Shopping Local Part 2/2: X-men Grand Design Review

Shopping Local as Part of the Grand Design, Part 2 of 2

Last week, I yammered on about Free Comic Book Day as part of the lead up to today’s review. Click here for said yammering.

Ok, enough about shopping local–except maybe not. This week, the stratosphere blog deals with a local Pittsburgh creator: Ed Piskor.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not super familiar with his work. I lean more mainstream with my comic purchases and he definitely has that indy vibe. Piskor got his start on Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor (I saw the movie with Paul Giamatti–never read the books). The only other Ed Piskor book I own is the Free Comic Book Day preview issue of his Hip Hop Family Tree from a few years back.  (Yay, tangential connection to the first half of this article!) I liked the idea of what he was doing, the design, the look–just not so much of the hip hop. It wasn’t until this past year when I heard about a project with similar intentions that would tackle subject matter more my speed.

Combining the local creator aspect along with the exploration of a genre I don’t visit very often wrapped around a subject matter I could dig all equaled an easy buy. At least, once I settled on the format. I could have gone with individual issues or a giant sized trade. Once my gracious FCBD hosts assured me the next volumes would follow a similar format, I was sold on….

X-Men: Grand Design

By Ed Piskor

The Basics

This is the Treasury edition of issues 1 and 2 of a 6 part series.  The plan, apparently, is to release 2 issues a year, collect ‘em, and then repeat the process for 3 years total.

The series is written, drawn, and colored by Ed Piskor, and he plans on adapting the history of the X-Men from issue 1-281 into one continuous, cohesive story.

Overview

Our story starts not with Charles Xavier, but with Namor, Marvel’s first mutant. He apparently sets wheels in motion that mutant-kind never really recovers from.

Sure they don’t like mutants but they have no problem using that mutated pitchfork!

 

The eventual parents of one Charles Xavier end up helping out the government with the cleanup process and end up wealthy enough to build (and rebuild and rebuild again) that fancy school in Westchester that X-fans know and love.  Then, the parallel stories of Charles Xavier and Magneto begin. Charles deals with threats and hatred at home like Cain Marko, his new step-brother, and threats abroad like the Shadow King. Imagine getting a new step brother-not an enviable situation in the first place-and then looking into his mind (You read minds, btw.) to see this:

I’m really glad I cannot read minds.

 

That look of shock, of dread, sums up a decidedly human reaction in an incredible situation. I would want to get out of dodge asap if I knew that was waiting two doors down from me. Charles sticks around until Cain eventually starts a fire that kills their parents.

Magneto, or Magnus, on the other hand escapes with Magda from the German concentration camps, and is never able to find peace as people are trying to cheat him at every corner.

Soon Charles Xavier heads out to round up the team as the original X-Men see their origins revisited.  While Piskor explores the backgrounds of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Angel, and even friend of the X-Men like Corsair, the Phoenix force travels through the cosmos. Ch’Od even makes an appearance! I still can’t believe Toy Biz made a Ch’od toy in the 90’s.  

How do you name a character Ch’Od?

 

The bad guys also see plenty of time, including a group called the Right that consists of Angel’s classmate Larry Trask, Steven Lang, Bolivar Trask, Mayor Robert Kelly, Cameron Hodge, and Donald Pierce.  Longtime X-fans surely recognize these names, and this is one of the cooler parts of this project: pulling in characters and storylines from much further down the road and placing them in much earlier context. Whereas, Mr. Sinister doesn’t show up until issue 221 in the original run, here he is, playing Scott Summers as his puppet early on.

It’s retconning in reverse, since the whole project is a remix.  I like it.

Instead of the old Mavel Saga-style miniseries that retold the history of a character through text, this takes that extra meta-step of telling a comic story in a comic book format, which is awesome and impressive in its own right.

Story Highlights

Piskor’s cartooning chops come into play, especially during some cool pivotal moments.  At one point very early in the story, Piskor lets it be known that even though this is a history, it’s still going to have awesome moments like this one where a young Magnus seizes control of Captain America’s shield while Cap and Wolverine can only watch.

Bop! Pow! Dink! Pok! Oof! Nok! Boof! Pop! Boop! Crack!

 

Here’s where my personal preferences come into play-Volume 1 of this series primarily deals with pre-Giant Size X-Men storylines.  I’m not as pumped about those. My bread and butter X-tales were those that happened in the 80’s and 90’s. I’m mostly familiar with the Chris Claremont X-Men, and even then, I have my gaps.  Seeing members of the Hellfire Club manipulating things behind the scene, seeing Mastermind get his first exposure to Jean Grey’s mind, seeing Sinister messing with the Summers clan–these are my favorite moments because they offer those brief glimpses of the great stories I can see on the horizon.  Many of the actual opponents in this book like Unus, Mutant Master, the Vanisher–they don’t really do it for me. One of my biggest criticisms of this project is that right now, it’s spending so much time on an era that I’m not particularly fond of. Volume 1 is just that, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for Volume 2 (The all-new X-Men! The Phoenix Saga!) and volume 3 (The Mutant Massacre! The Outback X-Men! The Siege Perilous!)

