Monday, December 15, 2008

Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #2

"The Last Testament of Scott Summers"
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Clayton Crain
Letterer: Joe Caramagna

Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Kaare Andrews
Letterer: Joe Caramagna

Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes has been rightly excoriated in all quarters for offering such outrageously poor value for money. For those of you who somehow failed to notice the shrieks of outrage last month, this book features sixteen pages of story, and costs four dollars. It is taking the piss, and more troublingly, it looks disturbingly like a test run to see just what Marvel can get away with in a troubled economy. The comics audience, being fans, are notoriously hard to shake off - hell, they hired Chuck Austen and people still bought the books. But this is the sort of thing that makes even the most hardcore devotee - even me - choke for a moment and ask, "Am I really prepared to pay that?"

Evidently the answer is "yes", but then it's not me they should be worrying about. Look at it this way: going by the ICV2 figures, Astonishing sells about 87K these days. Which means that at least 45% of them don't buy Ultimate X-Men. And something like 85% don't buy X-Men: First Class. Hell, a quarter of them don't even buy X-Men: Legacy, and that's supposed to be a core book. So whatever else you say about the Astonishing readership, they're clearly not completists.

Well, we shall see what comes of all this. What about the actual comic? (What there is of it.)

Ghost Boxes is a collection of four eight-page stories which tie in, very loosely, with the core series. They're all "What If?" stories, diverging from the events of the "Ghost Box" storyline itself. And they do advance the plot a little bit: it turns out those "ghost box" thingies are portals which people from a parallel Earth will use to invade and conquer us.

That's about the sum total of advancing the plot, though. Issue #2 has two stories, both vignettes set in post-invasion dystopias. The first, with art by Clayton Crain, has Cyclops moping around the ruins of the Mansion, blaming himself for getting it all wrong, and preparing to top himself. The second sees a bunch of straggling mutant survivors trying to get to safety.

As eight-pagers, they're okay; if they'd appeared as back-up strips in Astonishing X-Men itself, they'd work quite well as a counterpoint to the main story. Neither is exceptional, but they've both got a certain melancholy about them, that would play well in a different context. But putting them together in a separate book is, on aesthetic as well as financial grounds, a mystifying choice.

As before, the issue is padded out by reprinting Ellis' scripts. This time, in fact, this is a somewhat useful exercise. It reveals more about the artists than might have been intended.

Kaare Andrews, drawing the second story, does a rather good job with it. It's subdued, perhaps a little more than it needed to be, but there's some atmosphere and emotion to it. Comparing the script, it turns out that he doesn't follow it exactly: reveals are shifted from one page to the next, for example. But that's clearly done in service of the story.

But on the lead story, we get Clayton Crain, and comparing his work with the script is an eye-opening experience. The script calls for Scott to be standing on a plastic sheet before he kills himself (the implication being that he's trying to be neat); Crain frames the panel so that it's barely visible. The script says that one wing of the mansion should be "a bombed-out ruin"; the art gives us a basically intact building with an unobtrusive hole in the shadows. The script suggests that the ghosts haunting the Mansion should be presented using sampled art from old X-Men comics; Crain doesn't do it. A potentially interesting panel of Cyclops looking straight down into the portal on the floor and firing into it is rendered as a generic shot of Scott firing his optic beam. A panel with Subject X committing suicide is unintelligible without reference to the script (and though the panel description had too much going on for its own good, Crain could at least have made the important bits more prominent).

There's always been something a little unsatisfactory about Crain's work, but when you see it alongside the script, it's hard to avoid concluding that he has a shaky sense of drama, a limited ability to convey complex action, and no apparent grasp of why Ellis has asked for some of the things he has - all of which could have been done without compromising any sense of atmosphere.

I'm not sure that was the intended effect of publishing the script. Still, got to fill those pages somehow, eh?

Shame they didn't run these as back-up strips, because they'd have got a much more positive response. In this form, however, and especially at this price, give it a miss.

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