Jason Aaron and Nick Bradshaw’s “Wolverine & The X-Men: Annual” #1 is a surprisingly small story for an annual, centering on Kid Gladiator’s time off-world and away from The Jean Grey School, though in fairness that time does include his involvement in an intergalactic war.
Aaron focuses solely on Kid Gladiator for this story, and while there are some nice character beats, on the whole it’s not nearly as funny or clever as I’ve come to expect from Aaron. Similarly, though the lessons learned aspects work for the Kid Gladiator character, they feel really broad and cliche as presented, without a lot of layers to add depth and richness to the character and his story.
Aaron and Bradshaw easily could have told this character-driven Kid Gladiator story in a regular single issue, because even though Kid Gladiator’s growth is set against the massive “Infinity” intergalactic war, it’s still just a small character story. There’s nothing wrong with small character stories, but it’s not significantly moving or revelatory enough to justify the price or page count. Instead, it’s mostly a cliche tale seen before: kid gets what he wants, finds out it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and returns to exactly what he thought he didn’t want in the first place. The inevitable return of Kid Gladiator to The Jean Grey School where he can be “at home amongst misfits” fits Kid Gladiator well enough but, it’s essentially after school special material and beyond some nice looking art there’s just not much here.
Bradshaw, working with a team of inkers and colorist Andres Mossa, delivers strong and consistent visuals, but like the writing they’re a bit pretty without depth. Kid Gladiator has a great design and Bradshaw executes it perfectly and the body language for the character is generally really strong, but facial expressions are a little weak for everyone, including Kid Gladiator. This story asks a lot of Bradshaw from a world-building and creativity standpoint — requiring him to create alien spaces and creatures, as well as rendering some massive battles — and Bradshaw handles it all in a capable way, with clean and effective storytelling. However, while Bradshaw does a solid job in layering an entire war into this otherwise small story, the battles do feel more like Kid Gladiator playing a really cool video game, rather than fighting in an actual war. Some harsh reality interjected into both the writing and the drawing would have gone a long way toward giving this book the heft it needed.
Though “Wolverine & The X-Men: Annual” #1 does have ten extra pages to attempt justifying the $4.99 price tag, the story itself does not have the magnitude for either the added pages or price. It’s not a bad story, and it’s executed adequately on the whole, but there’s little of significance from either a plot or character point of view, and thus for the hefty price tag, it’s an easy book to skip in the grand scheme.