Monday, November 10, 2008

Astonishing X-Men: #1-12

I would seem to be the target audience for Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. I love Joss’s work, I loved Claremont’s X-Men, and I loved Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. But, I don’t quite feel the love for Whedon’s own X-Men stories. Having read half the run now, it hasn’t totally gelled for me yet. It’s definitely well put together, but it lacks the crazy improvisatory feel that both Claremont and Morrison’s work had, and I feel is kind of essential to making a great X-Men comic.

Astonishing is a decidedly prestige comic, a much more cohesive package than Morrison’s messy run on the title. John Cassaday was given time to draw every issue, no Igor Kordey fill-ins here. In the early going of NXM, the jump from Quitely to Kordey really hurt the title. It was a schizophrenic read, where the story had to work in spite of the art. Here, the art is totally consistent, but even reading it in the trade, you kind of feel the impact of those delays. Morrison’s X-Men felt like the X-title, he defined the world and made it feel like a whole bunch of other stuff was happening, but his book was the only one that mattered. Whedon’s X-Men has a similarly sealed off feel from the rest of the line, but in this case, it makes it feel a bit like an Elseworlds, a piece of fan fiction he wrote as a tribute to both Morrison and Claremont.

A large part of my problem with the book comes from the fact that I consider Morrison’s ending salvos on the title to be a pretty definitive conclusion to X-Men. I don’t think any stories really need to be told about these characters post Here Comes Tomorrow. Obviously they’re going to be told, but I’d have been more interested to see Whedon tackle a different batch of characters than the ones Morrison was dealing with. The stuff with Kitty and Piotr works better than the Cyclops/Emma Frost for me because Whedon’s able to put more of a stamp on them and go into new territory. But, in general, it’s hard for me to read what’s essentially a sequel to Morrison’s run when Planet X and HCT were the perfect pop avant garde wrap up for years of X-stories.

In that respect, the toughest issues for me to read were the first couple. There, Whedon presents the idea that the X-Men should present themselves as superheroes again instead of the stylish emergency rescue team of the Morrison run. This means getting new costumes that just don’t work for me. I love a lot of Cassaday’s art here, but when he’s drawing the team in costume, they just look weird. Cyclops’s outfit is the biggest offender, it’s like he’s wearing a giant condom, and after the ultra-stylish Quitely outfits, it’s hard to go back to Wolverine wearing a blue and yellow spandex jump suit. I much prefer the Morrison outfits, but I suppose these outfits are part of the thematic missive that the X-Men should present themselves more as a superhero team.

To this end, there’s an attempt to integrate them into the larger Marvel Universe as a whole. I always prefer the X-Men when they’re sealed off in a world without other superheroes or space travelers. Generally speaking, most sci-fi works have one central conceit that defines their world, in Terminator, you can buy that robots come back from the future, but it would stretch credibility if Sarah Connor all of a sudden could fly. Similarly, I like the idea that the one conceit of X-Men is that mutants exist, throwing in other superheroes and aliens like Ord just takes it further and further away from the reality based storytelling that I think serves the title best. My favorite eras of Claremont’s run were Paul Smith and the Mutant Massacre to Fall of the Mutants, when the book was grounded in something closer to reality. As such, Ord doesn’t really work for me as an X-Men villain, he doesn’t say anything interesting about the characters, he’s just sort of there.

To enjoy the book, I had to get past the fact that it wasn’t trying to do the same thing that Morrison did. Morrison’s goal was to take the best aspects of Claremont, jettison the rest and explode the book into the 21st century. Now, you could argue that he failed in his mission and by the end had reverted to simply replaying the same X-Men vs. Magneto conflict that had been going since X-Men #1. But, I think the ragtag bunch of X-Men left behind at the end of that storyline was decidedly different than what we’re used to from the title.

Morrison riffed on the archetypal X-Men stories through the lens of his personal thematic concerns, and I suppose that’s what Whedon does as well. Kitty Pryde is in many ways the template for all of Whedon’s strong, but neurotic female protagonists. She’s a remarkable character, so vastly different from most female comic book characters, who are statuesque goddesses, and Whedon makes her the star of his run to date.

In general, the character stuff works really well. I like the way he writes Scott and Emma, though the endless teasing about Emma possibly working with the Hellfire Club doesn’t bode well. Also, I have issues with his more aggressive Wolverine. I prefer the zen warrior Morrison wrote, and even though a gag like Logan’s “I like beer” thought caption is really funny, it diminishes the layers that both Claremont and Morrison wrote into the character. But, Scott and Kitty work really well and function as a strong emotional center for the story.

Most of my issues come from the plotting. I like the idea of the mutant cure, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, which leaves us with Ord and Danger, two really weak villains. The beauty of Claremont’s run at its best was the fact that there weren’t really any villains, just a whole bunch of moral ambiguity. Danger and Ord are very one note villains, they have motivations, but they’re not interesting in any way. The Danger arc in particular is nonsensical, and falls prey to the same logical absurdities that any evil computer story, outside of HAL, has. Shouldn’t Whedon have learned his lesson with “I Robot, You Jane.”

So, I’ve got a lot of conflicted feelings on the book. It’s objectively better than the vast majority of X-Men books, but I got more of a charge reading the early part of Mike Carey’s run than I did reading this. I suppose it’s expectations, there I was surprised by just how much I liked Bachalo’s art and the character stuff Carey was doing. Here, I’m getting what I paid for. It’s good, but there’s no real surprises. But, perhaps the rest of the run will treat me better.

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