When the “Schism” happened, Cyclops wound up with nearly all of the “X-Men’s” heavy-hitters, who also happen to be the ones with the most personality an “likeability” issues. This is great for when you’re facing the dual threat of a Celestial invasion and the hive mind of Mister Sinister, and when you’re trying to instill a kind of “Get off mutanity’s lawn!” fear in humanity. Wolverine, on the other hand, wound up with the mutants who weren’t powerhouses, but had the easygoing, friendly nature that kept a team of (sometimes) violently different personalities together all these years. In terms of actual storytelling, this gives Jason Aaron a clear advantage over Kieron Gillen, especially when the task these mutants are committed to involves creating a new school for mutant youths. The good news is that Aaron plays up this edge to the fullest, and manages to project enough character to triumph over the derivative parts.
Wolverine is now the headmaster of the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning and his first day on the job involves making sure it doesn’t get shut down by two closed-minded individuals from the New York State Department of Education. This would seem to be an inevitability in a school whose students include potential supervillain Hellion, arrogant interstellar brute Kid Gladiator, the self-persecuting Idie, mutant brood offshoot Broo, and mutant terrorist Kid Omega, to say nothing of the problems the campus is having with lava. However, to make sure that things go even worse than anyone could’ve imagined the new Hellfire Club shows up with a revamped version of old X-foe Krakoa and an army of Frankenstein monsters. The good news is that if they can survive today, things can only get better from here. Right?
While Aaron’s “best” work has been his Indian reservation crime drama “Scalped,” there’s no denying that his most “fun” work has been done here at Marvel. The writer has shown a complete willingness to embrace the utter outlandishness that can be allowed with superhero stories and this represents one of his best efforts in that regard. Our guided tour of the Grey School shows us Husk turning into a rock monster to keep order in her mutant literature class, Hellion getting a firsthand look at how the danger room has been modified to encompass the school, and Beast having to deal with interstellar shipments and inter-dimensional “nightcrawler” beasties infesting the campus (and who are also after the headmaster’s whiskey). Though the energy and insanity is dialed up to “eleven” things are still kept grounded to an extent by Wolverine’s desire to make this work and genuine desire to provide a better future for his species.
Though the old guard acquits themselves well here as the staff, with Kitty getting some of the most memorable moments in her close encounter with Iceman and the last-page cliffhanger that wraps up the volume, it becomes clear that the kids are the real stars of the show. The aforementioned ones get most of the face time here, with Quire actually managing to save the day in a way that doesn’t soften or compromise his character. We’re also re-introduced to the reborn Apocalypse from “The Dark Angel Saga” in “Uncanny X-Force,” or “Evan” as he likes to be called. It’s rare to see books pick up on threads from other titles like this today, but it makes perfect sense given this title’s setting and everything you need to know about him, and the “new and much stranger Angel,” is helpfully summarized here. (Of course, as far as I’m concerned the full story is well worth your time.)
That the characters are so interesting is a good thing because the actual story being told here is about as tired as you can get. Granted, it’s nice to see the X-Men get back into a school setting, but there is no new ground being broke here. More than anything, this first volume makes a better case for embracing the past and re-asserting the franchise as not just a metaphor for oppressed minorities, but the struggles of teenagers trying to find their way in the world. That’s pretty much what a lot of the conflict in the last issue is about, just with superhero trappings to make it stand out. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but right now the direction seems to be “back to the future by way of the past.”
Most of this volume is illustrated by veteran X-artist Chris Bachalo who is a fitting choice for a title rooted in utter insanity. The man has shown that there is very little that he can’t draw over the years, so when it comes to laying down the future-tech-meets-classic-design of the school he shows that it can make perfect sense. You can also say the same for his fight scenes between the staff and Krakoa, but that’s actually where his style fails him. Though Bachalo is an imaginative artist, clarity of storytelling has never been his strongest suit, and there a lot of fight scenes where it can be really hard to tell what’s going on. He’s a great fit for the material, but there’s still room for improvement.
At the other end of the stylistic spectrum is Nick Bradshaw who does the final issue. He’s not one for flashy panel layouts or over-stylization, but the straightforwardness of his storytelling is refreshing after the Bachalo issues. Bradshaw also has a clean, appealingly cartoonish style that meshes well with the over-the-top characters that inhabit the school. While having two artists with diametrically opposed styles might have come off as glaringly incongruous in another book, the material they’re working with actually lends itself to these two clashing artistic interpretations.
“Wolverine and the X-Men” is off to a very strong start, to the point where I’d say that if you’re looking to start reading about these characters (or, to start reading about them again), there’s not going to be a better jumping on point for it. It’s crazy, funny, and has a terrific energy that carries the narrative over its rough parts. I wish this volume had collected more issues, but if Marvel is only going to collect them in four-issue segments then this is the level of quality they have to be at in order for the company to get away with it.