Having previously read the rest of Warren Ellis’ run on Astonishing X-Men (Astonishing X-Men Vol. 6: Exogenetic and Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis), I figured I might as well track down Astonishing X-Men Vol. 5: Ghost Box as well.
This was Ellis’ first arc on the series, following the four arcs/volumes by writer Joss Whedon and artist John Cassaday. For it, Ellis was teamed by Simone Bianchi.
Now, reading the series more or less backwards through the collections isn’t the way I’d recommend doing it, although each story arc is self-contained enough that it doesn’t matter overmuch. Reading them all now, and putting them in order in my memory, it’s clear Ellis was working through a series of big action plots stemming from the events of some of the mutant-centric events (House of M’s decimation of the homo superior species, the “Manifest Destiny”-branded move to the West Coast, first from San Francisco and then onto a little island apparently un-ironically called Utopia, etc). But, more importantly, while he was doing that, he had some broad characterizations of the main cast—the cast of Whedon and Cassaday’s run, minus Kitty Pryde and Colossus, plus Storm—and some ongoing conflicts that several of them would really wrestle with, including Cyclops’ struggle to be a Professor X-like leader during a time when a Magneto-like leader might be more successful, and Beast’s struggles to scientifically un-do what the Scarlet Witch magically did to mutants way back in House of M.
The plot in this storyline was a lot more complicated than those in some of the later volumes Ellis wrote, perhaps not necessarily in terms of a summary, but rather in terms of presentations.
That plot basically boils down to this: the mutant super-team stumbles upon a secret war between two factions of super-mutants that can’t possibly be of this universe (given what the smart mutant knows about science) and they must save the world from an overwhelming invasion force, discovering along the way that someone from their past is heavily involved.
But Ellis introduces it in a rather twisty and turny way, which makes the read surprising and engaging, at least when read in a trade collection. I imagine it just read boring when a reader had to way 30 day to 30 months between late installments.
When the San Francisco Police Department find an exceptionally exotic corpse, apparently killed in an exceptionally exotic manner, they call in the X-Men to consult, and they start following the clues, which takes them all around the world and fighting some mad-science monsters and invaders and encountering tons of Ellis-style super-science, while trading withering remarks with one another.
It’s essentially a perfect script for an X-comic.
I was exceptionally—or should I say X-ceptionally? Ha ha ha (NO. No I should not say that)—surprised by Bianchis’ artwork, which was, in terms of rendering, better-planned, better-thought-out and overall better drawn than much of what you might find on the super-comics shelves, more closely resembling a European album comic than Big Two artwork. Bianchi and Andrea Silvestri provide ink washes over the pencils, which no doubt adds to its painterly-like look, and Simone Peruzzi, Bianchi and three others all provide colors, although the three involved seem to be among Marvel’s better colorists.
Now, while Bianchi’s design and rendering skills are pretty incredible, I’m not sure I’ve completely made up my mind about the overall quality of his work after reading this one story. It’s not always clear what’s going on, and he makes extremely interesting choices, particularly in laying out his panels and depicting action (Near the climax, for example, the team splits into three sub-teams, and each fights a different threat; only the Wolverine/Armor fight scene is terrible legible, and that’s mostly because it simply involves a guy kneeing and stabbing another guy using his knife-fist, rather than gymnastics or lasers or super-powers).
But even if the flow of a page gets all-tangled up here or there, or if it’s impossible to understand why Bianchi chose to draw a page’s worth of action in the format he did, they are always interesting-looking pages to take in, consider and figure out.
I loved the way the characters looked, and I loved reading the art—even when I was trying to read it as much I was actually reading it, if that makes sense.
Let’s look at the images, shall we?
First, I wanted to draw special attention to Storm’s costuming:Bianchi does redesigns for all of the characters, some major and some extremely minor, and his Storm is perhaps the more radical one. As I mentioned of Phil Jimenez’s version of Storm in a letter volume of the series, it’s a combination of her original costume with her ‘90s embrace of the color white, but Bianchi adds a great deal of filigree, suggesting a sci-fi super-goddess and the Queen of a sort of African above-ground Atlantis like Wakanda.
The back of the book includes some design sketches, and I’ve just included The Storm one, as it offers the best view of the whole shebang. I should note that Bianchi’s drawing of it is the first time I ever understood what exactly that weird shape in Storm’s hair was really supposed to be.
I always thought it was some sort of huge goofy pick or headband, but now I see the strange shape is merely suspended around a ring that encircles the head, which makes more sense.
I was kind of alarmed by the first page of the book, which opened with a three-panel grid, the top one of which featured a panel approximating Armor’s Twitter account, and I worried that it would be a device that runs through the entire story. Luckily it didn’t, but those first few pages are awfully off-putting, no so much grids, as panels of various shapes stacked Tetrisly, even Dr. Mario-like on the white pages, with elements bleeding out of certain borders, and some black matting effects below certain panels.
