Wednesday, July 31, 2013

train kept a-rollin' 003: what if? avx #3

by Chad Nevett

What If? AvX #3 (Marvel)
by Jimmy Palmiotti, Gerardo Sandoval, Jordi Tarragona, Rachelle Rosenberg

The creator names on the cover of 'What If? AvX' #3 are incorrect. They’re a carryover from the second issue where Jorge Molina penciled the issue, Norman Lee and Rick Magyar inked it, and Rachelle Rosenberg colored it. The third issue still lists those four names under Jimmy Palmiotti on the cover, but the art team is actually Gerardo Sandoval handling the penciling and some inking, Jordi Tarragona doing the rest of the inks, and Rachelle Rosenberg coloring (and acting as the only artistic link to the first two issues). It’s the same sort of... well, I don’t want to call it laziness, because that brings some horrible connotations, but, maybe, incompetence? It’s the same sort of incompetence that also leads to three dead characters (see last column) showing up as part of the cast on the recap page. Is this comic maybe a low priority? Again, see last column. Editorial blunders, while amusing, are not what I want to discuss.

The change in pencillers with this issue is appropriate. Normally, I’m with everyone else and hate to see the art shift mid-project (unless purposefully designed that way or the new artist being a vast improvement over the original) and my reason for not thinking that this time is one of those instances where I imagine people will understand my reasoning while still thinking that my approach is a little askew. 'Avengers vs. X-Men' was not an artistically cohesive event. Few are once you factor in tie-ins, but 'Avengers vs. X-Men' featured three pencillers through its 12-issue run (John Romita, Jr., Olivier Coipel, and Adam Kubert) with another penciller (Frank Cho) drawing issue 0. Basically, the first half of the event was done by Romita with Coipel and Kubert switching off on the second half. The result is a nice looking series that has zero visual or artistic cohesion, and it works to a degree because the series was also written by five writers. It was a hodgepodge mess of large-scale collaboration where consistency and unity were not invited. So, it’s only appropriate that 'What If? AvX' should shift artist teams in its third issue (if only they had numerous writers as well...), offering no sense of cohesion and visual consistency.

Because, obviously, Gerardo Sandoval’s art looks very little like that of Jorge Molina. Molina’s art is clean and blocky, aimed mostly at clarity and communicating exactly what is happening. There’s a little bit of roughness that creeps in around the edges that hints at something more stylistically interesting and makes me a little sad, because I would have loved to see more of that style. The way that he draws Magneto and Hope sparring in the first issue hints at something a little more lean, a little darker and messier that sits in contrast to the more open, clean-lined work he does elsewhere. His page layouts do not adhere to a set grid structure, but he rarely breaks from direct square or rectangular panels, again in the service of clarity and ease of reading. Panels are usually structured along three- or four-panel tiers with a somewhat steady pace that slows and speeds up depending on the moment. The rare moments where he breaks from these conventions are cases of ‘big’ moments where a double-page spread is required or, late in issue two, where Thor flies at the Phoenix and Molina uses a two-page layout, giving three-quarters of the room to that shot with two panels (one at the bottom of each page) that closes in and showcases Thor and the Phoenix. The first issue was looser with this, having more instances of characters breaking the panel borders, possibly because of the deadline crunch of the second issue. The second issue offers only one real moment of formalist play early on where the Black Panther is in a spaceship, communicating with Captain America. It’s a fifth-tier panel at the bottom of the page on a page where every tier is a single panel taking up the entire length of the page. The Black Panther’s back is three-quarters to us and we can see the ship’s screen in front of us along with his teammates in space and the Phoenix. The panel has an inset, though: a circular shot of the Panther’s head that is drawn like a word balloon coming from the other Panther figure. It’s not anything remarkable, but does show a willingness or ability to break from the layouts that we see in the first issues of 'What If? AvX'. Stylistically and structurally, his art is aimed at clarity and directness. It’s very difficult to be confused or thrown by anything Molina presents in the first two issues.

