All-New X-Men 15

When Stan Lee put out the first issue of X-Men in 1963, the fledgling series bore the subtitle: the strangest super-heroes of all! Issue four took things one step further, declaring them “the most unusual teenagers of all time” and before long the two were hybridized, making the X-Men “the strangest teens of all!”

Brian Michael Bendis’ ode to those long-ago days has certainly earned the strange and the recent run-ins with Mystique and HYDRA have proven these time-warped mutants’ worth as a superhero team, but this week, Bendis turn his attention to their teenaged struggles. It’s a historically risky tactic but Bendis takes it on with gusto. Does he succeed? Read on, Marvel faithful, read on and find out.

Though I’ve greatly enjoyed All-New X-Men, I admit that I have felt like that title lost something after the original class declared their intentions to remain in the present. The tension of the first six or seven issues flowed naturally and forced opposing views together, the pressure forming literary diamonds (too much? I’ve been thinking about Hank McCoy, forgive me). But the series grew increasingly episodic. Bendis’ decompressed storylines felt shorter rather than longer, as they had before.

The addition of a new artist helps but, based on writing alone, this issue still feels like something of a new start for the title.

Right off the bat, you know this is going to be a funny issue, and Bendis doesn’t let you down. The characters’ wit is front and center, and the ways that they almost can’t help but crack wise does a lot to make them feel like teenagers, rather than small and unnecessarily comedic adults. The comedy is especially welcome because it forces Bendis to focus his character work in short bursts. You still get some classic Bendis discussions but they’re given contrast by a number of snappy character moments that help flavor the issue.

These little flourishes are essential to a quiet, personal issue, such as this, and they combine with the longer dramatic scenes to make something rather amazing. Scenes like Jean and Hank’s training session could have come off antagonistic but Bendis nails the bizarre situation of a know-it-all ape-man being teased by his time-displaced teenage crush. There’s just something in the words that gets across the closeness between the two of them instantly. You might think that the bolding helps or that it draws on the considerable contributions of David Lafuente, the artist, but there is no bolding and Jean’s keen concentration limits Lafuente’s ability to comment on the text. It’s all Bendis’ writing and it’s wonderful.

The rest of the scenes and characters are similarly spot-on. Young Hank brings equal parts iconic Beast intelligence, 60s Beast frustration, and eternally teenaged haplessness together perfectly. Bendis’ scowling Wolverine feels every bit the frustrated administrator that he did at the start of Wolverine and the X-Men and even scores a few bonus points by actually invoking Hank’s respect and Jean’s terror.

One of the best choices of the issue, though, is pairing the love struck Scott Summers with Bobby Drake. Though his friendship with Hank McCoy is a nice touch to the character, Iceman often seems overshadowed by their partnership, unable to compete with a partner who stands on his own. This little switcheroo is great for Bobby, even if it fails to move much beyond his defining features of ‘young’ and ‘funny’, but it really does wonders for Scott.

For the first time in a long time it seems possible that Scott Summers could exist as a person. Especially as he’s found himself more and more at the head of the mutant revolution, Cyclops’ already strictly monitored temperament has blossomed into full-blown obsession where it can be hard to think that this guy once engaged in something as frivolous as mutant baseball.

His crush stolen away by a self he never got to become and under Bobby’s influence, we finally get to see ol’ Slim Summers loosen up a bit. While I’m still unsure why there’s always a town fair whenever comic characters need to let off steam, it’s a godsend for the character. And better yet there are some interesting wrinkles to it. I’m not sure if Scott’s moping comes off better or worse for the quickness with which some positive attention turns him around.

Bendis hits the nail right on the head: we hear so often about how mutants are hated and feared, but every once in a while, when the sentinels allow, it’s good to remember that there are some parts of being a mutant that are awesome.

While this issue is great at reconnecting to those early days when the X-men had girlfriends and hang-outs in town, it isn’t terribly exciting. There’s not a lot of action to speak of and, if I’m praising the strangest teens of all vibe, I should also probably give it a wag of the finger for forgetting that it was superheroes first and teens second. If you don’t have a connection to these characters as people, or even if you do but need them to actually do some superheroing, this issue may not be for you.

Stewart Immonen’s pencils are always lovely, but this issue is perfect for David Lafuente. Lafuente’s flat, simplified artwork makes the issue feel less line a Big Two Superhero book and more like a slice of life comic that just happens to include a lot of telepathy.

Some people will probably rag on the fact that there aren’t a lot of backgrounds, but it doesn’t bother me at all. Usually when that’s the case I try to explain why I think the lack of backgrounds is a stronger artistic choice and justify my opinion, but I really can’t in this case. The simple colored backgrounds peppered throughout this issue just pop for me and the best thing I can say is that they keep the focus on what’s important (the characters), but that’s just rationalizing. The truth is that it feels right with the style to me and in stylized comics like this, I give artists a little more slack.

As I said, the characters are the core of this comic. It’s not subtlety that makes Lafuente’s characters come alive, but clarity. With only a few lines and some shading making up the players’ faces, the book falls seamlessly into old familiar looks. Bobby’s cockiness, Jean’s bashful pride, Professor Logan’s utter frustration, they all come through. Noses tend to be a bit pointy and eyes can get enormous, a trait that I’m sure will rub at least a few readers the wrong way. All the same it has a real web-comic charm that suits the issue and looks amazing.

One other thing to mention is panel composition. Each and every panel crackles with an adolescent energy. Characters stand, sit, and talk the way that teenagers wish they did. Superhero comics are often fantasies of what our lives could be, but the fantasy here isn’t saving the world, it’s just being cool. Lafuente has a talent for knowing the little tricks that stir that dueling hope and nervousness that high school brings from deep inside your gut and does a rather impressive job of assembling it to suit his needs.

The blocking of the issue is unusually effective, perhaps because there’s so little in many of the panels. Lafuente has no trouble at all keeping his populous panels clear and dynamic. As if that wasn’t enough, he and Bendis do a fine job on the layouts. Though they’re simple enough most of the time, every here and there they cut loose and show you just what they’re capable of.

This is a hard issue to review. I’m glad this is my own blog and not WCBR, where I’d have to give it a grade. On one hand it’s actionless fluff, barely serving to advance the story. But, on the other, it’s cute, intelligent, and utterly gorgeous old-fashioned X-Men soap opera. It will all come down too personal taste on this one, but if any of this sounds interesting to you, I advise you strongly to give it a look. Let’s hope that this new energy follows Bendis into Battle of the Atom and beyond, because I’ve been waiting for another issue of All-New X-Men this good for months and I don’t care to repeat the experience.

 

 

P.S. I’m not sure I believe that Rachel hasn’t noticed any of this, especially given her clear involvement in the school over in (adjectiveless) X-Men.

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