Saturday, May 15, 2010

Astonishing X-men Xenogenesis - Good Idea and Bad Execution

I just had to give this a go before Second Coming. With so many other X-books in the middle of these dire, earth shattering arcs there really aren't a whole lot of comics that have the X-men in their more classic element. To fill that void Marvel seems to want to evoke the awesome of yesteryear in a title with the Astonishing label. It seems a little foolish that just calling it astonishing will make readers tap the awesome from the landmark Joss Whedon run, but can you blame them? This is a book by Warren Ellis, who is pound for pound one of the most consistently kick-ass writers for Marvel. He's been on a wide range of comics and he's been able to leave his mark on all of them, marking it with the vigor of a territorial wolf. He was the one given the Astonishing title after Joss Whedon left and while it seemed to be in good hands, the title just did not measure up and it's basically been relegated to the bargain bin between old DVDs of Biodome and Batman Forever. So when the concept for Xenogenesis was announced Ellis had a chance to start fresh, but the end result reeks of a tuna sandwich left in the glove box of a car in Las Vegas.

Right off the bat it's hard to wrap your head around this book. For one, it's not even clear if this book is in continuity. It takes place while the team is in San Fransisco, so it's after Messiah Complex. The main plot centers around an African town with an abnormal level of mutant births, so it seems to imply it happens after Second Coming. However, Beast is still with the team and it's already well-known that he's left the X-men for the Avengers. The whole premise seems to blare the old computer error "Does Not Computer." Even in interviews the editors won't say whether or not this book is in continuity. If it is it's in a very fucked up part of it between the Clone Saga and One More Day. This would be completely forgivable if the story was decent. However, right off the bat it's pretty weak.

As previously mentioned, the story revolves around this small African town that has an unusual number of mutant births. Storm has come to visit the X-men, taking a break from being the Queen of Wakanda and part time fluffier for the Black Panther. At some point along the way she changed her style to give herself the classic mohawk look from the 80s. For those who remember this look of Storm, they'll recall the nerdgasm inducing days when she was more badass and right up there with Wolverine in terms of kicking ass. Now as a glorified house wife, it looks fucking goofy on her. Like she lost a bet with Emma and let Wolverine style her hair when he was plastered.

Hair jokes aside, she meets up with the others at the breakfast table to discuss the mission. This is where one of Ellis's strengths show. He's always wielded dialogue the same way sushi chefs wield knives. The wordage and tone is perfect for the characters. He really captures Emma Frost's snarky attitude, which seems to have been watered down by writers like Matt Fraction to make her more of a good girl for Cyclops, is maintained and demonstrated in all sorts of wonderful ways. But the real fun comes with the dialogue between Storm and Cyclops.

Historically, Cyclops and Storm are the most powerful voices in the X-men besides Charles Xavier. When one of them is unable to lead, the other is always there to pick up the slack. In addition they are really in tuned with one another in terms of intent and understanding. They are unable to hide each others' subtleties and that makes for some nice witty remarks that give an overall sense of fun to the comics. And really, isn't that with comics should be all about?

It's cute. If only the comic would end there because it just goes downhill from that point. This is where the X-men go from a serious superhero team to a total fucking joke. It leads one to understand why this book doesn't appear to be (and probably shouldn't be) in continuity with the rest of the books. On the very next page the X-men prepare to fly to Africa to investigate. Now one would expect for them to go in full force, carrying themselves with the same heroic aura that has made them such a present in Marvel. But anyone expecting that is in for a couple of painful nut shots because for this mission, they're going at it in baseball uniforms. That's not a joke and that's not a cute euphemism. They are literally going out on a mission looking like a minor league softball team.

Now Ellis tries to justify this as having the X-men not cause too much of a stir. But someone as creative as him should be able to think of something better than fucking baseball uniforms. It's a bad omen because everything just goes downhill from there. The rest of the comic is basically the team chatting away on the X-jet, talking about the mission and Africa and even throwing in some politics for good measure. Because that's what your typical fanboy wants to read about when they pick up an X-men expose on African politics. It's about as interesting as it sounds. You would probably be better off giving yourself a concussion, checking into a hospital, and letting them drug you.

This is made even more painful by the nauseating art. Now I get that some books like to have a specific style associated with them. Astonishing wouldn't be able to distinguish itself if it didn't look unique. Well here it's about as unique as a deformed raccoon. The coloring, style, and overall outline of the characters is a joke. Storm and Emma look like barbie dolls that were shoved into the microwave and dipped in pancake batter. The men are about as proportional as Oprah's diet plan. The coloring so uninspiring it should be patented as a treatment for insomnia. I get that this comic is meant to be different, but art like this can only be balanced out with a quality story and since that story is sub-par it only emphasizes the sheer ugly-ass breadth of this art. There's no other way to say it. This art is possibly the only art that makes a character as hot as Emma Frost look like as appealing as a dead horses anus. They try to make up for it by blatantly showing off her boobs, but even the power of cleavage has it's limits.

The comic ends with a yawn and not a bang. Basically, they keep yaking away and do a quick pass over the Serengeti for Storm. It was a nice gesture and all, but totally unnecessary. Then they land and they encounter a bunch of guys with guns. That's when the comic ends. There's no action, no fighting, no X-men kicking ass as we're so used to seeing. It just ends and you die a little inside knowing you spend this money on a comic book with Warren Ellis as the writer and got chewed up chunk of dog shit wrapped in some fancy paper.

Now it would be wrong to say that Astonishing X-men Xenogenesis is the worst X-comic ever written. It still has a long way to go to reach the sheer shit storm that was Ultimate X. This comic does actually have some redeeming qualities. The dialogue between the characters and the overall characterization is spot on and even with lousy art, that's a big plus. There are comics with far greater eye candy that have such piss poor characterization it seems like a crime to put that kind of art with it. Still, Warren Ellis is better than this. He's capable of so much more and this really feels like an unnecessary comic. It's like Marvel is just trying to put an Astonishing title out there and hope that the name is good enough to sell. The sad part is it may work to a point, but if this is the quality they manage then even the most dogged half-brained consumer will opt for something a little better in the long run.

So what's the final verdict? I'm not going to give this issue the worst possible score. For it's small benefits and major drawbacks, it deserves a 2 out of 5. There is room for improvement, but until the art improves Astonishing is going to be the eye gougingly ugly step-child of X-men comics. Nuff said.

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