Astonishing X-Men Vol. 1: Gifted
Do you harbor some fondness for the X-Men? Maybe you say the movies and want to know more. Maybe you were a fan of the cartoon or the arcade and Genesis era video games. Perhaps when you were young you read some of Chris Claremont’s X-Men, but have not read the comic for a long time. (If you were a fan of the Liefeld era X-Men then I have nothing for you because Futurama’s suicide booth has not been invented.) If any of these describes you, then you may enjoy Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men. These 24 odd comic issue, or as I read them four trade paperbacks, are as good as the X-Men has ever been. In fact, with on possible exception its better than the X-Men has ever been. That exception is Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, which is not Morrison’s best work, but is still great at least some of the time. The X-Men have had a rough existence, getting great creators that turn in sub-par work: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, Warren Ellis, etc. With the X-franchises long lasting popularity and ineptitude, it is not too hard to be the best X-book. I know may people are wondering what my problem with Claremont is as he is the most well known X-Men writer. My problem with Claremont is two-fold. First he over writes the crap out of everything. His work is filled with text telling the reader what they are seeing, as though the pictures weren’t there. It is unnecessary and infuriating. That aside, he does a great job with plot and characterization; he just needs to cut out all the extra crap. The second problem is the fact that he wrote the book for so long. This would not be a negative, except his quality on the book was not consistent and he seemed to have really lost the plot. I’m sure there is s specific part of Claremont’s X-Men that is great, (Claremont & Byrne?) but it has been so long since I read them that they blend into a kind of unappealing glob. However, this is a review of Astonishing X-Men so that is a topic for a later time.
This volume starts with the X-Men, this team composed of Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast, Emma Frost and Kitty Pryde, deciding to turn the X-Men back to being superheroes, something they have not been in a long time. They are also dealing with the fallout of the end of Morrison’s run. In other words, Jean Grey is dead, again. On their first mission as superheroes, they encounter new villain Ord from the Breakworld. At the same time, a cure for the mutant gene is presented. Whedon also introduces two new mutant students: Armor and Wing, whose names explain what they do pretty well. The X-Men proceed to investigate this supposed cure and find out its connections to Ord. That is really all the plot to be found in these six issues. There are more things that happen, but I do not intend to spoil the whole thing.
What this particular book lacks in action it more than makes up for in characterization. If you are familiar with Whedon’s other work, Buffy, Firefly and Serenity to name some, then his quirks of dialogue are familiar. I personally enjoy his dialogue, but it does give a distinct stamp to his work. Whedon does really get the characters. Cyclops is repressed and efficient, Wolverine is surly and feral, Beast is erudite and witty, Frost is a bitch and Kitty is … there. Kitty Pryde, though I am a fan of her character, is usually a problem. Most writers seem to love Kitty. Claremont gave her all sorts of abilities, like computer skills and ninja powers, Ellis had her creepily date his self-insertion character. Whedon does not do anything like that; he plays her as the normal one and the point of view for his X-Men story. His characters hit all the notes they are supposed to and the interaction between the teammates is spot on. Wolverine is somewhat adversarial with everyone and Kitty and Emma Frost do not get along. While some moments seem like character regression, like Wolverine picking a fight with Cyclops, the emotions at the time are suitable explanation for the fight. The interaction between the teammates gets at least as much attention as the plot, and are definitely more successful. Not that Whedon’s storyline is bad; it’s just slow moving. Though it is slow building, he does tell some great X-Men stories.
Whedon uses the good history of the X-Men, Claremont’s and Morrison’s work, and fuses it into a remix of the X-men’s greatest hits. While it does a lot of relieving the past, Astonishing X-Men does not just repeat old stories. In this volume, he combines two classic types of X-Men story, the treat to all mutant kind and the outer space story, but he uses new antagonists instead of reusing old ones. So, while it feels like classic X-Men, it is still doing something new. The revelations that the team uncover in their investigation of the mutant cure and their new alien enemy make for an enjoyable story and a great start to this run. I have not yet mentioned Cassaday’s art. It is near perfect. He really gives each character a distinctive look and makes the fights scene’s look nice. He also does some great work with facial expressions. All in all the art is impressive.
In the end, Astonishing X-Men, vol. 1 is as good as you remember the X-Men being, even though they were never as good as you remember them being. Between Cassaday’s excellent art and Whedon’s deft characterizations, this is a remarkably good read. The plotting is somewhat unimpressive, but that is a small complaint when every other part of the book is so good. One last great thing about Astonishing X-Men is that it requires no knowledge of the X-Men. Everything you need to know is in the story. There are bits that are better if you know the history, but they are hardly essential. This is as continuity free as an X-Men book gets. If you like the X-Men, then this is a book you must read, as it is the start of the best X-Men story.