With several X-Men books currently running, it surprised me to find another X-title being put into the mix.
But coming aboard for a X-Men book helmed by Charles Soule was a no-brainer: and the re-launched Astonishing X-Men title fully justified itself more or less immediately.
Astonishing X-Men #1 (or ‘Life of X, Part One’) kicks off like a fast-paced heist movie or something.
It is dynamic and quick-moving, with each set of panels introducing different characters in their different locations and respective situations: Psylocke in London, Bishop in the British Museum, Gambit and Fantomex carrying out a heist at the Louvre in Paris, and Rogue and Logan in the Blackbird over the Atlantic.
Each character introduction – and set of panels – establishes what they’re each doing, but also provides meaningful text that manages to be both brief and substantive somehow. It really is a very effective, winning way to open a new book.
What quickly brings all the different, disparate characters together as a psychic distress call from Psylocke in London – at which point everyone heads to the source to find out what’s going on. What’s stunning is that all of this happens in just the first five or six pages – it’s so fast-paced, and yet it doesn’t feel rushed or like it’s glossing over anything.
While the action briefly converges on London around Psylocke, we build ultimately to the revelation that the Shadow King is behind the attack on – or co-opting of – telepaths and psychics.
Psylocke, using her powers, sends the motley gathering of ‘X-Men’ into the astral plane to find and confront the Shadow King. Aside from an obvious quota of mumbo-jumbo, this is all fun, interesting stuff. I haven’t seen the Shadow King in a while – he’s supposed to be dead too.
But what’s really the winning ingredient here is seeing this set of characters come together, seeing Betsy take the lead, and having them go into a situation in which they’re up against a classic, sophisticated X-Men villain.
This has all the potential to become the best X-Men book on the market right now. X-Men Gold (see review here) has gotten pretty strong as it has gone along, but this Astonishing X-Men title – with this group of characters – could easily become the present standard-bearer.
I love having two of my absolute favorites – Rogue and Psylocke – take a prominent place.
I love seeing Psylocke in a prominent position – which is also why I loved the last Uncanny X-Men run (review here). I love seeing Rogue back on X-Men duty. I generally love Rogue/Logan material.
Meanwhile, having Gambit on a team with Rogue again opens things up again. Add Hank McCoy (but not really – more on that shortly) into the mix and you’ve got a potentially winning formula. The others – Archangel, Fantomex and Bishop – I could leave or take; but, all in all, this feels right and promises much.
If X-Men Gold is the current ‘nostalgia’ book, calling back to early 90s X-Men, Astonishing X-Men has a sense of that vibe too, though perhaps not as pronounced.
Also – as if all of that wasn’t enough – Astonishing X-Men #1 hits us with a mega revelation at the end: that Charles Xavier is on the astral plane with the Shadow King.
If Astonishing X-Men #1 set things up with great style, Astonishing X-Men #2 takes a left-turn into the more surreal and cerebral. And it’s pretty fantastic.
Details like having the deceased Jamie Madrox appear on the astral plane as our heroes are treated to a cinema presentation of ‘The Life of X’ is one of the most enjoyably absurd things we’ve seen in an X-book for a while. It’s genuinely funny watching Rogue, Logan and co sat in a theatre, watching a production re-enacting old X-Men stories (particularly Rogue and Gambit watching a cheesy depiction of their own romantic history).
We also find the Shadow King and Professor X engaged in a psychic chess game of sorts, with the characters as their pawns and pieces. Clearly a battle of wits is playing out between the two minds on the astral plane and our characters are caught – unknowingly – in the midst of it.
I really like this set-up, which lends itself to some interesting psychological material, as well as being generally a rich – if slightly esoteric – premise.
The idea of two big intellects – Professor X and Amahl Farouk – literally competing across a games board for the souls of these characters is fascinating. The stakes are well established here: if Farouk wins, he gains control of both the characters’ souls on the astral plane and of their earthly bodies in our world.
Meanwhile Xavier, we’re told, will win by killing the characters in order to save them.
This is genuinely absorbing stuff, sublimely presented to us in both visual and story terms.
