Aaron & Bachalo's "Wolverine & the X-Men" Brings the Bwa-ha-has


Jason Aaron is channeling Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis when he writes "Wolverine and the X-Men," isn't he? The book has a very similar feel to their classic "Justice League" work. Aaron has gathered together a group of characters with long histories, traded on the readership's general knowledge of that history, and crafted a story that makes sense and propels the characters down a maddening road of unpredictability. Along the way, he doesn't waste a single panel. It's very tight comic storytelling with memorable moments, familiar tropes, and a chaotic structure. It works.

The biggest thing you have to swallow to accept this book is that Wolverine has decided to open a school for mutants and also teaches some classes. He's become an administrator as much as a fighter. Aaron handles that transition well with a nice sense of humor, but it'll be interesting to see how it plays out over the long run. Will state-mandated testing send him into a berzerker rage? I'd love to see him at a Parent-Teacher Association meeting, or the faculty/student charity basketball game. Or chaperoning the prom.

Perhaps I'm reaching to far here, though. Let's move along.

The rest is classic X-Men. The first issue is a never-ending stream of jokes about how long it will take for the newly rebuilt school to be destroyed. Professor Xavier -- he's walking again, by the way -- makes the first crack about that on page two. Two uptight state regulators are there to give the school their blessing, and you know that they're not going to like what they see, and that the mutants will need to scramble to make them happy. Once the inevitable chaos breaks out, they become even funnier. A Brood child dons glasses and takes classes. Toad is a janitor. Beast is the facilities engineer who's overworked and under-caffeinated.

Kitty Pryde is headmistress of the school and, like anyone who's reached a certain age, suddenly discovers that kids are punks and that she was one, too. There's one that hits close to home. One of the first things you'll do after having a kid is apologize to your parents for all the things you did to them once upon a time. It's crazy being on the other side of things, and now Kitty sees that, too.

The first three issues cover the attempt to get the school opened and approved. After that craziness ends, the fourth issue establishes the day to day life of the school for the students and the teachers, with some subplot material thrown in. Aaron has a direction you can see him wanting to take, and seeds are being planted all over the place. It reminds me a lot of the type of pacing and plotting Chris Claremont used on the book. With a roster of characters this deep, you have to keep everything moving, setting up the next bit while the current one plays out.

The most impressive thing about the book is the way Aaron packs so much into it. There's rarely a panel that doesn't have a punchline or a moment of escalating tension. It's a textbook for up-and-coming writers to study. Characters interact in believable ways, often in terse dialogue and matter-of-fact statements. It's a lot of fun to read.

I love that Chris Bachalo is such an unusual choice for an X-Men book artist. I like that he's just over to the side of popular artistic styles, which is traditionally where the mutant titles go. He adds the kinds of touches a quirky book like this needs to sell the material.

I also like Bachalo's own coloring in the first three issues. Rather than the modern harsh cuts and gradients that Photoshop has to offer, Bachalo goes with something that more closely resembles the high end coloring the late 80s. It's almost an airbrushed feel. It's much softer in feel than what modern colorists bring. The palette is restrained, where even the primary colors feel muted. It's simple and great.

This isn't to say the art is perfect, because I have some serious issues with a few pages. Specifically, it looks like Bachalo scanned the art in low-res. Everything seems every-so-slightly out of focus. Check out the first two pages of the first issue, or the second- and third-to-last pages of the third issue. The black lines don't look sharp. They come back into focus on the last page of that third issue, which makes it all the more distracting.

There are also some issues with the storytelling, where Bachalo focuses on something so small or so close-up that it hinders the over-all storytelling. He can pull back and give us a big detailed double page splash, but there are lots of smaller panels where the "camera" is so close to the action that you need to concentrate far too hard to see what's happening. There's a chance that some of the problems there might be caused by the coloring, too. Where relatively solid and similarly-colored objects crowd a panel, finding differentiation between them takes extra time and can prove distracting.

Nick Bradshaw draws the fourth and final issue in this collection. I remember his art from projects before this as being very J. Scott Campbell-esque. (He has drawn a "Danger Girl" book in his career, so it makes sense.) It looks like he tweaked his style to go back a generation to become an Art Adams "X-Men" clone. I love it. Hey, Adams isn't so fast. I'll take as much of that art as I can get. Bradshaw isn't all the way there, mind you, but it's a very reasonable facsimile.

Frank Martin colors the work and does a great job in getting out of the way. With so many books these days colored in a way to make things as realistic and three dimensional as possible, it's wonderful to see a colorist going bright and bold, with simple shadings that aren't too busy or distracting.

