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Jan 7

Astonishing X-Men #1-6: “Life of X”

Posted on Sunday, January 7, 2018 by Paul in x-axis

Astonishing X-Men picked up a few votes in our end of year poll in the pleasant surprise category.  And it is indeed better than you might have expected, even if this says as much about expectations as it does about the comic itself.  After all, if you follow up a slightly subdued relaunch by suddenly saying “hey, here’s another X-Men book”, and push it on the basis that it doesn’t have a regular artist… well.

After a gentle prologue in which the Shadow King attacks various low-level hermit psychics to regain his foothold on Earth, issue #1 kicks off the story proper with him having a stab at seizing Psylocke.  This lets him use whichever X-Men he wants, since the result is a lot of psychic thrashing around in London, and whichever X-Men are nearest turning up to help.

So our cast for this series turns out to Psylocke herself, Bishop (who we’re going to treat as rehabilitated and pretend that whole thing with Hope didn’t happen), Logan, Rogue, Angel, Fantomex, Gambit and Beast.  Only Beast turns out next issue to be Mystique, who doesn’t have an ulterior motive – she isn’t especially keen on the Shadow King taking over the world either – but figured that nobody would trust her if she just showed up as herself.

Anyhow, this makes for a strong first issue, which quickly lays out the groundwork to introduce the cast (or, if you prefer, spell out how Soule sees them), deals with a secondary threat (getting Psylocke under control), and then sets up the real plot for the remaining five issues: the Shadow King is getting very, very powerful again, so some of the team will have to go to the astral plane to fight him now, right this minute, absolutely now, which means they’re going to have to do it in the middle of London while fending off the authorities who understandably want to know what the hell was going on.  It’s a good set-up, and since this arc ends up leading directly to the next one, the characters who spend these issues on guard duty may well get more to do next time round.

But the big reveal at the end of issue #1 is that the Shadow King has got the spirit of Professor X chained up.  So, yes, it’s time for the return of Professor X.  This calls for some tricky plot mechanics, since Professor X was about as definitively dead as you can be in comics – they cut out his brain and used it as a macguffin in Uncanny Avengers, for god’s sake.  Still, that doesn’t preclude a spot of astral projection which allows his spirit to live on.  The obvious way around this would be to wheel out the Starjammers to clone him another new body, but that’s not where Soule is heading – a point which actually becomes rather clearer in issue #7.

At this point the story starts developing some meta undertones.  But much of issue #2 is the astral excursion team – Logan, Rogue, Gambit, Mystique and Fantomex – obliviously watching a play consisting of stock X-Men tropes while Xavier tries to nudge them into breaking the illusion.  As far as the Shadow King is concerned, he and Xavier are engaged in some sort of game (Xavier is stringing him along, but he spends the first part of the story seeming to agree).  Xavier does in fact win the first round by, in effect, subverting the X-Men cliches – and then gets a little speech about the limits of nostalgia.


This meta theme resurfaces big time in issue #5, by which time the astral team have gone off to experience their own separate illusions, and a multi-tasking Xavier has been trying to get through to them in fairly conventional Claremont style.  So you’ve got Rogue and Gambit in a hot tub, which both of them quickly recognise as an illusion, but Gambit’s not desperately keen to escape from anyway.  In a clever touch, Logan is determinedly plodding through the illusions towards the Shadow King, unfazed by everything that’s thrown at him – but he’s so determined about it that he ignores Xavier too.

At this point we get a big speech for Xavier – which, interestingly, is presented in parallel to a slightly different speech that he gives to Fantomex – explaining what he and the Shadow King have been up to.  Unsurprisingly, he basically says that they’ve been locked in psychic battle for what seems like years, but then goes on to explain that after starting with emotion, they “turned to story”, and have been using the X-Men as raw material for those stories.  “Recently, it’s been time travel, and then a mutant-killing plague.”  It’s pretty obvious that he’s talking about the last few years of X-Men stories, even if it’s unclear whether this is meant to be coincidence or some sort of influence on the outside world.  If the latter, it’s interesting to note that the logic of Xavier’s account is that the Shadow King won all of these battles, which is a curious take on the way those stories ended.  (Of course, Soule himself co-wrote Inhumans vs X-Men, which is one of those stories…)

The upshot of all this is that the Shadow King gets control of Logan and Gambit, and starts using them to spread his psychic infection in London; and Xavier gets Rogue and Mystique on side to escape the astral plane.  As for Fantomex, he winds up surrendering his body so that Xavier can use it to return to Earth.  From there, things continue into the next arc, but it seems pretty clear that Soule is going out of his way to restore Xavier, but in a sufficiently different way to avoid hitting the reset button.

