There is debatably no bigger crossover event than a DC Crisis. Sure, we’ve more than outshone it in terms of tie-in issues, but “Crisis on Infinite Earths” remains synonymous with what an event should be due to its scale and execution. So it should tell you something that the latest series of EXiles effectively starts in the middle of Crisis and immediately goes about trying to solve it with one C-List X-Man and whoever her cosmic jewelry can find.
EXiles #1 is rather efficiently summed up by the relationship between the first two major players we meet, Blink and the Unseen. Writer Saladin Ahmed shows a lovely respect for Nick Fury, in his Unseen role as well as his Howling Commando and Man on the Wall incarnations, using him to deliver some good old fashioned cosmic comic exposition. Fury sets the stage wonderfully, establishing just how massive this issue’s plot is, but it’s Blink that makes it work.
“Reality itself is threatened and yet you jest,” the Unseen demands, but Blink has an answer for him.
“People have been trying to kill me since I was a kid, mister. Acting pouty doesn’t make it any better.”
And that’s EXiles. A book with impossibly grim stakes that simply refuses to give up laughing.
It also really helps that that laughter and joy is handled in just the right way to avoid devaluing those stakes. Kang the Conqueror shows up late in the issue, overblown and ineffective, but you never feel like you’re supposed to laugh at him. Likewise the intense seriousness of Khan and the petty lightness of Iron lad’s revenge are written in a way that points out their excesses but never asks you to feel superior to them.
From top to bottom, Ahmed’s cleverness is an essential selling point of the book. From Khan’s inventive use for her powers to the odd but effective introduction of an Iron Lad bullied, EXiles is overflowing with clever ideas that are given room to breathe without any sense of the writer sabotaging his pacing or patting himself on the back. Perhaps one of the strongest moments is the Unseen’s argument that the non-interference that we’ve taught ourselves to value in multiverse tales is merely omission bias, a logical fallacy that values complacency over risk. Whether or not the line will hold its power is unknowable, but it’s rarely felt as timely or convincing and it makes for a compelling pitch for the team, even once the immediate threat has passed.
While Ahmed’s call to imagine a better Marvel multiverse rings true, some of his choices feel odd. Leaving Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie to draw readers back next issue was smart, but, at least personally, none of the other team members feel like major draws. Iron Lad? Sure he opens doors through the complexity of Kang, but Iron Men need a compelling man in the suit and, so far, Nate doesn’t do much compared to Rhodey or Pepper Potts. Khan? I don’t know about you but I’m so tired of evolving races on the brink of extinction and Inhuman-Mutant wars. Letting Ahmed put his own spin on Ms. Marvel sounds wonderful, but, though I trust his instincts, making Ms. Marvel grizzled and cynical sounds like the perfect way to waste her character on paper.
Part of the reason these characters don’t overcome my initial disinterest is because we don’t get much time to see them in their natural habits. Much as I’m fine not getting the finer details of how Khan rules a ravaged Jersey City, there’s very little to grab onto there. When Khan is taken away from her people there’s very little for readers to find sympathetic because we know next to nothing about any of them. In the long term, an EXiles series will likely be judged on how well it can show us fascinating reflections of the Marvel Universe and, for the moment, the book doesn’t try, focusing on putting together a team.
Still, despite these few weaknesses, the last page holds an incredibly simple reveal that will more than likely pull you back a month from now.
Javier Rodriguez is our artist and he delivers striking layouts and plenty of emotion, especially given his uncluttered drawing style. I don’t think there’s a page in this book that doesn’t do something interesting with how the panels are arranged in one form or another, and the most ambitious among them are really something to look at. Admittedly there are one or two where either the layout or the balloon placements are a little confusing, but it’s usually a question of which of two panels to read first and neither choice seriously affects the experience.
Rodriguez utilizes a flat, minimal style supported by full lines and pointed shading, courtesy of Alvaro Lopez and Jordie Bellaire. The result is an impressively specific look that doesn’t feel overdrawn. Despite this, it’s not a perfect experiment by any means. There are numerous, if not quite frequent, minor issues with anatomy and perspective that can either distract or subtly unbalance a panel. It’s also noticeable that the rounder, metallic shapes of Iron Lad’s armor are not quite in line with the other characters. It’s possible that Rodriguez is doing this intentionally, to demonstrate the different universes that these characters come from, but the change between Nate’s look in and out of his armor hurts that defense.
Still, Rodriguez’s ‘acting’ is pretty great. Whether there’s a minor perspective cheat in the background of a panel is insignificant compared to whether you know what emotion the artist is aiming for and, in that, there’s no question that Rodriguez succeeds. Perhaps one of the best examples of his thoughtfulness is how he draws Khan, aging Ms. Marvel up in a way that hardens her appearance to suit this story while still letting her facial structure shine through.
Marvel, to be honest, does not feel like it’s in the best place as a company. The publisher that strove to be honest and relatable has grown distant, trying to guess what its readership wants. It seems like Marvel is playing it safe. EXiles is the cure.
A grand yet personal multiversal adventure with a diverse cast and fantastic heart, EXiles is exactly the kind of book that fans ask for. Saladin Ahmed uses the reality jumping nature of his assignment to explore classic Marvel concepts in a new way and with the same mixture of reverence and irreverence that made the company a powerhouse. Some books try to hide from real world building, fearing that it will alienate new readers, but EXiles sees that as the perfect way to make new readers and spins its stories to make them feel at home. With brilliant layouts and gripping characters, EXiles makes a big impression. Like crawfish and a West Indian accent, it feels like coming home.
EXiles #1 is currently available in comic shops from Marvel Comics.