by Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi
I enjoyed, and wrote about the first issue of this storyline when it came out here and this collection basically gives us more of the same, which is to say more of Ellis’ voice through the medium of Marvel’s mutant team. Everything you’d expect to find in an Ellis book is on show in spades here; all the sarcasm and cutting dialogue, all the tech heavy plotlines, all the excitement he can generate when he’s even mildly on form.
After finishing Ghost Boxes I realised that what made it feel good and comfortable and enjoyable was the familiarity I felt, not only with Ellis’ writing but in the situations and characters he’s using. Essentially something like Ghost Boxes is a nostalgic look back at the X-Men for those of us who grew up enjoying the heyday of the title. Everything that my teen self found entertaining and enjoyable then is here, just written for the older, more world weary self that I am now. It’s fanboy fiction for an older generation.
The story; The X-Men are off investigating a murder in their new home of San Francisco, where the victim turns out to be an artificially created mutant. They get drawn into a pursuit of the murderer, another mutant, and end up in Indonesia, where amongst an alien tech spaceship graveyard, they find the killer desperately trying to activate a “Ghost Box”. He commits suicide before the X-Men can discover much more of his motives or origins. But the subsequent investigation, much to the chagrin of team leader Cyclops, involves Beast’s half alien girlfriend Agent Brand of S.W.O.R.D., who’s had plentiful contact with these Ghost Boxes before:
Brand: “It’s a Ghost Box. You’ve never seen a Ghost Box? What the hell have you guys been doing all these years that you’ve never seen a Ghost Box? A Ghost Box opens gates between parallel Earths.”
And then it all fits into place. The killer had non Earth mutant DNA because he’s simply not of this Earth, he’s a traveller from an alternate universe. The pursuit takes the X-Men to China and a five square mile scanning dead zone – an area of China that no-one, not even the Chinese themselves knew what went on. Turns out this area was home to the Chinese equivalent of the X-men, mutants who suddenly de-powered on that fateful M-day when most of this Earth’s mutants were de-powered. From here we career into a plotline of alternate earth mutants staging a possible invasion of this Earth and an army of artificial mutants being made just to fight back against this invasion by a figure the X-Men know only too well.
(Such an Ellis panel there. Dazzling us with absolute cutting edge science that he’s amazed by and rolling it out for his story; From Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Box. Published and © Marvel)
So in a few short pages Ellis manages to turn a simple murder mystery into a multiverse threatening alien mutant invasion, where the X-Men find themselves in the middle of a war between an old colleague’s artificial mutants and the invading mutants from a parallel Earth. Throw in incredible tech, with a foothold in the here and now but with Ellis’ imagination escalating that real science into sci-fi, verbal sparring between everyone and anyone, and some good old fashioned superhero violence and you end up with a superhero comic with everything that’s good about Ellis’ writing.
Like Morrison with his New X-Men and Whedon with the Astonishing X-Men before him, Ellis dialogues the X-Men as some disfunctional family, all spats, sarcasm and quips. But that’s again just an updating of the classic mutant family idea of Claremont’s time. It’s just that Ellis gets to play to a slightly older crowd. They’ve matured somewhat, but the basic characters are still the same, with the notable exception of Scott Summers. Ever since Morrison’s classic X-Men run I’ve really enjoyed the tension that comes with the idea of Scott Summers and Emma Frost being together, so strangely suited to each other. With this improbable love story Cyclops has developed far beyond the uptight, insecure two-dimensional character he was, and so much of it is down to the incredible Emma Frost – and Ellis gets Emma Frost just right:
(Emma Frost and Cyclops with dialogue courtesy of Warren Ellis. From Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Box. Published and © Marvel)
Or the wonderful dialogue between Emma and Storm, as two old adversaries meet:
Storm: I never knew that guilt-free shopping and constant lovemaking could get so boring
Emma: I don’t want to start some tedious argument , Ororo, but let’s be clear. .. I am sick and tired of old team members denouncing me as an evil witch five minutes after they walk in the door.
Storm: Do you know how far I have to go in Wakanda to find someone who’ll dare have an arguament with me these days? I will drink champagne with you and let you insult me until the sun goes dark, I promise…
Emma: Oh, for God’s sake. Drink your tea and shut up woman.
Storm: Oh, thank you.
It’s delivered at breakneck speed, with a constant stream of clever and plot developing dialogue throughout. This is Ellis obviously having a blast, getting to play with Marvel’s premier team, and it seems he’s enjoying himself. Bianchi’s artwork is a lavish affair, full of painterly effects and organic panel borders. It should be distracting, but once I’d managed to get used to it, it wasn’t so bad; all the show and all the flash was thankfully supported by a good sense of storytelling and Bianchi’s art allowed Ellis’ story to flow in just the way it needed to.
The collection also includes the quick short stories of alternate universe X-men by artists as diverse as Alan Davis, Clayton Crain and Kaare Andrews. Originally released as ridiculously overpriced single issues, here they just act as a pleasant enough postscript to the main story. Interesting enough, but nothing compared to what has gone before.
Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men really is a modern day updating of all the stuff we loved as teens, just written with a cutting edge sensibility. Whether it’s designed to hook in new readers is doubtful, but as a nostalgic piece of modern superhero work it had me smiling.