Putting The Band Back Together For The First Time

There's a lot about these Season One books from Marvel that drives me crazy, not least of which is the use of the word "season," as if comics were like television. We've been dealing with comics being talked about in cinematic terms for forever and, now that we are at a moment when television is, and has been for a decade or more, an ascendent medium, someone has finally realized that comics-- or serial comics, at least-- are much more properly compared to television than they are to movies, so we're also going to have to deal with conversations about comics being conducted in those terms. I should also point out that, in this case, the analogy doesn't even make sense, since each "season," which implies something that must be encountered repeatedly over an extended period of time, has only a single release.


The second of these insipidly titled Season One releases is Dennis Hopeless and Jamie McKelvie's reimagining of the original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby X-Men stories. On the whole, it's pretty good, sort of exactly what you would expect from this kind of book-- cute girl joins the exclusively male X-Men, falls in love with one teammate and then another teammate falls in love with her, and then, at a critical moment and after a series of tiffs cause some rifts to form, she brings them all together, giving a critical half-time gipper speech that rouses the team to victory.

Well, except that we don't get to see them win-- Jean Grey's rousing monologue is where the story ends, and, because we know that the X-Men live to fight another day, Hopeless didn't have to find an almost certainly awesome but laughably implausible way for a bunch of barely-trained kids with powers to defeat Magneto and we're spared the inevitably syrupy sweet scenes that would follow. It's a clever trick, structurally, and the book is all the better for it; if nothing else, Hopeless knows how to play his audience's expectations and his narrative's structure against each other. The result of the fact that the book concludes its major conflict (that is, the possible dissolution of the X-Men before Beast turns blue, or Jean Grey dies twice, or Wolverine shows up) and ends before the end of the battle with Magneto is that, as a whole, the narrative feels tightly wound around one goal rather than two or three, and is much stronger for it. Some readers are almost certainly going to feel cheated by this, but they simply aren't reading the book right.

In terms of narrative content instead of narrative form, though, there's nothing particularly striking about Hopeless's writing; his characterizations are strong, sure, but they rely on foreknowledge of the traditional presentations of the characters more often than I would like; someone unfamiliar with the X-Men is likely to find them sort of half-formed. Since the purpose of these "Season One" books is to introduce old characters to new readers, this is a relatively serious flaw, and the most major one; there are more problems with the plot than just that, but most of them have to do with the fact that the story is just the right side of tropes that have been cliched since John Hughes stopped making movies. Accordingly, the writing feels sort of vaguely mediocre, even though what Hopeless does in terms of the structure of the story is fascinating.

With that said, the book is saved from the banality of the storytelling by Jamie McKelvie's art, which is so perfect for this kind of story that I can't believe neither of the major companies have employed him to do it before, although he is almost certainly aware of how good he is at it, since both his solo book Suburban Glamour and his work with Kieron Gillen on Phonogram are much more wholly interesting examples of this genre than X-Men - Season One ends up being. McKelvie, you see, has a handle on faces, and that, by itself, makes him one of the best narrative comics artists around. It's not just that his figures are perfect, and that his characters look like human beings should look, either; instead, it's how much he can do with a face because he understands that subtle differences, little lines, a slightly different curve of the mouth, can drastically change how we understand a character's emotions. McKelvie, in other words, is an empathic artist, in that he allows his reader to really see what a character is feeling the way that no other artist, particularly not any who use a cartoony rather than a photorealistic style, can accomplish. The key to this ability is his line, thin and clean, and his uncrowded compositions; although McKelvie is a master of detail (remember that splash page from Secret Avengers a few months back?), he doesn't feel the need to load every panel with it, making his compositions as geometric and, therefore, as simple as possible. That he does so much with so little is what makes Jamie McKelvie so impressive; it's a rare talent, his, and he doesn't try to do too much with it.

That's not to say that he's perfect, not by any means; his singular line makes his panels static. Since much of what he does is conversation, though, this is usually a boon rather than some kind of detriment, but it does mean that his characters don't always move like they should, so his action scenes often feel a little stiff and end up being less exciting than the writer might have been intended. He solves this problem here, for the most part, by using movement lines, which are all the more effective both because they're always perfectly straight and because they're usually contrasted with monochromatic backgrounds, which gives the illusion that the panel itself is moving at the same speed as whatever it's focusing on a certain realism that such panels usually lack. X-Men Season One, in other words, may very well be the best of McKelvie's work so far, because he's making monumental strides in dealing with the few, small, limitations that he's got.

X-Men Season One, with its beautiful art and its fun if challenging writing, is basically exactly what I was expecting, with the added bonus of a surprising, and very interesting, narrative structure; in some ways, it is pure entertainment, the exact thing that most mainstream superhero comics should strive to be. Stan, if he reads it, and Jack, if he could, would be proud.

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