This issue takes the better elements of Brian Michael Bendis’ long X-Men run and uses them to tell an intimate story exceptionally well. Things get back to basics here as Emma Frost and young Jean Grey put on a two character play taking in suppressed emotions, field-based training, and cutting wit – the dialogue is tight, funny, and precise, whilst the simple story is well told and hits all the right beats. And yet the high quality writing is still eclipsed by the outstanding art by Mike Del Mundo. Simply stunning.
Bendis’ wider X-Men work has been uneven and full of mildly curious yet unsatisfying ideas (and sooooo much time travel that the concept has become all but meaningless), but this issue proves that he can still write sharp and interesting characters in smart and compelling stories. The book works so well because it essentially jettisons all of that recent muddling continuity and messy story telling in favour of a keen focus on the Emma/Young Jean character dynamic. Even if it has to fudge some recent events (and less recent ones) to really work, we are given a very good character study with some excellent moments. This is simply the story of Emma Frost taking Jean Grey on an ‘in the field’ training exercise, and it is excellent.
Emma is written at her best in this issue; she makes smart and witty remarks, but they only serve to cover her good intentions and heart; she really believes that young Jean can be stronger and survive longer than ‘old’ Jean and that is a uniquely intriguing situation to be in given their history. And for her part Jean speaks with an authentically youthful and likeable voice without being naive or grating – she may lack some confidence but her strength is definitely on display. Bendis is back on form here and his dialogue this issue, much like his characterisation, is top-notch – Emma is supportive but in a uniquely Emma way (“don’t get snippy“), Jean asks questions and demands answers without getting frustrated or angry, and both characters are funny all the way through. Half way through the issue Jean is tasked with taking out the Blob, a neat choice given his historical relationship with Jean and the X-Men, as well as his current low status in the X-books. Much like Madripoor, the Blob was relatively recently seen in Bendis’ Uncanny X-Men book where his betrayal of his mutant brethren (and specifically Mystique) came as the result of his growing addiction to Mutant Growth Hormone (MGH), a drug that until a handful of issues ago was being manufactured using the comatose body of Dazzler. This is the kind of continuity that works well; rather than getting bogged down in time-traveling duplicates and weird mutant political distinctions we get to briefly touch base with characters, concepts, and story elements in a light and fun way (even with the serious overtones of the MGH smuggling business).
Whilst the story is ultimately pretty straightforward, the art is anything but (in a gloriously good way). Mike Del Mundo, most recently doing amazing work on Elektra, paints some beautiful pages in this issue. The book takes on the tone of its protagonists – as Emma talks Jean through the ‘mission’ we see the city as a background, but the urbane and highly skilled Emma takes it all in her stride. The drama, the fights, the violence, and ugly side of humanity, Emma is able to ignore it all, so it fades into the background, ever-present but no kind of threat to this highly skilled X-Man/Person. When Jean takes centre stage it becomes about focused action, and the initial frantic panicked panels give way to elegant free-flowing movement as Jean takes charge with confidence and poise. And throughout the book we see the action through a visual barrier, be it broken glass, high wires, debris, or bullets, which serves to establish the intimacy of the story; this is about the barriers between Emma and Jean coming down. Emma is ultimately admitting that she respects and admires Jean, and that she cares about her. We are seeing all this from the outside looking in – we are getting to see emotions and expressions that no one else gets to (hence Magik being told to scamper); Emma isn’t usually the type to demonstrate her feelings like this and she is keeping everyone but Jean at a distance whilst she does so, even the readers. The art in this issue tells so much of the story, but it also tells a lot of the jokes too, and it is fast paced when necessary and slows down when appropriate – this is exactly how it should be done, the writing and art work together so well in this book that it feels like Bendis and Del Mundo are 20 issues into a collaborative epic, not just working together on a one-shot (and what wouldn’t I give to read that epic).
Plus there are so many delightful details hidden in the art – a street beggar holds a sign offering to reveal his identity for MGH, the rats of Madripoor have four eyes, the city’s denizen’s are diverse and wonderful, without even a word Emma Frost mind controls a couple of street toughs into walking the other way. Del Mundo draws action incredibly well, using depth and panel geography to create some truly unique moments; guns and hands pop off the page, characters are thrown across the room with a real sense of motion, figures in the foreground are sharp whilst those in the background drop out of focus. On top of which the facial expressions and physical behaviours of each character are all beautifully rendered. The ‘boop’ moment might become the iconic image, but there are a bevy of great panels – Emma nonchalantly checking her nails whilst making cutting remarks, the sudden surprise and fear of the yakuza when Jean bursts in, every panel of Emma and Jean’s passive-aggressive sparing match, the Blob’s smug face just before he smashes the floor. And what about that panel where Blob, Jean, and the yakuza-types fall through the floors of the abandoned mall? So, so great.
Working with Marco D’Alfonso, Del Mundo also colours this issue and his colouring is as outstanding as his art. The majority of the book is in a muted palette, with the blues and greys evoking the washed-out down-on-it’s-luck streets of Madripoor (honestly, between this Madripoor and the ‘Monkey Village’ in Elektra #10 I really think I could read an entire issue of Del Mundo just drawing slums). Emma Frost and Jean Grey standout starkly against the backgrounds, and when the action switches to the Blob’s base things take on a visibly darker tone. When Emma speaks about Jean’s dark past/future with the Phoenix there is a brief flash of rich orange in the background; lovely details like this are all over the place and it makes reading this book such a joy.
By taking time out of his own meandering story arc Bendis has found a way to tell a fun and interesting story, but it is thanks to the undeniably astounding Del Mundo that that story is elevated to a breath-taking new height. Everything comes together here; the dialogue is great, the action is fluid, the story is tight, and the art is simply some of the best I have seen. I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this book, so the only other thing I will say is: buy it.
All-New X-Men #37 // Writer – Brian Michael Bendis / Artist – Mike Del Mundo / Colours – Mike Del Mundo & Marco D’Alfonso // Marvel
Notes and Observations:
- Seems like the cover editors for the X-Men are still having fun confusing everyone for no reason – young Beast and Iceman are on the cover of this issue!
- I’m very glad that Bendis is walking back the nebulous ‘broken powers’ arc that he failed to make into much of anything of interest for the last two years.
- The ‘please bin trash’ icon in Madripoor is a little block Wolverine!
- The Blob sure does love his lollypops!
- I’m still not keen on Bendis’ intention to show Xavier as a sometime villain – Whedon only just about pulled off this trick, but the cold pragmatist who is really no different to Magneto isn’t a Xavier I want to read about any more (plus didn’t we already explore that in Ultimate X-Men already?). At least the panels here are artfully done and the dialogue in them is good.
- The action scene between Jean and the Blob is great from top to bottom; the composition, the inventive use of powers, Jean’s physiological breakthrough, Emma’s approving look all great.
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