All-New, All-Different

I've been reading X-Men comics for a long time. Not as long as some people, of course: I'm barely as old as that massive selling #1 written by Claremont and drawn by Lee, but I've been reading X-Men comics a long time. Long enough that, when I started almost a decade ago, a mediocre writer given to melodrama, Chuck Austen, was writing Uncanny, a certain mad Scot named Morrison was writing New X-Men, and Chris Claremont, a man whose name is probably more closely tied to the group than any other, was writing a book titled (horrifically) X-Treme X-Men. It was, for sure, an odd time for Xavier's merry mutants: the three mainline books were vastly different from one another in not only tone and style, but also in quality. Although I've learned to love Morrison's take above all others from the period, in the moment I loved Austen's Uncanny the best: it had my favorite characters. Now I understand the book to be basically incomprehensible but, when I was thirteen, Austen had me. I loved the melodrama; I loved Angel's angst, I loved that Juggernaut was on the team, I even loved that storyline where Nightcrawler joins the priesthood, only to discover that he was ordained by a bunch of anti-mutant psychos.

All of this is to say, basically, that I'm pretty invested in the X-Men. Except for a two year period during high school, I've been buying and reading X comics pretty consistently for the last nine years; certainly, behind Captain America, they are the major superhero franchise I care about the most and, although I've come close a few times, I've never quite managed to quit them, although I did narrow my purchases from three books to just Uncanny. The last few years have been trying, to say the least, because the writing (from the two writers I hold above all others as the paragons of quality in mainstream superhero comics, Brubaker and Fraction) has been uneven at best and because I was forced to endure the art of Greg Land for a full half of the issues (of course, that the Dodsons did the other half was one of the reasons I hung on for as long as I did). Then, Kieron Gillen took over the book from Fraction and things started to change a little bit. There wasn't a major uptick in quality, at least not immediately, but the books certainly felt different.

And then Schism, a mini with two brilliant ideas and an editorially mandated ending that went on two issues too long, hit.

All the sudden Jason Aaron, he of one of the great crime comics of all time, Scalped, and a Ghost Rider series that is supposed to be very good, despite have been read been read by precisely no one, was writing a book called Wolverine and the X-Men and Gillen was writing a renumbered Uncanny. Despite my distaste for the renumbering, and my ultimate dismissal of the status quo setting mini as utter crap, I have never been more excited to be reading the X-Men.

Let me be very clear about why: both books are hilobrow pop art at their best. This is most obviously true of Aaron's Wolverine and the X-Men: Chris Bachalo's art is, of course, the key here. Bachalo's art is highly stylized, and there's no one in the industry who draws anything like it. The figures are reduced to their necessary components; there are no lines out of place, no extraneous muscles. Visually, the book is to the point, yet, it is, because it uses only those distractions (like the occasional benday dots) that add to the books overall style, incredibly detailed. In terms of story telling, Bachalo uses what we might call functional form; when things are calm, so are the layouts. When things get a little more madcap, the panels go a little crazy. He gets points, too, for his colors, which are understated without being drab; it would have been an easy out to go garish, but instead the book has a dreamy, almost water colored look. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, his designs are fantastic. Although no one receives a serious overhaul, everybody looks just a little bit different, and brilliantly so. In particular, what he's done with Quentin Quire and Beast stands out: the choice to go full throttle on Quire's punk streak is welcome, as is the t-shirt with the red exclamation point, the one he wears underneath his school uniform. As for Beast, well, I don't think I've ever seen such a compact vision of the character, bristling with kinetic energy.

If it sounds like there's a lot going on, there is: in contrast to the slow, melodramatic pacing he's employing on Incredible Hulk, Aaron just sort of throws everything out on the table here and, somewhat miraculously, everything works. There are a hundred ideas going a thousand miles an hour inside Wolverine and the X-Men, and each one is better than the last. The characterizations of Quire and Beast stand out here, too, and I suspect that they're the two to watch the most closely. The additions of an arrogant Shi'ar prince, a mutant born of the Brood and some miniature Nightcrawler-looking things to the cast add just the right amount of mysterious and intriguing to make the whole thing feel worth the energy it takes to read. This is a mad book, which takes its cues from Grant Morrison's time with the extended mutant family; it is, in this way, the inheritor of the best X-Men run of the last twenty years, and maybe of all time. If Aaron can sustain both the energy and the coherence of his first issue over his whole run, he might give Morrison his only proper challenge.

That said, Uncanny is the most exciting its been in a really long time. Kieron Gillen really kicks it into gear with the title's first #1 since the sixties: where Aaron's book is wild, though, this one is reigned in. Although some writers would take the opportunity, when writing a team book with a team that's half ex-supervillains, to do something utterly incomprehensible or suffocatingly moralistic, Gillen makes Cyclops' vision for his team just Machiavellian enough for the enterprise to make sense; it helps that his characterization of Cyclops as the military leader of a sovereign state, inherited from Fraction but perfected since then, is spot on. The rest of the team feels right, too: Magneto, Namor and Emma are, perhaps rightfully, arrogant; Storm's humble power is striking; Colossus and Magik are convincingly tortured. Dr. Nemesis and Danger, two characters who sometimes get short-shrift because they have gone relatively undeveloped except as plot devices, get some of the book's best moments. This is a team book at its best, controlled, except the one place it shouldn't be, that is, the villain, and Mr. Sinister here is a perfect counterpoint to Cyclops and his Extinction team.

Although I've been really impressed with Carlos Pacheco's art in the past, here, despite its few flaws, there's something stopping it from transcending from mere high-quality into a kind of brilliance. There's nothing wrong with it, per se, but I do sense that Pacheco is holding back a little bit, perhaps mirroring the control of the writer. I wish he would let loose a little bit; it's a good time to be reading the X-Men, in part because there's nothing conservative about either of the line's new books. If Pacheco begins to take the same chances that Gillen, Aaron and Bachalo have, we could have another brilliant new book on our hands.

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