Kaare Andrews Bends Heroes Like Silly Putty in ‘Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis’
Superhero characters are extremely malleable, especially visually. They have to be -- most of the ones anybody cares about have been developed over the course of decades by dozens, if not hundreds, of writers and artists. If superheroes were required to fit a single inflexible model, they would have snapped under the pressure decades ago and faded away into obscurity. Instead, they can be rendered in dozens of perfectly valid ways, even some that run counter to commonly accepted methods. In Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis with Warren Ellis, Kaare Andrews takes the X-Men and bends them like silly putty, coming up with something that doesn't fit what we expect but still manages to be pretty amazing.
There are a few people who have fundamentally defined the look of the X-Men, forever altering the way we see the characters, their costumes, and their physical characteristics. If you're going to talk about the definitive X-Men artists, we're usually talking about John Byrne, Dave Cockrum, or Jim Lee. These three guys forever changed the face of the X-Men, and by extension, superhero comics. Even if none of them is your favorite X-Men artist, the odds are good that your favorite X-Men artist's favorite X-Men artist is one of them.
They helped define the look of the X-Men at several different points in time, ramping up the realism, sleek shininess, and barely repressed sexiness that made the X-Men franchise the biggest in comics. While other, possibly better, artists have graced the pages of the flagship X-books, no one has quite caused a sea change like those three. Even John Cassaday, fan-favorite artist of Astonishing X-Men with Joss Whedon, found himself bowing down before the Altar of Byrne.
Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis is the capstone to Warren Ellis's run on Astonishing X-Men, and Kaare Andrews (Spider-Man: Reign, Spider-Man/Dr. Octopus: Year One, Incredible Hulk) stepped in on art chores, batting clean-up after runs by Simone Bianchi and Phil Jimenez. While Bianchi has his own unique style (best described perhaps as "heavy metal album cover") and Jimenez has a nice George Pérez-influenced style, Andrews flexed his muscles with an idiosyncratic, hyper-exaggerated style unlike what you'd expect from most cape comics.
The most distinctive thing about Andrews's take on the X-Men has got to be Emma Frost. Frost, as defined by Byrne, Cassaday, and Frank Quitely, is X-Woman tall, busty, and a bundle of somebody's fetishes all wrapped up in an all-white package. Sex appeal pours off her in waves, with a hint of domination and submission in the bedroom being the main touchstone for how she's been portrayed over the years.
Andrews takes the traditional Emma Frost visual style--white clothes, skin, constant sex appeal--and twists it. Like a parent forcing a disobedient child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in one sitting, he takes Emma Frost and cranks her up to eleven. She's drawn so that she's almost definitely somewhere around 4'6" barefoot and 5'8" in heels. Her hyper-thin waist, exaggerated breasts, and full butt are in your face whenever she's on-panel, much to the consternation of the rest of the cast (and likely many of Xenogenesis's readers).
Despite the exaggeration, it's all distinctly Emma Frost -- her original costume was a corset, panties, stockings, and a cape. This costume, which really isn't even a costume, is in largely the same configuration and covers the same amount of skin, but her enhanced proportions make her look ridiculous. This, of course, is in keeping with Warren Ellis's take on her, which is more or less "Remember when Madonna pretended to be British and was annoying as sin and we all played along? That's our Emma."
Wolverine gets his own turn being twisted and warped. First, he's short. I don't mean "short for a guy" or "short for comics," either. He's about as tall as Emma in her heels and Armor in her shoes, and barely comes up to just the shoulders of Cyclops and Storm when wearing a hat. Armor, of course, is a teenaged girl.
Wolverine is rugged, and while there's a certain measure of handsomeness to him (as Byrne established and Lee ran with), he's really just a hairy, short little dude that's built like a linebacker. The graceful Wolverine that Frank Miller drew, and Jim Lee's Clint Eastwood-influenced take, has been left behind in favor of a guy with a permanent beard, hairy forearms, and muscles on his muscles. He's not gross, exactly, but he's not Hugh Jackman, either.
Everyone gets the treatment, but Storm may be the most interesting and the biggest departure from her current design. Her fluffy white hair, blue eyes, ornate costume and cape have given way to an X-Men t-shirt, pupil-less eyes, fingerless gloves, military-style pants, and no shoes. And it's a look that really works, and has the casual feel of a uniform without actually being one, sort of like what security guards will wear at a club or concert. The kicker, though, is her hair situation. She's got somewhere around six feet of brilliant white hair that begins in a long mohawk on her skull and flows out behind her like a tail as she flies.
Let me tell you something from personal experience -- that length of hair probably requires twelve hours under a hot comb, a gallon of relaxer, and a quart of pink lotion to keep in control every single day. In real life, it would be absurd. In comics, it's still absurd, but it makes for a great visual. Her hair is paired with two white feather earrings, giving her hair the appearance of something like a mane. This is a great look for Storm, both regal and fascinating, and isn't so far off the mark that she can't be instantly recognized by her fans.
These three characters (and the rest of Xenogenesis, really) don't fit the commonly accepted Marvel house style, and could be genuinely considered to be "off-model." Emma's grotesque, in the classic sense of the word: out of proportion and incongruous. Storm's look hearkens back to her mohawk days without being obsessively concerned with replicating the look. Wolverine is a straight-up troll, hairy and tiny and gross. They won't fit beside Stuart Immonen's clean work on New Avengers or Terry and Rachel Dodson's lines on Uncanny X-Men.
But that doesn't matter. After all, superheroes don't break, no matter what you do to them. David Lapham and Kyle Baker's Deadpool doesn't invalidate or affect Daniel Way and Paco Medina's Deadpool -- they exist side by side. In Xenogenesis Andrews cranks up the basic aspects of the X-Men in a way that looks good on ira own terms, and provides a welcome counterpoint to how these characters usually look. His art made an X-Men comic that caught my eye off the racks, something that rarely, if ever, happens. It stood out.
Being willing to go weird and stand out is something cape comics could stand to do more often. Let Vera Brogsol have some no-holds barred fun with the Marvel Universe. Back a truckload of cash up to Evan Dorkin's door and get him to lampoon everything. Bring back Fred Hembeck. Ask Justin Pierce to do an actual Wonder Woman comic. Kaare Andrews was also good friends with the late Seth Fisher, another artist who will draw you into a book just because of how weird and great it looks.
There's no reason not to let these people run wild. The capes will fold neatly back into place when these artists are done. If you're going to show us these fantastic tales of the superhuman, don't constrain yourself with realism. Go wild and impress us. Show us something new, like Kaare Andrews did.