Greetings, ‘Rama readers! Pierce Lydon here filling in for Best Shots captain David Pepose! We’ve got two books in the column today and we’ll kick things off with C.K. Stewart’s take on Age of X-Man: X-Tremists #3:
Age of X-Man: X-Tremists #3
Written by Leah Williams
Art by Georges Jeanty, Roberto Poggi, Jim Charalampidis
Lettering by VC’s Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Content warning ahead for mentions of eating disorders. Age of X-Man: X-Tremists writer Leah Williams has been open about wanting to deliver a better Blob in this limited series, using his role as the X-Tremists’ leader as an opportunity to rehabilitate a character who has often been defined, literally and not very positively, by his fatness. Last week’s Age of X-Man: X-Tremists #3 is where this concept is put to the test, pushing the boundaries of how much you can do to really rehabilitate a character’s narrative legacy in a world where the framework to even discuss it -- as physical prejudices, per Williams, don’t exist here -- have been wiped out.
This issue picks up immediately after the final scene of #2, with Betsy crawling atop a table to ask Fred if his freshly-revealed feelings for her still hurt him. Slightly slack-jawed and visibly startled, he says yes, and Betsy departs, having agreed to let him keep his feelings and not betray her friend by ratting him out to the rest of the squad. The action through the rest of the issue is fairly compelling; the team squabbles over the continued presence of their pregnant captor in the basement and a failed mindwipe on a new captive by Betsy, and there’s a building sense of discomfiting horror as you become more aware that you’re watching a love story play out against the backdrop of a team that’s angry, but still surprisingly tolerant, of their teammate torturing a pregnant woman in a basement. The narrative remains contrasted to Jeanty and Poggi’s bold and lively art, with colorist Charalampidis’ vibrant work starting to seem more at odds with the book’s darker narrative undercurrent in a way that’s starting to feel intentional.
This undercurrent is undercut by a central scene near the end of the book between Betsy and Fred - an intense and uncomfortable monologue from Betsy in which she discloses how much easier it was to cope with her eating disorder in an Asian woman’s body. It’s a heavy admission that feels out of place in this particular conversation, a private tet-a-tet over classic novels where what could have been an emotional and thoughtful exploration of Betsy’s narratively, ah, problematic history could have been unraveled and rewritten. But Williams glosses past the most jarring aspect of Betsy’s admission - the aspect that made Psylocke’s years in Kwannen’s body so particularly uncomfortable - and by introducing Betsy’s history with her eating disorder, Williams undermines her own oft-stated goal about introducing a better Blob. It starts to feel as if this team is relying on a “world without physical prejudice” to avoid ever having to discuss Fred’s fatness at all, all while putting the only fat character on the team squarely in the position of being an unexpected emotional sounding board for a woman discussing her disordered relationship with her own body.
Fred isn’t the only shirtless character in the book, but where Bobby’s fashion choices seem framed squarely as a way to show off his physique. Fred, instead, is given unflattering pants and a jacket that doesn’t close, as if no one could be bothered to order uniforms in extended sizes. He gets two outfits -- neither particularly stylish or complimentary - and while he’s not drawn, physically, in a particularly unflattering way, the conversation between Betsy and Fred really emphasizes that Williams and the team are attempting to “rehabilitate” Fred as a character in the vacuum of this book without ever having to address the pop culture disdain for fat bodies that often made him a somewhat controversial character to begin with.
It’s not to say that this monologue from Betsy couldn’t have happened, but that it’s a lazy choice to give Betsy the space to explore her feelings about her body from before Nate Grey and then in turn use the “absence of physical prejudice” in Nate Grey’s world as, seemingly, an excuse to never address the physical prejudices turned on Fred/Blob as a character that apparently prompted his inclusion in the book in the first place. With luck this is addressed in future issues in some way, but Betsy’s revelation feels so jarringly out of place in the story at this point that it casts a pall on the rest of the issue, despite some impressive action sequences delivered by Jeanty and Poggi.
Action Comics #1010
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Steve Epting and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Josh Reed
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Brian Michael Bendis has been working in superhero comic books for so long that sometimes it’s easy to forget that at his core, he’s a crime writer. And with the latest installment of “Leviathan Rising” he does a great job flexing those skills with a heavy espionage filter laid over them. The result is a book that doesn’t feel much like a superhero book at times but does make for a compelling chapter to the Leviathan mystery. Steve Epting is a great fit for the tone of this story as Lois and Clark go undercover for Spyral. Epting gives the story a great sense of setting while allowing his heavy inking to give the story the noirish feel that it needs.
I understand the frustration with Bendis’ pacing in general and while his penchant for decompression throughout his career has led to more than a few issues that drag, this isn’t one of them. Bendis’ character work is really on point here, further establishing Lois Lane as one of the most capable heroes in the DCU and reaffirming that she’s basically a perfect match for Superman. It’s hard not to like Bendis’ take on the character. And despite being a fairly “talky” issue, this one moves at a really good pace. A lot of that has to do with the art but even Bendis’ dialogue is a bit more terse and to the point. While he can have a tendency to have characters repeat themselves to create tension or sell readers on a joke, he avoids those pitfalls here with a “less is more” approach that stitches the disparate parts of the narrative together well.
And like I mentioned, Bendis owes a lot to his art team. Steve Epting’s attention to detail in setting a scene adds to the stakes of the story. I think too often in comics artists who fail to give readers information about the setting past an initial establishing shot are missing an opportunity to get readers to buy in more completely. On a TV show, you generally get a good sense of where characters are and how they can move in that space. In comic books, that’s not always that case. Obviously, the two mediums are different but by giving us a more fully rendered world, even if much of it is obscured by darkness, Epting is able to help us better understand the situations that these characters are in. So images like Bones’ skeletal visage alone in a darkened interrogation room or the barrel of the gun poking out of the shadows end up having more weight.
This issue is a really good example of how creators can have a “quiet” issue underline the evolution of their plotting and the stakes of their story. Epting and colorist Brad Anderson allow darkness to define most of the book and while that may be an obvious choice as readers and our heroes are still “in the dark” about the true nature of Leviathan, it works. “Leviathan Rising” still has yet to give us many answers but if the team can keep this level of quality through the build up, we might be in store for a really special story.