All-New X-Men 4

Wow look at this, my first Marvel review. Its been a long time coming so welcome to the House of Ideas, the House of Mouse, and the Jean-Grey School for Gifted Students. Oops! You’re late for class.

1st Period: History

Not too long ago the Scarlet Witch undid a number of mutant’s powers and stopped any new mutants from being born. As the mutant species found itself more and more endangered, Cyclops moved the X-Men to an island off the coast of San Fransisco and grew increasingly militaristic as the extinction of mutants grew more plausible. Finally Wolverine and Cyclops came to blows over the issue of whether the last generation of mutants should be raised to expect the best or the worst, and Wolverine founded the Jean Grey School on the ruins of the Xavier Institute, taking a large chunk of the X-Men with him. This bipartite system worked until Cyclops was forced into a war with the Avengers over what to do about the Phoenix Force, a cosmic power of mutation and rebirth (depending on the writer). In the end Cyclops ended up as the new Dark Phoenix and killed his mentor Professor Xavier in a rage before the Phoenix force could be removed from him and used to reignite the mutant race. Now Cyclops is public enemy number one and the leader of the new Brotherhood of Mutants (starting soon in Uncanny X-Men), while the berserker Wolverine tries to be a positive guiding force for the next generation of peaceful mutants (in Wolverine and the X-Men, which I strongly recommend). Against this tapestry is Dr. Hank “the Beast” McCoy, who believes he is dying and, as a last-ditch attempt to stop another mutant civil war, has brought forward in time the original five students of the Xavier Institute, back when they were still…(wait for it)…The All-New X-Men!

Whew, still with me? Yeah, that’s the last eight years of X-Men stories. so having heard that you probably either think that this is an innovative way of keeping the X-Men brand from completely reverting to the Students vs. Brotherhood dynamic of old or a ridiculous ploy for your money. I kind of think it’s both (seriously marvel, bi-monthly comics for $3.99 each?), but depending on your opinion, I’ll say right now that the only factor that will likely make a significant difference to whether you should pick up this title or not is how well you think Bendis writes it. we’ll get to that soon  but this class is over.

2nd Period: Math

Cyclops + Iceman + Angel + Beast + Jean = (Cyclops + Magneto) – (powers/2)

(Emma – Cyclops) + Jean Grey = F/U

-Cyclops + Cyclops = Angst = 2(Angel) + (Christopher + Eva)

IF X = CyclopsX + WolverineX and x =  (Cyclops + Magneto) – powers and X * x = Y

Solve for Y

3rd Period: Philosophy

Now as you may have noticed, the reviews on this site tend to stray into discussions of greater themes in the world of comics (which may get longer articles at a later date, depending on my interest or reader demand, so let me know in comments). This one is no exception. One of the most important questions of the past five years in much of pop culture, but especially at DC and Marvel, has been the question of nostalgia. How much should we let things change in comics. After all it wouldn’t be right to spit on the iconic stories and characters that have become such fixtures of our culture. But myths die and fans demand the illusion of change, so how do you keep your classic characters evolving and relevant without losing what made them great? Well the X-Men have had a very interesting answer.

The strength of the original X-Men stories (let’s consider that the Stan Lee and Chris Claremont stories) was the focus on interpersonal drama, complicated morality, and classic themes of being a teenager in a world that seems, and too often does, hate and fear you. As the characters and the world of comics grew up there was a draw to deal with the darker shades of Mutant politics, but as crucial as it is to acknowledge the work that needs to be done, both for Marvel’s mutants and those who suffer bigotry in our world, both X-Men and activism need hope and need to realize that no matter your power, mutant or systemic, you can’t change the world by force of will, only try to better it.

So Cyclops’ stories have focused on the struggles of mutants to find a place in the world and focusing on mutants as a species. On the other hand, Wolverine’s school provides a place to enjoy the traditional ethos of Xavier’s school, the energy of worlds strangest teenagers, and the growth of mutants as individuals trying to find their way. Which leaves All-New X-Men to be that in-between title looking at the struggle to hold onto innocence.

Does anyone have any thoughts about this answer to the problem of nostalgia? Whoops, there’s the bell. Leave them in comments and we’ll continue next class.

4th Period: English

Alright students, today we’ll be discussing the work of Brian Bendis. Despite his impressive resume and reputation as an architect of Marvel, All-New X-Men was my first experience with Bendis’ writing. So what’s on display in issue 4? Well the first thing that might strike you in a lengthy monologue in the mind of the modern Cyclops. This certainly enforces Bendis’ reputation as a wordy writer, but while I find it a little excessive, he does introduce a fair deal and does it in clever ways. One of my favorite of these little tidbits is Scott considering that “maybe Xavier can’t be killed.” As strait laced and methodical as this narration shows him to be, this line proves that there’s plenty in common between this Scott and his younger counterpart. In fact, it’s positively Freudian!

Then, as the reader is starting to get kind of sick of this deluge of inner-monologue, Bendis has Jean Grey fall to her knees, overwhelmed by Cyclops’  internal monologue. It’s a great moment of meta-textuality and shows that Bendis is capable of playing with the reader. In fact I’d say that the strength of this issue is how clear it is that Bendis respects this comic and its audience. He writes with all the layers and symbolism worthy of a literature class analysis. With this issue it becomes clear that he chose this story for a reason.

