Monday, April 04, 2011

Review- Astonishing X-Men Omnibus

Astonishing X-Men Omnibus
By Joss Whedon, John Cassaday, and Laura Martin, et al.
Published by Marvel; $75 US
Collects Astonishing X-Men #s 1-24 and Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1

I tuned out of the X-people a long time ago. Since then I stopped reading comics, eventually revived my interest in them, and in the interim there was too much X-stuff to wrap my head around. Dozens of spin-off solo and team X-titles lived and died in the time it took me to leave comics and return. I felt like all my doorways back into the X-mythology were shut, and honestly I didn't care all that much. Sure, there was the tug of nostalgia. Some of my most potent comic book memories involve the Chris Claremont/John Romita, Jr. days right before "Mutant Massacre." But between the movies, the abundant monthlies and minis, and the cartoons; for me the X-men in general - and Wolverine in particular - were by that time the comic book version of that pop song you love the first time you hear it, and the second, and the third, and the five hundredth, but eventually it gets played every hour and you think next time you pass by someone who's humming it you're going to punch him in the throat.

The announcement that Joss Whedon was writing Astonishing X-Men didn't appeal to me at first. I didn't doubt his talent. Any list of my favorite TV programs will inevitably include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. However, at the time I was very pessimistic about comics. I didn't worry in spite of the potential of Joss Whedon steering the course of an X-book, but because of it. My expectations were guided by my own version of Murphy's Law stating not only that if it can go wrong it will, but that the better it sounded the worse it would be.

As it turned out, while my pessimism about presidents, corporations, and George Lucas sequels may never err; Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men proved me wrong. It is easily one of the most satisfying mainstream superhero titles I've read, and certainly the best X-book I've cracked open.

Whedon creates a single story of many parts, hitting all the notes for a great X-Men yarn. His first storyline is a clever variation on the usual mutant persecution story: a so-called cure for the Mutant gene is developed. The rest of the series sees an old X-Men "character" rendered the perfect adversary, an assault by a newly formed Hellfire Club, the return of Cassandra Nova, and an intergalactic war over the survival of Earth.

Whedon's humor is perfect. It is recognizable and uniquely Whedon, but he doesn't get in his own way. The humor serves the story and not the other way around. There are comic book writers who give comic relief far too much prominence - sometimes even letting it steer the plot - and often I've suspected that Joss Whedon is precisely who these writers are trying to ape. I think, other than my general cynicism at the time, this is the reason I was concerned about Whedon writing Astonishing X-Men. I let my impressions of writers trying to channel Whedon color my opinions of Whedon himself, but ultimately the book was just too good to deny.

It's clear that Kitty is the character with whom Whedon feels the most comfortable. Her relative absence in recent years gives Whedon the freedom to subject her to the same problems as always. It's clear that she feels unsure of herself though now her doubt comes from time, distance, and trauma rather than youth and inexperience. Rather than telling a you-can-never-go-home-again story with Kitty, Whedon tells a you-can-only-go-home-again story with her and sometimes he goes too far in turning back time. One example that stands out is in the first issue when Kitty sheepishly tells the team "Okay, I officially really, really don't know why I'm here. I'm not a fighter, not like you guys." Any longtime follower of the X-Men would raise an eyebrow considering all that Kitty went through with the X-Men and Excalibur. To reference Whedon's other work, sometimes it feels like Whedon's Kitty is too much Dawn and not enough Buffy.

On the other hand, when the Buffy does come out of her, it's a sight to see. Kitty proves far more capable than ever, often providing the coup de grĂ¢ce - or something close to it - for the bad guys. A scene featuring a thorough ass-whooping of Emma Frost by Kitty in the penultimate storyline is beautifully rendered by Cassaday, demonstrates some cool and creative uses of Kitty's powers, and it shows a powerful and confident Kitty Pryde the likes of which we never saw back when she sported that blue gypsy outfit and played doctor with Doug Ramsey.