It’s also fun watching the characters gradually trying to work out what’s going on, as they begin to recognise they’re in an illusion. There are great twists and turns too; if I was caught off-guard by the initial revelation of Professor X’s presence, the emergence of Mystique caught me even more unawares. She’d been there all along – in another guise, of course – but I hadn’t clocked onto that at all.
In general, while the stuff going on in the astral plane is much more interesting and entertaining than what’s going in London, I also do get a kick out of seeing my home town be so prominent in this story – I’m silly like that, but watching Psylocke and co in London is a novelty for me.
One of the pleasures of Astonishing X-Men #3 is seeing Logan make his way through the astral plane and Farouk’s traps with almost comedic single-mindedness. But this book is thriving on its twists and turns, and we learn that Professor X has sacrificed Logan to the Shadow King.
Astonishing X-Men #4 is complicated, with a lot of cutting back and forth between different elements: Rogue and Gambit and Mystique and Fantomex are in different ‘places’ on the astral plane, while Logan has awaken in real-world London under the control of the Shadow King and is taking people over while Psylocke and co try to stop him.
The image of Mystique and Fantomex more or less naked on a beach (with Fantomex seemingly applying lotion to her) is unintentionally funny or farcical – it just doesn’t look right (for one thing, having Fantomex naked except for his face-mask looks dumb). While the idea of a Mystqie/Fantomex affair seems alright, it doesn’t quite come across right here.
On the other hand, the Rogue/Gambit material fares better, maybe we have more of a history with these two.
We learn, at the end, that Professor X has had to sacrifice Gambit, the same as he did Logan. Shadow King himself doesn’t appear here at all: but we are well aware of what’s going on – though if you read this issue without having read the previous chapters, you would be one very confused soul indeed.
Astonishing X-Men #4 might be the weakest entry yet – but, as a chapter in this chain of episodes, it does its job.
Astonishing X-Men #5 is better. We get much more background here, as Charles explains to Rogue and the others how he survived in the afterlife – essentially the story of what became of Xavier after his death and how the current situation came to pass.
It isn’t clear to me at this stage whether there are any imminent plans to brings Professor X back to life (as in physically back to life in the everyday sense): but the idea of having him continue to be an invisible presence on the astral plane (‘alive’ to us as readers) is something I’m very comfortable with and would be happy to see for a long time yet.
The whole premise here – of Charles and the Shadow King being engaged in an endless contest on the astral plane, where the power of the mind and imagination is everything – is rich and fruitful. There’s a fabulous idea here (and a fabulous visual too) of Charles unleashing a battlefield army of his X-Men on the astral plane to confront Farouk’s ‘forces’ (the image of the army of Colossuses and Wolverines is terrific).
Cleverly, we also find that Charles is having a private conversation with Fantomex at the same time as he is telling his story to Rogue and Mystique: the way this is presented, with scenes and panels more or less side-by-side, is confusing the first time you read it. But once it makes sense, it’s a very interesting read.
We also have Gambit unleashed in London as Farouk’s slave, with random people being taken over in a zombie-like state as Psylocke, Bishop and Archangel try to contain the situation.
Astonishing X-Men #6 brings this first arc to a close with the conclusion of the contest against the Shadow King.
It also gives us another major cliffhanger twist at the end, this one involving Professor X and Fantomex. Clearly, the Shadow King arc – which has been very good – is only the beginning of this journey, with lots of surprises and twists to come.
The distinguishing feature of Astonishing X-Men #6 is the foray into Mike Del Mundo’s distinctive art style, which makes for an interesting change in visuals. Del Mundo’s very particular style – especially familiar from the pages most recently of Avengers (review here) – imparts this story a different feel to the previous chapters (not that Jim Cheung‘s art wasn’t perfectly good in its own right).
Astonishing X-Men is a must-read for any X-Men fans. It is also possibly the best X-book out there at the moment: only X-Men Gold can contend with it for quality. A bad-ass character mix (I mean, seriously – Rogue, Psylocke, Mystique?) ensures superb dynamics, while Charles Soule’s writing and ideas guarantees an absorbing ride.