Writer Marjorie Liu and artist Mike Perkins have been the regular creative team for "Astonishing X-Men" for six issues now, but the title still lacks a sense of cohesive team dynamics or distinctive purpose in the X-Universe. The plot barrels along in "Astonishing X-Men" #53, but the storytelling suffers from a lack of character development and dramatic tension.
Northstar's overprotective macho side shows itself in a bizarrely gender-normative scene. Non-mutant Kyle is shunted into both the damsel in distress and wife left behind roles, as his Jean-Paul utters the emasculating words "I have to keep you safe, Kyle," while putting on his pants. The husband-leaving-for-war trope goes all the way back to Hector and Andromache in "The Iliad" and there's nothing new here, except for the two people in the marriage being dudes. Sure, that's subversive by default, but it's also lazy.
Earlier, Liu writes a sharp if lopsided confrontation scene between the team and new villain Susan Hatchi. All the hooks and knives are in Hatchi's corner, even though it's three-against-one. Her parting dig about mutants being "the good minority" is cruelly on the money. There are two layers of delicious irony in there, because both Hatchi and Liu herself are Asians, "the model minority."
Unfortunately, Hatchi's motives and gauntlet-throwing are the most interesting plot points of "Astonishing X-Men" #53. The plot moves from turn to turn to cliffhanger, but there's little else that sticks or scratches. However, that could be the art and not the script, because Mike Perkins' non-kinetic art style continues to be an awkward fit for the book. His anatomy can be off and his fight scenes look frozen in amber. Characters' facial expressions appear muted, even during scenes in which someone is shouting. The result is that "Astonishing X-Men" #53 feels quiet even during the punch-downs and explosions.
Perkins' page and panel compositions also diminish dramatic tension instead of heightening suspense. I should be emotionally involved at several key plot developments, but there is a distinct lack of wow factor anywhere. The reveal page for the discovery of Karma's location is especially anticlimactic because it was so clearly intended to be the climax.
Also, while Susan Hatchi's attitude is my favorite part of "Astonishing X-Men" #53, her outfit for the occasion is ridiculous. All decked out in a slinky red evening gown, Hatchi looks like she should be singing a torch song or accepting an Oscar for Best Cleavage rather than doing a PR spot or pitch for her own company.
Perkins' art does have strengths: his transitions are easy to follow, and his semi-transparent shadows and moody inking style give his backgrounds depth. Unfortunately, these backgrounds are marred by a garish color palette. Colorist Jay David Ramos has a fondness for unappetizing cold fluorescent hues, and their overuse in "Astonishing X-Men" is a serious handicap. Jean-Paul and Kyle's parting kiss is anything but sexy or romantic, partly because of Perkins' awkward framing, but also because Jean-Paul's face and half naked body are Barbie-magenta pink all over. It's hard to think feel touched by a lovers' farewell if I'm wondering why Northstar looks like he's made a bad decision to use cheap self-tanner meant for the Pink Panther.
Mainstream comics are gloriously LGBT-friendly right now, and I applaud Marvel, DC and Image for that. On political level, it is welcome and refreshing, but that's beside the point aesthetically. Political intentions don't equal compelling stories.
"Astonishing X-Men" has covered a lot of ground this year, yet in this latest installment, the team and even the newlyweds lack chemistry, and thus the story lacks spark.