I read "The Descendants", Rick Remender's opening arc in Secret Avengers earlier this week. Figured having the whole thing, it might work for me a little better. Lo and behold, it did. Quick recap: Captain America put Hawkeye (in his movie uniform) in charge, along with adding some new members (Captain Britain, Venom, the original Human Torch). The team comes across a woman with energy powers, and she and her son are abducted by new, really advanced Adaptoids. Ant-Man stows away and ends up in their underground artificial intelligence society, led by a geezer named Father. The Avengers show up, mostly get their tails handed to them, but do escape with the boy, believing erroneously they destroyed the city. All of which fits into some plan of Father's.
Father's plan, I won't say makes more sense now, but I'm grasping that there are layers of deception involved in it I wasn't picking up reading the issues separately. I was taking him at face value about this being all about the Homo Synthezoidous, so the shift to tricking the Avengers seemed abrupt to me. I guess that might have worked if Father is supposed to be Deadpool-crazy and thus prone to changing plans at a moment's notice, but I don't think that's the case.
Having Gabriel Hardman as artist doesn't hurt the book any, either. I like his take on all the different species, I suppose, of artificial beings living in the Core. You can tell what they're based on, but most of them have some sort of stylistic difference that shows they stand apart. The Sentinaughts have larger foreheads, more reminiscent of M.O.D.O.K. than a standard Sentinel, for example. His depiction of the Core, especially from above gives a hint of a patchwork city, suggesting each group generally keeps to themselves and builds their own neighborhoods. Hmm, not much of an improvement on humans there. I imagine that's done by design by Hardman and Remender. I love patchwork cities in fiction, that idea that around every corner can be a completely different world with its own rules. Big part of why GrimJack (set in a pan-dimensional city) appeals to me so much. While we're talking designs, though, I should mention Hardman seems to have regressed the Beast to pre-secondary mutation form. He certainly more closely resembles the Beast I remember from Kubert drawn X-Men comics than the cat/dog/goat/whatever-headed thing of the last decade. Also, I kind of hate he's saddled with the movie Hawkeye costume and the current Ant-Man suit. I liked the one O'Grady had in his own series, instead of the more 60s style look he sports now. Neither of those is Hardman's fault, though if he's chosen to go off-model with McCoy, no reason not to with the others. C'mon Mr. Hardman, go with the better looking costumes!
Anyway, Hardman always knows how to draw a fight scene, and the violence is brutal and ugly when it needs to be. The Avengers bleed a lot in this story. Some of the figure work seems a little awkward. Example, when Valkyrie tries to leap across a gap between buildings and gets slammed into by an Adaptoid in #24, I'm not sure what direction he came from to hit her so she was in that position. I think the side, but the way the panel's laid out suggests from below, which really wouldn't have made any sense. That's a rare problem, and mostly Hardman does good work there and with the facial expressions. There are times I think either Hardman's inking or Bettie Breitweiser's coloring washes out some of the details, which sort of irritates me a bit.
Other than that, Breitweiser's coloring works very well. The Core is a very shadowy place, perhaps to mask it from outside detection, but the Avengers and their adversaries both are bright enough they stand out, without seeming too bright. It would be strange if they were almost glowing bright (except for the Torch, who does glow), given the shadows, but you don't want them lost to the reader's eye. Also, the lighting for scenes outside, such as when we first meet Yalda, or when Captain Britain is fighting Mob Rule, is distinctly different form the lighting inside the Avengers' new tiny hangout. There, everything is bright, but things are still sharp and in focus, because of course the Hanks (McCoy and Pym) would design lighting that isn't too harsh. In the exterior scenes, the light can be almost overwhelming. Not to the point it obscures Hardman's art, but you can feel it on the verge of it, especially in the desert scenes. You ever been out in weather like that, where it's so hot and bright you hardly want to open your eyes? That's sort of what it reminds me of. Which is pretty cool.
