Astonishing X-Men #1
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Jim Cheung, Mark Morales, Guillermo Ortega, Walden Wong, Richard Isanove and Rain Beredo
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Before a big wrestling or boxing match, commentators often use the phrase “Big Fight Feel." No actual in-ring action has happened yet, but there’s a nebulous sense that something significant is about to happen. Think of it like the electricity in the air before a storm. Comic book sometimes elicit the same feeling. DC’s "Rebirth" and Marvel’s Secret Empire have, regardless of your opinions of both of those comics, a 'Big Comic Book Feel.' The fact that they were line-wide events was peripheral to the fact that something important was going to happen in those pages.
Astonishing X-Men #1 has a Big Comic Book Feel, and it does so without the baggage of a massive crossover, and before the reader sees the spectacle of a possessed Psylocke, the reveal of the Shadow King as the antagonist, or the simultaneously unexpected and inevitable twist. Charles Soule’s command of atmosphere in this first issue alone rivals his best work of the past few years, while the myriad of artists involved, but in particular penciler Jim Cheung, deliver an issue that is as visually confident as it is fluid.
Spoilers ahead for Astonishing X-Men #1.
The issue opens with narration that, while ultimately sinister, conveys novel and interesting ideas about characters with telepathic psychic capabilities, comparing it to the inverse of blind children learning that most other people have a sense that they do not possess. It’s the kind of thoughtful observation of a fictional phenomenon that gives readers a sense of immersion, a trait that is consistent throughout the opening and final act of the issue. Amidst this detached narration, a montage of psychics die lonely deaths before the story leads us to Betsy Braddock, reveals that our narrator has not had the best intentions and that some serious psychic conflict is about to go down. While the issue as a whole showcases powerful art from Jim Cheung, the opening scenes of Psylocke being possessed up until the resolution of her attack on London show color artists Richard Isanove and Rain Beredo delivering rich, eye-catching, but never distracting work. Of particular note is the scene where Rogue, one of the many X-Men summoned by Psylocke’s distress psy-butterflies, absorbs the negative psychic energy that has been possessing Betsy and redirects it into Bishop via kiss. Cheung’s art is as busy as it needs to be to convey the overflowing of power from Rogue that she now controls, while the coloring of the scene with neon magenta makes the psychic energy feel as though it literally flows out of the page.
When everything calms down, Betsy tells the astonishing team of Old Man Logan, Beast, Gambit, Fantomex, Angel, Bishop, and Rogue that her attacker was the Shadow King and that he’s rounding up psychics in an effort to return from the astral plane. With some ridiculously powerful psychics roaming the 616, it’s no surprise that she, and by extension Soule, are able to so effectively sell the urgency of what has to be done. Most of the team must go into the Astral Plane to stop, and if possible kill, Ahmal Farouk. Meanwhile, in the Astral Plane, the Shadow King is unbothered by the presence of the mutant team on his home plane as he struts on a web that closely mirrors the psychic web that the possessed Betsy was manifesting as she climbed to the top of Big Ben. He knows something they don’t know, in the form of Charles Xavier, locked away, restrained, and clearly under Ahmal Farouk’s control.
Between those two moments is the only major hiccup that the isue has. Soule is arguably at his best when there are a lot of moving parts getting into place, and the opening of this comic recalls his best work at the beginning of Inhumans vs. X-Men. When all of that motion stops and he writes idle scenes, however, the transition can be a bit jarring. There is a slight antsiness to the dialogue, as the characters wind up seeming a little too eager to end their own scenes. These scenes are not without their significance or strengths, though, as Soule sets up several plot elements to explore in later issues of the series despite using two significant reveals in the opening issue. Beast’s allegiances will likely be further explored, as will Warren’s delicate relationship with the world-ending Archangel persona. Without those plot points being touched upon here, the issue would have looked as though it played its hand too soon.
There’s a lot to take in with Astonishing X-Men #1, both in terms of story and art. A lot of ground gets covered through the issue, but the action never feels rushed. Beyond the dialogue and narration, the artists involved deliver panel after panel of art that readers will want to linger. There’s a lot to see not only on each page but also each panel. This is a strong start from a writer who is very good at strong starts but is so effective at conveying its own significance as an interesting story that it’s hard to imagine this series losing that 'Big Comic Book Feel' as the next few issues loom on the horizon.