Gerardo Sandoval follows that example to a degree, but seems far less interested in clarity and ease of reading. His page is an awkward layout of the Vision, Ms. Marvel, and Nova descending upon Magneto, Emma Frost, and the Phoenix-possessed Hope on the Moon. The perspective is from above the three mutants, albeit from an angle, with the three Avengers at the top of the panel, in front of the reader, almost like our perspective is meant to be as some non-existent fourth Avenger descending onto the Moon. It’s clunky in the way that characters are positioned on the page and looks somewhat cluttered. Stylistically, Sandoval’s art is not something I particularly like. There’s a manga influence in it that results in lots of hair spikes and youthful faces. A horrible artistic crime, I know; it’s simply not something that I find visually appealing. The characters look like less than what they usually are, if that makes sense. Magneto is a youthful, attractive man until he becomes ‘more evil,’ and, suddenly, gains scars and a face that shows his age to a larger degree. There’s very little naturalism or realism, but also not a strong enough dynamism to warrant the contorted poses meant to convey movement and action. Too bland to be weird, too weird to be bland. As it were. He has a tough time balancing the demands of the art and the demands of the writing in places. One page, where Iron Man pulls Wolverine from the ocean and they regroup with the Avengers is a cluttered mess of character shoved into whatever space is available given the number of panels and tonnage of word balloons. Then again, maybe the page didn't need such a large shot of Wolverine vomiting sea water? (A sentence I never thought that I would write...)

Despite my clear dislike of Sandoval’s work, there is that connection to 'Avengers vs. X-Men'’s artistic changes that allows me to move past it, intellectually. Even the choice of starting with John Romita Jr. then shifting to Olivier Coipel and Adam Kubert seems to be the pattern here. Romita, while more distinctive stylistically than Molina, is an artist that places a premium on clarity, while Coipel and Kubert are more willing to sacrifice clarity for style. That shift is reflected in 'What If? AvX', just not to the same degree. It’s a faint shadow of the original, like a lot of 'What If...?' stories of the modern Marvel.

The one area where there is almost parity is in the reproduction of one cohesive element in 'Avengers vs. X-Men'’s art: the coloring. The entire event (save the 0 issue) was colored by Laura Martin and, in 'What If? AvX', Rachelle Rosenberg has colored all three issues (and I assume will color the fourth issue). At first, when looking at issue three, I had thought that Rosenberg had taken a different approach to coloring Sandoval’s pencils from what she had done for Molina’s, but, looking at some side-by-side comparisons, it’s not as strong a difference as I had thought. It’s a little surprising to learn that, to a degree, how I view the pencil art influences how I perceive the color art. If I don’t like the pencil art, I seem to think that the coloring is weaker somehow. That is an effect that I hadn't given much thought before. Rosenberg’s coloring seems best suited to Molina’s pencils, honestly. She, like Molina, seems to be going for a clean, easy to comprehend style. She doesn't overpower the art with a lot of effects, but does help with mood and storytelling. I particularly like the way she depicts the confrontation in issue two as happening at dusk, something that the pencil art doesn't seem to call for, but adds an emotional tone to the scenes of destruction and death that wouldn't be there if she colored the scene as taking place in the middle of a sunny day. It also allows for a clear passage of time over the course of the series: Magneto and Hope spar during the day; the confrontation with the Avengers happens as dusk begins; the Avengers regroup as we shift to night; Magneto and Phoenix Hope arrive once night has fallen, leading, most likely, to a final issue that takes place at night. She provides a sense of time that tells us when events are happening that another colorist wouldn't necessarily include. I like that.

Next issue, I imagine Jorge Molina will return, but I almost hope that we get another new penciller to finish things. A Kubert to Sandoval’s Coipel after Molina was Romita with Rosenberg acting as the series’ Martin. It will be almost like a true alternate version of 'Avengers vs. X-Men' then.

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