The Shadow King is playing a dark masquerade with our heroes, but he’s not playing alone! Can Xavier overcome his psychic nemesis? Is that even Xavier?
While Gold is mired in nostalgia and Blue looks to the future (ironically by focusing on characters from the past), Astonishing X-Men kinda straddles the line between the two. Most of the team are holdovers from the ’90s, though Fantomex, Old Man Logan and Mystique manage to freshen up the dynamic a bit. What’s that? Yeah, this issue reveals that the Beast we saw running around in the previous issue is actually Mystique in disguise, and I’m guessing it won’t be the only surprise reveal by the time this opening arc is finished. Who do I think cou-It’s Xavier. I don’t think that’s Xavier.
Perhaps I should talk about the issue before I get into my conspiracy theory.
So the structure of this issue sees the Shadow King and ersatz Xavier creating a mental illusion of a play acting out bits and pieces of the X-Men’s history. To the two uber-powerful psychics, this is all a game. Farouk and Xavier are attempting to coopt the ensnared X-Men to either side, with the Shadow King devouring their souls should he win and….wait, what? If Xavier wins the X-Men will die? That can’t be right. Yes, as presented now, the Xavier we see is playing for a peaceful death for his students (and Fantomex, Mystique and Old Man Logan). Now Xavier has been known to be tricky in the past, and he is clearly weighed down by mountains of chains, so there’s a chance he’s playing coy and operating under duress. The alternative is that it’s not actually the consciousness of Xavier sharing a friendly competition with the Shadow King. At this stage it’s hard to say which theory holds more weight, but, I personally lean more toward the latter.
The X-Men themselves see through the ruse, eventually, with Fantomex correctly surmising the actual structure of the game between Farouk and “Xavier,” and that one of the players (ostensibly) is on their side. The masquerade itself is a bit of a mixed bag from a character perspective. Old Man Logan’s interactions with the doppleganger of Jean is pretty blah, but the issues faced by Rogue and Gambit that are exposed by the feigned romance between Romeo and Juliet (as portrayed by Colossus and Kitty, eventually cos- and cross-playing as our heroes) are the most telling – even if I don’t really like it. Seeing exalted platitudes of love reminds the pair of how far they’ve come together – and how their relationship has grown into a more platonic bond over time. As a long-time G+R shipper I hate it, especially when Gambit tosses out “Sure there will always be a spark…” but Rogue doesn’t acknowledge it. It feels too much like a “she’s just not that into you” moment, and maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I believed in the love between a Mississippi super parasite and a Cajun thief who can turn things into grenades. Sure they’ve moved past it, but…you know what? Not relevant.
Anyway, outside of the astral plane, Psylocke, Angel and Bishop have the unenviable task of guarding the mid-inception bodies of their comrades. Since Psylocke’s battle with the Shadow King included an enormous mental projection that caused a ton of collateral damage in the center of London, the authorities are not keen on trusting our mutant heroes. Oh, did I mention that the X-Men are stuck atop a major skyscraper? Being swarmed by helicopters and monitored by some government agency? One that notes that all of the members of the X-Men involved in the story have been villains at one time or another? It’s a nice B-story that I hope maintains some level of interest, and doesn’t just end with Bishop once again becoming liaison to some mutant regulatory organization.
Artwise, I’m not a huge fan of Mike Deodato’s pencils. My main issue, in addition to action sequences that often feel muddy and indistinct, is that he draws the human form like he’s illustrating an action figure. I don’t mean like over-muscled or cartoonish, I mean segmented like a poseable action figure. He over emphasizes the shoulder muscles and deltoids, or the thighs and knees, making most of his characters look like they have those ball joints that Dave and Chris talk about in their figure reviews. There are also some issues with the layout of some pages, especially in the astral plane sequences. Many of the panels expand beyond their borders and sort of blend into others, while there are occasionally random borders breaking up panels for whatever reason. The biggest example of this is the sequence where the X-Men fight their doppelgangers in the theater. There’s a glass shattering effect in the open space between panels as well as a floating head in the middle and it’s just too busy and not appealing as a layout. To be fair, I really do enjoy his depiction of Amahl Farouk.
Overall, though, this is a good book – one that manages to continue one of my favorite ongoing jokes in the X-Books, that nobody actually likes Fantomex. I’m not crazy about the art, but the story and framing device are well rendered. Hopefully Charles Soule will develop a more unique narrative voice for the series, as this arc has been relatively by the book thus far.