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Modern Heroics Done Right In Brian Wood And Olivier Coipel’s ‘X-Men’ #1 [Review]

X-Men. It’s a bland title for a comic. No astonishment here; no bid for universal novelty; no claim to the ubiquitous label “uncanny”. The new series, headlined by writer Brian Wood and penciller Olivier Coipel, is called only “X-Men”, and the simplicity of the title suggests a statement. Other series can fight for who gets to be the flagship of the X-book family, who gets to be the outrageous one, the cute one, the dark one, the gay one. This book will get on with the simple unpretentious business of being X-Men — a book about a team of adventuring heroes fighting evil. And based on the first issue, it means to deliver on that premise.

Also, PS, it’s a book full of women.

But we’ll come back to that (because it would be too coy to pretend it isn’t worth discussing). The most important detail about Wood and Coipel’s X-Men is that it doesn’t seem to care what other books you read. It doesn’t care what else you do with your time. It wants to sit you down and entertain you for twenty pages, with fast-flowing action and a rich cast of powerful and visually striking characters. It wants to give you excitement, scale and glamour; all the things that superhero books excel at.

X-Men is a book that wants to razzle-dazzle. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t quite nail the details. Though verisimilitude is hardly a virtue in superhero fiction, a bacterium that infects machines as the main antagonist seems a stretch even for this medium. The book’s key runaway train action scene is beautifully realized by Coipel, co-inker Mark Morales and colorist Laura Martin in each moment, but it is incoherent when taken as a whole. A plot that depends on Jubilee finding a baby and backpacking it from Europe to the US seems to demand the audience’s indulgence a touch too brazenly.

The razzle-dazzle is also hampered by tight layouts that don’t showcase Coipel at his best. Decompression is the secret bane of action comics because too many big pages kill the pacing that pulse-pounding action demands, but this action scene needed more room to show what it wanted to show. Wood and Coipel are still finding the balance between the former’s fondness for intimacy and the latter’s gift for spectacle.

So there are imperfections. Yet broadly this is an excellent example of superhero fiction, and it achieves this feat without being a throwback. X-Men is not a pastiche of the Silver Age, or an attempt to emulate past glories. The storytelling is entirely modern. Wood delivers a yarn without winks or derision. Coipel sleekly shows off his talents for contemporary design and confident composition. Though this book is a straggler in the first wave of Marvel NOW titles, it does feel like Marvel now.
And while so much of Marvel NOW seems geared towards world-building and event-planning, it’s a blessed relief to find a solidly entertaining team book that’s happy to pretend it’s the only X-Men book on the shelves. Yet it is not immune to continuity. In fact a large part of the book’s charm is its reliance on fan-favorite characters that only need to be loosely sketched to be instantly recognisable. Storm, Rogue, Jubilee, Kitty; these are icons within the X-Men canon, and Wood leans heavily on the audience’s affection for these characters.

And yes, these characters are all women. I’ve written before about the X-Men franchise’s unique role in redefining the place of women in superhero fiction. For that reason, there is nothing artificial about an X-Men book with an all-female cast. This is a franchise that places no archaic or reflexive limits on the roles a woman can play. If you need leadership, muscle, guile, ruthlessness, integrity, there are X-Men women who naturally and comfortably occupy those functions.

It is also a construction, of course. The villain and her new host are women; the only students who get panel-time are women; the only named male character with a speaking part is a necessary plot device. Yet it is not forced. No character is pushed into a place they wouldn’t naturally be. Wood appears to be making the most of the X-Men’s strong bench of female characters just so he can prove that a superhero book can be incidentally and organically all-female. I think that’s wonderful.
It remains to be seen whether Wood intends to use this series to explore gender themes (the presence of a newborn baby in the book is conspicuous) or whether the point is to present gender as an irrelevancy to the genre. Either way, such weighty matters may take a back seat to the fun of showing larger-than-life heroes hurling themselves into danger to save the day. That seems to be the book’s appeal, and that appeal is tremendous. The X-Men are superheroes, and these are the X-Men.

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