Reading the second issue of Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi’s “Astonishing X-Men” is almost like witnessing an Olympic relay race; one runner sprints to the finish and exhaustedly hands off the baton to a new, fresh runner who zooms off in the distance. The problem is that unlike a relay race, both creators here are supposed to be “running” simultaneously.
I will freely admit that with their first issue, I’d felt like Ellis was writing on autopilot, but that’s no longer the case. It’s almost like now that he’s free of the basic setup, his attention is more firmly focused on the actual script and the result is quite zippy. We’re seeing good nods to the past (making Morrison’s idea of telepathic downloads of language from a “New X-Men” Annual a new standard procedure for the team) as well as smart ideas of his own (Emma Frost’s way of instantly finding their quarry in an area full of people).
Even better, his dialogue flows naturally and realistically; the X-Men sound like real people here, and like ones who genuinely enjoy each other’s company. The running jokes and sarcastic quips are good-natured and don’t feel tired. Best of all, when Cyclops and Storm discuss if killing is an option, not only does it not come across one-sided but it also feels like it fits with the characterization of Cyclops in other books like “Cable” these days. It makes you feel like everyone creatively is on the same page, that this isn’t a case of six writers each zooming off in different directions while trying to hang onto the same character.
On the other hand, Bianchi’s art is already feeling stiff and flat, a bad sign considering it’s only his second issue on the book. There’s an early page when Wolverine is thrown up towards a spaceship, and if it hadn’t been for the dialogue I wouldn’t have realized he was airborne, much less landing two panels later. The lack of backgrounds in places certainly doesn’t help matters (which is a pity because when Bianchi does render backgrounds in this issue they’re the high point of the art), and often the art is confusing; there’s one panel where I still can’t decide if Wolverine is climbing down a shaft, or in fact is supposed to be crouched along the floor. I’m guessing the latter, but your guess is as good as mine.
Maybe next issue Bianchi will pick up some strength and be fully recharged, because Ellis certainly has adapted quickly to the title. For what’s supposed to be the flagship title of the X-Men franchise, “Astonishing X-Men” seems to be suffering from one creator not quite hitting the mark. Is it too much to ask that next month we get an A-game from both? Let’s hope not.