Making up for lost time.
Phoenix Resurrection may have been a disappointment, but that miniseries made at least one inspired choice during the process of bringing back Jean Grey. The series culminated with Jean bidding farewell to the Phoenix Force and embracing a new, uncertain future where her life and destiny are finally her own again. That gives writer Tom Taylor and artist Mahmud Asrar a giant blank canvas on which to work in X-Men Red, and this team shows every sign of taking advantage of the opportunity before them.
While ostensibly a companion to fellow flagship titles X-Men Gold and X-Men Blue, X-Men Red does a perfectly fine job of standing on its own and carving its own niche. Jean has her own team (most of whom have been notably absent in other ensemble X-Men books lately) and a mission that sets her well apart from current headmaster Kitty Pryde. If Kitty’s X-Men are about fighting the familiar battles and maintaining a school, Jean’s team has grander ambitions in mind. That status quo also plays nicely with the fact that Jean has been out of commission for so long and doesn’t quite recognize the fearful, agitated world she’s awoken into.
Fans of Taylor’s work on the Injustice comics may find some familiar ideas at play, as issue #1 explores what happens when idealistic superheroes collide with self-serving politicians and the immovable weight of bureaucracy. This series is far less cynical about the whole thing, naturally, but it does do a good job of reflecting the current global political climate without trying too hard to reflect specific events or people. The X-Men franchise has a bad habit of getting caught up in its own soap opera melodrama and costumed spectacle and losing sight of the mutant metaphor and its allegorical power. That doesn’t appear as though it’ll be a problem with X-Men Red.
There’s also the fact that Taylor simply writes these characters so well. It goes without saying that Wolverine and Honey Badger are a hoot. Their dynamic is no less entertaining when they’re part of a team than as solo players. But Taylor also shows an immediate grasp on Jean’s voice. This character is worlds apart from the headstrong, conflicted, teenage Jean of books like X-Men Blue. There’s an added warmth and a world-weariness that reflects a heroine who’s been through so much more and is finally seizing her chance to make the world into what it should be. Her limited scenes with Nightcrawler capture her long, rocky history with the X-Men in a way I wish Phoenix Resurrection had managed.
Asrar already established his X-Men chops during the tail-end of Brian Bendis’ All-New X-Men run. But there it seemed like Asrar was chosen mainly for his inability to mimic the look and feel of Stuart Immonen’s work. Here, Asrar has an opportunity to make the series his own and establish a clear tone. I’m particularly impressed by his ability to craft an X-Men book that channels the more outlandish elements of the franchise while also feeling grounded in the real world. Even with the emphasis on colorful spandex over black leather, there’s an air of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s New X-Men to this book. Pairing Asrar with colorist Ive Svorcina seems to help a great deal. Svorcina’s colors have a slight calming, restraining effect that wouldn’t be present with a brighter color palette.
While the storytelling is generally top-notch in this issue, Asrar’s work does suffer from some inconsistency in terms of facial work. A few panels are downright wonky when it comes to facial expressions, and Jean’s physical features often seem in flux. In one panel she seems a dead-ringer for Sophie Turner’s young Jean Grey. Hopefully this is something that will fade over time as Asrar becomes more comfortable with his cast of characters.