“Back of the book” summary:
A small African town has been hit with a series of bizarre occurrences, as children are born possessing strange and powerful abilities. With the mutant race dwindling, the X-Men are the first on the scene to investigate the phenomenon. When they arrive, their hopes are raised by what looks to be a concentration of mutant births. But soon they find themselves confronted by the country’s ruthless leader, who has his own ideas of what the children truly are and how to deal with them. Have the X-Men stumbled across a series of new mutant births, or are they dealing with something far more dangerous?
I have not been super into X-Men comics in some years, and I haven’t been a regular consumer of any kind of X-Men comics since Joss Whedon’s launch of the Astonishing X-Men title (illustrated in its entirely by the great John Cassaday) as kind of a follow-up to Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. Warren Ellis — the man responsible for many of the late 1990s and early 2000s greatest superhero comics, as well as comics-to-film adaptations like Red
— carried on the Astonishing X-Men after Joss launched Kitty Pryde into a super spacefaring bullet, with a succession of strong artists, arc-by-arc, most recently Kaare Andrews in this volume.
I was in particular excited to pick up this book because Andrews was such a celebrated cover artist on Incredible Hulk a few years back. You may know him from some of those iconic covers…
(my favorite was this Rockwell-inspired one, but there were lots of goodies)
Andrews has used a lot of different styles — painterly, cartoonish, exaggerated — but his ability, workmanship, and distinctiveness are pretty undeniable.
Ellis is a writer who has produced some of the greatest comics any of us will ever read — The Authority as a concept, a great deal of Planetary — but the joke is that this writer, who is one of the best at innovative superhero stories, doesn’t particularly like writing superheroes.
… So of course he finds himself piloting a quintessential “superhero” concept team in the X-Men. And not just any X-Men here… He has some of the most popular members in the history of the franchise in Storm, Cyclops, and of course Wolverine on the lineup.
Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis is, I think, a rare opportunity for a writer to really bend a popular franchise to a truly terrible context… No, not a faraway space station or the undersea kingdom of Atlantis (those are actually pedestrian for a squad like the X-Men). Instead, Ellis uses the opportunity to put them into an actual awful place, a small village in Africa.
He uses the opportunity to highlight some real-world problems to an American audience… Stuff I wouldn’t have thought about independently, and because Ellis is so good, he can interweave the socially uncomfortable bits in with dialogue and situational conflicts we might actually want to read. Case in point:
Cyclops (to Storm [who is a Black woman, currently a Wakandan Head of State, and was worshipped as a goddess in the Serengeti in younger years]:
“… I’m walking two White Americans, a White Canadian, a Japanese girl and a White woman of indeterminate ancestry who speaks with a fake English accent into an African country. So if you don’t mind a little more consultation than usual…”
So even if there is a political agenda driving the setting of the book, Ellis’s skill level mitigates how much it might detract from the usual, you know, ultra-violent superhero romp.
Anyway, onto the review…
What was great about Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis?
Honestly, I loved Loved LOVED the thing about Emma Frost’s alleged fake English accent. I just got done watching X-Men: First Class for the third time, so my working image of Emma Frost is the “sullen and bosomy” portrayal by January Jones, which I didn’t hate, but was admittedly not great. Emma is written so over-the-top by some writers (Grant Morrison in particular)… I could just see the Madonna-esque fake English accent fitting for a woman who jokes about her plastic surgery, or getting herself appraised while in diamond form. Such a real-feeling nugget characterization, situated in potentially a throwaway piece of dialogue.
Additionally, the bad guys / reveal to this one harkens back to some Alan Moore / Alan Davis comics from twenty years ago, and longtime comics fans like YT get a kick out of that stuff.
From my perspective, this wasn’t really a “great” graphic novel, though I certainly appreciated quite a bit of it, and would consider it well above average in general.
That said, maybe it wasn’t meant to be great … The “ruthless leader” of the African country sums up the scope of what is going on in Xenogenesis via a thought-provoking bit of monologue over the story’s the final two panels:
“And no one will care. It’s not Chernobyl. It’s not an oil spill, or a hurricane.
“It’s just a village in Africa. Everyone wants to save the world, you see.
“But nobody really cares about M’Bangwi. No one but me.”
What about Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis gave me pause?
The African thing didn’t really bother me at all. I know some readers, once they realized what was going on, would cry emotional manipulation and close themselves off to what was good about the book. “I want the X-Men to be fighting aliens, not for the safety of one African village!” Well, they actually end up fighting some aliens so that isn’t even a problem.
The biggest thing that bothered me is actually some of Kaare Andrews’s rendering. Here is a highlight of the cover:
I mean WTF is up with Emma Frost’s butt?
Like I said before, Andrews has any number of styles available to him. And in this case he chose “gelatinously drooping”.
Emma invented the concept of using your superhot superhero body / underwear-looking costume as a weapon as the White Queen of the Hellfire Club. Flaunting cosmetic surgery is one of many batarangs in her utility belt. There was even a backup story in Classic X-Men when she explained her “uniform” to a lib-minded young waitress [things from when you are 13 that you don’t easily forget]! I mean… that is the cover!
We are way more used to seeing Emma look like, well this:
Emma Frost by Adam Hughes
Or the aforementioned:
January Jones as Emma Frost in X-Men: First Class
Anyway — that’s what gave me pause. And now that I’ve pointed it out, I bet you feel the same damn way.
Why would someone want to buy Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis?
Like I said earlier in the review, I don’t follow the X-Men slavishly. I bought this one because of the strength of its creative team… So if you were to do the same, I would guess it would be for similar reasons. Or, if you just buy every kind of X-Men everything, you don’t really need any kind of purchasing criteria other than the giant “X” in the corner (so mise).
Buy / Don’t Buy?
Buy, but a fairly soft buy. Your life won’t change if you miss this one, except maybe around a monologue on Nelson Mandela by Wolverine (but I don’t know that I would take my history lesson queues from a superhero comic book).
Teeny tiny ads: You know, so I can be F-U rich enough to join the Hellfire Club