by Shawn Warner
This issue throttles back the usual X-Men style action just a bit in favor of Love: Mutant Style or as this issue could have been titled; Taking the Astral Plane to Romance City. Series writer Charles Soule takes a break from the telekinetic chess match between the disembodied Charles Xavier and Farouk, The Shadow King just long enough to give us a peek inside the more tender moments shared by some of Mutantdom’s most popular couples. Soule has done a pretty impressive job so far of rotating the cast of characters on this title to include some often overlooked or at least under used X-Men. His knowledge of the chemistry between these characters is equally if not more impressive, although I certainly would not place this iteration of Astonishing X-Men on par with Joss Whedon’s brilliant run or even Warren Ellis’ short stint on the title, but it is darn good storytelling in its own right and has amazing potential to be mentioned alongside these other great runs.
Soule has created perhaps one of the smartest plots in X-Men history to make brilliant use of a rotating cast and that is to base the entire shooting match on the astral plane. Sure Grant Morrison has used similar plot devices to mind-blowing effect, but Soule is no slouch when it comes to exploring his characters’ inner depths and using those elements to more fully define his characterizations. In this issue he accomplishes that by showing Gambit and Rogue in what at first appears to be a blissfully romantic setting but quickly turns dark at the pivotal moment of a lover’s touch, the same in the case of Mystique and Fantomex who find themselves in one of Mystique’s old lavish apartments as they ponder a world of selfish pursuits far more suiting to them than say, making the world safe for humanity. In the hands of a less savvy storyteller these set ups could be flimsy and anti-climactic, however Soule executes with surgical precision and the pay-off is poignant, humanizing and above all else, real. That’s no small accomplishment in a medium full of flying men, telekinetic women and unkillable mutants.
That brings us to the subplot, what would an X-Men comic book be entirely devoid of violent action, especially one in which Logan is a member of the team. Possessed and running amok, Logan faces Angel, Psylocke and Bishop as they attempt to bring his rampage to as quick an end as possible, with as low a body count as possible as well. Psylocke seems best suited for the task as she employs her formidable ninja skills and psychic weapons to keep Logan from murdering her friends who are now in a comatose state. Soule gets hyper-descriptive here producing some of the most cringe inducing narration this side of Halloween. His characterizations of longtime X-Men Angel and Bishop are as spot on as any I’ve read in recent memory. The entire issue is just really solid, particularly for a low-key story that gives us a chance to catch our breath before the next big arc kicks off. The final page of this one promises it’s back to the action and the stakes are as high as ever next issue.
The Astral Plane not only works well for Soule’s rotating cast of characters but also for the ever-changing line up of artists working on this book. We have been blessed with some of the biggest and best artists working today in just four issues. Carlos Pacheco is no exception, his work is super clean yet his facial renderings are extremely expressive. Pacheco has a firm grip on anatomy lending a look of realism to his work that is a nice juxtaposition to the super hero fare he usually works on. His cinematic use of page layout and panel design really amps up the kinetic energy created by Soule’s more exciting beats in this issue, particularly the Logan scenes. There is no doubt this visual team had some big shoes to fill coming in after Jim Cheung and then Ed McGuiness, but Pacheco, inker Rafael Fonteriz and colorist Rain Beredo handle the job with apparent ease.
Overall Soule and company may not be completely where they need to be in the sense that they still have some growing to do but, that just means that the best is yet to come for this extremely exciting chapter in Astonishing X-Men history. The writing, as with the vast majority of Soule’s work, is engrossing, entertaining and pretty darn exciting, while the ever-changing visual style afforded by the top-tier artists working on the title so far keeps things fresh and eye-popping. Astonishing X-Men is one Marvel title I hope sticks around for the long haul. 4/5
Writer- Charles Soule
Artists- Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Fonteriz, Rain Beredo
Letterer- Clayton Cowles