Current Reviews


Astonishing X-Men #26

Posted: Tuesday, August 12, 2008
By: Paul Brian McCoy/Dave Wallace

Warren Ellis
Simone Bianchi (p & i), Andrea Silvestri (i), Simone Peruzzi (colours)
Marvel Comics
Editor's Note: Astonishing X-Men #26 arrives in stores tomorrow, August 13.

Paul Brian McCoy: 4.5 Bullets
Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets

Paul Brian McCoy: 4.5 Bullets

I'm going to get a few things off my chest here, if you don't mind.

I think Warren Ellis is the most consistently brilliant writer working in comics today. He's matched only by Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Garth Ennis. I put him at the top of the list because Moore, while great, comes up a little short for me in the arena of original characters, instead focusing on reinterpretations of concepts and characters that have come before. Ennis sometimes can veer a little too far into shock value writing for my tastes. Morrison would be tied with Ellis on my list, but I'm just not digging his mainstream work of late, skipping 52 entirely and just kind of tolerating Batman. That said, The Invisibles is my favorite series of all time.

Now all of that is entirely subjective, I know. But Warren Ellis is the only writer I've read who has never let me down (cue dreamy David Bowie song). Regardless of how successful the outcome of a project might be, there is always something worth looking at or some original angle taken that makes the work worth my time. Even his brief run on Doctor Strange had a few moments that were so good I was highly amused when Ellis recycled them for the launch of Transmetropolitan (if you don't know what I'm talking about, consider it a contest and go try to figure it out).

Now, when it comes to the X-Men, I've only ever enjoyed three runs enough to collect them: The classic Claremont and Byrne era, give or take a few issues on each end of their collaboration. That was the first comic series I ever collected obsessively. Next was Grant Morrison's three year saga, which was the title that brought me back to Marvel comics for good (so far). And now the Ellis and Bianchi run.

(I suppose in the name of transparency I should admit that I bought and read all of the Whedon/Cassaday run, but to be quite honest, I didn't like them all that much. I know, that's blasphemy to some, but while it looked gorgeous and the characterizations were damn near perfect, there wasn't a good story in the lot (and I'm a full-fledged Buffy and Angel fan). Come beat me up on the boards if you feel you must, but every one of those stories was ridiculous. Breakworld and a giant bullet? Please.)

I guess you could say I'm predisposed to love Ellis and Bianchi's Astonishing X-Men. I have to admit that I was surprised by the generally positive response to their first issue. I remember the wave of hostility when Morrison took over and remade the book in his own image, and was expecting the same type of uproar, as this version of the X-Men is like nothing that's come before. So you made me happy, comics readers (now if we could just do something about the Final Crisis bitching!!), I am proud to be one of you on this day.

The single thing that Ellis does that makes him my favorite working writer is what makes me so excited about this iteration of the X-Men. He takes science fiction concepts and makes them believable by working through their real-world implications. And the science fiction concepts he utilizes are the most cutting edge and speculative in comics. Hell, in any writing, actually. But that's just one aspect of his work. He is also able to present ideas that are, again, believable, but at the same time, are so far out there that there's rarely a time when I can predict where a story is going.

Examples of both of these elements in the current story are the third set of chromosomes that characterize the artificial mutations, the spaceship graveyard, and the Ghost Box itself. There's a subtle elegance to this approach to creating new mutants that was lacking in the old "hack-and-slash" version of this theme that Morrison used. Instead of the cutting and pasting of mutant powers onto ordinary humans, Ellis has introduced a believable pseudo-scientific approach that creates a very real sense of verisimilitude. It means our bad guys are smart and rich and all the more scary.

Chaparanga Beach is just a brilliant concept, given the level of extraterrestrial interaction Marvel Earth has had over the years. It is apparently inspired by a real ship graveyard somewhere (perhaps in Indonesia as well?) and provides the setting for this entire issue. If last issue was all talk, this one is, well, there's a lot of talk here too, but it's so good. In fact, this is the first time that I've actually bought into Scott's new "kill or be killed" philosophy as something more than just a marketing gimmick. When he and Ororo discuss the rationale for using lethal force, it actually sounds--again with that word--believable.

And the Ghost Box which gives our story its name. I have no clue what it is. I have some ideas, but if the accuracy of my guesses about Ellis' first issue of Anna Mercury are any indication, I'm completely off and whatever it really is will be much cooler and impressive than anything going on in my head. But when it is being powered up, little Greek-looking columns appear out of the air alongside a number of tiny humanoid forms, also apparently created out of electricity or ether or who-knows-what? Link that image to our pyrokine saying that they "can't stop the Annex" just before, um, well, that would be a spoiler, I guess, but something very strange and very bizarre is going on.

It looks like we're talking alternate dimensions of reality or something like that, and I'm not sure who's annexing who at this point, but I really want to read more.

