X-Posed: Astonishing, X-Men & All-New

astonishing x-men vol 9 exaltedI can’t seem to stop reading X-Men comics these days! I’m on quite a streak thanks to my library system having a huge selection. Not everything has been a hit, but I figured I’d run down my experience with these books outside of the usual Trade Post format.

My buddy Brett White is a huge X-fan, so he was the first person I went to when trying to figure out which of the many books to request. On the top of his list was Marjorie Liu’s run on Astonishing X-Men. I looked into it and saw that Greg Pak did the arc before hers, so I requested that one first. Astonishing X-Men – Volume 9: Exalted collects #44-47 of that book plus part of a Warren Ellis/Adi Granov story called Ghost Boxes that plays into this story of alternate dimensions drawn by the excellent mike McKone. Continue reading X-Posed: Astonishing, X-Men & All-New

Astonishing X-Men Trade Post: Volumes 1-4

astonishing x-men vol 1 gifted Astonishing X-Men (Marvel)
Written by Joss Whedon, drawn by John Cassaday
Collects Astonishing X-Men #1-6 (Vol. 1: Gifted), #7-12 (Vol. 2: Dangerous), #13-18 (Vol. 3: Torn), #19-24, Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1 (Vol. 4: Unstoppable)

Never let it be said that TJ Dietsch doesn’t re-evaluate his opinions. While talking to my pal, colleague and gigantic X-fan Brett White recently, I said something to the effect that I didn’t get all the hype around Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. Of course, I understand that the creator of Buffy and Firefly has an enormous and rabid fan following, but the story didn’t blow me away when it was coming out. At the time, this book was incredibly late (24 issues took four years to complete), something I had no tolerance for as a lover of monthly comics (oh how times have changed). Also, there was part of me that was in the, “Of course people are going to like your book when you can cherry pick your cast and bring in one of the most popular artists in comics” camp. I was kind of a jerk back then.

But, after re-reading Ed Brubaker’s Rise & Fall Of The Shi’Ar Empire and Mike Carey’s Supernovas, I figured I should give Whedon’s X-Men another shot. I’m past a lot of the biases I used to hold and am always interested in reading something great. Plus, I was able to get all four from the same person in one Sequential Swap, so why not give them another read?

I’m glad I took some time to come back to this book because each trade has several key plot points that were pretty memorable. Even though I remembered they were coming, there was enough of a memory cloud around the proceedings that I could enjoy them again without knowing the exact blueprint of what was going on. Gifted picks up after Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men, a run I’ve tried to read a few times and got distracted by bad fill-in art to the point where I couldn’t go on (but would like another crack at). Whedon’s initial idea for this team — consisting of Cyclops, Emma Frost, Beast, Kitty Pryde and Wolverine — is that they’re getting back into more traditional costumes and going out to save the world like normal superheroes in an effort to show some people that mutants don’t need to be feared and hated.

Gifted, the first trade, sets all this up while also giving them a “mutant cure” to deal with and an alien named Ord to fight. The cure brings out different opinions from different mutants and leads to interesting dialog and conflicts (specifically between Wolverine and Beast). As you might expect, there’s a more sinister plan behind all that that leads into the rest of the series, but I don’t really need to get into spoilers here. Oh, we also see the return of Kitty Pryde’s deceased beau Colossus, something that surprised just about everybody at the time.

astonishing x-men vol 2 dangerous

Dangerous drops another bomb on the X-Men as well as the students at the Xavier Institute For Higher Learning: there’s more to the Danger Room than meets the eye. As it turns out, the Shi’Ar programming used to upgrade the systems years prior eventually gained sentience, but Charles Xavier needed to keep his students sharp and therefore suppressed it.  This eventually comes back to bite him in the butt when the programming — dubbed Danger — takes humanoid form and starts attacking the mutants.

This leads to an all-out battle the brings the previously absent Prof. X back into the fray to clean up one of his many mistakes. I don’t actually know why he wasn’t around and it’s never explained, but I guess he was dealing with the New X-Men fallout? Or Genosha? Or something? Anyway, they fight, Professor X explains why he did what he did and the team moves on.

Fun side story, this along with the revelation in Deadly Genesis that he sent an entire team of young mutants off to their deaths lead to a fun Wizard feature I wrote called something like “Professor X Is A Jerk” running down his incredibly long list of transgressions against the students he’s supposedly intent on keeping safe. If anyone has a scan of this feature, please drop me a line in the comments.

