by Jason Aaron (writer), Nick Bradshaw (penciler & inker), Walden Wong & Cam Smith (inkers), Guru Efx (colorist), and Chris Eliopoulos (letterer)

The Story: Get to know Warbird.  And, in other news, five phoenixes is a bit much even for Gladiator.

The Review: For the most part, the AvX tie-ins have ranged between mediocre to sucky and no title has been a greater disappointment than Wolverine and the X-Men.  It’s a painful situation that is every event-haters worst nightmare: a fantastic comic derailed by a forced event tie-in.

Given this, I was prepared to give another underwhelmed review but, much to my surprise, Jason Aaron and Nick Bradshaw churn out a fantastic issue here.  The reason why this one is different is obvious:  Avengers vs. X-Men takes a very distant backseat.  This gives Aaron a chance to focus on what’s made this series so great: the characters he’s created.

Here, he really pulls back the curtain on Warbird, probably the new character we knew least about.  Put simply, it’s fantastic.  You will leave this issue loving Warbird.  Her story is tragic, heavy stuff and she comes through it all a conflicted, three-dimensional character with a lot of depth and a lot more long-term potential.  Aaron has created a character that you can’t help but have a great deal of empathy for.

Part of this is Jason Aaron’s reversal of the stereotypical “tough girl.”  So many comics take the route of making a female character as hard-nosed and badassed as possible as the quickest, cheapest route to create a female “fan favourite.”  Aaron takes the opposite route.  Instead, he gives us character that is, on the surface, that stereotypica, female, 90s-badittude type of character, but that’s not what makes her so awesome or likable or unique.  Rather, it’s the softer, sensitive side of her that’s been so secreted away that makes the character shine.  In the end,  you’re cheering more for her to be able to emotionally open up and be herself than you are for her  to chop up some more aliens.  Essentially, Aaron gives us a character template that succeeds more than it fails, then turns it on its head to give it an entirely new depth.

While tragedy and emotion define Warbird’s story, there’s also something decidedly heart-renching about Kid Gladiator’s scenes.  Aaron does a great job depicting Kid Gladiator’s reaction to watching his dad get the worst of things against the Phoenix Five.  Most interesting is Aaron’s basically giving the character an emotional trajectory – he goes from wanting to be the hero in fighting alongside his dad, to crying out in despair and disbelief.  Better still, the fact that Warbird is restraining him, particularly in light of certain elements of her past, make the dynamic between the two VERY interesting and a lot more nuanced.

Nick Bradshaw’s art also shines.  I have no problem with Chris Bachalo’s art, but I’ve come to enjoy Bradshaw’s issues more.  He continues to bring that characterful, Saturday morning vibe, brimming with energy and likability.  Which is pretty much just what the doctor ordered given that this issue’s purpose was to get us to empathize with a character.

Conclusion: By far the best issue of Wolverine and the X-Men in quite some time.  Great character dynamics and lots of tugging on the heart-strings

Grade: A-

-Alex Evans