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After 24 issues plus a Giant Size final issue, fan-favorites Joss Whedon and John Cassaday left some big shoes to fill on Marvel’s Astonishing X-men. This wasn’t the first time Marvel published an Astonishing X-men title, but it was much more artistically and critically successful than the one in 1995 or the one in 1999. To keep the momentum going after Whedon and Cassaday, Warren Ellis stepped up to bat, along with Simone Bianchi. Bianchi’s artwork on Wolverine’s solo title provided some glorious visual moments, including an eye-popping drama in Wakanda with the Black Panther, Storm, and Sabertooth. Ellis and Bianchi’s collaboration on X-men gives us some stunning wraparound covers and a convoluted but visually interesting story.

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In a move that made sense to perhaps no one outside the marketing department, the first storyline spins off right in the middle to a two-issue title called Ghost Boxes. These boxes play an important role in the main title, and if you only read the main title it feels like you missed part of the story. Basically, they take the X-men on some ‘alternate reality’ adventures which give Ellis a chance to tell “What If?” stories with the characters. Also, each vignette features a different artist, including a return to the X-men by Alan Davis. Despite the fumbling and fussing with a separate title, they do make for an engaging and sometimes chilling read.

Back in the main title, Bianchi keeps hitting home runs with creative layouts and gorgeous renditions of our favorite mutants.

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After the first storyline concludes, Phil Jimenez returns to the X-men. And wow, what a return it is! Jimenez worked with Grant Morrison for a while on the series simply titled “X-men,” when it was being published as “New X-men.” While we didn’t care for Morrison’s characterization of Magneto as a cruel, utterly immoral jerkwad, the Jimenez artwork is worth the price of admission. On Astonishing, Jimenez makes his previous work look like a simple warm-up. Just look at what he does with the Brood and the Sentinels, among other things.

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If these stories suffer anywhere, it’s in the rushed tone of the dialogue and plots. The X-men’s dialogue suffers as Ellis fills their mouths with uncharacteristically snappy patter. Their adventures, while admirably action-packed and fast-paced, also lose a little something, as if driven more by Ellis’ latest sci-fi concept than a gripping plot. In other words, they give the artist plenty of room to draw amazing things, but don’t give the reader much incentive to care. Having read about a million Ellis stories, this feels more like one of several limited series he pounded out in a hurry than it does an X-title. But hey, even an Ellis “popcorn movie” script makes for entertaining reading.

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A complete collection of this run will also include two free “sketchbooks” Marvel published – one for the Bianchi run and one for the Jimenez run. The interview with Jimenez and the black and white artwork are real treats, the latter calling attention to just how large a role the colorist played in creating the look of the second storyline. Color credits belong to the amazing Frank D’Armata, who also played a huge role in the splendor of Ed Brubaker’s Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire, another one of our favorite recent X-epics.

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The final Ellis story takes place again outside the normal title, as Astonishing X-men: Xenogenesis. Kaare Andrews rocks this story out on the artistic front.

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All in all, it’s a good read combining action with moral tension and futuristic concepts. The entire opus could have been improved by giving Ellis time to simply write these stories for the regular title, instead of squeezing blood from a stone by putting out as many X-titles as possible each month. But that is not exactly a new problem at the House of Ideas, is it?

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