The second to last book in Whedon’s X-Men run does what I expected it to do from the very beginning: reveal Emma Frost’s true, evil nature. I knew from my limited experience that there was something of a love triangle involving her, Cyclops and Jean Grey before Jean died at the end of New X-Men (does a Jean Grey death even count as a spoiler anymore?), but Emma and Scott were together from the beginning of Astonishing and I didn’t trust her one bit and neither did Kitty.

Of course, this is played up for maximum effect as it appears as though Emma is using the X-Men’s greatest weaknesses against them in an effort to destroy the team. Wolverine gets reverted back to his little boy mentality, Beast is devolved into a wild cat and Cyclops loses his powers. All these moments are pretty intense, harrowing and also serve to teach the characters something about themselves (whether they’re paying attention or not).

astonishing x-men vol 3 torn

There’s not a lot of time to think on these lessons, though because the series’ other two main villains reappear as Ord and Danger decide that this is the perfect time for them to attack as well. You might expect a gigantly huge brawl between all these forces, and you do get a bit of that, but then Agent Brand swoops in with a S.W.O.R.D. ship, teleports them all aboard and heads off for Ord’s home planet, Breakworld. Oh and it was all Cassandra Nova’s fault that Emma went bad for a minute there.

Everything comes to a head in the final volume Unstoppable as the X-Men travel through space to face the Breakworld. We learned in the first volume that this race of warriors wants to destroy Earth because they believe a mutant (Colossus) will kill them all. Agent Brand wants to put a stop to the conflict between the two worlds and things move along from there with one character making not quite the ultimate sacrifice in the end, but close to it. I’ll get into spoilers later, but there’s an aspect of that ending I really enjoy and an aspect that falls flat for me.

So, what did I think of the run overall? I liked it, but don’t think it’s spectacular. The overarching elements don’t do a whole lot for me, but I did really enjoy the character stuff. Peter and Kitty’s relationship is fascinating to watch. Kitty’s distrust of Emma was easily relatable for me. Cyclops’ leadership realizations. Wolverine’s over-the-top teaching methods. These were all great, but at the end of the day, I just didn’t care about the big bads of this book. Sure, it sucked to be Danger, but it was super easy to call her weakness. Ord seemed like a real threat, but turned out to be kind of a joke. And the reveal of the whole prophecy thing was less “HOLY CRAP!” and more, “Oh, okay.” I liked what he did with Emma, but the end of that arc seemed really abrupt. I wonder if the lateness of the book and or scheduling problems had something to do with what felt to me like a rushed conclusion to the third story.

Speaking of conclusions, let’s dub this paragraph SPOILERY. The end of the whole series finds Kitty Pryde stuck in a giant bullet heading towards Earth. She’s somehow bonded with the projectile’s structure and can’t get out. But, she’s able to use her powers to phase the whole thing through the Earth, saving the day. But, she’s stuck in there, just traveling through space for the foreseeable future. This was a very nice emotional moment, but the very nature of this kind of story kind of undercuts it for me. I’ve become a bit jaded regarding Big Two Superhero Comics, but even when this final issue came out the first thing I thought was, “They’ll probably get her out a few months from now.” Had this been a creator owned comic or one of Whedon’s TV shows, that ending would have a lot more weight to it because it would mean more in the long run.

astonishing x-men vol 4 unstoppable

Overall, though, I’d recommend checking out Astonishing X-Men if you’re one of the few people who haven’t already. It’s got a lot of that Whedon charm that comes through in snappy dialog, but also presents itself in such a way that makes it easily accessible. My wife read the first two or three trades years back and didn’t seem to have any problems understanding what was going on. I probably had to explain the Legacy Virus and maybe Cassandra Nova to her, but otherwise it’s pretty accessible. And, even though I didn’t fawn over it, this is a really solid superhero story that utilizes humor, action and these characters’ shared history in a way that makes this uniquely an X-Men story. Sometimes you read books like this and they feel like they could be about anyone, especially if the writer has a very specific kind of voice that comes through. But in this case, this doesn’t feel like a Buffy story wearing X-Men costumes, it’s an X-Men story through and through which is probably why Whedon assimilated so many X-fans into his army of fans (assuming they weren’t already on board).

To My Astonishment

10:16:13 pm

Wow, I was going through my posts and found this one that never went live for some reason. I think I wrote it originally back in August, but it could have been even further back than that. Enjoy!

