Friday, May 15, 2009

New Mutants #1

"We Were Many, Once"
Writer: Zeb Wells
Penciller: Diogenes Neves
Inkers: Cam Smith and Ed Tadeo
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Colourist: John Rauch
Editor: Nick Lowe

So here we are again.

The X-books' logo may be an X in a circle, but sometimes it feels like an ouroborous would be more appropriate. New Mutants was the very first X-Men spin-off, way back in 1983, before there was such a concept as "X-books." Judging from interviews, it was partly Chris Claremont's way of fending off a full-scale second X-Men title, and partly a way of accommodating Jim Shooter's feeling that the X-Men had lost touch with the school concept that he (rather debatably) thought was at the heart of Lee and Kirby's premise. The result was a team of teenage trainee X-Men.

But in 1983, there was a sensible role for New Mutants. The main X-Men book was doing nothing with the school, so there was plenty of scope to spin that part of the premise off into its own book. If nothing else, at least it explained why the X-Men, a group of adult superheroes, were somehow managing to maintain their cover identity of a school which hadn't had any pupils since the sixties. And the New Mutants themselves were good characters; some of them are unusual examples of characters genuinely changing and maturing with lasting effect. Cannonball's development from clumsy, out-of-his-depth rookie to leader of X-Force, over the course of about a decade, is one of the X-books' high spots.

New Mutants was a book which would inevitably run its course - they couldn't be rookies forever - and 100 issues was probably about right. It's not an obvious candidate for revival, to put it mildly.

Nonetheless, it's back. And on that level, my instinct is to be sceptical. But then, Zeb Wells is writing it, and he's done a lot of decent stories over the last few years. And he certainly steers clear of the obvious trap of trying to slot the characters back into their old roles as rookies. What he's writing here is more of a reunion book, which brings together the original characters but acknowledges that they've moved on.

And he writes the characters pretty well, too. It's nice to get back to having Cannonball as a competent leader rather than a face in the crowd. Sunspot is yanked back in the direction of being a friendly, outgoing character, but that's fine by me - the X-books have plenty of brooding sulky types. As for Magik, Wells plays her as a slightly mischievous, manipulative figure who still seems genuinely concerned about the stuff that actually matters. It's a different take on the "corrupted soul" idea than the handwringing woe-is-me routine that's been done in the past, but a fresh angle is needed if she's going to be brought back. Much to my pleasant surprise, Magik actually comes off here as a living character instead of a nostalgia act. Thank heavens.

At this point, I should note that there's something a bit odd going on with the Magik plot. The X-Infernus series, which was supposed to lead into New Mutants, extricated Illyana from an outstanding subplot and saw her return to live with the X-Men. This issue begins with her arriving at the Mansion out of the blue, and includes scenes of characters wondering whether it's really her (something they verify pretty quickly, but still). We're effectively told that she left and came back again, which reads rather strangely. I can't quite shake the feeling there's a rewrite here, if only to cover up a breakdown of communications between New Mutants and X-Infernus. Not that it damages the story, but it does read strangely, at least if you know what came immediately before.

The other point of criticism is that the book really does assume that it's playing to an audience who are already familiar with the characters. Now, to be fair, it probably is selling to people who read a lot of X-books. But still, the book seems to take it for granted that we already know Magik's back story, or remember the relationship between Magma and Empath, for example. And the big reveal at the end is the return of a villain who fought the New Mutants once in the eighties, had a big role in a mid-nineties crossover, and hasn't really been seen since. In an ideal world, most of the audience won't remember this stuff.

That aside, though, it's a good issue. I like Wells' take on the characters, and artist Diogenes Neves is doing solid work here. Okay, his Magma and Magik are a bit too similar, and I've seen flashier artwork. But he tells a good story, and does a great job with the final few pages. Wells sets up an effective mystery and makes sure to get the plot underway instead of dragging out the set-up.

The big question, of course is: if we're not doing the junior team again, what is the premise of this book? Is it an entire series about a bunch of characters who happened to be in a series with a stronger premise 25 years ago? Is it really just a second X-Men series which happens to have a dash of nostalgia thrown in? Come to think of it, perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad idea.

But we should know by the end of the first arc where Wells is heading with this, and whether there's a strong idea to hang the book on. I'm not honestly sure what that idea might be, but you know, I actually have faith that Zeb Wells probably does have something in mind for this book. He's overcoming my scepticism so far, at any rate.

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