Anyone who only knows the X-Men through the movies, or whose memory of comics from younger days has been tainted by Singer's films, would do well to read Astonishing X-Men if for no other reason than to experience a refreshingly interesting look at Scott Summers. While I enjoyed Singer's adaptations, there were things about his "Meet Wolverine and Wolverine's Sidekicks" approach I didn't like and the dismissive handling of Scott Summers's character was one of them. Whedon gives us a Cyclops much easier to relate to. He's less stoic but his doubts in himself and his clinging obsession with Jean Grey are never far behind. A sequence involving an enemy telepath invading Scott's mind and taking a tour of his past is one of the most emotionally affecting of the book.

Whedon took a perfectly balanced, no BS approach with Wolverine; particularly impressive considering other than Firefly's Jayne Cobb, I can't think of many sympathetic characters like Wolverine that Whedon has written. Whedon's Logan isn't at all dumbed-down, but he also isn't the focus. Whedon has a lot of fun with him, including a telepathic assault that convinces Logan he's actually a small English child for three issues.

There were only two things I didn't like when it came to Whedon's handling of specific characters. The first is a relatively minor complaint. I didn't like Whedon's Machiavellian treatment of Professor X, mainly because I'm tired of the Professor-X-is-actually-a-bastard device and I hoped we would get something more. The second complaint is something I hate enough that I have no qualms about spoiling it - the revelation that Kitty's pet dragon Lockheed is a spy for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s intergalactic counterpart, S.W.O.R.D. It isn't just that it darkens the memory of a beloved, if minor, character; there really is no reason for it. Lockheed's treachery, and the manner-of-fact way it's revealed, does absolutely nothing for the story.

One of the most monumental events in the series is the return of Colossus. Peter Rasputin was believed killed when he sacrificed himself for the mutant-killing illness, the Legacy Virus. There were apparently some criticisms of Whedon's explanation. As to how Colossus could be alive when his body was incinerated and his ashes scattered, Whedon states simply that his body was switched with another. Perhaps the criticisms were valid. I don't know. I tuned out of the X-books long before Colossus was snuffed. All I know for sure is that Peter's return is the most elegantly handled superhero-resurrection I've read in a comic, and so it's difficult for me to care about any continuity blunders or sloppy explanations. Frankly at this point in mainstream superhero books, I think we've reached and gone whizzing past the point where it even matters if a writer bothers to explain a dead hero's return.

John Cassaday and Laura Martin give Astonishing X-Men breathtakingly awesome visuals. Cassaday pencils every issue of the story and every cover (with the exception of some variants), and the book overall has a slick and stylish feel to it. There is a crispness to Cassaday's work and Laura Martin's vibrant colors that almost leave you surprised you're looking at static images. Cassaday maintains a wonderful balance between more realistic subjects and superhero action. When you flip through Astonishing X-Men, it's easy to find yourself wishing Cassaday and Martin worked on every superhero title.

Marvel did well making sure neither Whedon, Cassaday, or Martin went anywhere for this run; not so much as taking a break for a single fill-in. It renders Astonishing X-Men more fitting for Omnibus treatment than some other books. In terms of both story and art it feels more like one long story rather than four TPB-length ones.

Astonishing X-Men Omnibus carries a significant price tag (I was lucky and picked it up new at a con for about $40) but if you love comics, the X-Men, and superheroes it's more than worth it.

1 comment:

Gary M. Miller said...

Mick, your review is spot-on, and I must say I love the Whedon/Cassaday run. I was lucky enough to have talked to them and Laura Martin at San Diego '04 just after the third issue of the series was released. I was fourth in line at Marvel's section of the Activision booth--this was back when they had a limited con presence--and John Cassaday was there, Laura Martin was sliding in...and then, Joss sat down. Right in front of me. And then the line suddenly filled and capped! What a of the three times I've met Joss, second time for John and Laura. Heaven.

I digress.

I may have the two hardcovers instead of the Omnibus, but this is fantastic storytelling at every level. True, I have some of the same gripes you do, but bottom line--this series made the X-Men fun again for me for the first time since I read the original Claremont/Byrne issues (when they were reprinted in CLASSIC X-MEN in the late 80s). The antagonism between Emma Frost and Kitty was delicious, and the return of Colossus? Thrilling. Highly, highly recommended.