A digital copy of Astonishing X-Men #44 was provided for review by the author.
As a lifelong X-Men fan, I have learned that X-Men fans are, and this is putting it kindly, fickle. On top of this, they have an even more abusive relationship with continuity than most other fans of most other superhero comics – to the sensation of mattering that propels the die-hard shared universe fan through a story, even at times when their joy has abandoned them.
A book like Astonishing X-Men, with its formula of top-tier creative talent plus high-concept storytelling minus the shackles of strict continuity that bind the other books in the X-Office is always a challenge to fans. Even the much-lauded Joss Whedon/John Cassady epic that kicked the series off had its share of continuity-guardian detractors, though in the end it gave us a resurrected Colossus, an out-of-retirement Kitty Pryde, major supporting players like Danger and Armor and the definitive bible on how to write the Scott/Emma couple, all of which have mattered very heavily in the past few years of X-books.
There’s no arguing the ‘top-tier’ part of the Greg Pak/Mike McKone team-up that kicks off in Astonishing #44 – Pak’s long-form Hulk (and Hercules) story that just wrapped up in advance of the Aaron/Silvestri (and company) relaunch is already a modern classic and McKone’s fluid, emotive pencils made him a must-have for past projects like Exiles, Avengers Academy, Amazing Spider-Man and Teen Titans. In fact, I’ve been pining for Pak to write an ongoing X-Men series since his damn-near-perfect Phoenix: Endsong limited series six years ago.
Unfortunately McKone’s cover for Astonishing #44, depicting Cyclops sharing a passionate kiss with a mohawk-sporting Storm, seemed to signal that this was an out-of-continuity ‘imaginary story’ that would have little consequence. And yes, there is a bit of alternate timeline tomfoolery that leads up to that moment, but that isn’t an impediment to thoroughly enjoying an issue that is a fun, super-competent jumping on point.
Pak’s script may seem subdued at first blush, but perhaps only by comparison to the bombast and pomp of the other series from the X-office of late – nobody dies, nobody turns evil, nobody is resurrected and the status quo doesn’t seem to be forever altered. And, of course, the issue’s payoff (mutants in captivity used to power a city) sounds a lot like the logline of Mike Carey’s recent “Collision” arc in X-Men: Legacy (drawn by Clay Mann). Pak’s strength in this issue is in his characters – predominantly Cyclops – and in an accessible script that uses what it needs to from continuity while still respecting new readers. An early scene of Scott and Ororo sparring includes color commentary from the supporting cast that illuminates the action and serves to establish the theme – Cyclops’s emotional state is central to this story, as opposed to Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men where the mutant general is more closed-off. It seems at this early point like Pak’s story will deal with the consequences of Scott’s behavior elsewhere in addition to telling his own high concept action/sci-fi tale.
Mike McKone’s pencils shine here, especially when given the reins fully, as he is in a sequence when Storm and Cyclops combat a trio of Sentinel robots.
With all the hubbub around the other ‘Regenesis’ launches/new directions, it might be easy to miss Astonishing X-Men. It’s a title that’s shipped irregularly for much of its life, and it’s not being given the same level of promotion that some other books under the ‘Regenesis’ banner have been receiving. But Astonishing is a book that shouldn’t be missed lightly, as it has the makings of an iconic and emotional Cyclops story at its heart. I look forward to seeing where Pak and McKone go with it.