Sunday, July 12, 2009

Astonishing X-Men #25-30

"Ghost Boxes"
Writer: Warren Ellis
Penciller, co-inker: Simone Bianchi
Co-inker: Andrea Silvestri
Colourists: Simone Peruzzi with Christina Strain and Laura Martin
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Editor: Axel Alonso

Astonishing X-Men was created for a reason. If you want to know what that reason is, hop over to Marvel's subscription site, which still describes the title as follows: apparently, it "takes the style of the X-Men movies, mixes it with the wit of Buffy, and holds it together with the classic flavour that made the X-Men famous." A description that made perfect sense when Joss Whedon was writing the book, and which evidently has not been revisited in the year since he left.

Incidentally, the subscription site also suggests that you allow 6-8 weeks for delivery of your first issue. Given the book's history, this seems optimistic to the point of folly.

But I digress. Astonishing was created as a star vehicle for Joss Whedon; he's long since gone. The problem is what to do with it next. Marvel seem to have gone for the option of making it a book where creators can do more or less what they want, without worrying about the other titles - not exactly out of continuity, but at least off to the side somewhere. And so we end up with Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi.

Bianchi was an understandable choice; his art was generally considered the best thing about Jeph Loeb's ungodly Wolverine run, so there were good reasons to put him on a high profile title. Besides, nobody could deny that he's got his own style, and if this is going to be a creator-driven book, you want people with a voice.

Ellis has a voice too, but, shall we say, it's not one that you particularly associate with superhero comics. He's carved out a role at Marvel over the last few years doing revamps (usually horribly delay-plagued revamps) of second-tier characters. As a rule, for better or worse, he takes a book can gives it a strong central idea to revolve around. Iron Man? It's about the fusion of man and machine. Thunderbolts? Strip away the barnacles and get back to a team of villains posing as heroes, a couple of whom are trying to do the job properly.

With Astonishing X-Men, we don't get that. Yes, Ellis acknowledges the move to San Francisco and plays off M-Day to a degree, but at root his X-Men are Just Another Superhero Team, who encounter a mystery and investigate it for the next six issues. It's hard to pin down what "Ghost Boxes" is really all about.

The plot goes like this. The X-Men are called in to help with a super-powered murder. The victim seems to be an artificially created mutant, and he's been killed by a guy he was tailing. The X-Men give chase and (after a trip to Indonesia) fight said guy, who kills himself, and on inspection turns out to be a mutant from a parallel universe, apparently the point man for an invasion. After all, now that most of the mutants are gone, the world is a much more attractive target for invaders. The X-Men then follow another lead to China, where they meet more artificial mutants and more parallel mutants, and there's a big fight, and everyone points the finger at Forge. Finally, everyone goes to Wundagore to have a chat with Forge, who turns out to have gone mad, and is creating artificial "mutants" to fend off that invasion from a parallel world. He's got a portal to that world (the titular Ghost Box), and the invaders start trying to get through. The X-Men make a break for it, and on Beast's word, SWORD (who were duly mentioned in earlier episodes to set up their involvement in the finale) thwart the invasion by annihilating everything in sight. The end.

It's all rather unfocused. At first it seems to be about an alien invasion; then it changes tack completely and becomes a story about Forge losing his mind, even though the character wasn't mentioned until halfway through. A spaceship graveyard in Indonesia and a hidden mutant city in China both turn out to be nothing more than local colour, entirely peripheral to the plot. It feels like elements from a bunch of different stories strung together in a way that technically makes sense, but doesn't add up to a greater whole.

(And in fact, it doesn't entirely make sense. The final two chapters make great play of the fact that Forge's artificial mutants are shambling monstrosities - but there didn't seem to be anything much wrong with the guy who got killed in chapter 1.)

Matters get even more confused when you remember the tie-in miniseries Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes. The book was rightly castigated for its price tag, but let's focus on the content, which was a string of short stories set in parallel realities. One of those stories, to be fair, did spell out what the invaders were up to, but the main series does that too. The others seem to have no connection to the rest of the story at all. It's all a bit mystifying.

I'm honestly not sure what, in Ellis's mind, this story was all about. There's a bit of dialogue scattered throughout the story about the X-Men taking tough decisions and growing up - there's even an ill-conceived stab at a lost-innocence vibe where character talk wistfully about the simpler days of the Silver Age. But none of this ever connects in any satisfying way with the story, and SWORD's enormo-deathray in the final issue, which zaps a bunch of unseen baddies on the other side of a portal, seems detached from any sort of moral consequences. Nor is it really a story about Forge's mental decline, since no explanation for it is offered.

If you were so inclined, you could probably find some sort of metaphor in Forge's homemade mutants. You could see him as somebody who wants to turn back M-Day and won't move on. I wouldn't be altogether shocked if that's the idea. Then again, it's ironic that you could also view him as a creator who's trying to fill the void left by M-Day, and has ended up creating a shambling mess. Most likely, though, it's neither of these - just a case of a writer without a big idea stringing together a bunch of small ideas and hoping for the best.

Oh, yes, the art. I'd say more about it, but I think everyone's picked up on the issues with Simone Bianchi by now: the individual pictures are beautiful, the panel-to-panel storytelling not so much. The panel layouts are showy, but almost invariably distract from the story rather than supporting it. The action sequences are murky. There's a fair amount of elegant posing. The irritations outweigh the good points in the long run; I can never escape the feeling that the art is showing off when it should be telling the story, and even though it has plenty to show off, that still annoys me.

So far as I can see, Marvel haven't actually solicited any further issues of this title, but there's talk of Phil Jimenez doing the next arc, so presumably it's moving to a de facto "series of miniseries" format. He's a much better storyteller, so I'm happy with that choice. Let's hope that, before his run starts, somebody sits down and works out more clearly what the book's actually about.

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