It’s rare that the X-verse produces a genuinely new spinoff book, let alone one so far-flung from the core concept. While the Men-In-Black inspired set up of Joss Whedon’s alien-hunting agency felt like an unwelcome imposition on the “persecuted minority” themes of the X-books, it functions far better once allowed to fly free. What should be a entertaining book, however, is pushed into the realm of the extraordinary by a constant stream of perfectly-judged comedy.
The reconceptulisation of SWORD into something you’d want to read about has been a gradual process. When first introduced in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, the organisation was a fairly transparent plot device, only gradually fleshed out in order to play an active part in the storytelling during the writer’s final arc. Warren Ellis has since injected a dose of action-hero into the set-up. His take on Agent Brand may owe more than a little to his signature character Jenny Sparks, but by showing the character on the front line, he took a significant step towards the finished article which ‘No Time to Breathe’ delivers. There’s more than a little of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next in Kieron Gillen’s take on Brand. She’s clearly in charge, but constantly rushing from crisis to crisis, frantically deploying new and entertaining resources in a bid to stay on top of the situation. Like Next, her main enemy is a bureaucrat, with a minor X-Men character dusted off in an attempt to spoil all the fun. Given the one-dimensional nature of the character in question, the drafting-in of such an obscure figure gets a free pass in the way that an original creation would raise eyebrows.
It’s the sheer pace which makes the book something extraordinary, with the writer often not even bothering to deliver the punch line to his jokes before diving into the next situation. Where Whedon played the revelation of Lockheed’s intelligence and maturity as a significant revelation, Gillen feels confident enough to deploy it as an off-panel gag, confident in the art’s ability to imply what follows. Despite the faithfulness to John Cassaday’s designs and the presence of Jamie McKelvie in a supporting capacity, Stephen Sanders makes his mark with an absolute tour-de-force of pencilling. Without once stepping away from the deliberately inexpressive shades-and-leather design which matched Brand’s role in her original appearance, the artist imbues every single panel with characterisation. His radical take on Beast is a similar success, and it’s impossible to pick out any failing in the work. Even the dragon-like Sydren gets a laugh through facial expression at one point.
In one sense, Gillen has his cake and eats it here. He allows Brand to retain her commander status, keeping the story moving with her authority, while allowing limitations on her power through Gyrich’s machinations. There’s arguably a similar instance of cheating in the way the writer shunts a lot of the dull exposition from the agency’s defining X-storyline into the back-up strip. When the result is a book drenched in the freewheeling joy that you occasionally find in the very best issues of Matt Fraction’s Uncanny, however, it’s impossible to take offence. SWORD trumps both Batman & Robin and the writer’s own Phonogram to deliver this week’s essential purchase.