After a stunning seven-year run which turned the Avengers into the centrepiece of the Marvel Universe, I was excited to see what Brian Michael Bendis had up his sleeve for the characters that first got me reading comics: The X-Men. We’re now 3 issues into the new Flagship X-Book, ‘All-New X-Men’. So how is Bendis doing in this new corner of the Marvel Universe?
Well, the first thing to say is that ‘All-New…’ is that it is unmistakably a Bendis book. It feels very much like the work he was doing during ‘Avengers: Disassembled’ and those early issues of ‘New Avengers’ in building a new status quo, with new characters popping up everywhere, and existing mainstays clearly changed deeply by the events that have come before. And one of strongest characteristics of a Bendis book is his trademark decompressed storytelling. This is a slow-moving book, and while some may find that off-putting, I personally enjoy a slow-burning story. This issues takes us back in time to just before the events of #1, with the outlawed Cyclops, Magneto, and Magik busting Emma Frost out of prison. However, not all is going according to plan, and Cyclops’ team of Mutant revolutionaries are finding that their encounter with the Phoenix force has affected their powers.
This discovery (hinted at by Bendis and Chris Bachalo when their forthcoming ‘Uncanny X-Men’ was announced) introduces a new story thread into the book alongside central plot of the original five X-Men, still in their teens, brought forward to our time by the present-day Beast in order for Scott Summers to confront his future self over the man he has become. We see very little of that plotline here, this issue instead focusing on Cyclops’ outlaws in the same way that the previous issue showed us the original X-Men dealing with their arrival in our present and their future.
While the previous issue presented us with a group of X-Men characters both past and present whose characterisation was consistent with what had come before, here Bendis is less successful with his characters. While the dialogue between Cyclops and Magneto is brilliant (it’s nice to see Magneto calling Scott out on all the terrible things he’s done recently), I still don’t understand why Magneto is still hanging around with a man who killed his best friend, and has managed to inspire a fresh wave of fear of mutants, in direct opposition with his stated goals. I have no problem with Cyclops’ ‘Face-Heel Turn’, but I have no idea why anyone is still standing by him.
One of the characters that actually almost leaves Cyclops here is his (former?) partner Emma Frost. She makes a big point of leaving Scott and Magneto after they break free, but ends up going with them anyway and nothing more is said about it. I actually have a problem with the characterisation of Emma Frost and Magik: They don’t sound like themselves them anymore. Similar to Psylocke, Emma has traditionally been written as an upper class Brit (Although it’s been suggested more than once that it’s simply an affectation), and Magik is a young russian women who has (literally) been to Hell and back. So why here do they sound like any other American characters? There is sometimes a criticism leveled at Bendis that he writes the same characters over and over again, which is more than a little unfair; he’s more than capable of capturing the feel of a character as established by other writers. It’s just that here both Emma and Magik just don’t feel like the Emma and Magik that I know.
And it’s not just characterization here that’s inconsistent: Back in #1 we saw Cyclops and his team swoop in and rescue two new mutants, blasting away and using their powers with no visible issues. But here, the rescue attempt on Emma goes awry due to Cyclops’ now unstable optic blasts, and Magneto’s diminished control over his magnetic abilities. It also seems as if Emma’s either lost her telepathy completely or it’s nowhere near as strong as it used to be. But if that’s the case (and we see Scott struggling in vain to focus his blasts throughout the back), then how did those other rescues go so smoothly? I have faith that Bendis is a seasoned enough writer to not let this go unaddressed, but until he does get round to dealing with it, it’s a worry, albeit a minor one.
Although there may be flaws in Bendis’ writing, it’s almost impossible to fault Stuart Immonen’s art. The scenes of carnage that depict Emma’s botched liberation are, frankly, beautiful. Immonen’s pencils are highly dynamic, their strong sense of motion enhanced by Wade Von Grawbadger’s inks. Marte Gracia’s colours are muted, but not washed out, and blend into Grawbadger’s bold shadowing to create a great sense of mood, particularly in the opening scene set in the abandoned Weapon X facility. The faces are all expressive, lively and distinct, even in crowd scenes, and there are some gorgeous splash pages, such as Magneto and Scott’s confrontation in the hills surrounding the Weapon X Facility, and the cliffhanger that takes place around a beach party bonfire, full of bright reds and oranges contrasted brilliantly by thick shadows.
Make no mistake, this book looks beautiful, and Immonen is on top form, supported by an inker and colourist who accent his pencils masterfully.
All in all, there’s definitely more to love here than not. I do have some problems with Bendis’ writing in this issue, particularly after the first two were so strong. Although I have faith in him to lead us in the right direction, judging this issue on it’s own merits, I have to say like I felt it was a little weaker than I would have liked. Still, it’s definitely worth a read, and I have high hopes that this series will be back on form with #4. The last splash page certainly left me wanting more, and if an issue can do that despite it’s flaws, then someone, somewhere is doing something right.