I absolutely adored the first seven or eight pages of Jason Aaron and Steve Sanders' "Wolverine & The X-Men" #20. Had the book continued in that vein I would have had a hard time finding much to criticize. Unfortunately, about ten pages in, the book becomes extremely exposition-filled and the appearance of Mystique and Silver Samurai just downgrades the entire thing into pointless fighting.
Aaron's story begins on such a creative and funny note, with a young woman just developing her mutant powers (to turn into a shark, awesome!) confused and afraid, but also instinctively a predator of the highest order discovered on a boat in the middle of the night. The scene is humorous and feels incredibly real, despite the extreme concept. It's also completely refreshing to see a kid with mutant powers (especially a young girl) that are not so pretty. Iara (the girl in question) turns into a horrifying and absolutely phenomenal looking shark, and it's a treat to see a mutant power that's so bizarre and simultaneously incredibly useful.
Unfortunately, the back-story of how Angel got to Iara is fairly drawn out, uninteresting, and extremely heavy on the exposition. Aaron takes far too long to tell a bit more about what powers Angel (the celestial life seed). Once readers rejoin Angel and Iara, Mystique and Silver Samurai show up and things just devolve into an uninteresting fight to call "dibs" on Iara (although admittedly Angel is not trying to take her anywhere against her will). There is still some great dialogue between Angel and Iara, especially the bits about how cultish (and hippy) Angel makes the Jean Grey School sound and Iara calling it out as "churchy." Angel trying to convince her it is indeed full of "claws and the stabbing" is worth its weight in gold, but once the fighting begins, all of the fun runs right out of the book. Also, perhaps I'm just not up on Mystique's powers (secondary mutation?) but since when is she Mr. Fantastic?
It's great to see Steve Sanders of "S.W.O.R.D." fame on art for this issue and he completely delivers. His realization of Iara as a shark -- both fully and partially changed -- is absolutely divine. His acting, storytelling and pacing is great. He and Aaron are really tonally in sync, especially for the humorous stuff. It's particularly nice to see Sanders much debated version of Hank McCoy and it reminds me how much I miss "S.W.O.R.D." in general. The colors by Frank D'Armata have a fantastic pop, especially in the first few pages as we meet Iara on a boat in the ocean beneath a star-filled sky. It's just beautiful stuff.
The first half of this issue is easily a four-star book, but the seeming pointlessness of Mystique and Silver Samurai just feels like filler and a conservative seen-it-before solution to what opened as a bold new spin. The book ends on a solid cliffhanger that promises fun (and tragedy) for future issues, but the middle bit just drags so much it's hard to ignore it.