Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Astonishingly Good

Astonishing X-Men, Vol. 1: Gifted Astonishing X-Men, Vol. 1: Gifted by Joss Whedon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grant Morrison did an ambitious run on New X-Men, but that story had to be walked back in the interests of continuing it in on-going mainstream superhero comics. Marvel made a wise choice when they tapped Joss Whedon, lord of the TV geeks back then, to help get the X-Men out of the black leather and back into spandex. (It’s reasonable to assume that his work here was a big reason that he’d later get the gig writing and directing the Avengers movies.)

Kitty Pryde returns to the school as Cyclops is forming a new team with the goal to promote the mutant cause by putting a flashy group out in public that would be more like the better known superheroes than a bunch of underground militant activists. Hence, the return of the tights. No sooner does the line-up get set than they get word that a scientists has created a so-called cure to the mutant gene that causes a variety of ethical debates as well as fear of what that could do in the wrong hands. This happens just as a new alien villain called Ord starts causing trouble. Oh, and a character comes back from the grave because nobody stays dead in comic books.

I admit that even though I’m a huge fan of Whedon that I had a few reservations about this when I first read it about ten years ago. I grumbled about the return to a more baseline version after Morrison’s mind-bending run seemed to offer new and bold directions, and I really disliked yet another instance of a dead X-Man pulling a Lazarus.

However, my inner comic fanboy doesn’t rage quite as hard against that particular machine these days. I’ve come to accept that continuity can provide a useful foundation, but that it too often becomes a crushing weight that overwhelms stories so I tend to think of each particular era as a self-contained bubble of a story. Once I accepted that I was a much happier comic book fan overall.

So in my head canon Morrison’s run is one version of the X-Men, Whedon’s is another, and Whedon’s run is pretty great. The look and tone of the X-Men movies had infiltrated the comics to some degree, but now a decade’s worth of superhero films has shown us that you can make them colorful and fun after all. (At least they can be if they’re not directed by Zach Snyder.) So putting a team back in bright costumes and having them fight a genocidal alien makes me think that Whedon was a bit ahead of the curve on this idea of letting comic books be comic books. At the same time the storyline of the mutant cure puts the social issues of bigotry and tolerance that the X-titles represent front and center, too.

There’s also great dramatic tension among this team with Wolverine pissed off at Cyclops for taking up with Emma Frost so soon after Jean Grey’s latest death. Kitty doesn’t trust Emma because she doesn’t buy the reformed villain act. Emma thinks everyone but her is a na├»ve idiot. Beast is conflicted about the idea of a cure and a chance to be fully human again which infuriates Wolverine who believes that no X-Man should reject their status as mutant. All of this is dealt with in both physical and verbal fights, and of course the Whedon dialogue laces all of this with plenty of humor.

Overall, this a really solid comic with a serious storyline that doesn’t forget the fun factor.

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