"Assembling the team" issues are a tricky thing. You need to give space for each character’s introduction to breathe, without turning that into the entire story. It’s doubly tricky when each team member comes from a different alternate universe or possible timeline.
That’s the challenge facing Marvel's new Exiles #1. The issue opens, on its recap page, with an image of the team that has four of the five members blacked out and marked with a question mark. The one character we can see is the series’ single constant across its three iterations: Blink. And the issue does a great job of introducing Blink, and laying out why you should care about her in just two pages.
On the first, artist Javier Rodríguez delivers an absolute masterclass in style, layering fragments of image from different realities on top of one another to assemble a single image of Blink. It’s a page worth lingering on, whether you want to spot the references -- like the assorted characters who appear in their “Age of Apocalypse” incarnations -- or drink in the unknown worlds suggested by each panel. Most importantly, it establishes Blink as a visually cool character.
On the next page, meanwhile, Saladin Ahmed shows why she’s a character worth investing in emotionally. We see Blink in the Bahamas, where her parents are from, meeting her only surviving family -- or at least, the version that exists in this reality. In the space of six panels, it introduces her as a woman who has lost her home, and is trying to establish a new one.
The other four characters, the ones marked with question marks, don’t fare quite so well. Though they're all on the cover, by the end of the issue, we’ve met half of them.
First, a grizzled Kamala Khan from a future where, god help us all, it seems the Inhumans vs X-Men crossover never ended. She certainly looks cool -- an Ellen Ripley with stretchy embiggening powers -- and it’s interesting to see the "Old Man" formula applied to a young female character, but there’s not enough time to establish her personality before we have to move on.
To another future timeline, and another member of the team. This time it’s Iron Lad, the Young Avengers’ answer to Iron Man, who is actually a teenage version of time-traveling supervillain Kang the Conqueror. It’s a suitably twisty concept for a book all about dimension-hopping, but it’s not clear just yet how it’s going to tie in.
Traveling back in time to the start of this review: Remember how I said it’s hard to make a "meet the team" issue where that’s not the entire plot? Ahmed is clearly all too aware of this problem, and front-loads the issue with a threat that will bring the team together: a mysterious "Time-Eater" who is consuming entire universes.
It builds to a fun reveal at the issue’s end, and gives momentum to Blink’s hopping between dimensions -- after meeting each character, their universe gets swallowed up, meaning the newly expanded team has to move onto the next. But by the end of the issue, the formula is a little too obvious, the workings of the plot engine visible as it pulls its characters through the necessary locations.
More importantly, it eats up page space that could be used to better introduce each character. They are, after all, the main selling point of this series. The idea of Ms. Marvel as Cable is hard to resist, and the two team members yet to be introduced -- a Valkyrie directly inspired by Tessa Thompson's portrayal in Thor Ragnarok, and a cute cartoony Wolverine -- are an exciting prospect, too. For now, though, they’re still just an idea.
No doubt we’ll get to know these characters better as the series progresses, but this first issue is lacking exactly the things that its lead character can manipulate with her mutant powers: Time and space.