26 November 2004

Review: New X-Men:Academy X #1-6

When the New Mutants re-appeared on the stands 20 months ago, I was just returning to comics after a 15-year hiatus and welcomed the sight of a familiar face to ease me back into the monthly habit. Joshua Middleton's beautiful cover art featuring some of the women from the original lineup drew me in, and Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir's patient, nuanced introduction of the first mutant of the new generation, and their reintroduction and use of a tortured Danielle Moonstar as the story's anchor, kept me glued through to the last page.

The closing dialogue sealed the deal for me:

Sofia: What's Xavier's like?
Danielle: Like no place else in the world. You'll see.
While I didn't love Keron Grant's interior art, nor his uneven trio of inkers, there was something in its intent that worked for the tone of the story. For the next 11 issues, despite working with four different artists, DeFilippis and Weir made good on Danielle's promise, consistently delivering the goods by capturing that tricky combination of teenage angst and super-heroism that Marvel Comics seemingly trademarked ever since Stan Lee came up with the idea of a nerdy science buff bitten by a radioactive spider, but that so few mainstream comics are able to pull off today. They also organically weaved appearances by a couple of other old-school New Mutants into the storyline, giving Xavier's school a sense of realism that it's rarely had over the years.

But then, with issue #13, something bad happened.

Marvel's X-Men Reloaded marketing stunt ripped through almost every X-book being published and the New Mutants became collateral damage in their fanatical worship of the bottom line. Issue #13 inexplicably fast-forwarded the story, side-stepping the new generation in favor of an out-of-left-field, ill-conceived reunion of the original New Mutants, setting the stage for the reloaded and awkwardly-titled New X-Men: Academy X.

While the primary X-team got reloaded into the high-profile Astonishing X-Men, DeFilippis and Weir had to trade in their title for a previously-used model, New X-Men, forced to take a crowbar to their storyline and cram in plot elements that completely threw off the dynamic they'd lovingly established over the previous 12 months. And in the first six issues of their reload, they got three more artists to work with, not to mention five of the most trite, uninspired covers on the stands any given month. (Issue #3's cover was decent.)

The opening story arc to the reload, Choosing Sides, begins by explaining everything that's changed at the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, with Cyclops and the apparently reformed Emma Frost [I don't follow the other X-books so this was news to me.] serving as the new headmasters of the school; a cursory reintroduction of the New Mutants that reduces each of them to standard team book stereotypes; and, presents their first adventure as a team in the Danger Room. Standard stuff for a first issue, but even accepting that as a necessary evil, there's something missing from the overall package.

That spark of sincerity that made DeFilippis and Weir's short-lived New Mutants run work so well is clearly dulled, as if the corporate-mandated reload as a "team book" sucked the joy from it for them and they're now going through the motions. In issue #2, you get a sense that they're determined to work in some of the more interesting themes that were hinted at before the reload, but in the structured confines of an official "team book," they come off feeling forced and insincere. ie: The prerequisite hothead, and hottie, Noriko, is given an Afghanistanian roommate, Sooraya, complete with burqua and traditional beliefs, and they clash for a couple of panels of simplistic rhetoric. You get the impression that there was something left on the cutting room floor; that pre-reload, this two-page encounter would have been a primary sub-plot that would weave it's way through the series as they explored the ever-present subtext of mutants as minorities. Instead, it goes no further, Sooraya ends up being on the rival squad mentored by Emma Frost, code-named the Hellions, and it all smacks of a cookie-cutter editorial plan being handed down from on high.

By the arc's drawn-out conclusion in issue #6, Danielle Moonstar is rudely shoved to the background, the Hellions and the New Mutants go head-to-head, a couple of team members switch sides, and the whole thing starts to feel like Saved By The Bell: The Superhero Years.

The New Mutants, and DeFilippis and Weir, deserve better than this.

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