‘Astonishing X-Men’ a high-quality, and quite anomalous, addition to Marvel’s X-line
By Don Alsafi. With this week’s release of Astonishing X-Men #1, we have the tenth and final title in Marvel’s current X-Men relaunch. The initiative has been a bit of a mixed bag: For every standout success, certain others have landed with far less grace. It’s tempting to wonder how much of this X-launch was already in place before Marvel fully realized just how dire their sales had become, and that their entire publishing line needed a far more massive rethink.
For now, that’s all speculation. At the moment, all we can do is read the comic book in front of us, and see which way this particular debut falls… Let’s review Astonishing X-Men #1, and needless to say, spoilers ahead.
Astonishing X-Men #1
Written by Charles Soule.
Pencils by Jim Cheung.
Inks by Mark Morales, Guillermo Ortego & Walden Wong.
Colors by Richard Isanove & Rain Beredo.
Letters by VC’s Clayton Cowles.
Dark X-Men? From our first glance at the cover, there’s already an odd sort of disconnect between the title and its characters. The current generation of comics readers likely still remember Astonishing X-Men as the title written by geek maestro Joss Whedon starting in 2004. As such, it’s a title that carries a certain amount of weight, and (perhaps unwisely) sets reader expectation abnormally high. Joss’s Astonishing, along with Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, are arguably the only critically lauded X-Men runs in the modern era. They certainly represent the only times the property has risen to such heights since Chris Claremont’s franchise-building work in the 1970s and ‘80s.
And yet most of the mutants spotlighted on the cover are the hard-edged, violent characters who, in the last dozen years, have popped up in titles such as X-Force. (In fact, when Marvel first teased an image of the cover months ago, virtually every member of the comics press assumed that’s what it was.) They’re all dark characters to one extent or another: Psylocke, Archangel and Fantomex were members of Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, a black ops squad occasionally tasked with assassination and murder. Mystique and Rogue both started out as villains, and an X-event a few years back saw Bishop trying to track down and kill a baby mutant. And then you’ve got Gambit (a thief), and Old Man Logan — a time-lost Wolverine from a post-apocalyptic future. This is not a cuddly bunch!
(Oddly enough, Mystique doesn’t even appear inside. Instead, a different blue mutant is featured in her place)
Still, the reader can’t help but wonder: Why these X-Men? Why now? And the answer is surprising. As the story opens, psychics around the world collapse to the ground, under some unknown mental attack. But when the extremely powerful Betsy Braddock (Psylocke) experiences this same psychic onslaught while in London, she manages to send out a cry for help that’s picked up by mutants in Paris, Scotland, and over the North Atlantic. In other words, the characters on the cover weren’t intentionally picked — they just happened to be the X-Men who were geographically closest! As reasons go for bringing together this disparate group, that’s actually kind of clever.
Great writing, mutating art. As it turns out, writer Charles Soule seems an impressive choice to helm an X-book. This debut issue is 30 pages long instead of the usual 20, but it still takes no small amount of skill to lay out a global threat, usher in both the creepy villain mastermind and a shocking last-page character reveal, and also introduce no less than eight costumed heroes.
Sure, it doesn’t hurt that these are characters which even the most casual fans would likely be somewhat familiar – but Soule doesn’t rely on that, and every one of them gets at least a couple of moments in which to shine or stand out. His prose is absorbing and eloquent and does a great job at getting into the minds of these various mutants. (Although he too can stumble, as when Angel swoops in to rescue a teammate and utters the astonishingly cheesy line: “You are saved.”)
The art is by Jim Cheung, a great choice to kick off the book. The visuals work seamlessly with the writing to balance both action and character, and the expressiveness of his heroes often convey that there’s more going on underneath than simply what’s on the surface. His illustrations consistently impart a strong sense of place, which helps to ground the characters in a world that seems real and genuine around them.
Sadly, this is not something the reader can expect to get used to, since Marvel has made the bewildering choice to deploy a different artist for every single issue. (The next few chapters will showcase the wildly different art styles of Mike Deodato, Ed McGuinness, and Carlos Pacheco.) This may be fine when consumed in monthly installments, but the graphic novel collection might provide some visual whiplash.
A different artist for each story arc? Sure! But for every issue? It’s such a strange decision that you can’t help but wonder as to the thinking behind it. Perhaps they hope that a different superstar artist on every new issue will convey a certain dazzling prestige to the book. But if we learned anything from similar “artist showcase” books (like Marvel Fanfare in the 1980s), it might be that by a certain point editorial becomes increasingly less concerned with getting the hottest blockbuster artist, and more with just hiring anyone who can get the book out on time. (In fact, there’s a worry that the wheels might have already started to come off, if we’re to read anything into this issue’s surprising credits of three separate inkers and multiple colorists. Was this comic running behind before it even launched?)
Not just another team book. Still, by story’s end there remain a couple of oddly lingering questions. What kind of book is this? Are these characters supposed to be a team? And, strangely enough, these questions are only clarified by the editorial page in the back of the book, where Senior Editor Mark Paniccia explicitly refers to Astonishing X-Men not as an ongoing title, but as a maxi-series. Aha! Well, that makes more sense. This comic isn’t trying to put together yet another team book to have adventures ad infinitum; rather, this is a deliberately finite story – with beginning, middle and eventual end. (In fact, even the title page boldly declares this to be the start of “ACT I”.)
That being the case, though, it does make the actual title of the book feel even more misplaced and, perhaps, meaningless. If this is in fact meant to be a very story-driven book – a novel told in comics form, perhaps – then wouldn’t a more descriptive title better convey that intent? (Compare with the famous X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, for example.)
I suspect there are many comics readers who don’t want to sign up for yet another series without end but are attracted to a finite story, even one that might take a few years to resolve. (As with, say, most current books from Image Comics.) Slapping on a random title that wasn’t being used at the moment seems less like the way to attract those particular readers, and more just a case of trademark renewal.
With its emphasis on fan-favorite characters, this may be a comic more for existing fans, rather than making new X-heads out of those who’ve never been. But that’s okay! It’s an exciting, well-told story, competently done, and with no assumptions that you’ve long been reading their entire line. Quite frankly, it’s the kind of comic we could use more of.
8 out of 10
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