I'm still not sure what the general thrust of "Astonishing X-Men" is supposed to be these days, and if there's anything that makes it more than a random collection of mostly cast-off X-Men characters. Here's the thing, though; if it keeps turning out stories like "Astonishing X-Men" #63, then Marjorie Liu and Gabriel Hernandez Walta can stick around with this random grouping of heroes as long as they want.
"Astonishing X-Men" #63 picks up right where the last issue left off, with Iceman's frame of mind called into question, even as the world begins to ice over. What's nice about this story is that I feel like it's following on from all sorts of stories in Iceman's past; his power surge after the Frost Giants storyline in "Thor," his learning to transform his entire body into ice, even his belief that he'd lost his powers after "House of M." Liu's story here plays on those hints of greater power and also instability, and of course dragging in all of his former girlfriends makes it that much more interesting. It would be easy to have a story like this feel completely out of the blue, but this feels like it's a respectful, long-term story that's built on previous ideas and plots.
As someone who read "X-Factor" back when Opal Tanaka was a regular supporting character, I also have to say that I've enjoyed her appearances in this storyline. She's portrayed with a personality, not just a damsel in distress, and her interactions are good not only with Bobby but Kitty as well. (I also had to laugh at Opal and Kitty's conversation, which makes an oblique nod to the Bechdel Test.) Mystique's appearances here are also strong; it's that wonderfully manipulative side of her that has made her more interesting appearances over the years stand out, and that's what we get here. (Her appearance this week in "Wolverine and the X-Men" #31 feels positively one-note in comparison to what Liu does with Mystique here.) Add in that Liu never feels the need to shove her entire cast into a story if they aren't necessary, and this is a story that has just the right balance of characters from one page to the next.
Walta's art is a great choice for this story; it's always very moody and atmospheric, and that's exactly what we should get for a story that involves kidnappings, duplicates, and ominous weather pattern shifts. Walta's got a strong sense for body language in his art; when Kitty is hanging onto Opal as the two of them fall, the way that Opal has pulled in tight feels remarkably realistic and tense. That entire scene looks great, too; the way that Kitty charges after Opal, the shards of ice hanging all throughout the apartment, the plunge down towards the ground. Every time I see Walta's art I'm impressed, and his art here matched with Cris Peter's colors is quite sharp. With those pale blues and whites looming over the city skyline, it's a strong image on which to end the issue.
"Astonishing X-Men" has had some rough spots here and there, and I've felt like it's floundered a bunch. At the same time, though, I've been coming back every few months because I keep feeling like there's real potential. With this current storyline, "Astonishing X-Men" has reached that potential. Liu and Walta's story is going in a good direction, and as long as issues like this keep showing up, I'll keep reading.