Review: Uncanny Avengers #3

I'm beginning to worry a little about Rick Remender. The difference in quality between the first two issues of Captain America and this most recent one is bizarre, with the first two bordering on excellence and that other one, well, dithering around the saccharine muck of what I imagine Remender thinks is inspirational.* Then, there's Uncanny Avengers, the first two issues of which were basically unreadable and but were followed up, with this third issue, by utter, if problematic, brilliance. Maybe Remender can only contribute to one good book a month? If Uncanny Avengers and Captain America have to enter a cage match to the death for his attention, which one wins?

Frankly, I suspect Captain America is Remender's for the long haul, while I'd be surprised if Uncanny Avengers lasts through 2013. Alex Summers (whose not even the other Summers brother!) leading an Avengers team just seems so purposeless, particularly since whoever cooked up this half-cocked idea for a series apparently couldn't decide if what they wanted was to appeal to nostalgia ("hey, it's an Avengers team with Cap, Thor and Scarlet Witch!") or novelty ("hey, that's two former Evil Mutants, one of whom was formerly very dead, and one guy who they actually had to send into space to get rid of on an Avengers team with Cap, Wolverine and Thor!"). If Remender can't figure out how to consistently write Captain-America-as-Avenger and also stop avoiding some of the melodrama that's plagued the series so far, I'm not sure I can keep with it, no matter how much John Cassaday begins to draw like his old self (more on Cassaday in a minute). It doesn't help, either, that the mutants-as-hunted-minority thing isn't exactly new, and that the specific metaphor Remender wants to draw about the possibility of madness in crowds isn't either. I suspect he's trying to add a little bit of ambiguity to what's been a paint-by-numbers plot at Marvel since the mid-Sixties, but, in inverting a very traditional superhero origin story ("a bad guy murdered my family and now I dress in a uniform... FOR JUSTICE") he doesn't make the the Red Skull's S-Men flunkies sympathetic so much as he makes the comic regressive, seeming to justify the brutality of the whole episode and therefore excusing its violence.**

Still credit where it's due: Remender finally manages to squeeze some genuine menace out of the new Red Skull, who is, for this issue at least, truly and persistently terrifying. There is some kind of mad pulp genius in getting a racial ideologue to bind himself to that which he hates, that is, in bringing that particular spent trope about expressive racism into camp, and doing it with a goofy scifi beat--brain grafting--that's probably been a cliche for half a century. Even so, this particular iteration of Captain America's archenemy just hasn't been convincingly villainous, instead seeming more like a poorly timed joke. Now, though, Remender's got the Red Skull really hamming it up, monologuing, "YES! Rise Up! STAND AND BE COUNTED!," as a mob of brainwashed Manhattanites led by his S-Men wander around destroying Manhattan, brutally killing mutants, all the while holding a glass so his manservant can pour him a tipple.*** It's, somehow, both chilling and delightfully ridiculous.

To the extent that the comic isn't problematic or exasperatingly overwrought, though, it's a lot of fun and Remender's relatively good day has a lot to do with that. Perhaps more importantly: John Cassaday's gotten his groove back. I know that he's gone after the next issue (he's a very slow artist and I'm not sure why Marvel thought they were going to be able to get their new flagship monthly out on time with him at the board), but the Drummer really outdoes himself here; his hallmark has always been the way he ties his figure design to distance, and, two issues in, he finally has the right ratio going. When he's close up, he works in an almost photorealistic mode, but, as he positions himself further away, everything becomes increasingly stylized, not-quite-cartoony, as if his understanding of the panel developed such that each one is only able to hold a certain amount of information before it loses something, and so he came up with this kind of relative style to maximize the effect of each. On the page, this translates into a very particular type of dynamism, and it makes his work, at its best, ultra-legible despite its incredible complexity. I want to stress the importance of that, so I'll rephrase: comprehending John Cassaday's artwork simply isn't very hard, even though his compositions have many things to say, by themselves and to each other. If Rick Remender can manage to figure out a similar trick for his writing, or if he can at least untangle himself, Uncanny Avengers might be a breakout book yet, even as its artist, back at the top of his game, steps aside.

*I know, I know, I'll write about it sooner or later.
**This is itself actually an inversion of one of the tropes of superhero deconstruction, the crucial distinction between justice and revenge, but, since Remender doesn't appear to be interested in pursuing this theme, I'm not sure that it was intentional.
***That man servant, by the way, is named Honest John The Living Propaganda, and he feels like the natural conclusion of some of the stuff that comes out in Ed Brubaker's Captain America work. I think that the character is more than a little brilliant, and I hope he sticks around for awhile.

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