Monday, May 9, 2016

Comic Review: Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon

It took me a while to figure out where to start. I've read a metric shite-load of comics over the past ~2 years and what I decided to do was simply review the one I've read the most recently.

Thanks to some financial struggles and ultimately caving in to the realization that as much as I love physical copies of books and comics, I just couldn't pass up on the opportunity to read the (almost) entire backlog of Marvel comics for the same price as a Spotify subscription (also completely worth it by the way; seriously, just get it, if for no other reason than to avoid those repetitive commercials by that God-awful chick with the nasally voice), I decided to read this run based on some rave reviews by a number of online X-fans.

x-men, comics

Some spoilers (but not a lot) ahead… but it’s like 10 years old, so, c'mon.

A little background on the series: Joss Whedon, writer of many-a-favorite tv series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the apparent second-coming-of-Christ-for-nerds-in-tv-form series: Firefly, wrote the series over the course of approximately 4 years. Now, keep in mind that most Marvel comics issues release monthly and there are 24 issues (and 1 special conclusion issue) in this run... doesn't add up. Well, Whedon took his sweet time on the story, but thank God for it because it fucking shows.

Holy hell, I've read a lot of X-Men and this is easily one of the top runs ever created.

As far as the plot is concerned, the run is broken into 4 story arcs. The first and probably most well-known is the story of the cure for the mutant gene, a plot that has been done many times since, as well as touched on before, but never with quite the punch as is done here. This arc, which influenced the plot of the 3rd X-Men movie is an excellent intro to Whedon's status quo. Cyclops, Emma Frost, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Beast, and Colossus make up our A-Team. The following 3 arcs cover the AI embodiment of the Danger Room, the return of the Hellfire Club, and the battle of the Breakworld which concludes the series-long sub-plot of S.H.I.E.LD.'s companion/foil organization: S.W.O.R.D. and a prophecy involving the destruction of an alien race.

All of the stories are above average in their own right. The second story arc less-so, but they ultimately all succeed in entertaining and kicking some serious ass! What really makes the stories told here stand out though, is Whedon’s ability to plant seemingly unimportant seeds that end up growing into major plot points later in the series. For example, a strange and seemingly simple throwaway of a scene that takes place early on in the Danger Room is called on issues later in a much larger capacity. This ability to cohesively combine 4 separate, yet naturally progressive and integrated stories makes the series shine.

But where Whedon truly shows his capability as a writer, is in his characters.

Our core crew stands out as being some of the best written versions of themselves in the over 40 years of X-Men history. Tagging along in our awesome adventure is a wonderful assortment of fantastic side characters that are fully fleshed out such as Hisako "Armor" Ichiki, Ord the ugly-ass alien from the Breakworld, and Agent Abigail Brand of the aforementioned S.W.O.R.D. Together with our main crew of X-Men Whedon has crafted an ensemble of unbelievable characters that somehow manages to be extremely real at the same time. Whether it’s the interactions between our core crew members as they argue and struggle internally as a group, or when they’re interacting with the morally gray side characters that round out the cast, Whedon never trips over dialog. Every interaction seems real given the context and never feels dialed in. Of course it wouldn’t be Whedon if it wasn’t incredibly witty, and there’s plenty of that to go around, especially from Kitty.

And speaking of Kitty, holy hell. I never thought it could be possible, but she has become one of my all time favorite X-characters and it’s all thanks to Whedon’s run. Kitty, who has a history riddled with annoying personalities, questionable decision-making, and a moral compass that will make you yawn, has never been more fully fleshed out. While all of the characters shine in Whedon’s run, Kitty (and perhaps Emma to a lesser extent) is the breakout star. She’s tough, but it comes naturally and it never feels forced. She’s hilarious at times as well. Her relationship with Colossus is necessarily complex and well-executed. She’s also never seemed more like an adult. Now a teacher at the school (in the absence of half our original X-Cast including the professor) she’s not afraid of her sexuality, not afraid of sacrifice, and not afraid to make the tough decisions. Without giving away too much, let’s just say her development from the first issue to the last will leave you fully satisfied.

Emma likewise is facing a great deal of character development here. Her complicated past and relationship with Scott become major plot-points and it was awesome to watch her character evolve into someone truly sympathetic by the end. Scott himself has a similar development if not a bit more been-there-done-that in execution, (Jean’s gone again. We get it, they’re soul-mates.)

Beast is always a difficult character to assess, and rightfully so. He has become such a reviled character over the years that recent issues of X-Men have gone out of the way to bring attention to how much Beast is a fuck-up. Again, in Whedon’s capable hands, we see a completely sympathetic side to Beast as he struggles with his “devolution” as a mutant that is slowly becoming more beast than man – which does occasionally lead to some hilarious situations involving Beast’s capacity to behave like a cat.

The perks of bein' small.
Colossus, one of my favorite X-Men absolutely shines as well. He completely steals every fight scene he’s in, and his signature move with Wolverine becomes an awesome running gag throughout the run.

Really though, what sets Whedon apart from other X-writers is his ability to perfectly juggle great plot, fantastic characterization, dramatic and humorous tone, great pacing, and respect for the source material (the return to old-school uniforms is much appreciated). Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon is truly a masterpiece that should not be skipped by X-Fans and comics fans alike.

Before I close out, I’ve gotta give credit to the artist, John Cassady. At first I wasn’t so sure about the largely realism-styled art after having finished a lot of Ultimate X-Men and its more comic-booky art, but it ended up really suiting the series well, especially when it came to expressing character emotions in a way that seemed more realistic than a lot of more over-the-top depictions. Cassady also apparently has a mastery on the human figure, particularly muscles, because whenever I see his interpretation of Colossus, I am instantly rendered forever small. If this doesn't get your ass back to the gym, I don't know what will.
Looking swole, Peter. Chest game on point!

All in all, fantastic stuff.

4.5/5 stars

Now go read it.

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