Please put your hands together to warmly welcome the most awesomesauce K V Taylor. Particularly so as I have been a bad Womble and utterly failed to upload the review she kindly sent to me weeks ago. The reasons are illness, both physical and mental, but given Katey provided this for me as a favour because I knew I wouldn’t be able to post myself, it’s not much of an excuse.
K V Taylor wants to be introduced merely as a fantasy/horror writer and comic book junky, but I’ll go one further and say that she’s a pretty neato person whose opinions and tastes I have come to respect. You can find her at her website, Tumblr, and Twitter, all of which I recommend.
X-Men: Season One
Written by Dennis Hopeless
Art by Jamie McKelvie
Review by KV Taylor
Last year, Marvel Comics began releasing a series of graphic novels that gave some of their most popular heroes a little backstory update. As a comic book pusher, I actually think it’s a spectacular idea. Jumping into comics can be daunting – all that backstory, all that continuity, all those know-it-all fans. Enter the Season One books and hey! All the background you need in one easy dose, right?
There’s not a whole lot new with these stories, but what makes them special and worthwhile to longtime readers is seeing them come together as a coherent whole between one artist and one writer, and how they change little things up to present the story in new and interesting ways.
The best example so far of that has been the X-Men book, so I’m going to stick to that for my review. Hopeless adheres closely to Marvel canon: the original five X-Men (Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Iceman, and Angel), are recruited by Charles Xavier to come to his school to learn to control their powers. Adventure ensues, including their first run-in with Xavier’s old friend Magneto-as-mutant-supremacy-terrorist and his equally classic if slightly more ridiculously named line up, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (Toad, Blob, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch).
There is a dearth of lady stories with the Season One books so far, which is what makes it extra great that Jean (Marvel Girl) is the voice of Hopeless and McKelvie’s X-Men. Hopeless’s Jean is not only the only one who seems to see the flaws in Xavier’s program from the beginning, but her relationships with each of the others have been changed up and intensified to become both the main plot engine and a symbol of their growing coherence as a team.
Her relationship with Xavier has often been called creepy, and not without reason. Hopeless and McKelvie acknowledge and update that with her constant questioning of how and why Xavier has brought them there, and why this ‘private boarding school’ he’s convinced their parents to send them to is more training against random baddies in the ‘danger room’ than calculus homework. She likes it, but she isn’t sure why or how – or that she should.
In the original 60s version, both Warren (Angel) and Scott (aka “Slim” back in the day, Cyclops) crushed on Jean hard – hence the tension (and her reputation with some fans as a ‘Mary Sue’, but the problems inherent in that are waaaaay off topic, so I’ll just let that be for now). This time around, as Jean gets to know Warren better and faster than any of the others, she’s the one with the crush – and Warren figures it out just late enough to screw up.
And let’s not deny the power of a rich pretty-boy best friend… with wings. I don’t blame her.
Meanwhile, the canon relationship everyone knows (whether they love it or not is a question of personal taste) is developing in the background – Scott (Cyclops) is being hyper-pressured by Xavier to turn into some kind of mutant leader-man… and simultaneously developing the most awkward interest ever in an oblivious Jean. This change-up in one of the oldest love triangles in comic history is a pretty loud example of how refreshing these titles can be for longtime readers. Much more rewarding for new ones, in some ways, since (good) modern romantic subplots tend to focus more on why the couple are good for each other, how they bring out the hero in each other, rather than ‘woman as prize in a pissing match’.
Her mutual-respect friendship with Hank (Beast) is beautifully done as well – when she needs an escape from the madness, she leans on Hank, and he leans right back in his hour of doubt. Her older sister deal with Bobby (Iceman) is less well fleshed out, but it does provide more than a few hilarious moments. It’s Jean’s voice we read in the exposition boxes, and it’s Jean’s changing relationships with her team and the mutant-hostile world around her that tie the story together.
But they aren’t the only ones that count. Hank and Bobby’s trademark friendship, one of the greatest things about the original comics, is well-celebrated, and the driving force behind the discovery of Magneto’s ‘evil lair’ – and Xavier’s involvement with Magneto, which leads to a disillusioned Hank in the long run. Scott and Warren have relatively few scenes together, same with Scott/Bobby and Warren/Bobby, which is a shame, but what they do get is so perfectly characterized and balanced that it still feels mostly satisfying. Xavier and Scott… well…
Easy to see why he ended up the Cyclops people love to hate these days. (The Avengers vs. X-Men debacle… Long story. Don’t read it, trust me.) But also easy to see how he needs Jean to balance him out, and how he could inspire her to let loose her fierceness. Because oh, is Jean fierce.
The writing is just the right touch with these kinds of largely unspoken dynamics, but what pushes it over the top is McKelvie’s trademark clean lines and way with body language. His concept for each of them is at once perfectly in line with classic X-Men designs, but with that deft touch of the modern that few other artists manage–and he makes it look easy, as usual. I could basically go on about Jamie McKelvie all day, though, so I’ll spare you. Just. He’s my favorite currently working artist in comics, so I might’ve had a minor fangirl freakout when I saw he was on the X-Men title.*
The book has its flaws, of course. The story tends to meander, without one coherent plotline, but several smallish encounters with the outside world and Magneto’s Brotherhood that build on each other. One of the pitfalls of trying to showcase an ensemble cast in a single GN rather than in serial with multiple storylines, ala monthly comics. Backstory wise, we’re mainly focused on Jean, of course, Hank, and Warren. A little more of Scott and Bobby would’ve balanced things out. And this is just a personal thing, since I have deep love for the original Brotherhood, but the only recruit we see happen is Blob. I get it, it would’ve been a digression, otherwise, but I like my villains fleshed out, and Magneto is one of the best ever. S’okay, I don’t hold that one against them.
This is more a story of these characters realizing that their place in the world right now is together, taking care of business, rather than the direct civil rights movement parallel that it was back in the 60s, which I think wise. Of course that element will always be there, especially for the X-Men, but let’s face it: telling a story that belongs to PoC with white characters is a dick move on multiple levels. Yes, Stan Lee was way ahead of his time–and still is in many ways. Marvel does a lot of things wrong, but a lot of things right, when it comes to that.
Are there other ways to get into comics? Definitely. X-Men: First Class (not the movie, which has nothing to do with comic canon) was a great title for that, and reads well. Or you could just start with the current Marvel!NOW titles, in which the Avengers and X-Men are all scrambled, but the combinations are all still new. (Possibility: the upcoming X-Men #1 by Wood and Copiel, with its all-lady cast.) But Season One is more bang for your buck, and it’s one of the best-looking comics I own thanks to Jamie McKelvie. Longtime fans, it’s worth it for the change-ups and the pretty. Hop on board, I say.
*McKelvie and longtime collaborator Kieron Gillen are on the new Young Avengers title. I’m pretty sure it will be amazing, if you’re looking for a monthly to jump on. #1 drops January 23.