Critical Notes:

Piskor takes each page as its own comic strip story, which leads to a bit of jumpiness with the overall narrative.  I read his original plan was to possibly release his pages one at a time for free online like a Sunday cartoon spread. That would have been hellacool, but hard to follow.

Ironically, one of the things that held me back from buying this series in issues was that despite its higher than normal price point, digital copies were not part of the deal.  Even after shelling out more than double the issue cost for the treasury edition, I didn’t get a digital copy. I realize this is a special project outside of the normal publishing schedule, and I appreciate the artistic choicest that went into producing the physical copy.  Still, I’m used to reading a majority of my comics digitally at this point. It’s one of those ideas that separates Marvel from DC. Marvel charges a higher per issue premium, but includes the for convenience sake digital copies. DC traditionally does not. It’s one more reason if I had to choose between a Marvel or DC book, I’m making mine Marvel. Except here. I had to wait for the Free Comic Book Day event to try this series because of this barrier to entry. After finding out the artist was already in favor of digital publishing, what the heck, Marvel?

Art Review

Each page is set up to be its own Sunday comics strip-style story. When this works, it really works.  When it doesn’t work, it gets a bit clunky.

More often than not, it works.

The indy sensibilities Piskor brings to the table make for slightly more stiff or awkward action sequences, but more emotive and emotional moments. Some of the scenes in this book are pretty gruesome (Fake Xavier’s neck gets snapped, for one), and the cartoony aspect both manages to give those moments a slightly askew quality that simultaneously packs an emotional punch but still remains palatable. I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the colors in this series.

Piskor purposely and beautifully incorporates the old dot-matrix style coloring that was the norm for most comic books prior to the Image explosion of the early 90’s. He knows when to mute colors for emotional impact and when bursts of negative space can really add to a page.  He really has a strong sense of page design most of the time here.

Continue? 9…8…7…

Homages to specific scenes, covers, or even panels are sure to delight the hardcore X-enthusiast. Also, pop culture references abound in the story itself, like this panel Piskor says was inspired by Street Fighter II and Final Fight continue screens.

Extra!

Andy and Stew convinced me to spring for the Treasury Edition that is oversized and bursting with cool extras.  The oversized pages really help the small details in Piskor’s art become more visible. Plus, the Treasury Edition includes some background about how this is a dream project (complete with pictures of comics young Ed drew of the X-Men), and a re-coloring of Stan and Jack’s X-Men #1.  It’s a cool nod to what the series is trying to tackle.

This is outside of the book itself, but it’s worth checking out the director’s commentary Piskor posted to boingboing.net for the first 12 pages of the project. Ed Piskor’s BoingBoing Stuff

Who is this for?

  • People who have a soft spot for the X-Universe up until about 1993.  If you were into the comics, the cartoon, and the Toybiz toys, you’ll find plenty to love here. If you’ve hit the X-traitor storyline, you’ve gone too far.
  • People who enjoy the histories of fictional characters. It’s a small subset,but plenty of people like to know where their heros have gone before.
  • Hipsters
  • I’m joking about the last one, but I do think that people who have an affinity for those underground comics but still occasionally yearn to take a bite out of the mainstream–this is your chance to have your cake and eat it too.
  • X-Men fans that could use the educating about the early history of their favorite team.

Who is this not for?

  • Noobs.  This book is not accessible to people who are not fairly well versed in the X-Universe.
  • My buddy Jerry, who is a pop culture enthusiast looking to discover more about comic characters.  I knew it would take some time for me to read this story, so I handed him my copy and I told him this might be up his alley. He equated it to trying to read Tolkien’s Silmarillion. In retrospect, I see that this book is not for beginners. It can be pretty impenetrable.
  • Once again, people who get fussy when origin stories are updated and retold. Not everyone is going to dig the crazy retconning here. Story elements are changed, pruned, or excluded all for the sake of the combined narrative.  I get that might rub some folks the wrong way.
  • Folks that aren’t willing to hang on during the initial stages of the X-Men for the really good stuff coming up.

Final Verdict

X-Men: Grand Design by Ed Piskor is a truly unique project. I like its unique style. I like the underground sensibility. I like that it’s not what I normally read.  I feel like I’m expanding my horizons. I think the physical Treasury Edition is beautiful, and I can’t wait to add volumes 2 and 3 to my bookshelf. It’s just going to take another two years. Sometimes I felt the story drag a bit, but that’s to be expected for something that’s tackling such a massive undertaking. I’m sure if I was more into the first 80 issues of Uncanny X-Men, I would be even more into this. As it stands, the reasons that made X-Men almost cancelled are most likely the same reasons bringing this project down a slight notch.  I have hopes that future volumes can do even better. A-

 

If you’d like to leave a comment, I’ll be surprised intrigued to hear from you!

Until next time, my friends,

My blogs will be the slightly impenetrable yammerings with a little dash of hipster!

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oooOOOOoooOOOoooOOOOooOOOOOOIlikedyourfavoritebandbeforeitwascoolooOOOOOOOnowtheyarelesscoolbecausepeopleknowthemooooOOOooOo!

 

 

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