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Aug 16

Astonishing X-Men Annual #1: “Who We Are”

Posted on Thursday, August 16, 2018 by Paul in x-axis

It seems we’re headed for yet another relaunch, with a new Uncanny X-Men weekly title on the way.  It’s no great surprise to see Gold and Blue coming to an end (the time travelling kids look like their storyline is finally building to some sort of conclusion in the Extermination mini).  It’s perhaps a little odder to see yet another relaunch in the offing while X-Men Red and Astonishing X-Men are literally in the course of “gathering the team” arcs.  It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this direction, or indeed any other, will stick it out for long.  Still, it’s a decent line-up of creators, so let’s hope it works out.

In the meantime, we have an Astonishing X-Men Annual, predictably numbered #1.  And this is pretty good.  Although it’s written by the current Astonishing writer Matthew Rosenberg, it’s a follow-up to Charles Soule’s arc, catching up with what Professor X is up to now that he’s been revived.  Always good to see some follow-up.

The original X-Men – or the four that are left – get together for a reunion to celebrate Jean’s return.  The direction their lives have taken is all a bit depressing.  Hank’s spent his life being a superhero when he should have been a top scientist; Warren has to worry about his Archangel persona all the time; Jean kind of misses being dead; and Bobby’s fine, actually, but that’s still not a great strike rate.  At which point, X shows up claiming that he thinks they have a point; he asked too much of them when he recruited them as X-Men.  Fortunately, he can make it right.

X takes them to a town called Lago, where he is inexplicably living in a mansion despite having no apparent source of legitimate income.  (The X-Men notice, but turn a blind eye.)  The people of Lago are unfailing polite, welcoming to mutants, and generally don’t seem to fear or hate them at all.  It’s all very nice and friendly, and, therefore, blatantly suspicious.  In fact, the town used to have a track record for being insanely anti-mutant even by normal standards, but there’s no sign of anything wrong.

After a bit, X reveals that this is actually the work of Lucifer, who is apparently an alien mind-control parasite that merges with people rather than possessing them outright.  It’s been a long while since anyone’s done anything with Lucifer, the bad guy who was credited with paralysing Xavier back in the early Silver Age.  In fact, he’s barely appeared since the sixties.

Consider how bad a Lee and/or Kirby Silver Age character has to be, for nobody to use them.  This guy was clearly conceived as an arch-enemy for Professor X, and he’s had only marginally more staying power than the average Ant-Man villain.  And that’s probably because he’s downright dull; his costume is boring, he’s a generic alien invader, he doesn’t resonate with the X-Men’s themes, he has nothing much else to comment him, he’s simply rubbish.  Rosenberg’s approach is pretty much to ignore the established concept and start fresh, with Lucifer as a sort of mental virus that seemingly just wants to propagate.

There’s not much basis for that in Lucifer’s previous stories.  But there is some – Rosenberg seems to be drawing mainly on his most recent appearance, Captain America #177-178, which is one of those post-Nixon issues where Steve Rogers was on strike.   In that story, he was indeed splitting his mind between two host bodies, and it didn’t work out very well for him.  Still, he was basically a generic big-talk conqueror; the idea that he just wants to spread is retcon central.

But whatever.  It’s Lucifer; if you think you can retool him into something that might actually contribute something to the mythos, sure, fire away.  The irony here is that while Lucifer has to be stopped because he’s an alien mind-altering parasite, he really does seem to be just making everyone happier and nicer with no particular ulterior motive.  Still, Xavier’s point here is clearly meant to be the orthodox genre reading of a story like this: yes, it’s all very seductive, but it’d still be Lucifer taking over the world so it has to be stopped.  And Archangel is put in the position of killing Lucifer, which he does.

More to the point, Xavier’s message to the X-Men is: you may not like your lives very much, but tough, because the alternative is letting the bad guys win.  It would be nice if you enjoyed it more, and hopefully you will, but you really don’t have a choice, so get over it.  This is not an especially sympathetic take on Xavier, and in part that flows from what Soule was doing: there remains a very clear sense that something is Not Right about this reincarnated Xavier, even if he persists in attributing everything to a change of perspective.  Of course, in Soule’s story Xavier was under the Shadow King’s influence for most of the time, but there was still a hint of something not feeling quite right.

