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).

Planetary Trade Post

Much like 100 Bullets, I got into Planetary, but then stopped because there was too much going on and I wanted to keep track. Oh, there was also the intense lateness of the book by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday that ran from 1999-2009 and only 27 issues came out. I read the first two or three trades while at Wizard, dug the book, but once I realized how slow the book was in coming out and knowing my poor recall, I figured I’d wait for the trades. That was probably five years ago? Not sure. Anyway, I just got the fourth trade and finished Bullets, so I figured it would be a good time to revisit and finish the series.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, Planetary is an organization looking to uncover the secrets of a version of the Wildstorm Universe. I say a version because there’s no way to make sense of this book in the context of the ongoing Wildstorm U as it was. There were only a few random references here and there anyway, though the Bleed did go on to play a major part in the Wildstorm and then the DC Universes. Our heroes Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner and The Drummer work for Planetary and each have super powers to help them on their mission (temperature control, super everything and the ability to read information, respectively). As it turns out, this world is filled with several characters from literary history like Sherlock Holmes as well as analogs for characters like Lone Ranger, Green Hornet and a slew of modern superheroes like Superman, Green Lantern and most importantly the Fantastic Four.

I’m not really sure where to go from here because I’ve got very mixed feelings about this series. I’m not sure if the wait was worth it, not that that really matters for trades, but I still experienced all that as a regular comic book reader. Also, while I really grew to like the three main characters, especially Elijah, but a lot of time is spent on analogs for or versions of existing characters. Part of me wants to say that some of the issues were fun at the time, but wound up not really having much of an impact on the story itself. Another part of me realizes that a lot of these whole issues spent on one thing or the other did actually serve as both interesting one-off stories and building blocks for the series as a whole. The Hong Kong ghost issue? Fun AND served a purposed. The one about people shooting themselves into space in a ball? I don’t think so. Like I said, I still have some resentment for how late this book was and I’m comparing it to 100 Bullets which was such a well crafted and thought out book, that pretty much everything else will pale in comparison to it.

But, like I said, I really liked the characters, two of the three of whom didn’t come off as one-note. Jakita loves to punch things, which is a nice balance to Snow’s machinations and Drums’ craziness. The thing about Snow that surprised me, though, was how good he actually turned out to be. I had him pegged as one of these “I’ll sacrifice anything to get my way” guys, but he actually has a lot of loyalty to his people and truly wants to make the world a better place. The Drummer also really came into his own in the last few issues of the series where his loyalty for Elijah was explained and he took a much more active role in their mission.

I’ve also got a bit of a problem with Ellis as a writer. He often comes off as the guy who likes to write comics about superheroes showing how dumb superheroes can be. But, I’m not sure if any of that is actually in this book or if I’m overlaying my prejudices on it. Were the Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern-esque characters removed so easily because they’re dumb or because that’s what would happen in this world? Was that bit about the funeral for a John Constantine type character who turned into Ellis’ Spider Jerusalem for no apparent reason honest or tongue in cheek? It’s almost impossible to tell anymore. But, I did like that moment where the out-of-nowhere superhero complains about being turned into a complete mess by the man representing Vertigo.

At the end of the day, I think there’s enough here for me to dig into at least down the line for a second complete read through. I haven’t talked about Cassaday’s art, but I think it’s pretty good. I don’t fall over backwards like a lot of people for him, but I think he’s solid and does great facial expressions. Again, I can’t help but look at some of the pages and wonder what took so long, but I don’t know why the book was late and I really shouldn’t care anymore, but it bugs me. There are some beautiful compositions by him in this book, I’m especially fond of the shift ship and its inhabitants which actually looked shiny and bright on the page. So, yes, I’ll keep these books for now to read another day. I’ll leave it up to Future TJ to figure out if he wants to keep them on his shelf for the long haul.

Steve Rogers Trade Post: Secret Avengers Volume 1 & Fallen Son

Secret Avengers Volume 1: Mission To Mars (Marvel)
Written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Mike Deodato, Will Conrad, David Aja, Michael Lark & Stefano Gaudiano
Collects Secret Avengers #1-5

After getting a good deal on the second volume of Secret Avengers from Thwipster, I was pretty excited to check out the first volume. So, right after finishing, I went on Sequential Swap and set up a trade for the book. When it came in the mail on Saturday, I read it pretty much immediately. This is basically the perfect team book for Ed Brubaker to write because it’s perfectly set in his wheelhouse. Not only does it star Steve Rogers, the character he revolutionized over in the excellent Captain America, but it’s all about the black ops side of the Marvel Universe and includes characters that fit in that world either obviously like Moon Knight, Sharon Jones, Black Widow and Ant-Man (the most recent one) in ways that make a lot of sense even if you didn’t think about it like Beast, War Machine, Valkyrie and Nova. The idea is for the team to be more pro-active, a buzz concept in comics that always sounds good on paper, but doesn’t always deliver because, how do you stop crime before it happens?

