(Panini Books)

SINCE the original Human Torch came to blows with Namor the Sub-Mariner in the first ever comics crossover (issues 8-9 of Marvel Mystery Comics, 1940), disparate superheroes have clashed with their peers in blockbuster battles which have left a trail of destruction in their wake.

It is a tradition which has continued through to the present day, but although there have been various explosive conflicts between costumed cadres over the years, nothing can possibly compare to this epic multi-issue confrontation between Marvel’s two biggest franchises, written and illustrated by a veritable who’s who of modern comics talent.

The dozens of heroes who make up the Avengers and the X-Men find themselves diametrically opposed over the return to Earth of the planet-devouring Phoenix, an ancient force of cosmic power which once possessed Jean Grey, wife of X-Men leader Scott (Cyclops) Summers, leading to her death.

The two teams learn that the Phoenix is coming back, and the so-called mutant messiah, Hope, appears to be the perfect candidate for its new host, something the X-Men believe could lead to the rebirth of their race following the decimation of mutantkind on M-Day.

In contrast, the Avengers recognise the devastating power of the Phoenix and want to stop it in its tracks, initially by taking Hope into custody, but with the implication that extreme measures will be taken if deemed necessary.

This course of events sets up a showdown between the two super-teams, and before you know it, they’re embroiled in a brutal battle which is unlikely to have any real winners, with the fate of the planet at stake in the process.

Instead of filling 12 issues with slug-fests between various super-heroes, Marvel took the interesting decision to showcase the actual fights in a spin-off book packed full of “fun facts” revealing background details on the various combatants. AvX is far from an essential read, but it’s actually much more enjoyable as a result, offering creators a free rein to portray the different battles in as explosive and destructive manner as possible.

In contrast, Avengers Vs X-Men actually throws a complete curveball at the end of the first act, as instead of Hope becoming possessed by the Phoenix, the entity actually splits itself between five key X-Men - Cyclops, Namor, Colossus, Magik and Emma Frost – who begin using its immense power to solve problems of drought, famine, political unrest and so on.

The immediate implications of their actions are of course, the erosion of free will and the undermining of state power, as these god-like beings exercise their own judgments over the needs of the planet’s population, with no regard for whether they are right.

Although the Avengers have been imprisoned or forced into hiding, the team known as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” are far from out for the count, and steps are being taken to hit back at the Phoenix Five before they lose their final grasp upon their humanity…

Like many “event” stories churned out by the big two comics publishers over the past few years, Avengers Vs X-Men is a real game-changer, and set to have long-reaching consequences in the future, especially given the shocking events at the story’s end.

It’s also got far more depth than the initial concept suggests, and opens up a host of debates between the protagonists over the decisions they have made in order to achieve their aims. Just because you’re Captain America it doesn’t mean you’re always right, and whether we should judge a reformed Magneto on the strength of his past crimes rather than his current behaviour are just some of the issues to consider.

Away from the story-telling itself, these books mark the debut of Marvel AR, a new app which provides enhanced digital features to complement the actual comic.

Small icons scattered throughout these books need to be scanned to access various Easter eggs, including pencil and ink breakdowns of pages, interviews with comics creators, trailers and documentaries explaining the real-world reasoning behind some of the events on the page.

A particular fave was how a conversation in Russian between the Black Widow and Magik was translated into English – not sure what I would have done otherwise though!

It’s a fantastic addition which doesn’t detract from the reading process at all (I tended to wait until I’d finished an issue before going back to explore the digital add-ons, so as not to interrupt the storytelling), and one which I believe will become a feature of many more Marvel titles in the months to come.

Yes, these books are about super-heroes fighting, but leave your preconceptions at the door as there’s much more going on here than you might expect, and the very future of the Marvel universe is defined in this conflict, so you certainly can’t afford to miss it. Here’s hoping Panini collects the follow-up title AvX: Consequences, to provide a perfect coda to these two titles.