Saturday, August 04, 2007

“Superpowers, a scintillating wit and the best body money can buy…” - Propaganda gets Astonished

Astonishing X-Men
Written by Joss Whedon, Art by John Cassaday

Volume 1: Gifted
Volume 2: Dangerous
Volume 3: Torn

Astonishing X-Men is the only X-Men book you really need to read on the shelves at the moment. It’s self contained, there’s no annoying crossovers, no guest stars and no filler. But the main reason it’s all you need to read is that it’s a fantastically written and drawn superhero comic that belongs with the very best in superhero history. And along with Grant Morrison’s X-Men it’s easily the best writing these characters have ever seen.

The title itself was created specifically for Joss Whedon and continued from the end of Morrison’s run on New X-Men. From the very first issue Whedon makes it quite obvious that he loves the characters and given his track record of producing intelligent genre based fiction with a well written cast of characters it should really come as no surprise. After all, the X-Men have always relied heavily on the concept of a family of characters and Whedon is the perfect choice to continue this tradition. His work on Buffy was similarly all about family, and we watched more for the snappy dialogue and interplay between the on screen family than the vampire hunting.

Whedon’s first story arc is all about re-establishing the X-Men as the superteam to “astonish” the world. Scott Summers (Cyclops) and Emma Frost (former villainess and Cyclop’s lover) re-establish a school for gifted mutants and re-form the team along with Wolverine, Beast and Kitty Pryde.

Kitty’s been specially invited along by Emma Frost and as we join the first volume, she’s late and has just phased through the wall into the first school assembly:

Kitty: Hi. It’s possible that I’m late.
Emma: Quite so. This, children, is Kitty Pryde, who apparently feels the need to make a grand
Kitty: I’m sorry; I was busy remembering to put on all my clothes.
Emma: So gushingly glad you could join us.

And that was the moment I realised this was going to be a very special series. The snappy dialogue on page after page left me smiling and intrigued to see where Whedon was going to take these characters. In fact, across all three volumes perhaps the main criticism I could level at the book is that Whedon seems to feel obligated to include some fight scenes and action. Personally I could cheerfully have read issue after issue of development, characterisation and conversation amongst the staff and students of the school. The first issue is almost all characterisation and dialogue, with very little action to get in the way of a great story.

One major plot element is the ongoing love story established by Grant Morrison between Cyclops and Emma Frost. At the end of Grant’s run Scott and Emma finally seemed to be able to move past the haunting spectre of Jean Grey, Scott’s former love, and were on the way to actually finding happiness. Whedon makes this relationship the central element of the series. That the relationship was far from normal doesn’t really matter

Of course, the relationship is far from normal, given the guilt Scott feels over the affair he and Emma may or may not have been having in the recent past (If you commit psychic adultery, is it really adultery or something less?). Not to mention the continued suggestion that Emma’s hold over Scott is something more sinister than love and desire:

Emma: “Of course, Kitty thinks I’m mentally controlling everything you say…..”
Scott: “……….. But you’re not, right?”
Emma: “You will never see me naked again.”

But Whedon leaves us in no doubt that despite all her flaws and chequered past Emma does truly love Scott, making his continued obsession with his dead lover Jean Grey (Phoenix) all the more painful. And even though she tries to mask her pain, it’s obvious to us as readers how deep the hurt goes:

“Superpowers, a scintillating wit and the best body money can buy……..
………. and I still rate below a corpse”

As Astonishing X-Men developed and it became clear that Whedon was going to be playing heavily on these themes it became an enthralling look at a painfully realistic love affair; mired in guilt, regret, repression and all the petty problems of real life. The ongoing storyline of Emma’s redemption and true motivations features heavily throughout the three volumes published so far and it was the thing that had me returning to the book in the hope that, just once, love may really win out.

I hope I’m not ruining anything for you by saying how ticked off I was in the latest volume to see Emma acting as a reluctant betrayer. Somehow the old romantic in me wanted Whedon to do slightly more than go the more obvious route. I wanted him to continue to chronicle one of the most interesting relationships I’ve read in superhero fiction.

However, it’s a minor quibble, and having only read up to issue 18 in the three available volumes; Gifted, Dangerous and Torn, I don’t know what Whedon has up his sleeve for the resolution to this love story of betrayal and deception. I’m looking forward to reading the next volume to find out.

John Cassaday’s artwork is a beautiful compliment to Whedon’s superb script. His art is practically sculpted, and as such tends to look static and posed. But far from being a problem, this style suits the story perfectly. The extensive dialogue, detailed characterisation and reluctance to resort to superhero cliché means that Cassaday’s static, clipped artwork is perfect. Each panel is a separate picture, a snapshot of the story, rather than a flowing narrative. None of this is meant as a criticism; the artwork is a perfect compliment to the perfect storyline.

Astonishing X-Men is a perfect example, along with Brubaker and Lark on Daredevil and Morrison and Quitely on All Star Superman (reviewed here), of how good superhero comics can be. We should be demanding this level of quality from all supertype books. This shouldn’t be the exception, this should be the rule.

Originally posted at the FPI weblog here.

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