In the latest edition of Comics to Read Before You Die, Jessie Robertson looks at Astonishing X-Men Vol 1…
Written by Joss Whedon
Illustrated by John Cassaday
Joss Whedon. That name now carries a certain power, respect and gravitas with it. Once the cult director of prematurely killed fan favorite space western Firefly, and the man who turned the cheesy (albeit very entertaining) Buffy the Vampire Slayer into another cult hit because of its wit, characters, supernatural, babes and dialogue TV blockbuster for the WB, now he’s the colossally successful film director, having the first 2 (of many more) Avengers motion pictures behind him. Did you know he wrote some comics too? This book was his most famous venture in that medium. Let’s set the stage:
After a successful run by Grant Morrison on X-Men, Whedon took over and left much of the same team in tact, including Scott Summers and Emma Frost, now headmasters at the Xavier school. Kitty Pryde is our focus character at the start; it’s her return to the school after a long absence and it’s a strange homecoming for her. Your main characters are Scott, Emma, Kitty, Hank McCoy (Beast) and Logan (Wolverine). Gifted reveals that a cure to the mutant genome has been discovered and is being decided on how to proceed with it. Hank becomes curious in its genetic makeup as well as perhaps using it, changing the course of his life but wrestles with the decision. An alien from another planet doomed to be destroyed by a prophecized mutant shows up to stop said mutant and starts his targeting with the X-Men. Dangerous has the X-Men’s famous training simulator turn against them at a critical time.
There’s so much to like in these books; first I want to say, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a first issue that ended so dramatically and tied together introductions, the stream of a book, multiple characters and great dialogue, all before a great cliffhanger. One of the best first issues ever written. Whedon plays heavily with dialogue, because these are all characters that have known each other for a LONG time, and it shows, and it makes sense and it’s tons of fun. All these veteran teammates now leading a new group of mutants forward, without the help of Professor Xavier, also shows a really cool time progression which often never seems to occur in comics. Gifted, is stronger than Dangerous, only because it throws the whole monkey wrench into the wheel of “if we could be cured of these powers, these abilities, sometimes considered a curse, would we?” By having their scientist and smartest member seem to ask these questions very seriously, just elevates the whole topic. You also have a surprise return of a once though dead member who sacrificed himself to save mutant kind being accused of wiping out another planet full of people in some crazy heavy irony. Kitty also finds herself at odds with so many members; the love she had for someone returning from the dead, her allegiance to Logan, her hatred for Emma, everything about this first storyline works so effortlessly well.
John Cassady should be praised because his art style compliments Whedon’s writing perfectly; all these characters are drawn as if they are standing in the real world in a real environment. Even strange characters like Beast and Ord from the Breakworld have definition; the way Beast’s fur sits and the animal-human qualities of his facial features, and Ord’s muscle definition and the scars of his face. Some of the most standout panels to me include the teams’ meeting in the holographic island, Kitty’s journey into darkness through Ord’s ship and the masticated Sentinel tearing his way through a forest.
A few key other things I liked about the series is the relationships; one thing about an X-Men book is sometimes the roster can be a bit bloated. Here, it’s completely pared down and inside this roster you have the Scott-Emma dynamic which probably became just as classic as Scott and Jean and this book is one reason why. There’s even a bit about young suicide, which to me, is a topic that should be studied and talked about day after day as there’s nothing sadder, more tragic than a young person taking their own life when there’s so much to look forward to. It’s not dwelled on but it’s there. The progression of science versus changing the structure of a person or a race is also on the forefront of Whedon’s mind during both storylines found here.
Probably my only complaint is the villains: Ord is a pretty stock bad guy with some knives, tough skin and stronger than he looks. The role he plays in the cure is not at all that surprising and he never really offers that much in the way of menacing plans or threats to our heroes. In Dangerous, their own device itself turns against them and while completely menacing and seemingly on the verge of disembowling our heroes, there’s an element missing from the character, which is logic. It knows all their moves, all their strategies, but wasn’t it just programmed to? It’s never explained exactly how in all its sentient being, it retained that knowledge and the idea that Xavier programmed it to be able to become outside of itself paints him as not a very kind father figure, but that of a looney circus trainer, willing to do anything to make his team a lethal fighting force. I’ve often wondered what results we could have seen had Whedon turned his attention to any classic X-Men villains instead of creating his own sub-par ones.
Any comic fan and most certainly X-Men fan will tell you this is a must have for your collection, but don’t stop there. Whedon went on to write a further couple chapters of his saga which only further the threads he began here.