And, finally, it's awesome to see letters pages reprinted in a collected edition. On top of all the alternate covers and a few pages of Bachalo character sketches, the letters columns of issues two and four are reprinted here, with answers coming from Kitty Pryde and Bobby Drake. This is a very positive thing, as far as I'm concerned.

The obvious drawback with this collection, though, is the price for content. It's a twenty dollar hardcover for four issues' worth of material. Even with the bonus content and the extra pages of story in the first issue (it's 28 pages), it feels very thin. I picked the book up on Free Comic Book Day at the local shop's 50% off sale, so I didn't feel badly about buying it. But I'd never pay full price for it. Even an online retailer's discounted price feels slightly high, and that's only $13.17.

I almost want to catch up with the series now that I've read the start, but I'm not paying $4 an issue for the last six issues. That's right; The digital issues are still full price, so it would cost $15.96 for those. That's ridiculous. There's money that's staying in my wallet instead of going to Marvel. Someday they'll learn how to get money from me.

Economics aside, "Wolverine and the X-Men" is a great X-Men read, for older or lapsed readers such as myself, as well as those who've better kept up with the status quo. Aaron's scripting is non-stop fun, and the artistic rotation features a couple of styles well-suited for the material. While I wish the price was more affordable, I'm still looking forward to reading more in the near future.

The second volume isn't due out until September now, and will once again include a paltry four issues for $20. On the bright side, the pre-order discount is fairly high if you find it in the right place.


I beg your indulgence this week for two bits of health notes:

First, best wishes go out to comic reviewer (and now comic shop owner) Randy Lander, who was recently diagnosed with cancer and will spend the bulk of the year going through chemo treatments.

He's tracking his progress on his blog in staggeringly upbeat fashion. And to show our support for him in his battle, I join along with so many others in posting an image of Chemo:

I admit to grabbing that off a Google Image search, but I'm pretty sure that would be a Leonard Kirk panel from a Peter David-scripted "Supergirl" issue.

It's another one of those "You're a grown-up now" moments when a contemporary of yours gets a diagnosis like that, you know? It's something that only ever happened to your parents' friends or families. Suddenly, it just feels more real.

It also encourages me to drink less Diet Pepsi. Just in case those aspartame scare stories are true...

In the meantime, spare a kind thought in the general direction of Texas this week as an old comic review friend goes through some stuff, won't you?

Second, this week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my diagnosis as a juvenile diabetic. (Kids today simply call it 'Type 1.') My back of the napkin estimate is that I've taken at least 40,000 shots in my lifetime, and 60,000 blood tests from my finger tips.

But I'm still here, so it's all been worth it. All ten fingers, all ten toes, and no major degradation of eyesight. Sure, my A1C score isn't as low as I would like it to be and I'd love to drop another 10 or 20 pounds, but that's one of those constant battles I'll fight for the rest of my life. We all have our crosses to bear, and diabetes so often seems like a more manageable and minor affectation than some other things people come down with. (See above.)

And can you believe I've seen the same doctor since that diagnosis? Aside from my own family, she's the only constant in my life going that far back. I wasn't even reading comic books yet at that point. I was still in my baseball card phase. Comics were just a couple of years away, though.

No, this isn't my way of asking the Marvel bullpen to draw a diabetic hero in my image. Though in honor of this occasion, I might just pick up "Joe the Barberian" again, or "Sugar Baby." Maybe I'll dig up a Wally West "Flash" comics, from back in the days when he'd have to eat a whole lot to make up for the low blood sugar running around as The Flash gave him. Speaking of that name, is Flash Thompson a closet diabetic?

It is funny that for a disease that runs as rampant as diabetes, there's not much in the comics world to put the spotlight on it, unless there's a case to be made for a character who needs a sudden low blood sugar attack to push a plot forward.

I don't mean to complain. I don't ever want to be one of those people who looks at the census and then complains that any given form of media doesn't represent those numbers exactly and that must mean the community of creators is biased against every person not properly sampled. I know there are diabetic creators out there, though. Maybe someday one of them will do the Great American Diabetes Comic, even if it's just as a navel-gazing bio comic. That'll be OK by me.

But, yeah, 25 years. I feel so old, yet also feel like I should be hitting the exercise bike right about now. . .

If you want to help in any little way, I can point you to Dean Haspiel's "Slam" t-shirt fundraiser, or directly to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation or the American Diabetes Association.


Next week: No health talk. I hope. Back to being all comics. I have a Batman comic here I'd like to talk about. . .

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