Although notionally the “stand alone” X-Men title, this issue of “Astonishing X-Men” picks up immediately following the events of Schism, with Cyclops in a post-break-up funk and those around him trying to deal with that. It all comes to an end when Storm turns up and whisks him away on a mission, although quickly all is not what it seems.
Astonishing has been a strange kind of satellite title for a while, and Pak’s opening pages seem to draw the series closer to continuity. Pak’s past work on the X-Men has been well-characterized (in particular, with Cyclops) but imperfectly-plotted, but the early signs are promising. Storm’s entrance, haircut aside, immediately rings alarm bells, and it seems odd that the characters shrug it off. Of everyone, Storm seems the least likely to initiate a sparring session, and it seems like that would be enough to make it fairly clear to everyone that this isn’t “our” Storm.
Character-wise, it’s good to see Scott showing some bitterness and regret over the X-Men’s break-up, since “Uncanny” has largely portrayed him as a confident, forward-moving leader. Here, he’s more wary, which is probably more in-step with the readers’ feelings, truth be told. Sadly, the end of the issue starts to lose its footing a little. His reaction to Storm flirting with (and later kissing) him is entirely wrong. The character delivers bemused satisfaction, rather than more appropriate confusion and/or anger.
Although the final pages set up a good mystery, I also have my doubts about the direction and execution. Final page cliffhangers struggle to make an impact when the reader doesn’t know (or can’t recognize) the character being revealed, as is the case in this issue, and as a wider idea, alternate versions of the X-Men are far, far too common. My heart practically sinks at the idea of seeing this increasingly-tired trope rolled out yet again. Let’s hope Pak can do something new with the idea.
McKone, at least, is a fine addition to the X-stable, and a good match for Pak’s style of writing. With a focus on readable body language and facial expressions, McKone is a solid storyteller, but perhaps lacks the visual flair and clear identity of his predecessors on the series. The big moments are dramatically executed, but the book’s backgrounds are characterized by textures rather than detail, as if left unfinished and completed by the colorist.
It’s certainly not a bad story, but so far it’s done little to justify its position in the revamped line-up. Where every other title has gone for a mission statement as its opening issue, “Astonishing X-Men” simply offers more of the same. Even if that’s the point, it would have been nice to see it said with a little more confidence.