As to Remender's writing, it's a bit of a mixed bag. I can't help feeling I'm missing some critical information from one of his Uncanny X-Force stories, especially when it's mentioned Deadpool killed Father some time recently. As there are no footnotes suggesting I go buy some trade, I can't confirm this suspicion, but ti's there nonetheless. The problem is this makes me wonder whether the scheme is really as mysterious as I think, or if Remender's explained it all someplace else and assumes I've read that story already. I don't mind if he has plans down the line to clarify things, but I do mind if he did and nobody at Marvel felt it was worth letting readers know that.
Remender opts to split the team up once they reach the Core, so he can do some character building and advance the plot in multiple directions at once. We get to see how the Black Widow and Valkyrie have formed a bond, and not simply a grimly serious warrior thing, they toss some humor about. They also let us see how the Adaptoids view themselves, and how Valkyrie sees the Adaptoids, which unfortunately confirms the Adaptoids' beliefs about how the Avengers see them. Remender uses Captain America at first to introduce us to Jim Hammond (and also Flash Thompson/Venom), then uses Hammond to get Captain Britain to explain his powers. I still don't entirely get it (the suit absorbs magic as a power source, but how much it can absorb is determined by his nobility?), but it shows us a little more about each of them, and gives us a better idea of Father's plans, in that we see what he wants the Avengers to think. Hawkeye and Beast get some time together so Hank can critique Clint's leadership style, and we can see that perhaps not everything is under Father's control down here. Splitting the team up to advance characters and plot more readily in a less cluttered setting isn't a new trick, but Remender does it pretty well.
I will say Remender's Beast is kind of a jerk. Maybe he's trying for Hank's jocularity, but it comes off as more dickishness. Yes, Hank Pym accidentally created a genocidal artificial intelligence. And Hank tried to cure himself of his mutation only to sprout fur instead. Nobody's perfect, get off his back. Constantly rubbing Pym's nose in his failures is never an intelligent move, unless you want him to have another breakdown or suicide attempt. Also, McCoy was on team's lead by Cyclops for years, but Hawkeye's being too much of a jerk? I find that hard, nay impossible, to believe, unless extended time away from Scott Summers has obliterated Hank's resistance to it. I do agree Hawkeye's pushing too hard, but Beast isn't exactly winning many points with me for his approach to team-building, either. I've said it before, but I see nothing wrong with Hawkeye having strenuous objections to Venom being on the team, whether he turned the tide this time or not.
So perhaps unsurprisingly, the characters I like most on the team are the ones whose presentation by Remender bothers me the most. I do think Remender has a handle on the characters, it's just the tone that feels slightly off. Like a picture slightly off-center, it's hardly off-putting, yet it picks at my focus every time. That being said, I'm still undecided on how long to continue buying the title. Not because of this arc. It's well-done all around and generally intriguing (for some reason, I really want to know what Lady Deathstrike and the Reavers are doing there). It's a question of waiting through the tie-in issues that will be running for the next several months, just to see if a) Remender and Hardman are still on the book when they end (would it surprise anyone if Marvel shuffled the creative teams after AvX), and b) if they do stay, can they get things back on track? I still haven't decided on that yet.
The cover art I included in the post to break up all the yapping is by Art Adams and Laura Martin. I like the figures on the cover for #22, but not that horrible orange color background. Hurts my eyes, disgusting. Adams and Martin can't really make Hawkeye's costume work for me either, especially not with the sunglasses on in #23. Also, I find it a little silly the Widow's always turned to the side, though I suppose she could be trying to present a smaller target by standing in profile, though that's somewhat hard to believe given the dimensions she's given. I guess I like the cover for #24 the best. It's the most dynamic, and I like the city in the background. From a certain point of view, it makes me think of some English village from the Middle Ages, but from another I spot different details that make me think of the Narrows from Batman Begins, or maybe Madripoor, if we're sticking with Marvel Comics. All the narrow alleys and buildings sitting short, squat, and crammed together.