When Joss Whedon and John Cassaday signed off on what was seen in 2008 as the X-Men’s prestige title with Unstoppable, Warren Ellis stepped up for a three volume run, starting with art from Simone Bianchi. It’s set when the X-Men are based outside San Francisco, and Ellis obviously had a choice in which X-Men he could play around with, as Storm rejoins the team despite just having married the Black Panther.

Bianchi gives the X-Men a very distinct visual appearance, wherever possible using non-traditional shapes for panels, closing in for wonderful individual portraits with something of Sergio Toppi about them, and relishing any kind of detail, be it technological, baroque decorations or the Beast’s fur. He’s less concerned with the accompanying figures, which resemble something a more stylised Judge Dredd artist would produce, so it makes for an odd mixture, but combined with the muted colours of Simone Peruzzi it’s striking and appealing art. At times it’s astounding.

Ellis applies a conceptual scientific density to the plot, jumping from one science-based speculation to another, encompassing genetics, transportation and pure biological research, cleverly followed by the X-Men as traditional detectives moving from one clue to the next. Fundamental is the moment the Scarlet Witch removed the powers of almost every mutant worldwide, and the consequences of that in China. The X-Men’s investigations eventually turn up a former colleague’s tinkering as well.

While the plot’s interesting enough, in places the dialogue rings entirely false, an early conversation between Emma Frost and Storm a warning, and too many people explaining themselves. “If Wakanda declared war on Zimbabwe tomorrow”, notes Cyclops to Storm, “which isn’t beyond the realm of possibility – I read the papers…”. Who would actually say that? Similarly awkward dialogue occurs too often for a writer of Ellis’ experience.

The title refers to a device connecting to mutants on alternate Earths. They’re not seen, but a few short back-up strips drawn by different artists investigate different versions of how the main story played out after the X-Men headed to Indonesia. Don’t expect much in the way of cheer. Every reader will have a different favourite artist from the list of Kaare Andrews, Clayton Crain, Alan Davis and Adi Granov, but all are good. The best story is Ellis twisting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, drawn by Andrews, with a desolate pair of X-Men trudging onward knowing their mission is likely to be hopeless.

Bianchi impresses enough to raise the rating, but despite the interesting ideas, Ellis is working below his best. Exogenetic continues the run.