Extraordinary X-Men Volume 1: X-Haven
Publisher: Marvel | Release Date: May 10, 2016 | Pages: 120 pages
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
2015's Extraordinary X-Men was yet another series relaunch for Marvel's mightiest mutants, this one coming on the heels of Brian Michael Bendis's departure from the X-Books and Jonathan Hickman's epic Infinity and Secret Wars events, one of which (it's been a few years since I read those and I don't remember which) saw the Inhumans launch Terrigen Mist into Earth's atmosphere. The mist unlocks latent genetic gifts in humanity, randomly turning people into Inhumans. It's also put mutants back in the cross-hairs of extinction, sterilizing them and halting the birth of new mutants.
Post-Secret Wars, the X-Men are scattered and all but disbanded. Storm is the leader and is basically now running a massive humanitarian effort to provide mutants with shelter and protection from a world that hates and fears them. Mankind sees little difference between Inhumans and mutants, lashing out at them with indiscriminate violence fueled by the fear of Terrigen Mist pathogens. With violence against mutants escalating, Storm realizes its time to put the band back together and sets out to reassemble her team, starting with the time-displaced teenage Jean Grey (it's a long story) and time-displaced Old Man Logan (also a long story, made longer given the fact that the current era's Logan is recently deceased!).
Jeff Lemire does a fine job setting the stage for this new series, and giving readers enough context for the shape of the reconstructed All-New All-Different Marvel world the X-Men find themselves in after Hickman's reality-breaking Secret Wars. It's also a bit of a reset for mutantkind in general, with issues of bigotry and prejudice that defined so much of the various X-Men books' backbones returning as a central in-your-face theme. Mutants are once again derided, attacked, scorned, hated, and persecuted for being different. Extraordinary X-Men Vol. 1: X-Haven has an unmistakable social consciousness to it that not only harkens back to the book's original mission statement of the 1960s, but sadly reflects contemporary issues as well, proving yet again that no matter how much things change, the more they stay the same.
While Lemire packs in plenty of action beats, I really appreciated the softer, tender character beats, particularly between Old Man Logan and Young Jean Grey. With a not insignificant age gap separating them, the sexual tension that once sparked between their contemporary counterparts is blessedly absent and replaced with a paternal affection. It doesn't hurt any that Old Man Logan once slaughtered the entire team and, now finding himself mysteriously trapped in the past, feels more than a bit of apprehension at reconnecting with his former squad-mates.
Humberto Ramos illustrates Extraordinary X-Men with his typical either you like it or you don't style. Ramos has an edgy cartoonist vibe that eschews any attempt at realistically depicting characters. Personally, I like it, for the most part, but I can certainly understand why others wouldn't. His characters are long-limbed, and everyone seems to have a Jim Carrey level of wild facial expressions with mouth not just falling open but jaws becoming utterly unhinged to illustrate how shocked somebody is. His action scenes can quickly grow confusing as panels become mired in chaos, and there were a few times I wasn't at all sure what was supposed to be happening. It's a unique style, but Ramos uses his exaggerated visuals to (mostly) great effect and his draughtsmanship is immediately distinct.
It's also about the only thing that keeps Lemire's scripts from descending into decrepit bleakness. Extraordinary X-Men is ultimately a fun adventure, but look, it's also pretty seriously dark stuff. Over the course of this trade's five issues, you get germ warfare, hate crimes, military death squads, genetic experimentation and eugenics, and hints that things have been even worse prior to page one. Lemire makes it clear that something seriously bad happened in between Secret Wars and this book's opening, and that former X-Men leader Scott Summer achieved some nefarious terror-mastermind 9/11-level notoriety that has made the whole world not just hate but despise mutants. It's heady stuff, and pitch freaking black at the thematic level.
Ramos's art and Edgar Delgado's vibrant colors, and Iceman's usual wisecracks and quips, are about all we get to really liven things up. A different penciler and colorist could have made Lemire's scripts unforgivably harsh if they were of a mind to. Instead we get a fun, upbeat tone that doesn't ignore or sideline the inherit darkness of the world these characters are facing, but rather illustrates the potential for this world to be better and show us that it can still be fun and hopeful. Yeah, the world's a giant dumpster fire, but that doesn't mean there aren't still things to enjoy and find beauty in. It's an interesting balance that's mostly successful. It helps, too, that Lemire's story itself has enough built-in drama, raises enough questions, and draws plenty of blanks that absolutely need filling in to keep the narrative hopping and lock you in for the long-term narrative arc he's building toward here. Of course, if that doesn't work for you, you can just skip ahead a handful of trades to get to yet another one of Marvel's annoyingly persistent relaunch events...