Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Comic Critique: Marvel's The Black Vortex Event

The Black Vortex, the last comic event before Secret Wars changes the game (RIP Marvel 616 Universe 1961-2015), is a crossover primarily between the Guardians of the Galaxy and the All-New X-Men in which they come across an ancient artifact of unimaginable power.  A mirror to the most powerful, yet potentially darkest, reflection of whoever looks into it and submits to its power, the Black Vortex is released upon the cosmos after being hidden away for millennia.

Like a cool version of the Mirror of Erised

The series begins with an ancient planet 12 billion years in the past, where the inhabitants worship a Celestial who they call the Godhead. One of these worshippers is a woman named Gara who calls out to the Godhead to look upon them and allow her to explore the cosmos. Soon after this, the Celestial leaves the planet and the Black Vortex mirror is all that remains. Gara submits to the power of the Vortex and turmoil erupts across her planet as we see she is the sole survivor of her species. In the present, Mr. Knife, a villain who has been harassing Star-Lord in his regular series, has found the Black Vortex and presents it to Thane, the son of Thanos who debuted in 2013’s Infinity event.  All of Knife’s subordinates, the Slaughter Squad, have used the power of the Vortex and become a major threat.  Kitty Pride and her boyfriend Star-Lord see that they cannot let the already powerful Thane use this artifact and steal it and flee from the pursuing enemies.

Marvel heroes never focus on a problem when they are called
together. They just want to chat and talk smack.

So begins the event and the name of the game is keep-away. The action flies across the universe from Spartax to Earth to the Kree homeworld of Hala. In addition to Thane and the Slaughter Squad, they come in contact with Ronan the Accuser, the Supreme Intelligence, the Brood Queen and her swarm, the Collector, and even Gara, who is still alive after 12 billion years.  Following on previous godlike weapons such as the Cosmic Cube or the Infinity Gauntlet, the Black Vortex has one major difference: while the power-up it provides is not as enormous as those by the other two, unlike those weapons the change is permanent, as evidenced by Gara still being nigh-invincible after 12 billion years.

Seriously, this is what the entire story is like.
An intergalactic game of keep-away.

 Seeing various characters show confliction with the choice of if they should accept the power offered by the Black Vortex is the central source of drama within this series, as they pontificate upon what these changes could bring. Gamora uses the power so that she can fight off the Slaughter Squad and have new strengths, Angel takes the power out of pure excitement, Beast wants to see and understand everything in the universe, Captain Marvel sees herself with all the powers of the galaxy but chooses against it because she is already strong, and Kitty counsels everyone repeatedly that the Vortex must not be used because it is too dangerous.

The Ebony Maw has poisonous whispers
He wants Thane to be wicked and cruel.

The other major development within this event is the relationship between Kitty Pride and Peter Quill, the Star-Lord.  Since they began dating last year during the Trial of Jean Grey crossover, their romance has been sweet, yet complicated by the immense distance between them.  With Kitty teaching the X-Men back on Earth, while Star-Lord travels the universe with the Guardians, most of their dates take place via hologram.  Adding in the fact that Kitty hates space, as would most people who were trapped inside of a bullet and shooting through space for the better part of a year, their relationship has its difficulties.  However, they are presented as both being incredibly earnest and fantastically communicative with one another.  The final moment between them in the event is straight out of a Disney movie, which is somewhat appropriate with Disney owning Marvel and all.

Star-Lord using those Snoop Dogg lyrics

Most of the characterization is done extremely well, but I do take issue with the presentation of Jean Grey. The young Jean is almost shameless in reading people’s minds without permission, despite being scolded for doing so at several points.  As soon as she sees Cyclops again, she reads his mind to see how he has behaved while traveling the galaxy with his father, Corsair. She laughs as she takes over the mind of the Supreme Intelligence and uses his mental energy to power he telekinetic bolts. She again snoops into Cyclops’ mind at the end when he gives up the powers the Vortex had given him.  It’s a dark trait and a huge violation of privacy.