As you may have guessed, one of the real draws of this issue is seeing the reactions of Scott and the X-Men. The older Cyclops is tragic yet utterly convincing as he struggles not to revert to old thoughts, all the while clearly suffering under the pressure to stand true to his recent convictions and the hard choices that come with them. Jean Grey reads like a teenage girl pushed beyond what she can take but hanging on with the help of her friends. Even Angel, in some ways the most generic of the original X-Men, gets a distinct and believable voice and a unique perspective on their situation that will probably lead to some great tension down the line. And writing this, I can’t help but come back to the word respect. Bendis respects himself, his readers, and his characters and each one is a human being who has a method of seeing themself and the world.

The one stand out to me is Emma Frost. While I’ve never been a fan of hers, I have read enough to know she’s a character that can have strong moments that justify her fans and in between is frequently someone you love to hate. But here she’s…how to put this…at best Lady Macbeth and at worst Mean Girls. She seems like a character that’s either weaker written or needs some spotlight shone on her, but new readers probably won’t care for her much given this issue. I’m curious what Emma’s fans think.

The plot is solid but Bendis is famous for dialogue that justifies sometimes limited plot progression. It’s not a perfect balance but if this is a single issue of his writing, I could easily imagine that his best lives up to that reputation easily. What’s most important is that Bendis gives us something that has been greatly missed in many comics and was the key to the X-Mens success forty and fifty years ago: characters we can know and care about.

5th Period: Art

There’s not a lot to say about the art in this book. Stuart Immonen is doing a fine job but in many ways it’s exactly what you might think of if you tried to visualize attractive comic art from the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. It’s a little bit of that old idea that once you get good enough people will stop noticing your work because they expect it to be brilliant.

All-New X-Men 4 provides Immonen opportunity to draw raging fires, bursts of magic, psychic and magnetic fields, and lots and lots of optic blasts. He and colorist Marte Gracia get a lot of mileage out of these, and clearly paid attention for opportunities to have such fantastic elements enhance the scene and the appearance of the characters. Immonen shows his range, shifting quickly from large action sequences to quiet moments of introspection.

In pages filled to the brim with dialogue and panels, I found that the backgrounds were impressively detailed at times but in many cases slightly distracting. As much as I appreciated the time it must have taken to render the texture of the rocky ground, I hadn’t read this book through often enough when I started noticing it consciously. This is a position, however, that I’d happily chalk up to personal preference, so see what you think. Besides, that’s not exactly scathing criticism.

Also both of the Icemans…Icemen? Icemen. Both of the Icemen look weird this issue.

Really, in terms of the art, the real story of this issue, in my opinion is the collaboration between writer and artists. The interaction of how Bendis plotted his pages with how Immonen laid out the specified panels with how Grawbadger and Gracia inked and colored the lines to create unity in the page. Bendis seems to have great comfort working with his artist, using two page compositions to help give breathing space and pace to his somewhat wide-screen story. There’s actually a run of five two-page layouts (or half of the comic) in a row in the middle of the story.

One thing that I’ve been noticing, having been toying with comic scripts myself recently, is the challenge the writer faces in choosing how many and what panels to place on a page and the corresponding challenge to the artist to pick the best arrangements. I’ve been thinking that it’s skill to know what suits the story but it’s mastery to make the panels tell the story the way you like. Bendis shows us that I was underestimating the levels of advancement and how many are called into play for each person working in comics. All-New X-Men 4 shows both of those skills but also the ability to cram as much of that storytelling into a single issue.

I’m not sure that I’m a fan boy for Bendis or Immonen like I’ve heard some are but in an issue like this you have to at least respect their craft.

6th Period: Economics

While art and layouts are still fresh in your mind, there is one criticism I’d like to make of the issue and it isn’t directed at Bendis or Immonen. It’s directed at Marvel.  There are two consecutive scenes in this book (one set in Colorado) that are an excellent use of visual parallelism. It’s a simple technique, one that some might find too heavy-handed, but it resonates. It’s the kind of simple, nearly mythological, technique that makes Star Wars such a classic. The problem is that, while Bendis clearly paced that scene to allow the two panels to be exactly two pages apart, someone at Marvel decided that this was the appropriate place for an advertisement and instructions on how to use the Marvel comics app, the most glaring of a number of instances of Marvel’s digital ‘improvements’ taking away from the reading experience. None of them are painfully distracting but, once you notice what this does to the flow of Bendis’ story you’ll know the he probably wishes that they hadn’t done so and that they’ll fix it for the trade. It’s not a serious offense but, it’s another example of fine work on Bendis and Immonen’s part as well as an example of how editorial and marketing decisions do directly affect your reading experience.

And seriously, bi-weekly $3.99 comics? With a sister title on the way? It too? Ooph!

Well time flies, almost time to go.

So what’s the bottom line on All-New X-Men 4? Well, it’s certainly smart comic and a handsome one (and I hear it’s related to the Disney family. It’s a fine match for any Jane Austin protagonist). It’s the kind of comic I like to read, literary without being stuffy and using both text and image effectively. Still for all the praise I’ve rained on it, this issue doesn’t get my heart racing. It’s a comic that appeals to my brain but needs a spark before it will feel like on of the true gems  on the shelves. Bendis and Immon-

Ah, there’s the bell.

Remember to read issues 1-3 over break and- ach, you’re not listening anymore. Enjoy your vacation and happy holidays.