While the strangest heroes of all have seen some decidedly interesting stories over the last ten years, they are certainly not the jewel in the crown that they once were. ResurrXion was a nice start to putting them back where many feel they belong, but as quickly as the titles X-Men: Blue and X-Men: Gold get a 90s child’s heart pounding, the promised transformation has not yet fully occurred.
Enter Charles Soule and Astonishing X-Men. Because, regardless of how you feel about it, regardless of any highs or lows that we’ll get to in a moment, it’s hard to deny that this feels like the launch of a new X-Men series.
Soule hits the ground running with a clear and present threat that appeals to the classic X-Men formula while also offering something new. Psylocke is under mental attack and, as a defense mechanism, has created an enormous psychic butterfly on the top of The Shard in London. Visually speaking, it’s a fantastic hook, and it gives a sense of urgency to the threat and closeness to the team as they arrive to rescue their longtime comrade.
Soule does a really nice job of engaging each member of his team and avoids the standard group rush and one test per character resolutions, instead letting only a few of the assembled mutants deal with the core problem while the others do some more community focused superheroics. Besides the standard tasks of showing some of the concepts Soule will be playing with and putting pieces in place, this issue demonstrates how he intends to handle the characters and plotting.
Soule opens with the modern version of a classic X-Men introdump. It’s insistence on working in the word “Apocalypse” is more than a bit awkward, but it serves its purpose well, giving us a surprisingly full view of these characters and where they belong.
Even from these early moments it’s clear that Soule has a firm grasp on these characters. Each one feels classic, but without simply repeating what’s come before. Angel is a streamlined amalgam of his numerous interpretations over the last few years while Gambit has all the charm and style of 1991, with the weight of years admirably woven into his manner. Even Bishop, who’s struggled to stay consistent through several differing interpretations of his function and his future, has the cobwebs of continuity brushed away, in favor of a clean explanation of his place in the X-Men’s orbit that doesn’t erase anything but instead sets it to a purpose.
The X-Men are comics’ largest soap opera cast and that comes with baggage, baggage that is charming when it works but quickly becomes a mad tangle without pruning. More than one fan has likely walked away when confronted with the disparity between the strong idea of the X-Men they hold from whatever media brought them to the franchise and the modern comics’ endless complications upon it. So it’s an impressive and welcome achievement that Astonishing X-Men presents familiar, understandable visions of its cast that will appeal to new readers and those who can list the 198 off the top of their heads.
Despite having a strong, unique plot and excellent character work, from concept to execution, I can also say that Soule’s writing is awkward in places. The aforementioned Apocalypse obsession is a fine example, but it starts even sooner. The opening pages are threaded with narration that, while enchanting, can be confusing in wording and, debatably, in content. This sets the tone for the issue, for, while it delivers a huge number of the things that one picks up a superhero comic for, Astonishing X-Men uses its lovely art, clever banter, and–most of all–hungry pacing to keep readers from noticing its shortcomings.
Some things are poorly explained and glossed over because Soule’s prose is very pretty. Others are excessively discussed but dressed with fun dialogue. And the solution to this issue’s big set piece is very simple but feels exhilarating because we’re looking at it very quickly and from a number of rather beautiful angles.
On some level, the craft required to mask these uneven areas, some of them kind of necessitated by the format, is rather respectable. Still, the issue often asks us to trust that flash is backed up by substance and sometimes it isn’t to the degree that its highs suggest. Given what the script does right though, it seems a safe bet on the whole.
There’s also just a great page towards the end, where Soule uses some very simple but highly effective repetition to give upcoming issues a very epic, mythical intrigue. It’s a small thing, but it’s another example of the seriousness and creativity that Soule is bringing to his writing. And, in so arranging the visuals of the page to suit his narrative purpose, Soule seems to wink at the reader, promising some big things in a world where metaphors are real.
As Soule translates much of the winning X-Men formula into the modern day, the art team makes sure that it feels like an event. Jim Cheung’s pencils are actually fairly simple, utilizing clean, basic images filled in with careful hatching to draw great specificity out of them.
It’s usually not a great thing when you see a whole slew of inkers and more than a single colorist. The results are often disjointed and uneven. But that’s really not the case here. Though there are differences between scenes that seem like the result of the multiple inkers, the issue remains remarkably whole in its aesthetic. At times it becomes clearer than others that numerous hands were at work here, as in one early page featuring Bishop and Angel, but, even knowing the likely cause, it neither distracts seriously nor ventures entirely beyond the point that one could mistake it for artistic range.
What this issue really brings to the table, visually, is a sense of blockbuster scale and energy. A lot of that does come down to the coloring and the way that it works with the rest of the art. As filled in by Richard Isenove and Rain Beredo, the art takes on an almost painted quality. Careful color gradients combine with the flurries of minute detail in the pencils and ink to give the book a fantastic texture that contrasts sharply with the shiny, more traditional look in more minimal panels.
It also helps that this issue isn’t afraid to introduce color, and bold ones at that, into the gritty, worn leather look that this issue sets as a base. With vivid telekinetic purples, marshy greens, and deep indigos popping up frequently, Astonishing X-Men #1 does a fine job of establishing ‘reality’ before a trip to the Astral Plane, but does so without sinking into the same grey and brown mess that is so frequently used as shorthand for high stakes.
Though it doesn’t necessarily innovate, Cheung and co.’s art manages to feel its own while also cherry picking elements of classic X-Men imagery. It’s kind of a shame that this book doesn’t have a single art team. With shades of Bachalo, Tan, classic Lee, Quietly, and their myriad collaborators inspiring the look of the issue, this really does feel like a return to form for the X-Men, even separate from plot or writing. And that’s really what this issue feels like: a return to the classic tone of the X-Men, including their eye to the future.
A clever setting and a ticking clock turn an introduction issue into a regular event, while a rock solid sense of character promises plenty of stories to be told with this series. Though it admittedly utilizes its gorgeous visuals to obscure a handful of minor issues, this is definitely no brainless blockbuster. Soule and his collaborators mix high-octane action with plenty of clever character moments and almost every example of both feels thoughtful and sincere.
Astonishing X-Men is something of a special title in a franchise full of special titles, but somehow this one lives up to the hype. Welcome home, X-fans.