Today, Patrick and Greg are discussing All-New X-Men 26, originally released April 20th, 2014.
Patrick: Superheroes are tools. No, not the “Superman is such a tool” kind of way, but in that they are all able to act as narrative and emotional shortcuts. Between shapeshifters and psychics, healers and teleporters, extra-dimensional sorcerers and reality-manipulators, there’s really nothing that the X-Men aren’t capable of. The brevity with which they can be used to evoke emotions might be even more impressive — just think of the ennui immediately invoked by the appearance of Jean Grey, or the uneasy sense of righteous revolution that accompanies Magneto. Brian Michael Bendis’ All-New X-Men seems designed to celebrate this tool box: bring the original quintet of X-Men to the present day brings all of those emotional shortcuts to the fore. Issue 26 might be the first time Bendis actually uses those tools, instead of laying them out neatly for us to all to quietly admire before putting them back in their protective cases.
Though, the issue does start exactly the way you might expect a celebratory X-Men series to start — with a devastatingly iconic Phoenix dream sequence.
In case the scale isn’t clear from the screen grab above, that’s a double-page splash. Opening an issue with a scene of future-destruction at the hands of the Phoenix isn’t particularly innovative — weren’t we just talking about it in Wolverine and the X-Men 1? — but Stuart Immonen draws the everloving shit out of the scene anyway. Just as you might expect, you can pick out characters here and there, but I’m struck by how much this spread isn’t a game of Spot The Dead X-Men. In fact, beyond Hank McCoy on the right side of the panel, the mutant-specifics are tricky to spot, and possibly jumbled. Is that Magik’s sword? Is that Groot on fire in the background?
Ultimately, the scene isn’t prophecy so much as it is nightmare, and Jean Grey wakes up so she can have one of the weirdest conversations anyone has ever experienced ever. She and Old, Evil Scott of their first substantive conversation, and while Scott does a good job being the adult in the situation, it’s clear that neither of them are in control of their emotions in each other’s presence. This is one of those scene that the All-New conceit seems designed for — Jean Grey is essentially the personage of mutants in Marvel Comics since 1964. Everything that’s happened to the characters in the last 50 years is embodied by her slight frame. Immonen takes every possible opportunity to remind us that, no matter how many times we see her as a flaming bird of über-death, she’s just a scared kid. My favorite visual representation of this is so simple, but so effective.
Alone and casting a menacing shadow on the wall. Can’t get much clearer than that. We’re still dealing in representative storytelling here: Jean is experiencing the sum total of all power and all the loss experienced by all the X-Men throughout history (and as we’re about to find out, throughout the future as well).
Meanwhile, we’ve got the set-up to a murder mystery on our hands! This is where the tools go from passive to active and the readers are left try to figure out how they were used. Let’s examine the facts, shall me? X-23, fed up with the way Young Scott just bailed on the group, decides to bail as well. Warren makes one last attempt to talk her back, but it’s no use, so he flies back to school. Alone in the woods, X-23 stumbles upon an impossible sight: Cyclops. OR IS IT?!?! No, it’s obviously not him, evidenced by the way he stabs her in the gut and leaves her to bleed out in the woods. Laura crawls back to her fellow X-Men that there must be a shapeshifter about (oh, and probably to seek medical attention), but the final-page reveal clues us in to the identity of said ‘shifter: the Future Brotherhood of Mutants is back.
Most of those characters were killed in the Battle of the Atom a few months ago, so I am surprised to see so many of them march on the Xavier School here. But the mere sight of characters I presumed were dead turns this from a Whodunnit into a Howdunnit (coupled with a Whydunnit). Greg, I believe you haven’t been reading All-New X-Men all the way through, so you wouldn’t have the perspective to identify X-23’s attacker as Raze, the future offspring of Wolverine and Mystique (he can morph and has claws — totally badass, right?). So I’m already anticipating a little bit of distance between us in our assessment of this issue. The staging of the attack so clearly gives us all of the clues to figure out what’s happening in that moment. The angle of attack is just right for Wolvy-claws, and while “chunck” is no “snikt,” the use of sound effects invites the comparison to Wolverine.
So, Greg, I’m curious how this issue played for you. The series has never shied away from its complicated history, but always in a super-accessible way that any fan of the 90s cartoon might have appreciated. With a renewed emphasis on its own characters from the future (who, I repeat, should all be dead), I think the series might be playing too much inside pool. Of course, from inside the pool, it’s impossible to tell.
Greg: There are, broadly speaking, two different approaches to entering a pool. You can enter slowly, from the steps in the shallow end, with a noodle to ensure you’ll stay afloat, getting used to the temperature — or, you can jump into the deep end, temperature and floaties be damned. I’d say that your previous history with the All New X-Men helped you get acclimated to the pool, working effectively as a narrative noodle. I, on the other hand, marvel at your insight (I have not read this title before but I am a fan of the 90s cartoon) and was thus chucked into the pool and expected to swim. Also, if this metaphor got away from me, blame Patrick, ‘cause he brought it up in his last line.
Generally, I tend to prefer stories that aren’t afraid to shy away from over-acclimating any newbies with laborious detail. I love when a storyteller trusts that, from seeing the characters simply exist in a “normal day”, the reader will understand the rules and relationships of the universe. Yet in this issue, so much of these characters’ “normal day” involves dissecting the fact that no one in the universe truly understands the rules and relationships. While I appreciate that much of it was played for honest laughs and Bendis admitting to his readership that he understands the premise is inherently odd (in improv-speak, we refer to this as “calling the unusual thing out”), it also means that I was thrown in a pool where my fellow swimmers and lifeguards were as lost as me. To read page after page of dense dialogue where character motivations, relationships, spatial-temporal definitions, and even names are not fully understood or known (“What were you calling her?” “Wolverine clone”) became exhausting to me. Patrick, I like your reading of each X-Men’s core power as being an emotional manifestation that leads to immediately clear storytelling, but in this issue, I can’t help feel like the primary emotion for everyone is just confusion.
There were many things that played on a purely visceral enjoyment level for me, particularly Immonen’s wonderful work with shade and shadow, combined with Marte Gracia’s grippingly dark and deep color palettes. And while I did take some umbrage in the sheer volume of “We, the X-Men, don’t understand what’s happening!” as humor, I was quite charmed by Angel’s consistent hilarity, particularly his use of the phrase “bing-bongs”. Also, the issue absolutely sticks the landing, culminating in a brilliant mixture of genuine narrative curiosity fueled by a sort of primal joy as to the intense battle that’s surely about to commence. Perhaps, now that this issue’s technically difficult butterfly stroke is out of the way, the rest of the series can break into an easy freestyle stride.
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