With the Shadow King adding Gambit to his menacing menagerie in the real world, Xavier lays out the stakes to the remaining X-Men on the astral plane. Elsewhere, the newly possessed Gambit and Logan are spreading the will of Farouk across the British populace and it looks like Warren will be giving in to his Dark Passenger next issue. Elsewhere it seems…actually, that’s it. That’s literally everything that happens in this book. I know the push for Astonishing is to be the action-heavy book in the X-Men universe, but this story is starting to feel a little light on substance. Precious little time is actually spent on character development, and while most of the cast have lengthy backstories, a little growth and insight may make me care a bit more about the conflict of the book.
Common conception claims the real agenda of the book is to provide a window for the return of Charles Xavier, and if that is the case, Soule has chosen the worst version of Xavier to bring to the table. In previous weeks we’ve seen the specter of Xavier attempt to recruit Old Man Logan to his side, only for the centenarian combatant to fall under the spell of the Shadow King. This month, we learn that he effectively sacrificed Gambit to protect the minds of Rogue, Mystique and Fantomex (man, do I dislike this utterly charmless and redundant character), which I have logical issues with. Now, Rogue is a powerhouse — it makes all the sense to keep the Shadow King from controlling her, but the other two? Neither of their power sets make them a serious threat for the outside world. Gambit can literally turn anything into an explosive, so why let the Shadow King get his hands on that kind of power? How bad would Mystique’s shape-shifting or that garbage person Fantomex’s illusion powers really be? There’s also the tone with witch Xavier lays out his discarding of gambit as if it doesn’t matter. Like, I get that Remy may not have been Charles’ favorite or anything, but there’s no reason to be a prick about it.
There’s also the curiously strong push to recruit the trash bag that is Fantomex (just really, a terrible character) to Xavier’s cause, which echoes his earlier attempt at bringing Logan into the fold. Like, what are we to draw from that? In earlier reviews I made the supposition that perhaps this isn’t actually Xavier, it’s just a segment of the Shadow King’s personality — and that may still be the case, but let’s assume this Xavier is on the up and up. The mental strain of maintaining multiple alternate realities to disguise his conversation with the X-Men from Farouk is literally causing his body to wither away, if the duplicitous Mystique doesn’t require this additional layer of coaxing, why waste your time trying to sweet talk the phoney French Diabolik ripoff in its own pocket universe? This sequence also weirdly takes place DURING another on-panel sequence in a way that totally disrupts the reading momentum. There’s even a textbox conversation that leaves a cliffhanger sentence before the internal Fantomex talk, then picks up immediately after it. It just kills the flow of the issue for no logical reason.
I should actually expound upon that last point because the storyboarding in this issue is all over the place. First of all, it feels like most of the pages in this issue are splash pages. Now, I lived through the ’90s — I like when things are big and broad, but the convention is way overused and loses a lot of its impact because of it. It should also be mentioned that some apps and e-readers have issue presenting splash pages on a digital edition, making following a lot of the dialogue in its intended form way more of a hassle. Then there’s the confusion of the Psylocke sequence, where Betsy telekinetically moves herself, the hypnotized X-Men and a crew of MRD goons from one skyscraper to another in order to escape the floor that the mind-controlled Gambit blew up (in context, it’s all kinds of mundane, I swear). The soldiers aim their guns at Betsy, even though she saved them, and she uses her psy-blade to slice off the barrels of each gun which leads to…nothing. You’d think these soldiers would put up more of a fight (or bring a sidearm as well as your assault rifle to your mutant terrorist threat?) but nope, nothing comes of it. Elsewhere we learn that Gambit and Logan can spread the Shadow King’s influence by touching people, so then why does Gambit threaten the helicopter pilot by charging up his helmet? The controlled individuals do appear to be zombie-like at first, so maybe that makes sense, but I imagine the Shadow King could swing it all the same.
Outside of the framing issues that I previously touched on, the art is mostly fine. For a book that aims to be such an action-packed thrill ride, Ramon Rosanas’ art is a little subdued for my taste. There are a few strong moments spread here and there, Gambit’s exploding the ground and taking over the helicopter stands out, but there are a number of situations where the art kind of falls apart a bit. Xavier’s head is an odd peanut shape for most of the book, and his designs for Rogue, Mystique and literal dumpster fire Fantomex (I don’t like him, if you remember) leave a lot to be desired. There’s also this panel where Gambit chucks a card at Angel where Warren looks hella bored by this attack rather than concerned, which I’m fairly certain wasn’t the goal. The last panel of Angel shedding his skin to become Archangel was pretty cool though.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Astonishing X-Men is written like an action movie. It’s a series built more around things exploding than making readers think, and relies on the legacy of its characters to hook the audience rather than giving us interesting personality developments. The story itself is fine, if a little flat, but I don’t like Soule’s take on a sociopath Xavier. Hopefully whoever handles the art in the next issue has a better handle on visual storytelling.