I do love that Asrar draws young Jean with freckles.
Really reinforces the soulless ginger thing they are going for

Other characters, like Captain Marvel and Beast, have their previous storylines expanded upon.  Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, has moments that call back to House of M in 2005 where she saw herself as the best of the best.  Throughout the Ms. Marvel series that followed, Carol sought to be the best hero there is, but eventually realized that it is better to be the best you can be.  This is reflected at the moment when she is nearly overcome by her enemies and looks into the mirror to see herself with the power cosmic. She remembers her time as Binary, and almost submits, but then she thinks if that is who she wants to be. And no, she wants to be the best she can be.  Beast, however, seeks to learn more about the universe and his curiosity that has plagued his character comes to haunt him.  He submits and learns more about the universe than he really wanted to know and has a moment which shows the road leading to Secret Wars and the irreparable damage he caused by breaking the timeline and bringing the young original X-Men to the present.

She's Captain freaking Marvel.
She's who *I* want to be.


At the end of the series, the Black Vortex is taken away and all of the heroes transformed are given the choice to release the power they have been given. Gamora and Angel choose to keep the modifications done to them, and we see that Thane and Ronan are still changed by the power of the Vortex.  It is left unclear what this could mean to the future.  The only point to having them still be in possession of this new power is so that these powers may be used in the future, but with so much that can change in the universe with the stakes set by Secret Wars, who knows if we will see this new powerful Angel still or if we will see any form of Thane whatsoever.  


He's so polite for a slave-owning creep who keeps such company
as those who would call himself Legron the Terrible.

At 13 issues long, the Black Vortex is a hefty volume.  Following some old crossover techniques, rather than having a 13-issue event mini-series (as in Civil War or Siege), this is a true crossover of titles with the event skipping around multiple books.  This is probably its biggest fault, as it becomes hard to keep up with an event that is jumbled across 8 separate series.  In addition to the “Black Vortex” Alpha and Omega issues that bookend the event, the story arc takes place inside the pages of “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “All-New X-Men”, “Legendary Star-Lord”, “Guardians of the Galaxy Team-Up”, “Nova”, “Captain Marvel”, and “Cyclops.”  While Marvel does do a great job making it clear how to find out what series will carry the next issue by including a checklist for the series in the back of each issue and putting a green Black Vortex banner and number on the cover of each issue.

Regardless of this good design work, it will always be harder to catch the consumer’s eye by having them need to pick up “Black Vortex: Alpha”, then “Guardians of the Galaxy” 24, then “Legendary Star-Lord” 9, then “All-New X-Men” 38 and 39, then “Guardians of the Galaxy Team-Up” 3, then BACK to “Guardians of the Galaxy” for issue 25, and so on.  Crossovers that are not in a limited series are much better if confined to only being in the two primary crossover series, with anything else that may be pulled in having a tie-in rather than a crucial piece of the main event.  The other difficulty in having it jump between so many series is that it keeps each of those book’s main artist throughout, so you have a jam piece of clashing art styles throughout.  It takes away from the book because of the changing look throughout, but the trouble of this effect is somewhat lessened by the fact that all of these artists are excellent.  The ones who stand out from the series the most are David Baldeon’s more cartoony effects in the Nova issue and Mahmud Asrar’s darker shades and more realistic interpretations, but within their issues, it fits.

The Brood are super gross and now they're ripping off Tekkaman Blade's
Radam threat? Unforgivable! 

While this is alleviated much more in today’s market with the easy availability of digital comics, the idea that it might slip a fan’s mind that he needs to pick up “Cyclops” 12 to stay with the event, then he returns to the comic shop and that issue has sold out.  The strategy is to use the big event to bolster the numbers of as many series as possible; after all, if fans are pushed to read “Cyclops” or “Captain Marvel” and enjoy the writing and art, they might come back for the next issue even after the event ends. But when you attach the event to a lower-selling title like “Nova,” which averages around 20,000 sales per month, along with a sales monster like “All-New X-Men,” which regularly runs 50 to 60k per issue, you run the risk of a retailer not having enough for all the fans.

Black Vortex is a great event, with lots of action, a diverse cast, an interesting spin on an older premise, and some genuine surprises.  However, it is held down by being jumbled across far too many titles and having an inconsistent art style.  Also, it remains to be seen if any of the lasting repercussions of the storyline will remain post-Secret Wars. Altogether, Marvel’s Black Vortex is too much of a difficulty to hunt down in single issues, but is a great read to snatch up when the trade is released in July 2015.

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