Marvel need a win. Blackest Night trumped Siege in 2010 and the New 52 has crushed Marvel this past winter. All eyes are on the potentially epic knockdown, drag out, battle royale the House of Ideas is about to unleash upon us: Avengers Vs X-Men.
Some of the top creators on Marvel's roster come together to craft a story that will have potentially massive ramifications. Many years in the making, Avengers Vs X-Men sees the return of the Phoenix force, an entity that first appeared in the late Seventies and is synonymous to many comic fans with the character Jean Grey. An incredibly powerful energy being, the Phoenix often bonds with a host as it did with Jean and later her daughter Rachel Summers. The seminal work in this instance is certainly the Dark Phoenix Saga, now available in hardback.
The Phoenix itself has been a lingering influence throughout the X-Men comics in recent years, but hasn't been an overt presence per se. Then during last year's Point One one shot, there was a chapter featuring a Nova centurion (possibly Richard Rider, although could it be his brother Robbie?) fleeing ahead of the returning Phoenix Force - as it destroyed whole worlds in its path. The Phoenix is heading for Earth and has already chosen its new host. The so-called mutant messiah, Hope Summers. Solicitations for Avengers Vs X-Men suggest that the mutant superheroes believe this will be a good thing, despite past negative experiences with the Phoenix Force entity. The Avengers believe it will mean the end of all life on Earth and all evidence seems to support this!
So who is Hope Summers, the young woman at the heart of this coming maelstrom? To answer that question, we need to wind back to 2004 and Avengers Disassembled, the beginning of the modern Marvel Universe metaplot. In this book - the first Avengers story arc by Brian Michael Bendis - the heroes are torn apart by shocking tragedies. In the final act we discover that mutant Avenger the Scarlet Witch was responsible for these horrors. Driven insane by grief, Wanda's unstable mind has begun to blame her fellow Avengers for the loss of her children and so she lashed out with her reality altering chaos powers. She is taken away by her father Magneto and the Avengers were forced to disband, reuniting later as the New Avengers, adding fan favourites Spider-Man and Wolverine to the roster.
The story of Wanda picks up with House Of M, as the X-Men and the Avengers come together to confront Magneto and Professor X, who have been sheltering the Scarlet Witch following the events of Disassembled. Killing her is discussed as the only viable option, leaving her brother Quicksilver distraught, and in desperation he convinces the emotional vulnerable Wanda to remake the world nto one which could make everyone happy. The House Of M world is one ruled by mutants - in particular Magneto. Over time - and with the help of a strange girl called Layla Miller - the heroes regain their real memories, once more assembling to challenge Master of Magnetism and his children. Realising that Magneto's dream of mutant supremacy has always been more important than his love for his children, Wanda puts the world back to normal, but with one startling difference. No more mutants.
Overnight, the world population of mutants totalled only 198. All the others had lost their powers, an event that became known as Decimation. To make matters worse, the mutant birth rate fell to zero. The Beast went to incredible and frantic lengths to verify the extent of Wanda's actions in a story collected as X-Men Endangered Species. Then, just as the mutant race seemed to facing total extinction, the mutant detecting computer Cerebro exploded - overloaded by the birth of a powerful new mutant in Alaska. Scrambling to investigate the X-Men find themselves embroiled in a battle with the Purifiers and the Marauders for the life of the baby.
This was complicated by the arrival of the future mutant cop Bishop, who has once traveled back in time to try to prevent his dystopian world. Bishop had sought various potential culprits but now felt that this baby would become the monster responsible. X-Men Messiah Complex is a bloody, brutal read and well worth your time. Finally the time travelling paramilitary son of Scott Summers, Cable, took the baby and disappeared into the future intending to raise her as his daughter, naming her Hope.
Over the course of five volumes (Messiah War, Waiting For The End Of The World, X-Force/Cable Messiah War, Stranded and Homecoming), Cable and Hope move further forward in time, constantly pursued by a determined and deadly Bishop. In a clever narrative conceit, each volume seems Hope growing older and becoming more experienced - getting ready to embrace her destiny. Finally, she and Cable return to the present day in an incredible story called X-Men Second Coming, a story which ended with the seeming death of Cable and the acceptance of Hope Summers into the X-Men.
Since then, Hope has struggled to find her place in the world. Her arrival was followed by the detection of five new mutants - the first since her birth. She can also seemingly activate emerging mutants though so far she has been unable to help those who lost their powers during the Decimation. Perhaps because of this there are those who see her as a destroyer and not a potential saviour, especially after numerous ominous signs and portents. And now the Phoenix Force is coming for her.
If that wasn't enough, the Scarlet Witch is back. Her first appearance after she disappeared at the end of House Of M was in New Avengers 26 - the Ballad of Clint Barton & Wanda Maximoff (collected in New Avengers Vol 6: Revolution) - as a seemingly innocent young woman, stripped of her tortured memories and devastating powers. Since then she has been seen in Avengers The Childrens Crusade with some fairly interesting revelations and unsettling ramifications.
Finally as a precursor to the Avengers Vs X-Men storyline, Avengers X-Sanction is currently on the shelves - a four part miniseries showing us the true fate of Cable. Ravaged by the techno-organic virus that has plagued him since birth, Cable's intended final act was to save Hope by sending her back to the present day. He then disappeared into the timestream expecting to die. Awakening in the future, Cable found his old mentor Blaquesmith with an ominous prediction about Hope's future fate at the hands of the Avengers. With less than 24 hours left to live, Cable has made one last timeslide, intending to neutralise the Avengers before they can harm his daughter. Wonderful foreshadowing for the coming events of AvX.
This brings us up-to-date and ready for Avengers Vs X-Men. Two mutant powerhouses are on a collision course as it is - and throwing in the Phoenix Force will have dire consequences for the Earth's population. No wonder the Avengers feel required to intervene!
Explore the Marvel history of the past decade and get ready to choose your side, or simple dive in with your gut feeling! Either way, this year looks set to be something special for Marvel.
Ben Fardon suspects that the epilogue to Avengers Vs X-Men will lead to a reboot for the whole Marvel Universe. What's good for the goose might be seen as good for the gander after all. Mixed feelings about that possibility.