Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Review: Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon

I read these 25 issues written by Joss Whedon and illustrated by John Cassaday in the form of graphic novels: one hardcover collecting the first 12 issues and two softcovers collecting issues 13-24 and Giant-Sized Astonishing X-Men 1.

Here are the things I liked about the series:
  • The core cast is stripped down to a manageable number.
  • The dialogue between characters is fantastic, especially the exchanges between Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost. Fans of either Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel will see a lot of similar quips and snarkiness here.
  • I think Whedon gets a good handle on characters like Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, and Beast. And he manages to make Wolverine interesting without having him steal every scene, which is nice.
  • There is some much appreciated humor sprinkled in throughout that manages not to derail the action in the slightest.
  • I love Cassaday's art in general, particularly how he shows emotion through body language blended with facial expressions and his ability to draw just about any crazy thing that Whedon can dream up side-by-side with perfectly normal looking stuff like teens, clothes, and a grassy lawn. It is immersive.
  • Seriously, tons of great one-liners, most of which I just can't set up properly here because they have a visual element or require a few set-up lines to produce the proper payoff. And it might sound silly, but whoever placed the word balloons in the panels did a great job. You can see the timing that you would normally hear if actors were delivering these lines from a script.
  • For the most part, the new characters that Whedon introduces, such as the young student who can create a cool-looking force field around herself, the villain Ord of the Breakworld, the artificial intelligence Danger, or the really bitchy Agent Brand of the interstellar/interdimensional variation of SHIELD known as SWORD (get it?), are well done. Whedon has this particular knack for making his key antagonists so interesting that you want to see them keep coming back even when they are doing bad things.
  • The interpersonal drama is great and the personality issues/relationship subplots are woven deftly into the action scenes.
  • There is a real sense of loss in the storyline.
The things I didn't like:
  • I wasn't that excited about the old costumes coming back, particularly Wolverine's bumblebee look. The rationale given in the book is rather weak (superheroes wear costumes).
  • Ord is a cool character given some of his lines and his trials and tribulations. But he looks downright goofy. The Breakworlders in general resemble a bunch of homicidal Dr. Seuss characters.
  • The plausibility of some major plot elements make as much sense as the various prophecies tossed out in Angel or the cosmology of the 'Verse in Firefly (one solar system with a ton of terraformed habitable moons that all have Earthlike gravity and atmosphere and the one at the edge of the solar system still gets regular, normal sunshine--what?). Basically, as with most of Whedon's work in my opinion, you shouldn't look too closely at why these Big Events/Threats happen, or what the rules of the setting are, because they don't make a whole hell of a lot of sense (the vampires in Buffy and Angel are wildly inconsistent and the whole "a demon takes over the dead human body because some other half-demon bit them" is flaky and tosses out a lot of what makes vampires potentially interesting). What's important is how Whedon's characters react to these events and rules, which does tend to make sense and can be very engrossing.
  • The Breakworld, an entirely new setting element, is really just a stand-in for yet another Demon Dimension where most everything and everyone is violent and dangerous. It felt a bit forced into the Marvel Universe.
  • Those familiar with the casts of Angel and Buffy will probably find a fair number of similar characterizations in play here. Emma Frost and Brand as dueling bitches who somehow win our sympathy (Cordelia). Kitty Pryde as a kind of Willow/Fred amalgam. Cyclops has a bit of the forlorn hero vibe that Angel carried, Beast goes back and forth between cerebral and action hero in the vein of Wesley. Wolverine is a bit like a less talkative Spike. The thing is, all of these characterizations work, in my view. And it's probably more that certain relationships or bits of dialogue are reminiscient of some scenes in those series than anything else. So perhaps this is in the eye of the beholder.
Versus Grant Morrison's New X-Men or Marc Millar's Ultimate X-Men
  • There aren't as many wild and daring ideas in this story as there were in either the Ultimate X-Men by Marc Millar or the New X-Men by Grant Morrison. There's one very interesting social concept in Astonishing X-Men, the idea of a cure for mutants, that got more or less blatantly stolen for the X-Men 3 movie. But it just falls by the wayside without any real sense of resolution after it gets tossed out there.
  • On the other hand, the narrative of Whedon's story is much more coherent than Morrison's sequence. I also found the characters that Whedon introduced far more interesting and clearly presented than the majority of the ones that Morrison introduced, who are for the most part head-scratchers (still not sure what Xorn or Fantomex's abilities were or how they made any sense, and I could have done completely without Beak or Angel). Morrison tends to introduce new characters explicitly to upstage existing iconic characters, like a gamer who wants his new player character to prove he can beat up the existing high-level NPCs in a campaign. Thus they swiftly become annoying rather than integrating into an existing concept. And Whedon writes dialogue about a dozen times better than Morrison.
  • As far as Millar goes, in Ultimate X-Men, as in most of his comics work (though to a lesser degree in Ultimates), he dials most everyone up a bit too far on the being a bastard or a self-interested ass personality meter for any of them to be likeable or even sympathetic. I couldn't care less about any of Millar's X-Men living or dying. I was genuinely upset when Whedon killed somebody major off at the end of his story arc.
  • So if I had to look at relative strengths of the three series, I'd say Morrison is most gifted at exploring and introducing wild and original ideas in a setting, Millar is best at crafting a fairly coherent plot that drives forward very focused characters with great action and intensity, and Whedon is a master of creating characters that feel real and generate a range of strong emotional responses (humor, affection, dislike) in readers. Your reading preferences will probably influence your responses accordingly.
I definitely recommend the series, which is quite self-contained vis-a-vis the rest of the Marvel Universe. It doesn't even connect that strongly to the events of Grant Morrison's lengthy run on New X-Men that preceded it in the continuity.

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