(Very) Belated Thoughts on Guardians of Galaxy/All-New X-Men: The Trial of Jean Grey…

Posted: January 24, 2015 in COMICS
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
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With all the doom and gloom real-world subjects I’ve been focused on lately, it was a welcome reprieve to finally get to catch up with reading last year’s X-Men/Guardians of the Galaxy crossover.

Whatever we think about the entire All-New X-Men business in the first place – specifically the bringing of Professor X’s original X-Men from the past into the contemporary X-Men world – one of the most interesting things it has led to so far is The Trial of Jean Grey; the big-scale All-New X-Men/Guardians of the Galaxy event (both titles incidentally written by Brian Michael Bendis) that occurred early last year.

I’m incredibly far behind with this; although I’d read a couple of the individual issues of the GOTG or All-New X-Men covering this storyline, I was distracted with other stuff and had decided to save the experience for a suitable time; it wasn’t until after Christmas that I finally managed to read the entire story properly (spanning Guardians of the Galaxy #11 – 13 and All-New X-Men #22 – 24). Being both a long-time partaker of the X-Men world and an avid reader of the Guardians of the Galaxy title, the prospect obviously appealed to me and having the time-displaced Jean Grey be the catalyst for that made sound sense and seemed like a rich idea. It helps that I’m a sucker for trial/judgement sagas both in fiction and the real world, as well as having an obvious partiality for the Dark Phoenix Saga and for generations-spanning storylines in general. And as if the Guardians and the X-Men hanging out wasn’t party enough, the Starjammers show up too.

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All of that said, The Trial of Jean Grey ends up something of a disappointment, failing to really live up to its rich potential; essentially something that seemed a worthwhile idea at the outset didn’t quite accomplish enough of meaningful substance in the end, especially given how much page-space it had to do so. It ends up feeling like you’ve read six issues of stage-setting; or sat at a restaurant table and eaten appetizers and nice sauces but having consumed no proper course (let’s call it the Star Trek: Voyager effect). There are also gaps in logic and continuity, such as Gladiator once more leading the Imperial Guard or the Starjammers suddenly being around, which aren’t really explained, but are instead expected to be simply accepted as fact by unquestioning readers.

The central theme is interesting in places, but should’ve been made much more challenging; specifically the idea of trying someone for crimes they haven’t committed yet but may one day commit (which perhaps also resonates somewhat with contemporary issues in our own societies) – this of course being the mass genocide committed by Jean Grey’s alter-ego the Dark Phoenix in the past, but which the currently time-displaced Jean Grey has no knowledge of (as she was brought forward from a point before any of that happened). If you’re not familiar with the X-Men timeline, then all this must sound very convoluted and confusing – I apologise.

For all of that though, and this is frustrating to admit as someone trying to be a critical reviewer right now, The Trial of Jean Grey is actually an enjoyable read, despite its numerous flaws. Which, annoyingly, proves that sometimes spectacle and gimmicks can be strong enough to override an underlying substance-deficiency. Reading the plight through the young Jean Grey’s perspective for parts of the story is genuinely engaging, returning to the Shi’ar Empire is genuinely enjoyable and somewhat nostalgic (allowing also for some engaging, exotic settings and backdrops), while having the Guardians and the time-displaced X-Men on a crowded ship together and playing off each other is obviously fun, though with Rocket Raccoon unsurprisingly getting most of the best lines.

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There are some terrific moments scattered about; such as Angela’s general no-nonsense bad-assery (the way she nonchalantly takes out a Skrull shapeshifter, for example) or the time-displaced Hank McCoy being shown at a blackboard with seemingly the entire X-Men world expressed in a chalk equation in front of him, which is both funny and effectively playing to fan-boy sensibilities. There are sweeteners like that across the books, which keep up an enjoyment level in the basic sense.

Stuart Immonen’s art, Wade Von Grawbadger’s inking and Marte Gracia’s colours in All-New X-Men #24 are a genuine pleasure, while Sara Pichelli and Justin Ponsor’s combination on the Guardians side is typically gorgeous to look at at all times. The vivid colors and the easy, flowing quality of the artwork is perhaps the major feature through each of the books that makes all of it so readable and enjoyable even when story elements and inconsistencies in logic are throwing up problems.

There are arresting visual moments scattered across the story; for example, the image that opens All-New X-Men #24 – an image of an enormous court chamber populated by jeering, justice-hungry aliens with the captive Jean Grey on a flood-lit stage in the centre and with a projection of the Dark Phoenix over her – is immediately both visually and thematically engaging, drawing you into the drama and to the young Jean’s ordeal. An image elsewhere of the young Jean being showed her alternate-reality/future-self’s life is also striking in the same way.

Despite being some two-decades-and-more a card-carrying X-Men fan, I’m probably more a Guardians fan these days (or this year, at least) as far as current storytelling goes and the reality of that was reinforced for me reading these issues, as the Guardians, Angela included (we like her), were generally more entertaining at all points than these specific X-Men characters (I can’t remember the last time I had to read so much of a character as permanently annoying as the young Cyclops is). While we’re on that subject, the Starjammers prove disappointing; I used to enjoy reading Corsair and his rag-tag band of space pirates in the old days, but they seem to have lost their charm. Hepzibah in particular used to be a really endearing, funny character, but now seems like mere window dressing; I read the first few issues of the Cyclops series in which the Starjammers are a central feature, but it did little to alter my impression of the modern Starjammers (even though the storytelling in those comics is actually pretty good).

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But what The Trial of Jean Grey ultimately proved to be was an effective exercise in slick production, quality art and an embarrassment of riches when it comes to characters and rich associations; ultimately an enjoyable read, but one that is flawed throughout and which lacks a meaningful or satisfying conclusion. That said, when I look at the two other most hyped Marvel events of the year – Avengers/X-Men: Axis  and  the Death of WolverineThe Trial of Jean Grey comes off looking better and more consistent than both. It maintains a steady quality level and thematic integrity throughout, free of the kind of jarring leaps and shifts in both quality and focus that characterises something like Axis.

It’s worth noting also that the events of this story spawned the Cyclops solo title as well as the ongoing interactions between Star Lord and Kitty Pryde; the former having failed to move me thus far (as I said, young Cyclops is really annoying, and the Starjammers aren’t anything like as cool as they used to be) though the latter having its obvious charms (particularly in the pages of the ultra-cool Legendary Starlord solo title).

On the related subjected of the All-New X-Men in general, I’m still on the fence about it. Some X-Men fans are in love with the fact that the old, original team were brought into the contemporary landscape; and I get that appeal. On paper it’s an interesting, quirky idea. Most of what I’ve read of it, however, has been a mixed bag, despite some interesting elements or moments at various points. Jean aside (and okay, maybe Bobby Drake has his appeal to, mostly for wit), the old X-Men characters just aren’t that interesting when placed into the current set-up. The nostalgia value wears off pretty quickly and you’re left wondering if the contemporary X-Men world, in all its many forms and faces, is being neglected in favour of an overly regressive, nostalgia-based exercise.

Even The Trial of Jean Grey itself may have been more interesting with more of the contemporary X-Men characters involved. But I’m possibly nitpicking there. All in all, The Trial of Jean Grey won’t change your life or your view of anything, but it’s a fun adventure, incredibly slickly produced and with enough sweeteners scattered throughout to keep an X-Men or GOTG loyalist entertained. However, once it’s done, it’s done; and repeat reads are probably unlikely.

By the way, I recently did a Marvel Comics guest-blog on the dejarevue comic-book site: you can check it out here.

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