Ecce liber cum picturis: <i>X-Men</i> #1

"You say your protection / Is proof of your affection / If I need security / I'll keep a gun on me"

The final Marvel NOW! book came out this week, as the highly-anticipated Brian Wood/Olivier Coipel all-female X-Men shipped. The book is inked by both Mark Morales and Coipel, with the inestimable Laura Martin coloring it, and Joe Caramagna lettering it. Jennifer M. Smith is the assistant editor, Jeanine Schaefer is the editor, and Nick Lowe is the group editor. It's 21 pages long and costs - sigh - $3.99.

As for the credits: John Sublime was created by Grant Morrison and Leinil Francis Yu. Jubilee was created by Chris Claremont and Marc Silvestri. Mercury was created by Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, and Keron Grant. Bling was created by Peter Milligan and Salvador Larroca. Storm was created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum. Rachel Summers was created by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and John Romita Jr. Rogue was created by Chris Claremont and Michael Golden. Kitty Pryde was created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Psylocke was created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe.

It probably doesn't come as too much of a shock to anyone that I'm pretty torn about this comic. I like Wood's writing quite a bit, but there's also often some je ne sais quoi about it that keeps me from loving it completely. It doesn't help when he's writing something like the X-Men, where there are natural constraints built in. What Wood does best, from what I can tell about his writing (and I've read a lot of his work), is create really strong emotional attachments between characters through naturalistic dialogue and difficult situations. He comes up with pretty good plots, but they're not really the big attraction of his work, at least not for me. That makes his work on superhero comics, which by their nature are largely plot-driven, a bit of an odd fit. He's not the first writer to have this problem - Kieron Gillen is another writer whose work I love but who occasionally struggles with plots - and I'm sure that many people disagree with me, but I think it keeps me from loving his more "genre-driven" comics than I do. His best work remains Local, which was very much not plot-driven, and while Northlanders seems like a genre-driven comic, his character work is what made that book so good. The problem with this kind of writing is that it doesn't work as well in superhero comics, especially these days. Everything is connected to the recent big event or the next big event (in this month's Previews, we already see solicit information about how this book will tie into the X-event that will be coming in the fall), and when that happens, plot rules all.

Marvel (and DC's) insistence to tie everything into everything else means that it's very difficult for a writer to focus on the characters, especially in a team book where everyone needs "screen time" and even more especially on a high-profile X-book where everyone wants their favorite character to get "screen time." Matt Fraction can get away with it on Hawkeye because, let's be honest, it's Hawkeye, and Gillen can get away with it on Young Avengers because, let's face it, it's Young Avengers, but Wood doesn't have that luxury. He needs to hit the ground running.

To be fair, he does. This is not a decompressed comic - we get breakneck pacing from Page 1 to Page 21, which introduces the big villain of the arc, and it's a pretty decent way to get to that point. Wood brings in John Sublime, Morrison's über-villain, and gives the story an interesting twist about halfway through, shifting our perspective of Sublime and his motivations (not that I trust him, but it's still not a bad twist). He gives Jubilee an orphaned baby that she's trying to transport from Sofia, Bulgaria, to the Jean Grey School, and when she manages to contact the X-Men, they decide to go get her while she's on the train instead of just waiting for her to arrive. That doesn't go well, which leads to the big action set piece in the middle of the issue (and I find it very funny that if the X-Men had stayed home, probably nothing bad would have happened). Then we get another big twist - sort of - when Jubilee arrives at the school (which Wood had already set up, which is why it's only "sort of" a twist). Enter ... Arkea!!!! There's even some high school drama between two minor X-characters which is obviously a pot-boiling kind of thing, as it doesn't get resolved in this issue.

Technically, this is a perfectly fine first issue. The pacing is fine, nothing drags, and Wood uses a fairly standard template to make sure he gets everything in that he wants to, including the Mercury/Bling subplot. Coipel is a pretty standard superhero artist, so everything looks nice and non-threatening - it's unremarkable art, sure, but it gets the job done (although I'm not sure about Psylocke's pose when she's on the roof - is that weird, or is it me?). There's nothing really wrong with the issue.

But ... there's not anything that's really, for lack of a better word, right about it, either. It's bland. There's nothing that says "This is a Brian Wood comic," which is - in my humblest opinion - really the only reason to read superhero comics these days - to read what individual voices have to say about the characters.

I'm sure that Wood is writing what he wants to write (I haven't listened to his interview with Kelly and Sue yet, because I didn't want to hear their review before I wrote this), and that's fine, but when I read this, I don't get a sense of "Brian Wood" as a writer. The characters don't do anything interesting, they simply move through the plot. Jubilee appears to no longer be a vampire, which is fine with me, but she, like the other characters, don't seem to be characters. I know it's one issue and there's plenty of time for that, and again, I'm sure I'm in the minority, but whenever we get a new X-book, someone makes a big deal about the characters in each individual book - in this one, of course, it's the fact that they're all female. But with this plot, you could slot in pretty much any X-character and it wouldn't make a difference. The only one who shows any spark of a personality is Kitty, and that's only because she says "OMG" twice, which seems weirdly out of character for her - but at least it's a personality. Why is Wood using these characters? Maybe we'll find out in future issues, but in this issue, there's no reason for it. And "It's the book with all the cool chicks" is a lousy reason, by the way.

There's also this weird problem that comes from the fact that there are so many X-books and have been for 20 years. This isn't really Wood's fault, but because of this proliferation of titles, someone like me who used to be completely submerged in the X-universe can get lost. Why isn't Jubilee a vampire anymore? Is she still one, or is Wood going to explain it at some point? I imagine the other characters know she's not, because wouldn't they comment on it? I don't even know what's going on with Rogue anymore - she's still super-strong, obviously, but other than that, I don't know her deal (if she's able to touch people without absorbing anything from them, how is she still super-strong?). And how can Psylocke shoot telepathic arrows? I also don't know the relationship between these characters - when did Jubilee and Kitty become friends? All of this stuff probably shouldn't be in the first issue, and I know it's nit-picking, but it's still annoying. The fact that Wood has to come out with guns blazing means that this kind of development is ignored.

With a book starring characters who haven't been around as long, a writer can make the connections as he or she goes along, but as I was reading this, the combination of not being up with the recent history of these characters plus the fact that they feel interchangeable and replaceable meant that I just couldn't get into the story, because it's ultimately just a story about a bad guy who wants to destroy things. That's not all that compelling.

I read somewhere that either Wood or an editor (sorry, I can't find it now) said that this isn't going to be women sitting around talking about their feelings, it's going to be an action comic that just happens to star women. That's all well and good, but we already have plenty of comics with non-existent character development and non-stop action, so I don't know why we need another one. Like far too many superhero comics, the only reason to read this issue, it feels to me, is because you happen to like the characters and you'll read anything that stars, say, Storm. Heck, three of my four favorite X-characters are in this book, so you'd think it would be right up my alley! But when the characters are simply plot devices, why stick around?

I might be a bit too harsh on this issue - as I noted, this is a mildly entertaining comic with a mildly interesting bad guy, and there's just enough quirkiness - what's the deal with the baby? what's the deal with Sublime? - that it's not dull. I'm sure many, many people disagree with me, and that's cool. For me, though, I just feel like X-Men #1 is full of empty calories. Oh well.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

(Did everyone notice the lack of "AR" panels in this book? I never thought the lack of two letters would make me so happy!)

(On a completely unrelated topic, if you happen to pick up your issue of Chew this week - and you do read Chew in single issues, right? - you might notice a familiar face on the letters page. If you don't, you haven't been reading my posts on this blog long enough!)

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