Sunday, 28 July 2013

Astonishing X-Men

Long before Joss Whedon gave us the phenomenally successful Avengers movie he wrote for Marvel's other high profile team, the X-Men. It was a risk, for both him and Marvel. Despite the fact that he'd spent much of the previous decade showrunning juggernaut TV hits Buffy and Angel, as well as the decidedly less commercially successful Firefly, Whedon was an unknown quantity in comics.

There was no guarantee that his skills would transfer away from their televisual home. He was also brought in to follow on from Grant Morrison's run as the de facto lead writer of the X-Men, Astonishing replacing Morrison’s popular New X-Men. Whedon was and is a bigger name in the general media than Morrison, but Morrison's name meant more to comic book buyers and there was no guarantee Whedon's fan base would carry over with him.

The decision turned out to be a good one. Whedon’s experience with writing Buffy and Angel, both of which are ensemble pieces despite their misleading titles, meant he knew how to write a team book like X-Men. Under Whedon each character has a distinct voice and understandable motives. Wolverine, for example, is mostly depicted as liking a beer and being very comfortable with his reputation as an intimidating killer. Cyclops, on the other hand, is a boy scout with an inferiority complex. Both could run the risk of being unoriginal but Whedon’s spin ensures that’s not the case thanks to well-timed moments of humour and pathos.

Despite having big name characters like Wolverine, Cyclops and Emma Frost to play with it’s Kitty Pryde at the centre of much of the story. Whedon displays an almost Warren Ellis-level of obsession with the character (read anything featuring her written by Ellis to see what I mean by this). It’s annoying with Ellis because it comes off as fetishisation whereas Whedon seems more interested in doing something new with an established character and her power of phasing.

Whedon also devotes a lot of time, particularly in early issues, to Ord of the Breakworld. He’s an alien villain introduced as one of the central antagonists of the series. Anyone who’s watched Buffy (yes, another reference to that show, sorry) will recognise Ord as a Whedon villain: a big threatening villain who has an understandable motivation for his beef with the X team, who gets shown to be mildly inept after his impressive initial appearance. Whedon’s never afraid to send up his bad guys but he does so with love: Ord is far from a one note villain or a glorified gag.

All of Whedon’s screen output is known for its snappy dialogue. The knack carries over to comics well. If he found it a struggle to limit the amount of dialogue he could give his characters, because he’s limited by the size of the page, it doesn’t show. Everything flows very naturally and his trademark moments of humour are alive and well. He loves the funnies, does Joss.

Of course, John Cassaday’s artwork doesn’t hurt. His clean, crisp line work and instantly recognisable characters make reading the book a joy. Having an artist who’s just as good at action sequences as he is at quiet exposition scenes is of real benefit to a writer like Whedon. Had he been paired up with Ed McGuinness things would have been very different.

On the subject of exposition scenes it’s worth mentioning the use of the danger room and the “thought space” of various psychic characters. Sometimes these are used for sight gags (Emma Frost enduring a particularly bumpy ride through space in a tea room, for example) while other times they’re used to add some colour to what would otherwise be bland infodumping scenes. They’re nice touches.

Sadly all of the witty dialogue, great artwork and solid characterisation is let down by a somewhat disappointing story. Things start off well with a six issue plot detailing the development of a cure for the X gene and continue being enjoyable when the danger room becomes sentient and reveals its plan to kill the X-Men.

The third arc is where things begin to go wrong. At first we’re led to believe the Hellfire Club have returned. That’s revealed to be wrong halfway through volume three, the villain instead being revealed as Cassandra Nova, one of the main antagonists of Morrison’s New X-Men. The fourth and final arc falls apart almost completely, as the background plot from the previous issues takes centre stage and the X-Men head off into outer space alongside SWORD supremo Agent Brand for an intergalactic showdown on the Breakworld.

Personal taste is part of the reason for my dislike of the fourth and final arc: the Marvel universe has a large enough number of concepts as it is without introducing aliens too. This is not Whedon’s fault, aliens have long been a part of the Marvel Universe. It’s just that their inclusion tends to make me lose interest. My feeling is that if people want to write about aliens in comics they should simply set up a creator-owned piece somewhere. There’s plenty of material in Marvel with the various superheroes, fictional countries and the worldwide problem of the X gene. Aliens serve to muddy the waters and on some level just feel a bit lazy.

The final arc lets itself down in other areas too. New characters are introduced at a rapid pace, making it hard to keep track of the plot. And scenes featuring Marvel’s large cast of regulars all crammed into an X book feels a little too self-indulgent for my taste. It’s as though Whedon’s decided that as this may be his only time working for Marvel (he was wrong there) he wants to use everyone he possibly can. All the positives of the early issues remain, but they’re not as prominent as they were.

Whedon and Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men is a lovely looking piece of work that demonstrates everything you’d expect from both an X-Men book and something written by the man who brought you Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Reading this it’s clear he’s a fan of comics and Marvel in particular. If you can put up with a fudged ending it’s well worth a look. If you’re already a Whedon fan then you won’t even be bothered by the ending: you’ll enjoy the series regardless.

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