Astonishing X-Men - "Gifted" (2004)
Astonishing X-Men (volume three) issues 1-6. Writer: Joss Whedon, Artist: John Cassaday, Colorist: Laura Martin. Published by Marvel Comics, 2004.
I've decided it's time to review the written word. Because I don't read the written word that isn't accompanied by pretty pictures, I decided that it meant it was time to review comic books. Let's see if this takes off.
Here's my X-Men background (the abridged version): been reading comics forever, mostly X-Men comics. Stopped collecting sometime around the turn of the century, have generally enjoyed the recent Marvel movies immensely, have been inspired to buy more old issues of comics but haven't gotten into the newer stuff. Thus, I'm about as familiar with 80s/90s X-Men as anyone you'll ever meet, but barely know anything about the past three years.
So what made me decide to pick up the new Astonishing X-Men? Two words: Joss Whedon. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is probably my all-time favourite TV show, with Angel right behind it. So when I learned, by chance, that Whedon would be writing the X-Men I'd followed for well over a decade, I decided it was worth a look. This isn't saying that Whedon brought me back into comics, because I've only thus far been convinced to buy Astonishing and Brian Michael Bendis' Secret War mini-series, just cause it looks cool. I have no real interest in checking out any of the other 200 X-Men titles. I'm here for the Whedon.
As a result, I can't tell how well Whedon has picked up from the previous writer of New X-Men (the title Astonishing picks up from) Grant Morrison, but apparently he's done it pretty well (I stopped reading right around the time Morrison took over, for a number of reasons, one of which was that I was tired of new writers coming in and changing everything that made the X-Men cool). I also can't tell you how well the books fit into the rest of the X-continuity.
I can tell you that these six issues were about as satisfying a comics experience I've ever had. Whedon absolutely NAILS the characters I've grown up with (three of which made my top five), bringing them back to where I remember them while making them refreshingly new. The key is his greatest asset as a writer, the ability to write dialogue. There are many portions of the series, non-fighting portions, that you want to re-read, and then re-read again, because of some witty (and completely in character) thing that Whedon had them say. And, as great as the dialogue is, some of the best moments of the series are when characters are struck speechless. This was always an underrated strength of the Buffy series as well, the quiet moments in between, and not an easy trick to pull off in a literary format (a combined literary and visual medium, to be sure, which illustrates a unique difference between comic books and actual books).
Credit for the amazing silences of the series goes to artist John Cassaday. Since I've been away, I was completely unfamiliar with his work. Apparently, he's built up a bit of a reputation in the comics community, and it's easy to see why. His stuff in this series is among the best comic art I've ever seen. His characterizations speak volumes. Particularly impressive is the fact that all the faces look different. Often, comic artists have only a few different head shapes or styles, then they change it up with different hairstyles or distinguishing characteristics (facial hair, tattoos, eye patch, etc). Cassaday proves not only to have a deft touch in the quieter moments, but also has enough heroic histronics in his bag to provide some splashy action shot pin-ups. His covers for the series have been particularly impressive. What I like best about his work is that it doesn't rely on a lot of gimmicky tricks like superstar artists of days past have (I'm looking at you, Todd McFarlane).
So the dialogue is spectacular, the art is phenomenal, how about the story? The thing that struck me about the first issue is that it was almost ALL characterization, with very little action. Usually number one issues of big launches are jam-packed with action, dealing with plot development and characterization later, often in retrospect. Instead, this series unfolds rather deliberately. But in a good way. The story and the characters are allowed to proceed at a natural pace, building the tension and intrigue that allows the one BIG surprise of the storyarc to feel like a BIG surprise. I'm not gonna get into it, but the surprise is a really good one, that was handled about as well as I can remember any similiar comic surprise ever being handled. It's already one of my favourite moments in X-Men history (hmmm... perhaps a Top Five for another day?).
However, the series never builds to a complete climax. At the end of issue five, I was left wondering how they were going to wrap up the arc in one more issue (assuming it was a regular size issue, which it is). Turns out, that they weren't really interested in wrapping up the arc. Instead of being a complete story of its own, "Gifted" reads more like a prelude to the real action (Whedon and Cassaday are slated to do 6 more issues) of the next arc, titled "Dangerous". The aim of the first six issues seemed to be to re-introduce the X-Men with their new purpose and old sensibilities, re-introduce Kitty Pryde as a regular member, have the BIG surprise, and to introduce the threat and situation that these Astonishing X-Men will be facing henceforth. Perhaps in the hands of others, it would feel disappointing, but Whedon and Cassaday provided such a wonderful reading experience that it only has me more excited for the next issues.
Since nothing momentous happens in these six issues, it can't rank as a Top Five X-Men storyline off all-time (another possible list for the future), but from these issues, it looks as though the next six should have no problem achieving that feat. I can't remember when I last enjoyed X-Men comics this much. Probably when I was reading Classic X-Men comics of Claremont and Byrne. For me, "Gifted" felt like a love letter to the long-time fans, bringing back most of the things that made X-Men the most popular title in the history of the industry, while at the same time bringing something new to the table. Whedon isn't trying to re-invent superhero comics as we know it, but rather is working within the parameters of a successful series. He understands why the X-Men work, have worked, and will continue to work, and sees no reason why he should mess with it, something other writers should have always known (I'm looking at you, Grant Morrison). Moreover, like he always did with Buffy, Whedon rewards long-time fans with good memories, tossing in little moments that harken back to the history of the book. Too many serial writers insult the memory of fans, thinking that if they don't mention it, we won't remember. That said, I think the book is an excellent start-up point for people with little familiarity with the characters, but are interested in what Joss Whedon has been up to.
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