The X-Men are ready to astonish again.
Marvel’s ResurrXion relaunch hasn’t exactly given the chronically troubled X-Men franchise the boost it needs. Too many current X-books are still underwhelming, while those that do succeed are the ones continuing storylines and status quos from before the relaunch. There’s no series that stands out by doing something new and exciting with the merry mutants. Fortunately, Marvel seems to have saved the best for last. Astonishing X-Men is just the sort of clean, streamlined, engaging X-book Marvel really needs at the moment.
Astonishing was very clearly conceived to be that proverbial “If you only read one X-Men comic…” series. Writer Charles Soule goes out of his way to make this first issue inviting for newcomers or those who might not be up to date on X-Men continuity. There’s a very New Avengers quality to the team Souloe assembles here. This isn’t a formal team so much as a group of costumed heroes brought together by circumstance and forced to confront an overwhelming enemy. The team features a mix of fan-favorite characters, but apart from the obligatory Old Man Logan inclusion, these are mainly characters who aren’t being utilized elsewhere. That alone gives Astonishing a sense of identity alongside the other two core X-books, X-Men Gold and X-Men Blue.
It’s interesting to compare Soule and artist Jim Cheung’s approach with this issue to the one employed by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday on the previous volume of Astonishing X-Men. Whedon and Cassaday took a very cinematic, streamlined approach to their stories. Soule’s script, by comparison, is more introspective and driven by narrative captions. The benefit to that approach here is that it allows Soule to showcase his takes on each individual character and the way that their stories are linked. Each X-Man in this issue is described in terms of their connection to the apocalypse (the concept, not the villain). Much as Soule brought something genuinely new to the table with his depiction of Wolverine and his heightened senses in Death of Wolverine he’s able to lend new insight into familiar X-Men icons and generally build a sense of excitement that’s lately been lacking in this franchise.
Having Cheung on board for this first issue certainly doesn’t hurt Astonishing’s prospects. To draw more comparisons to the previous volume, Cheung’s pages are more densely packed than Cassaday’s sleek, cinematic work. The cast is larger and the action tends to be very frenetic and chaotic. But that’s not to say Cheung doesn’t deliver some epic, massive shots in this issue. There’s a nice blend of intimate, character-focused panels and massive splash images. Cheung’s finely detailed line-work remains as impressive as ever, and it rarely falters even when being inked by three different inkers. This issue also benefits mightily from the colors of Richard Isanove and Rain Beredo. The shift between colorists in mitigated by the fact that the story transitions form the real world to the Astral Plane, a switch which really calls for a change in coloring style anyway.
The real test for this series going forward will be whether it can maintain its appeal with a rotating cast of artists. Cheung is a terrific artist with which to lead, but he sets a high bar for subsequent artists to meet.