X-Men #1 [Advance Review]
X-Men #1 (Marvel): Brian Wood and Olivier Coipel deliver the long-anticipated re-launch of X-Men #1. I know, I know, there have been many X-Men re-launches over the years, but this issue immediately distinguishes itself as something special amid the complex morass of the mutant publishing effort. Wood and Coipel are able to quickly tap directly into what makes the X-Men such a primal concept in the industry. They facilitate our ability to identify with a group of disenfranchised outsiders forming a family unit willing to go to the mattresses for each other at a moment’s notice time and time again. Like the story involving Gabriel Shepard and the proto-mutants in his prior X-Men run with David Lopez, Wood also seems fascinated by the very origins of the species, here returning to a story of origins featuring John Sublime. For those not totally steeped in X-Men lore (no shame if you’re not, I had to look this up myself), Sublime was created by Grant Morrison and is essentially a highly evolved sentient bacterium that inhabits host bodies. He’s incredibly powerful and evolved in tandem as the mutants began to evolve into being; he may have even been directly involved in the rise of mutants and subsequent societal perception of them. The catalyst for this story seems to be that Sublime isn’t alone. No. There is another. Sister. He has a twin sister. Sorry to back door my way into some Star Wars dialogue, but it’s not a bad segue to something that Brian Wood fans will hopefully notice.
This treatment for the X-Men has some strategic similarities to what Wood is doing on another high profile company owned property at the moment, namely Star Wars over at Dark Horse. (Now that I mention it, you could probably also apply most of this literary topos to Conan The Barbarian). Think about it at a high level. He’s working on a decades old property that’s become a household name through multimedia saturation. He’s hitting lots of nostalgia buttons for a very rabid and very vocal fan base by re-focusing on the inclusion of some of their most beloved characters. Yet, he’s still able to keep it fresh and exciting by doing some world-building of his own within a very well-established universe. He’s including several strong female protagonists which feel like organic extensions of pre-existing characterization, in a fashion that in no way threatens the male characters and their status in the canon. Yet, he’s still enduring some questionably motivated fanboy fury (overly purist, blatantly sexist, generally change-resistant, or whatever) over these progressive creative decisions. It’s like, sorry fellas, but you don’t specifically hire Brian Wood to maintain the storytelling status quo and just put two big-muscled males in a room and let them pound each other into submission. Rebel Alliance or Children of the Atom, I’d rather see something different. I’d rather see Leia running black ops. I’d rather see Rachel and Psylocke interrogating John Sublime.
The issue itself opens with the exciting rush of a meteor falling to Earth and some foreboding voiceover which taps into the nature vs. nurture divide, while positioning science and tech-forward thinking as a central conceit of the story, because there will always be social relevance in a Brian Wood joint. Before the two converge in a dire cliffhanger, this thread segues to another thread featuring Jubilation Lee (that’s our beloved SoCal orphan mallrat, Jubilee) on the run with a baby, which seems to possess some strange technological powers as revealed in the art initially. Jubilee is running halfway across the globe and looking to the school as something of a safe house, and her running to ground is an important bit of characterization in itself. Jubilee reads like the intelligent young person she is. Despite her surface attitude and fashion sense, she’s not an airhead. Now, I haven’t kept tabs on her during the whole vampire debacle, but she seems more mature and capable. Maybe she’s grown in the last few years as a result of her experiences, or maybe this is just Wood’s take on her, but she’s certainly not a damsel in distress. She’s not freaking out; she’s processing her surroundings and making tactical judgment calls. She knows enough about basic tradecraft to know when she’s being followed. She’s not helpless, but she is smart enough to know when she needs help, and that’s an important distinction to make when you’re writing female characters and want to avoid the cliché archetypes of the uber-competent assassin or the classic princess awaiting her savior. Jubilee’s on neither end of that polar spectrum, but somewhere in the realistic middle.
There’s characterization like that permeating the entire issue. I like little things like the way Kitty says to Jubilee regarding the baby “he’s cute, Jubes.” That innocuous little shorthand nickname flourish is exactly how these two young females who’ve known each other for years would engage in friendly banter. I like the way John Sublime speaks about humans. It’s detached. He’s been walking among them, even living as one for years, but he most certainly is not one. In fact, his entire introduction is off-type and subverts reader expectations. He doesn’t mustache-twirl behind the scenes. He doesn’t kidnap Jubilee. He doesn’t attack the school. He walks right up like John Doe, kneels calmly, interlaces his fingers behind his head, and he surrenders in order to avoid a confrontation and efficiently get his greater point across. Hell, he probably isn’t even the ostensible “villain” in this story. Wood is usually pretty careful not to throw around those black and white labels and offers more multi-dimensional characters. This brings us to the greater threat, a hybrid entity ultimately calling itself “Arkea Prime.” John Sublime refers to it as his “sister” and later says that he alone can’t stop “her.” Jubilee and Kitty refer to the baby the entity inhabits as a “he.” Wood also refers to the baby as a “he” in the lettercol. By the end of the issue, the entity inhabits the body of what appears to be a female. I don’t think any of this she/he gender fluidity is by chance. Perhaps this entity is evolved beyond the point of gender, perhaps Wood is making some anticipatory meta-comment regarding backlash, or perhaps it’s all just simply dependent on the host body. It’s just an observation for now. Suffice it to say, someone as powerful as John Sublime yelling “The infant! Secure the infant!” is intense. If this guy is freaking out, it must be bad.
