“Astonishing X-Men” was conceived as a showcase for Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s X-Men. So how can Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi take something so tied to Whedon and Cassaday and inject their own vision, while still maintaining the “Astonishing X-Men” feel?
Short answer: they don’t. And the comic is all the better for it.
“Astonishing X-Men” #25 is a great superhero comic, and it’s the best X-Men comic in ages, precisely because it feels like something new. It feels like a fresh take on the characters, and it doesn’t really bear any similarity to the first twenty-five issues of this series. The cast is a bit different, the characters behave a bit differently, and they are interested in different things. This isn’t another ode to Chris Claremont. This is Warren Ellis’s X-Men, and it’s Simone Bianchi’s X-Men, and it’s quite a joy to read.
First of all, this is Bianchi’s best American work so far. He drew some nice “Wolverine” pages for Jeph Loeb, and some nice “Shining Knight” pages for Grant Morrison, but the stuff he’s doing in these pages is moody, vibrant, and startling. He stumbles once or twice by emphasizing design over storytelling, but his designs are so impressive and stylized that I don’t really care that I can’t determine exactly who’s speaking in a panel or two. The art should be in the service of the story, and it generally is, but in the case of Bianchi’s work, the art adds a grandeur and exotic elegance that raises the story to lofty heights. Bianchi and colorist Simone Peruzzi have created a new look for these characters — not just in terms of their costumes or physical characteristics, but in terms of their environment. These are science-fiction superheroes for the future — not sleek and flawless, but weighty and a bit weathered. The X-Men have rarely looked better.
The opening three-page sequence immediately marks the territory for Ellis and Bianchi. It begins with a Twitter from Hisako Ichiki, expressing unhappiness with her superhero name, “Armor.” And we see Wolverine asleep on a tree limb and the Beast singing the blues. None of this is played for laughs. These are the characters, and this is their life right now, in San Francisco, post-Messiah Complex, maybe post-Secret Invasion (they certainly don’t seem concerned with Skrulls, and I suspect this series may exist outside of traditional continuity for the time being). We also get a panel that doesn’t seem to fit. Someone getting burned by an unseen force. But that panel will have greater meaning by the end of the story, when the X-Men begin investigating a strange mutant death.
But before the X-Men turn into junior C.S.I.s — actually, that’s dismissive, and they really should be considered super-C.S.I.s — Ellis gives us spot-on character moments. Hisako and the Beast share some witty banter, Scott Summers and Emma Frost awaken from an implicitly adult evening together, and Storm arrives with the appropriate dignity of a queen (for that’s what she is now) and the appropriate humor of an old friend (for she’s that as well, at least to everyone but Emma Frost, and Ellis handles that interaction extremely well).
Basically, the issue establishes the new status quo, for Ellis and Bianchi and for the X-Men. The mutant super-team, now free from the bounds of the Xavier Academy, has multiple roles (and as this story indicates, different apparel for each), but Ellis uses the team here as investigators, as super-detectives who help solve the mystery of the strange burning corpse. Ellis makes it all seem plausible, even the Beast’s scientific explanation for the situation, and the interplay between the SFPD and the mutants. And Bianchi makes it all look astonishingly good.
Ellis and Bianchi don’t give us any shocking revelations that I could spoil here. It’s not that kind of comic book. It’s just a comic full of brilliant little bits, strongly portrayed characters, and a plot full of mystery and inevitable action.
If you somehow missed the Whedon/Cassaday run, or bailed out before the end, “Astonishing X-Men” #25 is the perfect place to jump on board. If you’ve been buying it all along, well, you don’t need to fear: Ellis and Bianchi are more than up to the task of making this one of Marvel’s premiere books.