Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #s 1-5
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist/Cover artist: Kaare Andrews
Colors: Frank D’Armata
Letters: Virtual Calligraphy
Editor: Daniel Ketchum
Publisher: Marvel Entertainment
Price: $3.99 US
There’s nothing quite like a bargain. For comics readers and collectors such as myself, finding an old box of forgotten comics at a flea market, priced to sell, is always a bit of a thrill, but flea markets aren’t the only backdrop for such an experience. A lot of comic shops offer great deals on comics to clear out stock that’s been sitting around for a while. So when I saw all five issues of this limited series marked at $5 for the bundle at my local shop, I grabbed it up. Despite my appreciation of the creators’ past work, I wasn’t interested enough in these characters to pay four bucks a shot for each issue, but five for the lot? That’s a bargain at thrice the price. I’m pleased I got a chance to peruse these pages, but I’m also pleased I didn’t do so at full price back when they were initially published. The story reads incredibly quickly, and as its foundation are both recent and obscure elements from Marvel continuity that would likely leave many newer readers scratching their heads.
Cyclops and Storm lead a team of X-Men to the African nation of Mbangawi to investigate a report of a rash of mutant births, but the Beast is doubtful the violent and politically volatile nation of the site of a mutant rebirth. He suspects there’s another explanation for the many super-powered and mutated infants they find, but as they look for answers, they must contend with a reality-jumping refugee, a platoon of techno-organic assassins and a ruthless leader willing to go to any lengths for what he perceives to be the greater good. And Wolverine gets shot. A lot.
Kaare Andrews is perhaps one of the most versatile artists in the comics industry, able to shift his style to suit key assignments and motifs. It’s been particularly apparent in his cover artwork assignments — just look back at his contributions to the Bruce Jones run on Incredible Hulk from a few years ago. For this particular project, Andrews opted for a bombastic, exaggerated and unrealistic approach; it looks sort of like a cross between the styles of Kyle (Plastic Man) Baker and Ed (Avengers: X-Sanction) McGuinness or Joe (Ultimates 3) Maduriera. It’s an unusual choice, because the script often reminds us the point of this story, at least some of the time, is to open our eyes to the conditions, political climate and harsh realities of life in an unstable African nation. You’d think a more grounded, grittier and more realistic look might be called for.
Furthermore, the over-the-top approach to the title characters didn’t really work for me. Storm’s mohawk-esque hairstyle boasts a “train” that would put Kate Middleton to shame, and it was distracting to see such an unnecessary design element. Furthermore, the look for Emma Frost was disconcerting. Her face cherubic, with an exaggerated, round, soft, pouty look that makes her appear child-like, but her body is overly sexualized. Her almost-teen-like appearance is especially prominent when juxtaposed against Storm’s maturity. His cover artwork for this series was disappointing as well, as few of the five cover images conveyed the subject matter within.
Andrews takes a radically different tack with Doctor Crocodile, AKA Joshua N’Dingi, one that reinforces the violent realities of militarized life in the fictional African nation that serves as the backdrop for the story. Of course, that means he wasn’t recognizable as an established Marvel character (I had to Google him to see if he’d appeared before). I like the artist’s portrayal of Armor, as well as how he lampoons Wolverine’s impossibly perfect healing factor with images of his Swiss cheese-like form later in the issue.
To appreciate this plot, knowledge of Alan Moore’s “Jaspers Warp” stories from Marvel UK’s Captain Britain series from decades ago (not to mention writer Warren Ellis’ recent “Ghost Box” story arc from other Astonishing X-Men comics) is necessary — not to follow it, per se, but to get the most out of the plot. For example, the appearance of the Furies will only have the desired impact if one is familiar with the concept from the Moore/Jamie Delano/Alan Davis era of Captain Britain. They don’t come off nearly as intimidating here as they should unless one is familiar with those early 1980s stories. Furthermore, Andrews doesn’t portray them nearly as inhuman and alien as they ought to look. Another glitch with the series was just how slow the first issue turns out to be. Nothing happens save for a little discussion as the catalyst that sends the X-Men team bound for Africa.
While I clearly had a number of issues with the series, there’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate here. Doc Croc (and I love that he’s generally not referred to as such for the most part) and his ends-justifies-the-means attitude make for a interesting contrast with the X-Men’s black-and-white perspective. They can’t offer better alternatives to Croc’s “solution” in the final issue tempers their outrage. Writer Warren Ellis presents the characters with an impossible ethical dilemma that can take someone down only an unethical path. Though the story ventures away from the African socio-political and cultural elements for a time, it comes full circle with the final issue in a satisfying manner.
Despite the missteps, Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis represents some smart comics storytelling, but I must admit I’m relieved I didn’t pay full price for the chance to read it. 6/10
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