So, with that team and that idea in mind, Brubaker kicks the first adventure off with a trip to Mars! It’s the kind of story that might not seem he’s suited for, but it still deals with evil corporations, brainwashed henchmen, a secret organization and heroes fighting other brainwashed heroes. Here’s the actual story: Roxxon has a mining operation on Mars, but all the workers disappeared and Rogers thinks something’s up. He sends his space guy–Nova–to check it out and he finds a crown very similar to the Serpent Crown that instantly takes over Nova and results in the rest of the team–minus Sharon Jones who is back on earth getting ambushed–heading into space. It turns out that Roxxon made a deal with a Hydra-like organization called The Shadow Council to mine there, but they accidentally stumbled upon a prophecy or something that will lead to the end of the universe. So, it’s up to Commander Rogers (don’t think I’ll ever get used to that, not that I need to), Moon Knight, Valkyrie, Ant-Man, War Machine and Beast–all in pretty awesome looking space suits, by the way–to stop Nova and save the universe, which includes seeing Steve put on Nova’s helmet and get a Nova-based costume, which I dug. It sounds like a straight forward superhero story and it is, but it’s also got a lot of those awesome espionage flavored moments that signify a great Bru comic. That really gets focused on in the fifth issue that explains who the Nick Fury lookalike that’s working for the Shadow Council is. Really fun stuff.

I talked about Deodato’s art in the last post and I feel the same way with this earlier volume. I think he’s a great choice for this book if you want to get away from the Steve Epting style set up in Captain America, or the Michael Lark/David Aja look that is actually used in the fifth issue. He’s doing great on the big superhero stuff, but also–and this might be thanks to the inking or coloring–things look shadowy, which fits the theme of the book perfectly. At first it was a little distracting, but once I started thinking that way, I was in it all the way. It’s not noir by any means, but shadows are impotant for a black ops team.

Fallen Son: The Dead Of Captain America (Marvel)
Written by Jeph Loeb, drawn by John Cassaday, David Finch, Ed McGuinness, John Romita Jr. & Leinil Francis Yu
Collects Fallen Son: Wolverine, Avengers, Captain America, Spider-Man & Iron Man

I am a very big fan of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America. If you’re into espionage super hero comics, I don’t think you can find a better one than that. I was disappointed when Steve Rogers got killed off a few years back, but, I mean, it’s comics, so you know he’s going to come back, it’s just a matter of when and how. Plus, Bru did an excellent job making me care about Bucky Barnes just as much, so I was okay. But, when I heard that someone else was going to be writing a series of one-shots showing what Cap’s death meant to a variety of heroes in the Marvel U, I wasn’t super excited. I think I read the issues when they came out and I was working at Wizard, but didn’t remember much about them, so I was curious to see how they played out a few years later and with Steve Rogers back in the land of the living.

I gotta say, it’s a pretty melodramatic thing to read which feels somewhat unnecessary, especially considering the fact that Steve Rogers is back. I get the idea behind it, putting together one of the best selling writers in comics with a series of big time artists on the subject of the death of a popular characters. And, as a story, it’s interesting how the issues tie into one another (something I didn’t remember from the first read), and there are some cool moments and ideas like Hawkeye thinking about becoming the new Cap at Iron Man’s request and Spider-Man remembering how Cap helped him out, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t seem to carry any weight now. It also features at least one character issue actually saying “The death of Captain America,” out loud which just never sounds right.

However, if you are an art fan, this is a pretty fantastic book. I love Leinil Francis Yu, David Finch and Ed McGuinness and seeing them tackle a wide variety of characters is a lot of fun, especially since they’re one-shots and you don’t have to worry about them missing a future issue. I’m not the biggest John Romita Jr. or John Cassaday fan, but they turn it on full blast too.

KEEP OR DUMP? So, the big question every time I read a trade is: will I keep this book and I’m split on these two. I will definitely save both Secret Avengers trades because I think they’re great continuations of Brubaker’s run on Cap with a lot of fun other elements thrown in. On the other hand, cool art just isn’t enough to keep a book in my collection, with very few exceptions.

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.