The craziest thing about the page, however, in which we’re first introduced to Armor, Wolverine and Beast, is the Wolvie intro:I guess maybe I’m just not familiar enough with San Francisco to recognize what the hell is going on, but is Wolverine in the San Francisco Zoo or something? Or is there a place somewhere in which there’s a pagoda and some bison? And what’s up with that one laying on the ground? Is it dead? Do Buffalo sleep like that? Or did Wolverine kill it? Or just tip it, like rural teenagers might do to a cow?
(Help me, San Francisco-based comics retailer and writer-about-comics Brian Hibbs!)
As cool as it would be if Wolverine’s actual superhero costume was just a pair of black briefs, Bianchi’s redesign is actually a version of the yellow and blue scuba-diving suit with a cowl shaped like Wolverine’s hair-style.
The most noticeable modification is the holes for Wolverine’s ears, but what really struck me was the eyes:Sometimes Bianchi depicts them like Alex Ross draws Batman’s mask, as a sort of perfectly-fitted affair in which just enough material has been cut away to allow only the hero’s eye-balls and nothing else around them to be revealed.
Other times, it looks like maybe Wolvie has really wide eye-holes, and has simply painted the area around his eyes, although I can’t see any borders to suggest eye-holes.
So I don’t know exactly what’s up with Wolverine’s mask but, again, I like it despite being unclear about it. It’s a very expressive sort of depiction, in which the character is both wearing a mask and not wearing a mask at the same time, and Logan the person and Wolverine the superhero, the skin and the costume, the representation and the emotional content overlap.
One of the funnier parts of the book was probably unintentional. When the team gets the call to go consult on a crime scene, Cyclops announces “Street tactical gear,” and then we see them all dress like…this:Cyclops explains to Storm that the idea is to not have on superhero costumes, as cops associate costumes with vigilantes and, given the state of the Marvel Universe the last few years, people associate them with “government flunky or illegal combatant, which is one step away from being a flying terrorist.”
I don’t quite understand why their “street” clothes look so goddam garishly insane though. Only Wolverine seems to be dressed “normal.” Couldn’t they just wear, like, suits, or dress business casual? Why all the cargo pockets and vests and boots? Why does Emma Frost look like she’s wearing a white version of a Operation: Desert Storm uniform, with a choker, for some reason?
Let’s look at some of Bianchi’s interesting panel lay-outs, from two non-consecutive pages:Note the jumbled nature of the first page, and the apparently randomly shaped panels that it consists of.
I chose the bottom example because it's one of the many instances in the story where Bianchi embeds a panel within a figure. Here, there's a panel with Cyclops' face in it, within the borders of Cyclops hip. (If it weren't so late at night as I type this, I would pause for a few minutes to think how to set-up a "Cyclops is literally talking out of his own ass" joke at this point).
And here’s one of the previously mentioned unintelligible action scenes: It's probably even harder to make sense of out-of-context like this. It's Beast fighting a "chameleonic" mutant (And saying "RRAAAAHHRRR"). The bad guy is the thing that has the green netting all-over it, like an unfinished special effect from a few years ago. Beast apparently jumps into it and makes it explode somehow. Note all the little Beasts all over the page though. Generally, less-solid figures would show where the character was in the recent past, so the one saying "RRAAAAHHRRR" is the second most recent Beast, while the one kicking is the final or "present" Beast. The others are all older Beasts. I can't really follow the actions they are meant to depict though, not in any chronological, linear fashion. The lack of background sure doesn't help any, either.
I’d highly recommend the book if you like superhero comics, particularly ones featuring Marvel’s mutants. (Or if you have any curiosity about them; Ellis’ entire run seems to have a particularly low-threshold of X-knowledge and -appreciation necessary to enjoy, and to boast some fairly great artwork, the ugly coloring on Exogenetic aside).
After writing a few more paragraphs, doing a heck of a lot of scanning and looking more closely at all those pages, I’m still not sure how good Bianchi’s art is, but its definitely great, and fun to read and to look at.
Oh, it should also be noted that the collection features a few vignettes from a two-part miniseries Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes that Marvel published, apparently to keep some AXM content on shelves during delays. They are written by Ellis, and are kinda sorta related to the main story, but I had trouble making heads-or-tails of them, as they move in and out of different alternate realities. Clayton Crain, Kaare Andrews, Adi Granov and Alan Davis and Mark Farmer draw the various scenes, and those are about as different as any four art teams assembled can be. They’re each good in their own ways, the Andrews and Davis/Farmer ones especially so, but they all clash violently off one another, and I found the story-like sequence they form confusing to the point that trying to read it was practically upsetting.
I guess it is fun to see what Davis does with Bianchi’s redesigned Storm costume though…