With all this talk of characterization, new directions, and bold storytelling choices, I hope you don’t get the impression that it’s devoid of action. The creative team doesn’t devote the introductory issue to set-up alone; there’s satisfying action that’s also choreographed smartly. Not only do things go boom real good, but it also allows every member of the team a little moment to shine, introducing them, their powers, and their personalities. The entire book does that, so whether you had to wiki John Sublime or not, whether this is your first X-Men comic for a while or forever, there’s an accessibility here to the cast, to their place in the world, and to the mysterious threat that’s literally brought to their doorstep, which is sometimes sorely lacking in the X-Men’s generally convoluted continuity. In fact, if you judge this book by what it sets out to do in terms of stated objectives, which is a fairly common business methodology, it succeeds on all fronts. Wood reveals in the lettercol that the team intended to provide a “high action” and “plot dense” story. He may have even thrown the word “iconic” around. When you throw in the visually striking work of Olivier Coipel on top of Wood’s rich script and robust character work, the very first issue is already satisfying the results rubric.
Speaking of Coipel, his art here gives off a few different vibes, all of which I enjoyed, all of which truly belong. There were a couple instances when it reminded me of Chris Bachalo’s edgy work, especially his recent effort with the general design of Rachel and the sense of presence she oozes. There were times that it had the smooth high gloss of John Cassaday (Astonishing X-Men being the last time an X-Men re-launch was really stellar), especially the opening scenes of the meteor (due in no small part to the talent of Laura Martin on color). But, most noticeable for me is what felt like an aesthetic nod to old-school Jim Lee in places. There’s that level of granular detail, pencil precision, and artistic consistency filling these pages. It made me think of some of that early Jim Lee work, of the halcyon days of the X-Men, featuring some of these very same people. If you’re going to do an X-Men book, with these characters, a subtle stylistic nod to Jim Lee’s influence is far from the worst thing you could capture. That balance of respecting the past, but transcending it seems to fuel the book. It doesn’t matter if it’s the seemingly simple inclusion of Grand Central Station or Psylocke’s striking psychic bow as she’s perched atop the school. The former taps that nostalgia button, calling back to the period of time when Kitty was first introduced and the gang would take frequent trips into NYC. The latter offering a modern interpretation of Betsy Braddock’s powers. To Coipel’s credit, the end result is a visual mixture of classic looks and new stylistic elements, which tonally syncs up with what Wood’s writing is channeling. That’s the definition of a perfect match.
Jubilee. Kitty. Rachel. Storm. Rogue. Psylocke. So, sure, it’s largely an all-female cast. But, I guess I never noticed? I mean, who cares? I don’t understand the objection. It’s not like these six women are locked in a story vacuum and never interact with males. Brian Wood has hinted that other females may join. I saw Pixie. I’m sure some fans will want X-23. I saw a whole bunch of other characters too. I saw Beast. They mentioned Wolverine. But, again, who really cares? None of those individual choices inherently make or break a story. First and foremost, I hope I speak for everyone when I say that I want a well-told story with striking art, regardless of property or characters. I don’t really care if the characters happen to be heroes or villains, mutants or non-mutants, young or old, classics or new creations, males or females. If for some reason you really want an exclusive sausage-fest, there are plenty of other X-Men books out there to choose from. There are plenty of other male dominated superhero books to choose from in general. This is no gimmick. It’s the X-Men. It’s a compelling story. It’s visually memorable. It’s great characters. They happen to be women. There’s so many other things swirling around in this premise that if you specifically notice the low percentage of men, fixate on that, and are disturbed by it, well, there’s probably another deep-seeded reason for that reaction, regardless of the content of the book. Besides, in most professional endeavors, if you’re not pissing someone off, you’re probably not doing a very good job in the first place.
It’s another random observation, but I noticed that this story segment entitled “Primer” is part 1 of 3. It makes me wonder how long the initial and forthcoming arcs will be. Wood has been experimenting to some degree with shorter more crisp and dense three-issue arcs over at Dark Horse on both The Massive and Conan The Barbarian. Instead of the tendency toward decompression that sort of came and went in the last 15 years or so, this three-issue approach is a tendency toward the opposite, toward being very compressed, well beyond the density of typical 5 or 6 issue story arcs currently being collected in comics. In those other books, Wood’s been following the old screenwriter’s adage of getting into scenes as late as possible and getting out as early as possible, not wasting time, cinching up words and actions, leaving a lot of activity occurring between the panels in the gutters, forcing the reader to participate in the process in order to provide closure via the tertiary information delivery system that combines words and art, in the interactive way that Scott McCloud articulated in Understanding Comics. So, I’m just curious to see how that would play out in X-Men.
Well, three years have already passed since I declared that “Brian Wood is the voice of our generation” after going back to read and analyze his entire body of work. It goes without saying that I will always prefer creator-owned projects as a general guideline, but hey, I’ve always liked the X-Men. It’s also very rewarding to see someone who has put in years of hard work earn a high profile project that will ideally lead to greater recognition of his unique talent and draw attention to his entire catalog. For as good as projects like X-Men and Star Wars are, you’d be missing the real gems by ignoring works like The Massive, DMZ, or Northlanders, just to name a few relatively recent examples without digging terribly deep into the Brian Wood library. I certainly hope that next year’s Eisner Award Judges are paying closer attention to his stellar bibliography and the momentum being sustained across multiple genres. X-Men is another perfect debut in a robust mixture of creator owned and company owned projects that displays the versatility and potency of a modern master. Grade A+.