Writer – Fred Van Lente
Artist – Dennis Calero
Letters – Blambot’s Nate Piekos
Publisher – Marvel Comics
Honestly, this is a tough book to summarize. I mean, I’d love to just start with the concept and say, “What if the X-Men were translated into the world of the crime drama of the 1940’s?” But, the truth is, this is no where near that easy to describe.
Nevertheless, I’ll endeavor to give an idea of what goes on in this book..
A body washes up on Welfare Island, a redheaded woman with an “X” tattoo, covered in slash marks, grouped in threes. The “X” tattoo brands the woman as someone that spent time in a reform school run by former psychologist/current convict Charles Xavier. Xavier is in prison after it is discovered that he was training his pupils, honing their criminal abilities. Even without their mentor, though, the “X-Men,” as they call themselves, are still active in the criminal world.
At the scene of the crime, we are introduced to young detective Peter Magnus, son of the Chief of Detectives, Eric Magnus, whose life is turned upside down when he finds out that his father is under the thumb of the criminal organization known as the Hellfire Club, and that the organization essentially runs the city.
As the story progresses, we see a lot of characters with familiar names, but wildly different personalities than we are used to in the regular Marvel Universe.
Perhaps the key character to the entire story is Thomas Halloway, a reporter and costumed vigilante who seems to be the only one truly interested in finding out who murdered the woman washed up on the island. (If you are up on your Golden Age Marvel, you’ll recognize this as the original “Angel” – a nice nod, given this is an X-Men book.)
The story essentially splits early on, and we are left with one story loosely following Peter Magnus, and the stronger story following Thomas Halloway. The two do eventually come together, but not in a way that seems particularly necessary.
After the completion of the Magnus storyline, we follow the Thomas Halloway as he eventually discovers the murderer, and discover a couple of surprises along the way.
Along with the sequential art story, we are given a prose science fiction story, a throwback to pulp stories, that also references a lot of stories and characters from the Marvel Universe.
I’ll admit, I don’t regularly read any X-titles right now, but I’m familiar with the characters. If you are coming to this title expecting “What if…” versions of the X-Men you are familiar with, you are going to be disappointed. For the most part, only names and the slightest essence of the characters are taken from the known mythology and applied to this new setting.
Which, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. It is not a new idea, and has been used with varying degrees of success in other projects (the “Just Imagine Stan Lee…” and Tangent Universe titles from DC, and the Marvel Mangaverse spring to mind immediately), so the concept is valid. The execution, sadly, is not great.
The characters in this story seem to sit on a fence. Instead of breaking completely with the characters of the regular Marvel Universe, the writer gives the characters moments of connection to those counterparts, but it is often tenuous at best. For example – Quicksilver is fast, so there is a line where Peter is referred to as fast… and that is about it. Given that the story is so completely breaking with the “normal” of the regular Marvel Universe, I can’t help but think that a clean break would have better served the story.
There are also a lot of characters thrown into this story. We are being introduced into this world and narrowing the focus on fewer characters would have let us get to know those characters a little better, which would have been a major benefit to the story.
I also found the split story was a detrement. When I first started reading, I thought Peter was going to be the central character of the story, but quickly learned that his was essentially a pumped up subplot. Had that aspect been removed from the book entirely, allowing more focus on the single mystery where we followed Thomas Holloway, I think the entire story would have been more engaging, and certainly tighter.
The prose story is kind of a highlight of the series, but seems completely out of context with the story. I kept looking for some parallel (other than “Look, here’s another story where we use names from the X-Men universe”), but if it is there, I failed to grasp it. Still, it is a neat homage to pulp science fiction of yesteryear.
As for the art, while the tone is fitting for the work, the figures are stiff. And, while I don’t mind an artist occasionally cutting and pasting a repeated image, in this book it seems to be done a lot. (I love nine panel grid, I really do, but only when it is handled correctly. Using the same image of a head in all nine panels just looks plain lazy, and makes me want to direct the artist to Wally Wood’s famous 22 Panels That Always Work!)
And (this may be a first for me), I found the word balloons/lettering distracting. It is hard for me to nail down exactly why I found them so distracting, but I think the lettering is too small for the balloons. It allowed for a lot of white space around the lettering, which, given the color tone of the pages, really stood out.
Overall, I found getting through this series difficult, with just an okay story and lots of shortcomings. As a result, I’m giving this one and a half out of five Running Steves.
I may have dropped it down to just one, but I got the hardcover from the library, and since I didn’t have to pay to read this series, I’m feeling generous!