While I’m openly skeptical about the introduction of the “Astonishing” brand, I can’t deny that the first issue of the recent “Astonishing Spider-Man/Wolverine” series was a great way to kick off the line. Marvel’s second foray into that territory is also mutant-related, as Warren Ellis’ “Astonishing X-Men” is reborn as, essentially, “Astonishing Astonishing X-Men”.
In fairness, “Astonishing X-Men” was, in its own way, the template for the new line -- big-name creators on a prestige book, mostly (but not entirely) divorced from continuity. This series takes that idea only a slight further, and largely because of Kaare Andrews’ radical new designs given to the characters. While the story sees the X-Men investigating potential mutant births, the characters acknowledge that they can’t be mutants without the need for any reference to M-Day.
Andrews’ version of Storm, for example, uses her 80s Mohawk hairstyle for no other reason than Andrews thought it looked cool (and in fairness, he’s correct) while the rest of his design for her seems more of a nod towards Grace Jones. Frost is returned to her more fetish-inspired roots, only instead of corsets and fur, it’s rubber. Andrews may not draw any nudity, but in a way, the art is far more suggestive and sexual than outright nudity would be, and that’s before you even get past the cover. Andrews has come up with striking, individualist interpretations that manage to remain true to the characters, and it certainly fits the gonzo tone of Ellis’ writing. But at the same time, if you found them distracting I don’t think anyone would blame you.
Speaking of Ellis, his dialogue and characterization is spot on. Better than ever, in fact. Perhaps he’s grown into the characters, or perhaps it’s the other way around, but there are some excellent one-liners, and hints of more complex issues at work regarding race and political correctness that don’t make the story, but do enhance the characters. Some might question whether this is the right venue for a rather didactic Nelson Mandela history lesson, but in a book with such a strong authorial voice and on a property with a deep relationship with race and prejudice, I think it’s allowed.
On the down side, the plot is a little too familiar. Ellis’ "Astonishing X-Men" run fits slightly more in the sci-fi, rather than superhero, genre, and while genetic experimentation and mutations are valid subject matter for the X-Men, this is effectively the third “Astonishing” arc in a row where the story has hinged on them. It’s starting to feel repetitive.
Still, “Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis” is an entertaining, if idiosyncratic X-Men story. Those who have enjoyed Ellis’ run to date will probably find it a real treat. And those who haven’t? Probably best to stay away from this.