By Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
CORRECTION (5/3/18): A previous version of this piece credited Clayton Cowles with the lettering, as is indicated in the credits. The issue was actually lettered by Travis Lanham.
Astonishing X-Men is one of those telepathic mutant clusterfucks. You know the type: there are psychics and reality warpers and a shapeshifter all int he mix at once. The audience’s ability to tell what is happening and what is not happening will likely vary from reader to reader, but I had a hell of a time tracking who was where and what specific threats they faced. This disorientation cues the reader up for that mind-bending twist on the final page. But you can’t just be confused for 20 pages, can you? With Ron Garney’s artwork and Charles Soule’s script both actively working to distance themselves from the reader, we have to look to letterer Travis Lanham for signposts of stability.
Lanham’s lettering is poetic and graphic, subtly telegraphing both a general sense of unease and the specific twist at the end of the issue. That’s the first dead giveaway — X’s narration boxes, speech balloons, and telepathy clouds (no idea if that’s what we call those!) are all black with white lettering. That’s how the character has always talked, but I had presumed it was a weird quirk of Xavier being inside Fantomex’ body. When the issue finally ends and we see see the Shadow King discard the husk of X, this lettering follows him.
The implication is that all of X’s dialogue, all of his thoughts, have been that of the Shadow King the whole time… and we should have seen it coming.
And while I’m still a little too green in my X-mythology to have called it before it happened, Lanham does give us the tools to recognize that something is up with those narration boxes. Right on page one, Soule writes a charming little poem about the Garden of Proteus in X’s voice. Lanham sets the most repetitive part of it in one box, contained in one tall panel, so the narration takes the shape of the visual storytelling. Here’s the panel I’m talking about:
The last six lines of the second narration box are hypnotic. Every other line is “what you” and the opposite lines all end with “, is.” It’s a visually recurrent poetry, screaming for the reader to pay attention to it. Later in the issue, Psylocke and X telepathically strategize, and their panels are a checkerboard of telepathy clouds of opposite color schemes. We should recognize this immediately as characters with separate goals.
Their psychic dialogue is right on top of each other, not for lack of space on the page, but to highlight the visual difference between them. That conflict between good and evil, between light and dark, is the only thing I’m able to make out through the psychic fog — and that turns out to be enough.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?