Writer Warren Ellis (Planetary, Transmetropolitan) and artist Simone Bianchi (Wolverine) tackle the somewhat unenviable task of taking over from award-winning fan-favourites Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) and John Cassaday (Planetary) on Astonishing X-men, something of a flagship X-title for Marvel. And for the most part they succeed, although not without a few missteps, taking the series distinctly in their own direction, and setting a new, darker tone.
Those familiar with Ellis' writing will instantly recognise the wild sci-fi elements and snarky dialogue that are his trademarks, but he manages to find the characters' voices pretty well from the get-go -- seeming to have the most fun with the acid-tongued Emma and the hyper-intelligent Beast. The snappy banter, weird science and alternate reality mumbo-jumbo come thick and fast as the X-men investigate a bizarre murder and follow the ensuing trail of destruction around the world, finally discovering a familiar face at the heart of the mystery.
Bianchi's painted artwork is often beautiful to look at, and his darker palette matches the tone of the story well. However, his figures are occasionally caught in quite awkward poses, or suffer from an almost Hellenistic tendency to over-gesture or over-emote. Fight scenes, too, can be hard to follow, thanks in part to the aforementioned dark colour scheme, but mostly due to Bianchi's framing, which stays close in on the action and leaves little in the way of breathing room. In quieter moments, Bianchi's unconventional framing is eye-catching and inventive, but once the action hots up, things can get a little claustrophobic and confusing.
At the original time of printing there were complaints of the storyline moving too slowly, but the main issue, I think, is in the story's climax, which seems a little rushed and lacking in weight. To illustrate: the main story is supplemented by four short "what if" style tales that focus on alternate realities and what might have happened if things had played out differently, and it is only here that we see the full scale of what the X-men were facing. It's a shame that the same threat wasn't conveyed more strongly in the main story, as there is a bit of a lack of "wow factor" there, despite the explosive finish.
Still, all told, there is plenty of good stuff going on here, and fans of Ellis or the previous Astonishing X-men books should give this one a read.