dynamic of Kirby-tech, settings are only given just enough attention to be clear. Buildings in New York City blur together as vague geometric shapes, and even a lavish party at Tony Stark’s penthouse has very little personality.
There is a moment when Daredevil flies off of a rooftop into open air in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. The space around him consumes the vast majority of a very large panel, yet it is all left entirely white. Like the black panels that lead into the issue, the white space is not purposeful. Instead of containing meaning, it is used to save time. It’s easier (and lazier) to display one small figure on a white background than it is to illustrate the surroundings of that character or even to the color of the sky behind him.
This lack of distinctive geography leads to action sequences that rely entirely on the reader to interpret. Mystique confronts Nightcrawler and Rogue outside of the X-Men compound in Manhattan. Their fight takes them across buildings and into the sky, but it’s very rarely clear where they are in relation to where they were. The three characters are never established within the geography of the city. They begin as three dots of ink with massive word balloons before subsequent panels focus entirely on their faces and upper bodies. When Mystique is flown into the air and dropped, it’s uncertain as to where she has come from or how far she has traveled. It is almost impossible to become excited about a fight when the events of the fight only function in individual panels, not in relation to one another.
The character work is every bit as dismal. Most bodies are given just enough detail to be recognizable. On the second page, Apocalypse, Cyclops, Havok, and Jean Grey all appear. Apocalypse’s massive stature and the distinctive insignia of the Summers brothers are the only things that make them visually notable. Jean Grey is a vaguely female shape. If a reader were not familiar with the coloring of her costume, it would be impossible to recognize here. This continues to be true for any costume or body not placed in the focus of a panel. There is a large cast in most of sequences, but only a few are given any distinguishing features.
Faces and expressions are only clear for characters in static poses. Anyone whose face is not focused in the forefront of a panel becomes a muddied confusion of line and ink work. Tony Stark’s face goes through a variety of contortions during a conversation. In one panel he appears like a pug nosed man whose jawline has been noticeably altered by a lifetime of punching. Two panels later and Rachel Dodson’s inks cut his face in half in an overemphasized shadow. The altering faces caused by the lack of detail and rushed line work results in characters who are impossible to empathize with, even when they are recognizable.
Rick Remender’s plotting for this event may have quickened, but it is still troubled by a singular question: why should I care? Axis has already been defeated by the release and announcement of new series following up on its consequences. That information lies outside the event, but even when Axis is considered in a bubble it lacks any substance or drama. There is no reason to care about the characters involved or their actions. The inverted heroes act out as the most awful human beings and summon no sympathy. Even worse, their villainous counterparts are as bland as vanilla paste. Together they are the most basic stereotypes of good guys and bad guys. No individual, hero or villain, elicits empathy or exhibits charisma. They blur together and provide no reason to care.
It’s no surprise that a comic produced with so little concern for the artwork is flawed throughout. Comics are a visual medium. Images are the manner through which we consume the story; they are the foundation upon which everything else is built. When you open a comic and it makes clear within the first several pages that the quality and coherency of art is not a concern, it states that the quality and coherency of the comic is not a concern. There are problems with other elements of the issue, but they come as no surprise.
In my review of Axis #3, I wrote that there is nothing inherently broken or dislikable about event comics. I love events like Cosmic Odyssey and Crisis on Infinite Earths, and that’s why I take the time to evaluate and understand series like this. They are just as capable of being interesting, entertaining, and valuable art as anything else. That’s also what makes reading Axis #6 such an incredible challenge. It doesn’t define itself outside of its marketing goals. There is no attempt to achieve something beyond a short term boost in sales with art and writing that has clearly been rushed into print as quickly as possible.
Axis #6 isn’t disappointing because it is such a singular disaster; there are plenty of other great comics to read. It isn’t disappointing because it represents the death of superhero or event comics; that kind of fatalistic assertion is ridiculous. It’s disappointing simply because even given the incredible talent and resources at Marvel Comics, no one even bothered to try. Comics deserve more than this mediocre effort.