This is fortunate, because until this point becomes clear, the story seems to be pulling in different directions.  It’s clearly a “return of Professor X” story, yet the story keeps talking about the limits of nostalgia and the importance of moving forward.  Xavier tells us outright that the characters who escape the Shadow King’s control are the most flexible ones – Rogue and Mystique have literally shifting identities, but they’re also characters who seem to still be developing, or at least to have avoided settling into a rut.  In contrast, Gambit is in love with his persona and keeps wanting to turn the clock back to when he and Rogue were a couple; and Logan is the ultimate static character, someone who’s lived through the apocalypse and the death of everyone he loves and still winds up reverting to the same basic personality inside a year.  As for Fantomex, we’ve been told many times that his character traits are hardwired into him, making him  unable to grow – even if writers have had varying takes on how literally we should take that.

Soule’s view seems to be that the way forward is to do the classics but make sure to have enough twists to avoid it all being too safe.  And this arc seems a good example of that.  In many ways it’s very Claremont indeed – he always loved a good psychic illusion – but issue #6 makes clear that he’s not simply reviving Xavier (and issue #7 bends over backwards to stress that the revived Xavier is really quite different).

What about the art, then?  The decision to use rotating artists as a selling point was, to put it mildly, curious.  The lack of a consistent voice is not normally a plus.  On the other hand, there are big names attached here – Jim Cheung, Mike Deodato Jr, Ed McGuinness, Carlos Pacheco, Ramon Rosanas (the lowest profile name here, but his issue has a nice Paul Smith feel to it), and Mike Del Mundo.

Individually, every issue looks good.  And most of these artists are close enough in style that the shift isn’t too jarring – bold, primary colour stuff.  Deodato is another matter, with his current fondness for heavy shadow and weird grids; and Del Mundo is miles away from everyone else, with a more washed-out, sickly colour palette.  He seems ideally suited to astral plane weirdness, but his issue is mostly in the real world.

It’s certainly possible to use multiple artists in a way that serves the story, for example if they’re reflecting different characters’ points of view.  The subjectivity of the astral plane seems like it should lend itself to that.  But there’s no real sense that the book is making any particular attempt to accommodate its multiple artists, and while the actual choice of artists leads to good work, the more visible joins are not a plus.

The jury is still out on where all this is going, and whether Soule really can have his nostalgia cake and eat it – that depends hugely on how his revamped Professor X settles down over the next few issues.  Still, this is a good start.

Bring on the comments

  1. Michael says:

    Well, we all knew Xavier would come back eventually, even if they removed his brain and incinerated it. Although when you get right down to it, this idea that powerful psychics can just hop from one body to another without any problems… kind of calls mutant biology into question, doesn’t it?

    I mean if you’re a mutant telepath, your power comes from your mind, and from your altered genetics. So when the psyche lives on after the body goes, and you still have all of your amazing telepathy, how’s that work? Where does the power come from? It’s not like if you transplant Wolverine’s psyche–the new body doesn’t grow claws and hair everywhere…

    And yes, I know this is basically an unexplained loophole since pretty much the beginning of the X-Men, including the time Xavier just lent Changeling some of his telepathy while he went into seclusion.

    Anyway, this new X is certainly trying very hard to seem dodgy as all get-out. Hard to trust him.

  2. Zoomy says:

    It’s a time-honoured sci-fi convention that the mind exists entirely separately from the physical body, even if your brain’s been incinerated, and telepathic powers are traditionally lumped in with that… I suppose you could say that Xavier’s mutant genes made him develop the powers in the first place, and after that they become part of his ethereal soul, or whatever we’re calling it this week?

  3. wwk5d says:

    Well, technically, it was his cloned brain, no?

