Can the X-Men astonish without Whedon & Cassaday?
Normally I tackle story and script first, but in the case of this issue the artwork gets the top billing.
It's hard to put words to Bianchi's jaw-droppingly astonishing art. With no disrespect to the preceding John Cassaday (who was flawless, in my opinion), no ongoing X-book has ever seen this quality of interiors. Alex Ross is an apt comparison, as Bianchi's ink-washed pencils evoke Renaissance art more than anything else.
Unlike other splashy artists who deliver cover-quality pages on the interior, Bianchi does not cut corners … there's no “trace a face” laziness in evidence here. I love how his attention to detail makes each scene credible – not only the detail of faces and costumes, but the individual wood panels of Scott and Emma's floor and the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Also, I'm obsessed with Bianchi's page layouts. Not once is he in a standard four or six panel page look. He works in overlapping boxes and architectural arches, never leaving me confused about which way to read (which, credit where due, is also the job of some smart lettering). Also, I love that he occasionally lets characters outgrow their frames, reversing their overflowing sillouhette out of adjoining panels.
Bianchi mostly nails this set of characters. He paints an adolescent Armor, aged a year or two from Cassady's rendition. Emma and Storm are both regal and flowing, like opposing queens in a game of chess. Wolverine looks like a young Jack Nicholson (perfectly apt, in my opinion). Beast is slightly less feline than Cassady's version; his face is awesome.
If there's critique to be made, it's linked to the ink-washing duties shared with Andrea Silvestri. They're beautiful as anything, but they knock back all but the most vibrant colors to murkier shade. The resulting palette is a little dull. Also, the unlined style of inking means the art doesn't have typical comic book crispness – the fuzziness of pencil-sketched lines still shows through. Neither aspect is “bad,” but it probably isn't what you're used to!
Story & Script
Comic fans know that Warren Ellis writes dialog-heavy books full of scientific exposition with blink-and-you-missed it hairpin-turn plot points, so it's understandable if you approach this arc with trepidation.
Actually, Ellis seems to be approaching it that way too, as he gets started by nearly plagiarizing the over-coffee-banter Whedon used in his first few issues.
Ellis gets some aspects very right. He is the perfect scribe for a Beast too lost in science to be intentionally humorous. Armor segues well from Whedon's run, and Emma is playfully wicked. Ellis plays Storm a bit too out-of-touch and haughty, but given her long absence it's not beyond belief that she'd be a little icy (though, I doubt she would have forgotten about the comfort of street clothes!).
Indeed, all of Warren's wordplay tickles and is in-character, but on the whole it rings a little false – like panels are full of snarky word balloons as fan-pleasing filler rather than characterization. I feel like he may be biding his time before unleashing the heavy sci-babble.
The plot here is just a tickler for what's to come – make-pretend-mutant curiously catches aflame, and the team heads to MacGuffin Beach, home of derelict space-ships. On re-read its consistent with what follows, but doesn't reveal any special Easter eggs.
It's hard to tell if Ellis has a grasp of these characters, but it's still worth sampling this issue so you can decide for yourself if you enjoy the painterly rendition of the team – which has provoked split opinions from X-fandom.