On the opening page of X-Men: Grand Design #1, cartoonist Ed Piskor’s bold “remix” of the first 300 issues of Uncanny X-Men, Uatu the Watcher speaks his mind. Long a faithful commentator on the state of the Marvel Universe, the Watcher effectively steps in for Piskor, whose auteur vision drives the limited series, which debuted this week. “I’ve learned over several millennia that is it necessary for events to unfold and settle before transcribing what I witness,” the Watcher says, likely voicing the viewpoint of Piskor himself. “There were many mechanisms at play with these particular subjects. Much I needed to digest and make sense of.”
Of course, the X-Men haven’t been around for millennia. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Marvel’s merry mutants 54 years ago. But Piskor’s more than just being clever with the Watcher’s language. Few comic sagas have cultivated as immersive of a lore as the X-Men, or as knotty a continuity. It’s the result of decades worth of “mechanisms,” plot-wise and other: reboots, time travel, dimensional shifts, editorial mandates and the occasional instance of pure creator confusion. To put it mildly, there’s much to make sense of. A lot to digest.
Luckily, Piskor knows his footing on dense, historically complicated turf. In Hip Hop Family Tree, his Eisner Award-winning comics docuseries for Fantagraphics, he navigated the ins-and-outs of rap history, utilizing Bronze Age tactics to render the origin stories and adventures of the original B-Boys, DJs, MCs and graffiti artists that founded and cemented hip-hop culture.
Grand Design mirrors that archival approach visually. Like Family Tree, its pages are evocatively washed and yellowed to look like something you might find stacked up in the garage, long neglected by your dad or older brother. Piskor’s style is rooted in the underground, laced with references to Robert Crumb, Charles Burns, Los Bros Hernandez and other “comix” illustrators, but Grand Design revels in the work of foundational X-Men artists Jack Kirby, John Byrne and Neal Adams. Stepping into the world of superhero comics for the first time, Piskor brings a kinetic energy in his action sequences — even a telepathic fight between Xavier and the Shadow King feels explosive. But thankfully, he also brings the same sensitive touch showcased in his phone phreak epic Wizzywig and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor to his mutant protagonists. The look of anguish on Magneto’s face fending off attackers in a remote village; fear on the faces of young soon to be X-Men, making their way through a world that hates and fears them — Piskor has a knack for capturing quiet sadness.
It would be easy for Grand Design to slip into Official Handbook mode, a quick and sterile guide to facts and continuity matters. Forget the occasional editor’s note; this thing’s loaded up with two pages of annotations, evidence of deep research among dusty long boxes and a page listing the individual creators responsible for the first 30 years of X-Men stories. But Piskor’s not interested in creating something lifeless. While the first issue condenses the early history of the mutant race, it never does so at the expense of drama and emotional motivation. Piskor hones in on the misfit nature of the X-Men in exceptional ways. His exuberance for these characters shines through. Prepare to feel nearly as much for the Toad and Legion (Piskor only needs two panels with the latter to break your heart) as you do Iceman and Jean Grey. Like the best X-Men creators, Piskor’s understands that even if the X-Men’s continuity deepens its interconnectedness, it’s the grandiosity and operatic themes that have filled the series with some of the most resonate moments in comic book history.
While it’s unavoidable that Piskor’s curatorial approach will wind up leaving some reader’s favorite X-moment out of the narrative, what he stands to accomplish with the series is considerable. Beyond its nostalgic glee, the series provides a streamlined intro to the X-Men by one of independent comics’ most obsessive and compelling creators, one with a careful eye for the complexities and pathos that fueled Chris Claremont’s legendary run. Piskor’s been vocal about the series being a “dream project,” and it’s likewise a dream read: funny, melancholic, fantastical and busting at the seams with ideas and energy. There’s “much to digest and make sense of,” but X-Men: Grand Design is no staid history lesson; it’s an epic poem fully possessed of the richness and idiosyncrasies that have drawn readers in for decades.