  4. SanityOrMadness says:

    Well, in X-Men terms, this goes back to the origin of the Shadow King himself, yes? (At least as a present-day threat, rather than “guy Xavier killed in a fight years ago”) He was a telepath on-par with Xavier who survived the death of his physical body, and could use the full scope of his powers in a body he possessed, rather than being limited to what the body “should” have.

    And in terms of Xavier himself, there’s also Onslaught, who was a psychic being that possessed lots of power even after being severed from Xavier.

    Plus, there are mutants whose powers themselves partially or wholly destroyed their physical body, but continue to exist as energy beings (including the apoarent second-arc villain).

    So, yeah, I’d buy it. (Notwithstanding Xavier’s appearances in ‘heaven’ during Nightcrawler’s own return arc…)

  5. Niall says:

    I’ve decided to think of it this way:

    Xavier’s mind survived on the astral plane. This is not Xavier but rather a perfect echo of Xavier’s personality and will. This explains how Xavier can be dead and in “heaven” while simultaneously being on the astral plane.

    Fantomex has low/medium level psychic/telepathic abilities. As such, he can upload and download to the astral plane after a fashion. He serves as a conduit for Xavier to interact with the physical world but X is still largely an astral being. When he uses his telepathic/psychic powers, it is by accessing those powers that exist not in his brain but on the astral plane. Fantomex’s body is the interface and not the source.

    If X wishes to communicate telepathically with somebody the message is uploaded to the astral plane to a metaphorical server with instructions to send to the desired communication partner.

    No Prize?

  6. jpw says:

    So Marvel has decided to keep up the tired adjectives in addition to the “color” titled books, it seems. Can’t wait for MOAR NEWERER MOAR DIFFERENTER Marvel when we get Astonishing X-Men: Blue, Astonishing X-Men:Gold, Uncanny X-Men: Gold, Uncanny X-Men: Red, and X-Men: Blue all running at the same time.

  7. Si says:

    All this nostalgia/antinostalgia, I can imagine a wheelchair is lurking in Xavier’s peripheral vision …

  8. Ben says:

    X seems like he’s definitely evil.

    I mean, even more so than Xavier usually seems.

    This is still only twelve issues right?

  9. Moo says:

    The color-coded X-Men is just confusing to me. It was way more straightforward back when Morrison was on New X-Men and Claremont was on X-Treme X-Men and Claremont had his team decide that Morrison’s New X-Men were too extreme and so his team, the X-Treme X-Men, would therefore be more moderate. So, we had the moderate X-Treme X-Men and the extreme New X-Men. And Uncanny.

  10. Person of Consequence says:

    Given the title of the arc, this is barely subtext instead of just text, but it sounds like Soule started with the pun of Fantomex as possessed by Phantom X, and just worked backwards.

  11. Nu-D says:

    Didn’t they just revert Daredevil, Thor and a few others to the original numbering? They need to do that for the X-Men too.

  12. Brian says:

    I expect that they’ll revert an Uncanny X-Men title to the original numbering the next revamp around. For now, since there’s no single core title, it makes little sense to have any of either Astonishing or one of the “color” books to have a number so out of sorts with the others.

  13. Karl Hiller says:

    The absurdity of the color-coding of the teams is highlighted nowhere better than the cover of X-Men Gold #16, with the team sporting predominantly red and blue costumes.

  14. Brian says:

    I’m disappointed that there’s no Banshee-led X-MEN GREEN book. Why does Jean Grey get to come back but not Sean Cassidy?

  15. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Sean’s alive. If any writer ever remembers. He should be stuck in a container in Beast’s lab. He was revived as one of the four Deaths serving the Apocalypse Twins, alongside Daken, Grim Reaper and Sentry. After the Twins were defeated, Banshee was imprisoned and someone was supposed to work on purging him from the Apocalypse influence.

  16. Chris says:

    See if I was writing the comics I would have revealed Professor X to be the astral White Light King or something… Since he went out like Farouk did in the eighties but….

    Ah well…

  17. Chris says:


    You mean grinds?

  18. Chris says:

    When you revert X-Men numbers how do we count the reprints?

  19. jpw says:

    Chris – We count the reprints to get to 700 faster, then we ignore them and have a “true” 700. Marvel doesn’t give a shit about coherent numbering. It’s nearly impossible to come into a series now and try to figure out the reading order of the past decade

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