I don't know a lot about Simone Bianchi, but when I opened up that first issue of Seven Soldiers: The Shining Knight, my jaw dropped. I knew at that moment that Bianchi was someone to watch. And while I didn't read his run on Wolverine, every page I saw from it was a work of art. His work here is even better.

There was a lot of griping about the darkness of the art in the last issue, some understandable, but some was a bit on the whiny side. Regardless, this issue the brightness has been turned up (visually, if not thematically), and Bianchi's design work, both in the narrative and in the page layouts themselves, is just beautiful to behold. Yes, he uses photo references and lightboxes elements of his work, making some panels seem a bit stiff or staged. Yes, the page layouts are excessively stylized without really furthering the storytelling. But nearly every page is worthy of framing.

And that ship! If the X-Men were being published as a serial in Heavy Metal (or Metal Hurlant, depending on your country of origin), this is exactly what it would look like. Breakworld and a giant bullet, indeed. Um, did I say that already? Sorry. Anyway, this is what Ridley Scott's or Alejandro Jordorowsky's X-Men film would look like, with Moebius and Geiger providing inspiration for the ships, costuming, and lighting. I can't praise it any higher than that. This is what real science fiction looks like on the comics page. Annihilation: Conquest and Sinestro Corps War can suck it.

But this quality comes at a price, it seems. It looks like after we hit part three next month, there's a two issue interlude called Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes to let Bianchi get more art done. From the solicits, it looks like Alan Davis will be doing the art for those two issues. Now I like Alan Davis too, and these issues will apparently fill in some detail on just what the Ghost Box is and what it does, so color me interested.

So, to sum up. Quite possibly Best X-Men Ever. I realize that making that declaration after only two issues is a little premature, but I don't care. This is what comics should be. Screw all that cliche pandering to action film story structure just to make the fanboys feel comfortable. Screw all that mass murder as mindless spectacle substituting for drama. Screw all that "it's science fiction, it doesn't have to make sense" aesthetic that substitutes plot twists for actual plot development. This is the shit, right here.

Now go out there and buy it up. Make me proud.

Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets

The second chapter of Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi's Astonishing X-Men continues the story begun in issue #25 very neatly, as the X-Men journey to Chapranga beach in search of the pyrotechnically-powered murderer from last issue.

The most striking thing about this issue is the wonderful imagery provided by Bianchi's artwork. Now that the first issue is out of the way, and we've begun to get used to his take on the X-Men themselves, we're free to focus our attention elsewhere - and Bianchi certainly provides plenty of eye-candy to enjoy. From the opening splash page of the "spaceship graveyard" on Chapranga beach, through the distinctive designs of the various vehicles involved in the story, all the way through to the issue's later explosive action scenes, there's something visually stimulating on every page - and there's also a stronger sense of dynamism here than I'm used to from such detailed artists. Bianchi is still utilising a lot of unconventional layouts that can sometimes be as distracting as they are unique, but they serve to give the book a strong visual identity, and are becoming less conspicuous the more I read them.

Ellis continues to prove that he's got a good handle on his characters, too, with some neat concepts that make good use of the team's powers in a fairly original way (such as the foreign language downloads provided by Emma Frost) and a strong sense of effective teamwork throughout. There's plenty of banter here, despite the seriousness of the situation, and it reinforces the idea that the X-Men are not only a superhero team, but also a loose, dysfunctional family with a long shared history. However, Ellis doesn't simply rehash these established inter-personal relationships, adding new elements to the mix such as the developing relationship between Wolverine and "Armor," and Cyclops' mature approach to the issue of taking lives. I'm also intrigued by the concept of the titular "Ghost Box," which comes into play in the second half of the issue.

My only major problem with the book is the pacing: it's perfectly judged on the level of Ellis' larger story, but doesn't function quite so well within the confines of a single issue. Both issues so far have lacked any real kind of punctuation at the end of the issue, with the story abruptly cut off mid-flow. The resultant impression is that this book isn't being written on an issue-to-issue basis, but as a single contiguous story that happens to get interrupted by an arbitrary break every 22 pages. As with many other monthly comic books being published today, it feels more like a serialised graphic novel than a story that will provide a satisfying reading experience on a month-to-month basis.

That said, I am greatly enjoying the story that Ellis and Bianchi are telling here. The gradual manner in which Ellis is gradually revealing elements of his plot and characters will likely work very well once this story is complete, and Bianchi's panel-to-panel and page-to-page storytelling works very well, with only a few moments that could use a little more clarity (such as Wolverine's trajectory from the beach to the spaceship on page 8). As with Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon's runs before him, Ellis has proved that it's possible to make the X-Men feel fresh, exciting, and accessible, and Bianchi's visuals are certainly worthy of such a flagship title.

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