Have X-Men comics entered a new golden age?
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Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic-book issues of significance. This week, they are Uncanny X-Men #1 by Brian Michael Bendis (All-New X-Men, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man) and Chris Bachalo (Wolverine And The X-Men, Death: The High Cost Of Living) and Wolverine And The X-Men #25 by Jason Aaron (Thor: God Of Thunder, Scalped) and Ramón Pérez (Tale Of Sand), two books that highlight the progress Marvel has made with its X-Men titles.
When it comes to superhero teams, the X-Men stand above all the rest. The history of the team has become incredibly dense, but also one of the richest mythologies in comic books. The X-books are a sprawling landscape of exotic locales and characters from all walks of life, a band of misfits united by what makes them different. The group was always expanding before House Of M put a stop to new mutants in the Marvel universe, but thankfully, Marvel editorial realized there was more potential in the old status quo. The X-Men are back on the hunt for the next generation after the events of Avengers Vs. X-Men, with Wolverine leading the charge at the Jean Grey School For Higher Learning while a damaged Cyclops begins the new Xavier School.
Scott Summers killing Charles Xavier is a plot development that’s paid off handsomely in Marvel Now!, and the shockwaves of Xavier’s death are still being felt in books like X-Men: Legacy, Uncanny Avengers, and New Avengers. Cyclops has changed dramatically in the last 10 years: Grant Morrison exposed the character’s weaknesses in New X-Men before Joss Whedon showed off his strengths in Astonishing X-Men, “Messiah Complex” and “Second Coming” had him taking charge of the mutant race, and Schism and AvX broke him down again. He’s now somewhere between a hero and villain, convinced of the righteousness of his cause as he tries to recruit and help new mutants to make up for killing his mentor.
Brian Michael Bendis has done strong work balancing the different sides of the character in All-New X-Men, and Uncanny X-Men #1 continues to showcase the opposing sides of Cyclops’ personality. The first issue of Bendis’ second X-series is framed by a conversation between Maria Hill and a mysterious bald member of Cyclops’ team who is willing to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. to help destroy the mutant revolutionary. That traitor is Magneto, sporting a new shaved head to show his solidarity with his deceased best friend/nemesis, and really pissed off that Cyclops’ actions in AvX have downgraded his powers. The irony in all of this is that Cyclops has essentially become Magneto, complete with a growing army of underground revolutionaries plastering his face on “Cyclops Was Right” propaganda.
Cyclops sports a great new costume courtesy of artist Chris Bachalo, who keeps the streamlined body suit of his previous look but changes the piping to a bold red design that wraps around his body. His visor is now a big X instead of a single straight line, visually evoking the chaotic nature of Scott’s newly altered powers, and creating the illusion of an actual Cyclops as his optic blast glows in the middle of his face. The rest of the team’s costumes stick to a black-and-white color scheme, making Cyclops stand out even more. Bachalo has a strong manga influence in his artwork, and it can be seen in Magik’s giant sword and the mechanical Sentinels that attack Cyclops and his team. Bendis gives Bachalo a lot of talking heads in this issue, but the artist knows how to stage a conversation to give it forward momentum. The issue begins with more traditional, controlled panel layouts as Magneto and Maria Hill provide the necessary first-issue exposition, but when the action breaks out, Bachalo turns everything on its side for diagonal double-page layouts that emphasize the mayhem of the fight. He’s also an accomplished colorist, and he knows the perfect palette to add depth to his pencils without sacrificing the graphic pop. There’s an edge to Bachalo’s art that’s appropriate for this darker team, and Wolverine And The X-Men, the last X-book he launched, has taken its visuals in a brighter direction since losing Bachalo.
While Cyclops is building his school, Wolverine is trying to figure out what to do with the students he has, and Wolverine And The X-Men celebrates a milestone 25th issue with a field trip to the Savage Land featuring stunning artwork from Ramón Pérez. Jason Aaron’s title has featured some of the best artists in the business, and Eisner Award-winning creator Pérez takes this book to another level of excellence. There’s a smoothness to his artwork that evokes the work of classic Disney animators, and his understanding of panel design results in two-page sequences that are breathtaking in their environmental scope while still incredibly expressive when it comes to the characters.
Wolverine And The X-Men is an ensemble book with a giant cast: There’s a two-page infographic in the back of #25 that shows the faculty and student body, and illustrates how impressive it is that Aaron has juggled multiple storylines with all those characters. This new storyline puts the focus back on Wolverine, whose plan for a relatively calm Savage Land trip of terrorizing his students is interrupted by the appearance of his brother, Dog. As with Cyclops, the current state of Wolverine requires Aaron to negotiate conflicting aspects of the character, and Logan suffers from constant doubt that he’s ill-suited for his role as a headmaster. This issue proves that he’s not the best teacher, as his entire lesson plan consists of leaving his students on their own in a jungle full of bloodthirsty dinosaurs.
New students Shark-Girl, Eye-Boy, and Sprite join Quentin Quire, Glob Herman, Genesis, Idie, and the now-feral Broo in the Savage Land, and Aaron gives each character a distinct voice, even if their codenames aren’t the most original. Their personalities are further fleshed out by Pérez’s artwork, which shows the creator’s control over facial expressions and body language. While the dialogue is enjoyable enough, the real highlight of this book is the action, as Pérez draws spectacularly dynamic fight sequences between the students and never-ending waves of impeccably rendered dinosaurs. Aaron and Pérez are a team with spectacular chemistry, and it’s unfortunate that Pérez is only going to be working on this arc. Granted, the fact that he’s doing it at all shows how Marvel has become the go-to superhero comic-book publisher when it comes to stunning artwork.
The Marvel Now! X-Men titles feature gorgeous artwork from some of the most distinctive artists working in superhero comics, and there’s an energy in Bachalo and Pérez’s visuals that elevates the writers’ work. With Stuart Immonen and David Marquez rotating on All-New X-Men and Olivier Coipel drawing Brian Wood’s upcoming all-female X-Men, the quality of the artwork doesn’t look to be taking a dip any time soon, and the writing is matching that same level of excellence. There’s a clear sense of direction across the entire X-Men line that has resulted in stronger stories, and as the world of these characters continues to expand, the creators on these titles are taking the Merry Mutants to exciting new heights.