By Don Alsafi. Marvel’s first Exiles comic hit the stands in 2001, but its antecedents stretch back a couple decades further. Alternate reality stories have long been a staple of science fiction, but in 1977 Marvel debuted a new series, What If…?, which specifically focused on imagining different outcomes for its most famous stories. Every issue opened by reminding readers of a significant Marvel development or event, and then posited what might have happened had circumstances taken a different turn – like “What If Gwen Stacey Had Lived?”, “What If the Avengers fought the Kree-Skrull War without Rick Jones?”, or (weirdly) “What If Wolverine Fought Conan the Barbarian?”
With Exiles, initial creators Judd Winick and Mike McKone took that concept a bit further, blending X-Men themed alternate realities with a bit of Quantum Leap. Every issue or two saw the team of Exiles (each member drawn from a different Earth in Marvel’s multiverse) travel to a new reality where events had somehow gone disastrously wrong. Their job? To set things right, before jumping into their next world, and their next mission. For such a deliriously over-the-top premise, it was a hit with readers, with the first volume lasting 100 issues.
The last time Exiles was on stands was nearly ten years ago, in 2009. How does that reality-trekking concept fit into the Marvel universe today? That’s the question ahead of us this week.
Written by Saladin Ahmed.
Pencils by Javier Rodríguez.
Inks by Álvaro López.
Colors by Jordie Bellaire and Javier Rodríguez.
Letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna.
An impressive debut. This newest iteration of Exiles is written by science fiction author Saladin Ahmed, whose Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He’s also a fairly new recruit to Marvel, where his recent Black Bolt series started out slow but intriguing, before ending as something of a masterpiece. (Ahmed is also one of two Guests of Honor being celebrated at next month’s feminist sci-fi convention, WisCon.)
The visuals come courtesy of Spanish artist Javier Rodríguez, who first made a name for himself as a colorist (and, interestingly, colors a single page of this debut issue) before landing penciling gigs on such books as Spider-Woman and last year’s Doctor Strange and the Sorcerers Supreme.
And yet, despite the relative newness of both Ahmed and Rodríguez, it’s clear that these two creators have very quickly risen to the top of their game. Ahmed’s story economically packs an astounding (and yet never confusing) number of worlds and characters into its 20 pages, all while elegantly introducing the premise to new readers and setting up the initial mystery and looming threat.
At the same time, Rodríguez’s characters are striking and instinctively appealing, with a style that’s not too far off from the engaging designs of current Captain America artist, Chris Samnee. Composing this many varied new settings and characters in the space of a single issue (and, presumably, issues to come) would be a daunting assignment for any artist. But not only is Rodríguez up to the task, he impresses the reader further with page layouts that are creative but never obfuscating, even including no less than four double-page spreads which at times evoke the page design sensibilities of J.H. Williams III.
A refreshingly strange cast. The action begins on the moon, where The Unseen watches over all. Marvel’s 2014 crossover event Original Sin opened with the murder of cosmic being Uatu the Watcher, and finished by turning perennial super-spy Nick Fury into a new kind of eye-in-the-sky, sentenced to bear witness to all that occurs – in Marvel’s main reality, and others – but chained in place and unable to intervene. Not only is this an effectively eerie place to begin, but it’s also a fairly clever in-joke to those well versed in Marvel lore – since nearly every issue of What If…? from 1977 through 1995 was introduced by the Watcher, acting as a sort of space-faring Crypt Keeper.
From his interdimensional vantage point, The Unseen watches with horror as multiple realities fold and crumble away due to some terrifyingly powerful Time-Eater. In short order, the mutant Blink – herself a refuge from Marvel’s 1995 alternate reality crossover Age of Apocalypse, as well as being the team leader of the Exiles from its inception – is summoned to resume her multiverse-protecting duties. And almost immediately, she’s off on her first jump.
From there, Blink quickly visits a dystopia in which the semi-recent X-Men/Inhumans war turned out quite badly, then a more bright and shiny far future not too dissimilar from that of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes. By way of those jaunts, she ends up recruiting her first two teammates: A middle-aged version of Kamala Khan – a.k.a. Ms. Marvel – and a divergent Iron Lad who did not go on to found the Young Avengers. This issue’s cover indicates that subsequent teammates will include an adorably tiny cartoon Wolverine, as well as a totally-not-Valkryie-from-Thor: Ragnarok. (But it totally is.)
A gleeful romp through the odder corners of Marvel. Books like What If…? and Exiles have perhaps always had a particular appeal to a certain kind of comics fan: The ones who enjoy following the monthly exploits of stars like Captain America and Spider-Man, but who also get an extra thrill from alternate reality counterparts like the Iron Man of 2020 (back when that was a long way off…) or JLA stand-ins The Squadron Supreme, as well as alternate future stories like the classic X-Men tale, Days of Future Past. The kind of fan who enjoys seeing the utter weirdness on the periphery of the mainstream, and might pore over hitherto-unknown character profiles in their copy of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.
The delight that Ahmed and Rodriguez clearly take in crafting this exciting tour of alt-Marvel shows them to be huge fans of just this sort of madcap mayhem. And yet they never lose sight of the fact that crazy sci-fi shenanigans don’t mean a thing without a compelling story and appealing, relatable characters. Blink is presented as a wry, smart-mouthed young woman who thought she had left her days of dimension-hopping behind her, but she doesn’t hesitate to take up this new mission when the fate of countless worlds are at stake. (Javier Rodríguez also gains extra points by giving us, perhaps for the first time, a Blink whose West Indian ethnicity is visually apparent – despite her neon pink skin tone.)
A wonderfully unique debut. In the hands of lesser creators, this reality-bending premise could have easily turned into an overly complicated tale that only the most hardcore of Marvelites could ever hope to understand. Fortunately, Ahmed, Rodríguez, inker Álvaro López, colorist Jordie Bellaire and letterer Joe Caramagna present readers with a story that is cosmic in scope, yet accessible to all.
Exiles is a comic book that could only take place in the Marvel Universe, yet it’s so far out on the edges that readers needn’t worry about its regular story getting interrupted or sidetracked by whatever the next crossover event turns out to be. The Avengers and the X-Men can take care of that – while the Exiles will likely be three universes away, fighting for even higher stakes.
9 out of 10