I realize it’s been a while since I did an actual comic review. I’ve been reading mostly newer stuff lately and trying to catch up on more recent books that I missed, but I did grab all four Astonishing X-Men trades from the library the other day after. I had read the first three and part of the fourth, but wasn’t really seeing what all the fuss was about and got pretty displeased with the incredible lateness of the book, so I stopped reading. And while I did like the series a little bit more the second time around, I’m still not blown away like everyone else.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Whedon crafted a good story and I like Cassaday’s art enough. But neither one of those excuse the lateness of the book. I know it doesn’t matter now that the whole thing is out in trade (and probably an omnibus at some point), but it still bugs me when creators make a splash with a book, get fans excited and then keep you waiting for four years to finish a 25 issues story. It’s the kind of book I would have dropped if I was buying it and didn’t get to read them for free at work.

Okay, aside from that, I did have a bit of a hard time not seeing shades of Buffy in every issue of the book. Em and I just finished watching the series again (look for something Buffy-related coming soon) right before I started re-reading the first trade. Sure these characters stand on their own and maybe Cassaday even took some of his cues from the show (the way he draws Beast with his glasses, instantly makes me think of Giles). But, after the first few pages of the first issue, all that kind of fell away. I still saw elements of his Buffy characters in the X-Men, but it’s obviously not a direct lift or transference. Even though certain bits of dialog brought me right back to Buffy episodes. It could also be argued that the Buffy characters were influenced by the X-Men. Who’s to say?

Also, I do have to say that I’m not much of an X-Men fan. As my faithful reader(s) know(s), I was a DC kid growing up, so my experience with the X-Men were the occasional grocery store comics I’d pick up and the cartoon (and reading Wizard back in the day). Because of this, I find their history nearly incomprehensible at times. That being said, I think this is probably the most accessible X-Men book I’ve ever checked out. Whedon and Cassaday both boil the characters down to their basic natures, both in content and appearance, so that you can figure out what they’re all about in just a few panels. I even handed it to Em after the first two trades were out and she loved it, though I did have to hear her continually ask about the next trade for like two years. She has also re-read them and, with the exception of a few questions about the Legacy Virus and Cassandra Nova, didn’t have any trouble with the plot.

I also appreciate the whole “let’s make the X-Men a real life superhero team” idea that gets a bit lost in the middle of the series, but then comes back later on. One of the many things that has bothered me about the Marvel Universe is how bigoted the general citizens can be toward mutants and not towards the Avengers. How do they know that Cap isn’t a mutant? Come on, get over it already. And for his part, Whedon tried to get people over it, by getting the “feared and hated by those they’ve sworn to protect” bit out of the way after the first arc. Kudos for that. And double extra kudos for leaving guns all over the different issues and firing them off in the end (most specifically, the big giant weird sentient Genosha-killing Sentinel). And super kudos for putting some genuinely funny moments in the book. The scene with Kitty falling thrown the floor into the TV room while her and Pete…celebrated his return, made me actually laugh out loud (yes, that an LLOL, a literal LOL).

I also appreciate how Whedon adds to the mythology without muddying up the already cloudy world of the X-Men and the Marvel U in general. You’ve got Danger, the Breakworld, Agent Brand, S.W.O.R.D. and maybe Armor? I’m not sure if Morrison invented her in his New X-Men or not, but Whedon obviously took a shine to her and gave Wolverine another Kitty Pryde/Jubilee girl partner to pal around with when X-23 gets to be too much of a psychopath.

All in all, like I said above, I think this is a good X-Men story. It almost reads like “All-Star X-Men” because it basically glosses over everything that happened in the Marvel U in the four years it took to tell the story. There’s no mention of the Decimation and only one line about Civil War. Now, I’m not one to say that these big events MUST interfere with a big-time writer’s story, but it would at least make sense to get a mention of the 198 or something. And, I’m sorry to say, but I don’t see what the big deal about Cassaday’s art. My friend Rickey Purdin has promised to sit down with me and go through the trades to try and change my mind, so we shall see. And really, I’m only disappointed in that because I think Whedon could have done some really fun things with those events AND I think the Marvel U and the X-books could have benefited from a more timely involvement.

We (Comic Book Detective Matt Powell and King of the Internet Jim Gibbons) were all talking about this book at lunch the other day and came up with the idea that it would be cool if Whedon “executive produced” X-Men the way he does TV or the Buffy comic, writing the important stuff, letting other writers flesh things out and approving everything that gets done. We all felt that, given a more regular shipping schedule, Whedon’s run would feel a lot fuller and more well-rounded like our favorite seasons of Buffy.