Sunday, February 06, 2005

Astonishing X-Men

Last week I read the first trade paperback of Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men series. Joss is the guy who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a brilliant series, and one that took a good chunk of inspiration from Chris Claremont's X-Men comics of the 1970s. Claremont basically created the X-Men we know today, creating the characters of Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Psylocke and Emma Frost, among countless others. He wrote the classic Dark Phoenix saga storyline, as well as many other riveting tales, which were pioneering in their blending of superhero and soap opera characteristics. Without Claremont, we would have no Buffy.

On Buffy, Joss took the basic principles of classic Claremont, and ended up doing them much better than Chris ever did. The Dark Willow storyline of season six was clearly a reference to the Dark Phoenix saga storyline that Claremont did. But, Joss is a much better writer than Claremont ever was, and Buffy is a stronger, more cohesive work.

Anyway, a few years back, Grant Morrison, one of about three people who I admire more than Joss Whedon, took over writing chores on X-Men, and in the 'Morrison Manifesto' which outlined the goals of his run, he cited a desire to bring the successful storytelling practices of Buffy to the X-Men. His run was brilliant, the greatest X-Men run ever, and one of Morrison's best comics. It combined the huge ideas that Morrison usually brings to his work, with a level of emotional involvement and character intrigue that you don't usually see. The triangle with Scott/Emma/Jean was masterfully worked out over the course of the run, and there were a lot of other great twists, most notably one involving Xorn. It had huge themes, huge events and some really great art.

So, the circle of inspiration continues as Joss picks up where Morrison left off. I really like what he did with the characters post Morrison, there's no attempt to reboot or ignore, it feels lik the same people that Morrison wrote about. However, he approaches things from a different direction. The basic mcguffin of Joss' story is that there is a cure for mutants available, and the X-Men have to investigate it.

I really like the first couple issues of his run, particularly what he does with Emma. She was my favorite character in Morrison and her bristly relationship with Kitty makes for some great moments. Similarly, the dynamic with her and Cyclops is really interesting. I feel like Grant was a huge Emma fan, and saw her as the hero of his piece, whereas Joss is putting her in more of a rogue role, and we're not sure where she stands. The work with Beast was great as well.

The last couple of issues get a bit bogged down in plot and action. It's a testament to Joss' writing that an action scene seems like a waste of time, I'd rather have him playing the characters off each other, but the action does forward the plot, and set up some intriuging stuff to come.

One of the best features of the book was John Cassaday's art. If possible, it's even better than his work on Planetary, almost photorealistic, and beautifully colored. This art is perfect for Joss' story, in the same way that Frank Quitely was perfect for Grant's.

I'm kind of annoyed that the book spent so much time bringing back Colossus. I guess we only see the beginning of that story here, but I don't feel that much of a connection to the character, as opposed to the characters who have had great arcs set up by Morrison. There's definitely potential, and I can see why he did it, but reading just this book, that seems to take time away from other more interesting stuff that's going on.

When I saw Joss in person, I asked him why he was bringing back the X-Men costumes, rather than going with the Frank Quite suits from Grant's run, which I think were great, really practical and very cool looking, much better than both the traditional spandex, and the movie's dour black leather. He told me that Marvel had instructed him to bring back the costumes, and he does it in a way that feels true to the characters. It's not just something that happens, an issue is made of it, and it's clearly an example of Cyclops trying to reach back to a more stable time in his past.

Frank Quitely vs. John Cassaday

In a lot of ways that sums up the difference between the two runs. Morrison was clearly interested in creating 'New' X-Men, it wasn't just the title of his book, his goal was to completely revolutionize a storytelling meme that had dominated since the 1970s. He shook things up by making the school actually a school, rather than just a base for superheroes, and by developing stories with the students. Perhaps more than anyone, I really miss Beak and the special class, I'd have loved to see what happened to them after the Magneto business. We get to see some students, and even a return of the Cuckoos, but that was a really interesting avenue to explore.

As Cyclops says, Joss does not want to make 'rescue ops' the goal, he wants the X-Men to be superheroes, and the suits reflect that. Joss is basically doing Claremont, just much better than Claremont even did, whereas Grant had Claremont going, but was also bringing in new ideas. I feel like the more limited nature of Joss' run means he needs to focus a bit more than Grant did. Grant was at times all over the place with his plotting, and there were some loose ends that weren't really needed (like the Imperial storyline). Joss writes a much more efficient story, but that means losing some of the extraneous points that were really intersting in Grant's run.

So, I'm looking forward to the next trade. I'm really glad Joss chose to pick up the characters and arcs of Morrison's run, this is like the sequel to that, it's directed by someone else, but it's still got the same characters you're really interested in.

Related Posts
X-Men 94-138 (9/17/2005)
X-Men: The Claremont Run: Wrapping it Up (3/14/2006)

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