Finally. After a painfully average first two issues, Greg Pak finishes his “Exalted” storyline on Astonishing X-Men with an issue that makes the entire arc worthwhile, and an ending that’s tear-worthy and more emotional than any other Schism-related book. (I didn’t cry, I swear. I’m a man.)
Cyclops is still stuck in an alternate reality, where Savior (an alternate reality Charles Xavier), has been draining mutant energy to fuel the machine that keeps the planet together. Aided by alternate versions of Wolverine, Emma Frost, and Nightcrawler, he fights to save this reality from being destroyed while finding a way to get back to his own reality.
Despite the stakes, the story in this arc never really felt as big as it was supposed to be. Fortunately, that changes with this issue. Pak’s writing is more focused than it was in previous issues. Now that we know who the major players are and what they want, Pak gets to spend less time introducing characters and more time developing them.
Pak also does an impressive job in making the characters that come from other dimensions (Wolverine, Emma Frost, Nightcrawler, etc.) different enough to be interesting, but similar enough to be familiar. General James Howlett still goes back and forth with Cyclops, despite being from an alternate universe, but also acts like the war hero he is in the dimension he’s from. It’s a subtle but incredibly effective part of Pak’s writing.
Pak’s writing could have benefited from a longer run, since this story is one that is much too big for three issues. But since all we get is three, everything that happens is important. Where previously we were just fed information, we now get important character and plot points that move the story better.
The story is complex without being wordy, a feat of Greg Pak’s writing. He doesn’t waste any space with wandering dialogue. Every line counts. Cyclops is the best example of it since he talks in very few words, but has all the best lines in the book.
Mike McKone’s art, though, never reaches the same high point. He uses strong outlines and creates good contrast with his use of blacks, though, which makes his characters stand out. Like Pak’s writing, McKone’s art makes Cyclops stand out. He spends the majority of the issue shirtless, but with a Magneto helmet on. He looks like a crazy person, and it’s perfect.
Unfortunately, McKone doesn’t do anything creative with the layouts or the gutters. All the panels are rectangular, there aren’t any splash pages, and in general the layouts don’t add anything to the art. There are also a few moments of copied panels, where they don’t add anything to the art either. It isn’t a requirement, but creative layouts help to separate the good from the best. Ideally, the panels create a sense of flow that guides the eyes around the page, and there isn’t much of that here.
Before I couldn’t recommend Pak’s short run on Astonishing X-Men to anyone with a crowded pull-list, but this issue changed my mind. The art isn’t anything spectacular, but Pak’s writing is good enough to carry the art on its back. And the ending, oh god the ending. I won’t judge you if you cry.