The last time we had an “X-Men” relaunch like this I wrote about how Jeff Lemire’s first volume of “Extraordinary” felt like the welcome kind of nostalgia. That remained somewhat true for the rest of his short tenure on that title before the whole “Inhumans vs. X-Men” business kinda drove it into the ground. Now we’re back with an even bigger push towards nostalgia with the two core titles “X-Men: Gold” and “X-Men: Blue,” names specifically picked to recall the glory days of the Chris Claremont/Jim Lee “X-Men” #1 era. Veteran “Wolverine” and “Spider-Man” writer, as well as DCTV scripter on “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow,” Marc Guggenheim is leading the charge on “Gold” and his efforts with this volume are generally successful. So long as you’re looking for a better-written version of the kind of stories and style the X-Men delivered back in the 90’s.
Guggenheim wastes no time in getting to the action. After the first page introduces us to Lydia Nance, anti-mutant TV pundit and head of the Heritage Foundation, we immediately cut to the X-Men taking on Terrax in the middle of New York. The team -- made up of Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Prestige (Rachel Summers’ new codename), Old Man Logan, and team leader Kitty Pryde -- deals with the threat in short order and saves some lives in the process. However, after the action they get a chilly reception from the human onlookers. Anti-mutant prejudice is still an ongoing concern in this day and age. It’s also not going to get any better when the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants shows up the following day to start causing more trouble.
Over the past several years, anti-mutant prejudice has been less of a concern for “X-Men” titles with most of them giving the occasional nod to it as the franchise is defined by mutants standing in for victims of racial intolerance. Having Guggenheim focus on it to the extent that he does here would normally feel like backsliding… but that is sadly and depressingly not the world we live in today. The only positive thing that can be gleaned from this development is that it does recall the “X-Men” comics of the 90’s when this issue was brought up every month across nearly every title.
Which is part of the point of the whole thing because both storylines in “Back to the Basics” read like much more accessible versions of the kinds of stories that were told regularly back in the day. The opening arc not only has the team throwing down with the all-new Brotherhood, but it sets up a new antagonist, deals with the fallout from “IvX,” and sets up new subplots involving the X-cutioner, a mysterious alien, and New York City seeking to bill the X-Men for setting up shop in the middle of Central Park. For a three-issue arc, it’s pretty packed in terms of story without things feeling rushed. It’s also free of the ridiculously dense and overwrought dialogue that you were likely to find in comics from this era as well.
That being said, is the story any good if you’re not in it for the nostalgia trip? It’s a capable execution of the “X-Men” formula if nothing else. Guggenheim has a solid grasp on the characters, particularly Kitty. She acquits herself well in the role of team leader, and seeing her work things out with ex-flame Peter is interesting with all the awkwardness it entails. However, if you’re looking for a story that pushes the franchise and characters in new and interesting directions this isn’t it. Between this latest “X-Men” relaunch and the whole “Legacy” initiative Marvel is betting big on the fact that they can attract a bigger audience by going after lapsed fans as opposed to making new fans. Given how many of my friends fall into the “used to read ‘X-Men’ comics” category I can see why they’d think that. I don’t think they’ll succeed with stories of this quality but it’s still nice enough.
The same goes for the second arc as well which features the dual returns of Gambit and Sentinels. Gambit has been hired to steal some experimental nanotech which turns out to be Sentinel-related and when he finds that out, things get explosive and the tech winds up merging with some nearby computers. Now you’ve got a new breed of Sentinel running loose in downtown New York whose mission parameters keep mutating along with its appearance.
This is a perfectly fine story too. It’s been a while since I’ve read a story involving the Ragin’ Cajun so it was good to see him in action again and mixing things up with his fellow mutants. There are also some interesting ideas such as the real reason the Trask family member wanted Gambit to steal the tech, the reason why the Sentinel starts targeting normal humans, and Rachel’s evolving power level. They’re not enough to make this a truly memorable story, but it’s still a pleasantly entertaining one.
Art-wise it’s old news by now that the artist for the first arc, Ardian Syaf, was fired from the title (and unlikely to find further work at Marvel or other U.S. comics publishers) after hiding anti-semitic messages in his art. Marvel did the right thing here even though I have to concede that his art was pretty great. Continuing the nostalgia trip, Syaf’s art in the first arc is the kind of bold and heavily detailed work that brings to mind Jim Lee’s defining work on the franchise. R.B. Silva’s art on the second arc doesn’t go in for the same level of detail, but there’s a welcome slickness to his work that gives it a lively appearance.
“Back to the Basics” offers up an exercise in exactly that. Guggenheim sets out to capture the feel of an “X-Men” comic from the 90’s only without the most annoying tics you’d expect to find. In that regard, he’s quite successful. Yet it’s ultimately just an exercise in delivering a specific brand of nostalgia. If you stopped reading “X-Men” comics because they weren’t offering you anything new, then this won’t bring you back. It’s all about how much appetite you have for a comic that does its best to capture the spirit of its best-selling days.