Rosenberg hits the tone of a Xavier who is recognisable enough to register as “off”, instead of feeling like a different character entirely.  Still, in a perverse way, this Xavier does seem to be trying to set the X-Men back on the track to doing the right thing, and he does seem to genuinely care when they might be in trouble.  He’s self-righteous and self-justifying, and he’s stringing the X-Men along to teach them a lesson, but he’s not exactly wrong – and Silver Age Xavier certainly had his callous and manipulative tendencies.

Rosenberg’s handle on the four main X-Men is pretty good on its own terms.  Hank and Jean play fairly normally.  Bobby is a bit of a dimwit, falling into the team junior role that he used to have through to the end of the 80s; it’s a little odd to write him like this today, but it is his traditional role among this group.  Warren is odder – the story runs with the idea that he needs to control Archangel and fears what he’ll do if he transforms.  But didn’t Xavier cure that problem in the very Charles Soule story that this is following up?  I don’t get it.

Travel Foreman’s art isn’t always to my taste – it has an odd combination of realistic detail and brittle stiffness – but he works well here.  He’s good on costume design, he has an interesting approach to the Beast, and the whole story benefits from the general sense of slight unease which, to be honest, I get from a lot of his work.

On the whole, this is a good annual; it tells a decent story in an issue, it picks up on a plot thread that I suspected was just going to drift, and it has some good angles on the original X-Men team.  The odd use of Archangel would normally be a problem for me, but heck, I liked it enough to give it a pass on that.  Worth a look.

Bring on the comments

  1. Si says:

    Poor Iceman. Locked in a perpetual cycle of building up to being a strong character, then instantly being reverted to type a few stories later.

    I do love the trope of “we must vanquish this thing that is actually really good when you think about it” though.

  2. Chris V says:

    Well, it seems to be a pleasant thing, but it takes away free will and choice completely. It’s allowing sentient humans to be replaced by robots.
    Sure, everything might seem better, but what’s the purpose of anything if you’re just a drone going through the motions, while really doing the bidding of the host parasite?
    From an Existential perspective, it’s quite the waste of a life.

    Note: Lucifer’s last appearance was actually during the Steven Englehart run on West Coast Avengers during the 1980s.
    I think the issue I’m thinking of was a flashback appearance, but it took place after the Captain America story.
    That story was also ret-conned by Lucifer appearing again in this comic.

  3. Moo says:

    @Chris V

    That wasn’t the same guy in West Coast Avengers.

  4. Voord 99 says:

    @Si Poor Iceman. Locked in a perpetual cycle of building up to being a strong character, then instantly being reverted to type a few stories later

    Hmm. Johnny Storm has a similar problem, although in his case it’s the inevitable recurrence of a maturity reset.

    I sense a theme for a Fire & Ice title. 🙂

  5. Omar Karindu says:

    Re: Lucifer:

    The villain in the main story in Engelhart’s WCA run was Dominus, the mind-controlling computer that Lucifer wanted to use as a weapon back in his Silver Age appearances.

    However, there’s a short flashback sequence that shows that Dominus had Lucifer executed fro drawing too much attention, and this was — understandably — Lucifer’s last appearance in comics. He was featured in an X-Men prose novel, however.

    Lucifer has a really odd history. After he’s bneaten in X-Men, he n3ext turns up in, of all places, a single issue of Archie Goodwin’s underrated Iron Man run in the late 1960s, where Goodwin retools him with a gimmick of tempting humans to merge with him in exchange for power.

    Engelhart used him in Captain America with this status quo in the early-to-mid 1970s, but this was probably because Engelhart was supporting his mentor Roy Thomas’s push to relaunch the original X-Men and kept putting old X-Men stuff in various comics. It’s likely why the Avengers fight the Sentinels (Avengers v.1 #102-4), the Savage Land Mutates (#105), and Magneto (#10-111) in several closely-bunched-together stories that directly follow up on the Neal Adams period.

