Writer Jason Aaron has carved out his own super-opera on Marvel's Wolverine And The X-Men title, somehow enduring the vicissitudes of crossovers and events and even a line-wide relaunch (that paradoxically left the nineteen-month-old, thirty-one-issue book one of Marvel's longest running titles, and Aaron himself with the distinction of having produced one of the publisher's longest uninterrupted runs by a single writer). And he seems to be having a lot of fun.

The fun continues with this week's issue #31, by Aaron and regular artist Nick Bradsaw. The first part of a five-issue arc titled "The Hellfire Saga," the new issue takes us away from the book's usual setting at the Jean Grey School to its evil counterpart, the Hellfire Academy. With echoes of some of the X-Men's greatest hits, this is a story that seems ready to cement this title's already sterling reputation as the most exuberant in Marvel's current line of mutant comics.

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"Hellfire Saga" feels like a big name for an X-Men adventure. It evokes one of the franchise's best-known story lines, "The Dark Phoenix Saga," which also heavily featured the Hellfire Club. Whether this story intends to invite such a lofty comparison is not clear from the first issue, but it does echo the earlier story in showing a powerful "good guy" being lured over to Hellfire.

The good guy in question is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's wayward alpha rebel Quentin Quire, a character who has always wobbled on the tightrope between good and evil, so the story is obviously going in a very different direction. The current Hellfire Club is also a radical change from the fetish club Bilderberg Group of yore. Aaron has already established a group of prepubescent over-achieving anti-mutant Hellfire cubs as the main nemeses on the title, and in "The Hellfire Saga" he gives them a whole school to preside over.

Indeed the main thrust of this first part is to introduce readers to the Hellfire Academy, and the creators take great pleasure in debuting their super-villain Hogwarts, staffed by the likes of Mystique, Sabretooth, Sauron, and a version of Husk that will break the hearts of long-time fans of the character who haven't kept up with Aaron's series.

It's here that the book shows least resemblance to Claremont, Byrne and Cockrum's "Dark Phoenix Saga," because while that story was pious in its devotion to the reality of its premise, that has never been Aaron and Bradshaw's approach. Wolverine And The X-Men has long served a dual purpose in the X-Men franchise. On the one hand it's the current in a line of books focusing on younger mutants within the X-Men family (with split focus on Wolverine and the adult faculty to make sure readers don't treat the book as disposable); and on the other it's a farce-heavy comedy book.

If the Marvel Universe is a toy chest, Aaron is a writer who wants to play. How much you enjoy his approach may depend on how you feel about, for example, a giant-nostrilled mutant named Snot, or a teacher challenging students to rip a classmate's teeth out. It's broad stuff, and Aaron is sometimes rough with his toys. Bradshaw seems to relish the chance to create the visual world of the Hellfire Academy -- he has some great visuals to sink his teeth into -- and his rounded lines (inked by Walden Wong) and expressive characters set the comedic tone.

As sagas go, this one doesn't feel epic. The pacing of the issue seems a little uneven; the scale of the story hasn't been convincingly established. One issue in, it feels more like a lark than a saga. But when every cover-billed storyline is presented as the one that will change the Marvel Universe forever, maybe it's OK for a story to call itself a saga and set its ambition at pratfalls and pantomime. The title invites comparison with "The Dark Phoenix Saga," but it doesn't feel like that's the story lurking under the clown make-up.

Wolverine And The X-Men #31 is on sale now digitally and from your local comics shop.

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