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Jan 16

Extraordinary X-Men vol 1: X-Haven

Posted on Saturday, January 16, 2016 by Paul in x-axis

So here we go again.

This time around, Extraordinary X-Men is the flagship of the X-books, which is to say that it’s the one that actually has the X-Men in it, as opposed than the time travelling teens or a rebranded X-Force.  And so it’s the book that has the task of dealing head on with the new status quo, in which the Terrigen Mists are empowering Inhumans while wiping out the mutants.  I wrote last week about why that’s a pretty bad idea, and I may come back in another post to look in more detail at how it messes up the formula that the X-Men’s popularity was built on.  No point repeating all that again here; you can take it as read for now.

What’s really striking about this book, though, is how traditional it is in pretty much every other respect.

In some ways that isn’t so surprising.  Aside from being an olive branch to sceptical fans, it’s also a sensible decision – if it’s meant to be a radical new status quo, then a nice familiar X-Men team makes a better contrast.  And although writer Jeff Lemire has done some excellent and eccentric comics like Sweet ToothTrillium or Underwater Welder, his superhero work for DC has been fairly conventional.

Still, alongside the dodgy new status quo, there’s a back-to-basics feel.  Not only are we returning to the X-Men proper, who got pretty much ignored in favour of spin-off teams during the Bendis era, but we’re back with an actual team, instead of the open-ended sprawl that’s been the norm this century.  And that team is packed with the old faithful characters: Storm, Iceman, Colossus, Magik, Nightcrawler, Jean Grey and Wolverine.  Yes, it’s the teenage Jean and the Old Man Logan version of Wolverine, but it’s still those characters.  The wider institute is still there – now relocated to Limbo to avoid the Mists – but these guys are the X-Men proper.

A new direction and a smaller core cast – and, let’s face it, the contrast with the diffuse meandering that preceded it – give this a focus that’s been lacking for many a year.  Lemire has a pretty good sense of the characters’ voices, and there’s something a bit Claremontian about it all (without taking on his personal tics), which is no bad thing.  Humberto Ramos’ jagged exaggerations are a bit less traditional, but hell, at least he ensures the visual tone is about energy and excitement, not morose brooding about the death of a species.

The A-plot is basic, because it’s a frame on which to hang a gathering of the cast and an introduction of the new status quo.  One problem with the Terrigen Mists is that they aren’t actually an antagonist, so Lemire sensibly decides to wheel out Mr Sinister, as a villain who’s all about the future of the mutant race.  It’s a shame that Kieron Gillen’s inventive revamp hasn’t stuck, but the trad version makes sense for his role here.  Anything that threatens to wipe out mutants is a major spanner in his life’s work.  So he’s been trying to save mutantkind in his usual style: demented mad scientist experiments.  Ultimately, he decides that mutants are a lost cause and he’s going to get with the programme and get behind the Inhumans.  All very simple – and the final fight with a Cyclops clone feels contrived, not least because there’s a false-drama cliffhanger which sets him up as the real thing, only to brush it aside in the opening pages of the next issue.  But it’s about getting a character to go out there and serve as a mouthpiece for the new status quo, and Sinister’s fine for that role (save perhaps that he’s not much of an A-list threat in this story).

This leaves plenty of time to introduce the cast and set some character arcs going – and Lemire’s said in interviews that he wants to make this a character-driven series, not least because he thinks that’s where he went wrong on the Justice League books.  Some of these are interesting, some a bit more questionable, but at least the characters are being given something to do.

Storm is the leader trying to hold everything together (including herself) while faced with a seemingly impossible crisis that she doesn’t have an answer to, and looking back to Professor X to convince herself that the dream is still alive.  It’s been a while since the Professor’s been treated as an actual inspiration, something that’s been downplayed in favour of revisionist interpretations which risk losing sight of the original idea.  Iceman, thus far, gets to be the level-headed mainstay, and he’s been given some new tricks with ice golems to freshen him up a bit.

Logan and Jean are given a curious sort of bond, which could go in interesting directions.  Obviously, their traditional relationship is a romantic triangle, which would clearly be deeply awkward given the age gap between these two versions.  And Iceman flags that up, so Lemire’s clearly well aware of it. with Scott.  But they do have other things in common – not only are they both from other timelines, they’re both defined by having the opportunity to rewrite a history that went badly the first time around.  And the age gap plays perfectly into Wolverine’s series of teen girl sidekicks.  So, yeah, this could work.

Nightcrawler… well, he’s babbling about God, which is evidently a longer-term storyline.  (It’s not clear whether this is a response to his trauma at the hands of Sinister or something unrelated, since his dialogue in issue #1 even before he gets captured is still heavily Biblical.)  Colossus and Magik’s sibling relationship is being played up again.  There’s an attempt to give Peter a tragic background of being rejected by an abusive father, which seems like a pretty bad idea; to me, he works better when his background is simply that he was having a perfectly peaceful time of it on his farm until he got dragged into the X-Men’s life.

Magik, though, gets a better deal of it.  Aside from being the proactive one who gets Colossus back into the fray, she also gets to be the one who stands up in the final issue and insists that, Terrigen storyline notwithstanding, this is not the end, this is not going to be about the mutants dying out, and this is the start of them fighting back.  One good thing to have come out of Bendis’ run is that she seems to have worked the flat affect stuff out of her system and she’s ready to show a bit more fire again.

Now, yes, granted, alongside this you’ve got a basic idea with the Terrigen Mists that I don’t much like, and that doesn’t make much sense.  (Though I see that by the recap page of issue #2, the silly idea that mutants have been “sterilised” has been downgraded to “no new mutants are manifesting”.)  And part of the problem with that storyline is that it’s way too similar to the “No More Mutants” thing that followed House of M.

But one of the major errors with that storyline was that instead of fighting to set things right, everyone just sort of lay down and meekly accepted the new state of affairs, and we got several years of morose sulking and refugee camps.  Extraordinary X-Men is not falling into that error.  There’s a refuge, but it’s the X-Men’s lunatic school relocated to Limbo, which is a more entertaining prospect to start with.  With Humberto Ramos on art, the visual style is much more energetic too.  And this time round, the X-Men are responding the problem by picking themselves up, deciding to do something about it, and vowing to win.  So if we are going to get a rehash of the same basic concept, at least this time it’s going to be without some of the mistakes that hobbled it before.

And so – as pretty much foreshadowed in last week’s post – we have the odd combination of a book which has an unpromising line-wide direction, but actually gets a lot of other things right.  It’s got much more of a traditional X-Men feel than I was expecting, and a much more focussed direction than we’ve had in quite some time.  On balance, surprisingly fun, especially given what it has to work within.

Bring on the comments

  1. Suzene says:

    And misplaced a quotation mark. My kingdom for an edit feature! 😉

  2. Chaos McKenzie says:

    So… Just wanted to be the first one to bring it up, but for everyone who thought I was being gross when I suggested Lemire is setting up Iceman and Anole as a couple… today’s issue of EXM fixes the age issue and I’d now put money on the relationship going in that angle…

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