The biggest problem with “Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes” #1 isn’t the content. It’s the lack of content. At $3.99, you’d expect more than 16 pages of story, and rightfully so, but 16 pages is all you’re going to get. To fill out the rest of the issue, Marvel provides Warren Ellis’s script for this issue, but it’s not particularly illuminating. It does little more than describe, briefly, the panels we’ve just read. Alan Moore, he is not (although at one point, Ellis writes, “We’re doing steampunk X-Men here. So everything is very lush with polished woods an leather and all, everything is extremely designed in that fin de siecle style. J#### C##### [sic], I’m turning into Alan Moore.” Hardly.)
The 16 pages of story content is actually filled with interesting stuff. I quotes the steampunk bit above, so let’s talk about the second of the two 8-pagers first. While the first one is drawn by Alan Davis, the second is painted by Adi Granov, and though I’ve never much appreciated his sepia mannequins in the past, I have to admit that his work here is quite good. The Granov-illustrated tale takes place, apparently, on Earth-889, a “pre-digital culture” with their own version of the familiar X-Men team. The story, narrated by a very proper and Victorian Emma Frost, retells many of the same plot details from Ellis’s first “Astonishing X-Men” issue a few months ago: an investigation, a burning man, mysterious clues. Only in this steampunk version we get 100% more zeppelins, which is never a bad thing.
As to how the X-Men team members differ in this steampunk incarnation, well, Wolverine wears goggles and a vest and the Beast has a pocket watch. Otherwise, the characters look and act almost the same as the versions you know and love.
What’s the point of this alternate reality version of the team, then? I’m not exactly sure. It has something to do with the “Ghost Boxes” of the title, which tie this two-issue spin-off comic to the main Warren Ellis/Simone Bianchi series. Ghost Boxes open portals to parallel worlds, and that’s what this issue shows us, as even the Alan Davis-drawn opening story reveals “Deathlok-class security units” which seem to show a battered Magneto operating the mechanical hearts of some Sentinel robots. Ellis doesn’t explain much — or not much that makes any sense — and when Agent X-13 describes how “Earth-616 was annexed by the weekend, and processing has begun,” we don’t really know what he’s talking about. There are certainly a lot of implications in this issue and very few concrete answers.
If you can get past the ridiculously high price for so few story pages, you’ll find a lot of interesting ideas and fantastic visuals packed into this comic. But its brevity adds to its feeling of incompleteness, and I don’t know what Ellis has planned for the second (and final) issue, but I hope it does more than just provide intriguing windows into alternate superhero realms.