    It’s also part of why Engelhart’s Watergate/Secret Empire story has a weird detour that drags in the X-Men. Engelhart was writing the Beast series in Amazing Adventures, where the Secret Empire stuff stated, but even that could be read as an effort at an X-Men revival. Engelhart even managed to drag the Juggernaut into the Hulk book for the first time, though he left the title and Tony Isabella wound up scripting the story.

    Ultimately, of course, Len Wein’s retool won out, and then some Claremont fella took the reins when Wein left almost immediately afterwards, and beyond that, I’m not sure what happened with the X-Men brand.

  6. Chris V says:

    Yes, if you combine the appearance in Iron Man #20, with the scene in (Uncanny) X-Men #21 showing the effects of Dominus when it enslaves that alien race, you could see how Rosenberg could make the ret-con in this story plausible.

    It’s true that Lucifer was treated as a conqueror, attempting to subjugate other planets for his alien overlords.
    However, between the possessing of humans in return for power, and Dominus turning other races in to mindless automatons, it wasn’t a bad direction to take Lucifer.

  7. Brendan says:

    My reading of ‘X’ is he’s Xavier’s persona through the prism of Fantomex’s personality. It’s interesting, but gimmicky with no chance of surviving a status quo reset.

  8. N.S. says:

    @Brendon
    I thought that at first, but Fantomex was a bit more dramatic and theatrical, closer to a sort of evil-ish Gambit. X seems to be Xavier’s personality filtered through the Shadow King’s nihilism. That would effectively make X, Onslaught 4 (since there have been 3 Onslaughts by this point; the original, counter-earth Onslaught, and Red Skull Onslaught). I guess. Maybe?

  9. Thom H. says:

    However X is configured, I’m glad he’s taking such a no-nonsense approach to guiding his original students. They’ve been such a bunch of mopers for so long (possibly excluding Bobby and Jean more recently) — it’s nice to see someone kick them in the butt.

    If you don’t want to be a superhero, then don’t be one! Get on with your lives and try to enjoy them. This annual was a fun way to point the way forward for some characters who could use a bit of a realignment.

  10. SanityOrMadness says:

    Rosenberg appears to have a significantly different take on “X” here than Soule did*. Soule’s version really wasn’t particularly recognisable as Xavier at all – it was a character that was notionally the reincarnation of Xavier, but at best it was a Doctor Who-style regeneration that grafted Xavier’s memories onto a very different persona. Whereas, as Paul O observes, this is more “the worst excesses of Silver Age Xavier brought to the fore”, with the result that he may be “doing good”, but in harsh and generally rather questionable ways. (Rosenberg even liked a tweet that asked him if X flat-out rewired Jean to be more optimistic at the do-over of the dinner at the end).

    The result is a take that’s certainly not *sympathetic*, but is at least recognisable as Xavier in some form. And, to be fair, after the whole “fighting Shadow King on the astral plane for a time-dilated years and years” thing, you can at least say that should have had some effect…

    (*incidentally, note how that at no point in this issue does he call himself “X”, nor does he object to being called Charles Xavier the way he did under Soule).

  11. Brodie says:

    Isn’t this more in line with X-Men: Grand Designs take on Lucifer?

  12. alsoMike says:

    At the end of the Astonishing arc, X does give Warren the ability to control his Archangel side BUT he also wipes the memory of the entire story from the minds of all present (except for Betsy).
    Meaning Warren IS in control but he doesn’t know he is. I thought that was nicely aluded to in the annual as Warren worried about losing control but it is confirmed his actions at the end was what he meant to do (shocking Jean).
    I enjoyed the issue and agree that it’s nice to see the X/Xavier thing not just being thrown out there and never be touched again.
    I do think it’s a bit weird that Jean gets memory wiped here though. You’d think she’d be powerful enough to resist and hey the last time X left the telepath alone.

  13. @N.S. There was the evil Xavier in X-Men/Micronauts before Onslaught.

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