Thanks to Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.
Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Writer: Joss Whedon
Artist: John Cassaday
Issues: Astonishing X-Men #13-24, Giant Size Astonishing X-Men #1
I hadn’t delved too deeply into the first collection of Astonishing X-Men before I knew I had to pick up Book 2. Joss Whedon’s 24-issue run (which equals about two and a half years) is a monument to comic story telling, and every plot thread and detail that was woven in throughout the earlier issues comes to an epic climax in the incredible final seven issue arc (including the Giant Size Issue).
Like Book 1, Book 2 is compromised of 12 issues of two major storylines. The first, “Torn,” reveals the secrets and hidden motivations behind Emma Frost, a former villain and somewhat new addition to the X-Men team in the last few years. Whedon has done an incredible job making her both powerful, confident and fearful while also having a healthy dose of vulnerability and weakness. In short, she’s a fascinating character and “Torn” deals with what happens when she goes a little crazy and psychologically attacks the others at the mansion.
At first we’re lead to believe that it’s a sudden and inexplicable revival of the Hellfire Club, Emma’s old villainous organization, and all its telepathic-powered villains wreck havoc on our heroes. This new club is lead by Cassandra Nova (Xavier’s powerful long-lost twin sister and destroyer of Genosha), who begins by devolving Beast and Wolverine – “A man that believed himself a beast, and a beast that believed himself a man.”
A feral Beast attacking other students and ripping through doorways makes for some exciting moments, though I was less enthused about Wolverine being mentally melted into a 19th century boy. I mentioned in Book 1’s Final Thoughts that it was clear Whedon wasn’t a big fan of Wolverine, and that was never more pronounced than here as the comic relief character is stretched to some annoyingly goofy levels.
Kitty Pryde is also attacked mentally, and made to believe that it’s years in the future and her and Peter have had a baby, and that the baby is inside this special container (which contains the husk of Cassandra Nova or some weird thing). Pete is attacked physically by Sebastian Shaw while Cyclops gets the worst of everyone and is severely anguished by Emma herself as she reveals his weaknesses and doubts in being a leader.
Eventually Cyclops wakes up from mental coma stripped of his mutant powers and shoots all the Hellfire Club members, and we realize they were all figments of Emma, as a part of Nova’s essence lives on in her to whisper dark things. Toward the end of all these battles our previous villains from the last two story arcs, the alien Ord and sentient robot Danger, sense the vulnerability in the team and show up to attack the X-Men, and the story ends with everyone being beamed up onto a spaceship run by Agent Brand of S.W.O.R.D., another new Whedon-created character.
“Torn” was a fun look at how easily our team can be psychologically torn apart, and how dangerously powerful Emma Frost can be, but the real meat and reward of all of Whedon’s layering comes in “Unstoppable,” which picks up right when everyone is dumped on Brand’s feet as she whisks them towards Breakworld, the dystopian alien planet that Colossus is destined to destroy.
“Unstoppable” has everything: love, death, hatred, betrayal, sacrifice and lots of kick-ass action. Our team is quickly split up and given different tasks on the hostile planet. Brand and Beast develop a fun repartee as they uncover the mysterious prophecy, Emma flaunts her confident manipulation with Danger, Cyclops really comes into his own as a leader capable of making the touch decisions, and Armor and Wolverine kill lots of aliens. Kitty and Peter provide much of the pathos in their loving relationship that barely finds time to flourish, and though I still find Colossus to be a boring boy scout, Kitty is phenomenally written (and drawn) and her phasing powers are used in inventive and interesting ways, including the epic climax.
It’s a classic comic book villain tale – The powerlord of Breakworld, Kruun, has a massive planet-size missile aimed at Earth, and only our heroes can stop it. Through some fun deceptions and plans they defeat and capture Kruun, only to learn that the missile can’t be stopped – it’s really just a giant bullet being fired through space.
In Giant Size Astonishing X-Men (which contains the actual finale to the story), Kitty has phased through the bullet right when it’s fired, and we get lots of fun cameos of other super heroes as they attempt to band together to stop it from destroying Earth, including Spider-Man, Storm, Dr. Strange, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four. The bullet is protected by some kind of nebulous magic, so each hero things they actually save the day when it fact they’re just standing there drooling on a space station.
The bullet hits Earth, but not before Kitty has a great bit of telepathic dialogue with Emma Frost and saves everyone by phasing the massive bullet through Earth. Shadowcat can’t phase out, so she continues to rocket through space, effectively sacrificing herself to save the entire planet.
Whedon definitely plays into the Go Big or Go Home concept in his finale, and I found the entire Breakworld storyline to be satisfying in all the right ways. It’s especially fantastic how well he built up to it by introducing characters and plot details super early, like Agent Brand, Danger, Ord and the Breakworld. It’s like a TV show that brings everything together after several seasons.
Whedon is especially adapt at writing women. Emma and Kitty are far and away the best characters on Astonishing; they’re given the most time to develop, and we get their inner thoughts, desires and motivations. While their relationships with the men in their lives are important elements, they do not wholly define them as in too many women ‘on-screen.’ Kitty particularly is Whedon’s main protagonist as the series ultimately begins and ends with her, and her sacrifice puts an emotional cap on everything he’d built up for her.
The new minor characters are also interesting, though they never outshine our main team. Armor (Hisako Ichiki) is the only new student to really shine at Xavier’s school, and her mutant powers and bravery help earn her a ticket to Breakworld (and Wolverine’s respect as a protege). I was pleased to find that she does indeed become a full-fledged X-Men though I’m not sure if she ever truly breaks out of being a minor character.
Agent Brand is another character that’s introduced early but doesn’t come into her own until the final arc. Her reveal as an alien and relationship with Beast is fun and I wanted to know more about this toughened space-savvy woman who never let her guard down (and really loved the color green).
These Final Thoughts are running long but special mention should be given to John Cassaday’s artwork. I admit I wasn’t fully on board with the first few issues but over time the emphasis on close-ups and style of each character grew on me. I still wasn’t totally satisfied as I thought Cyke looked far too boyish, Logan too dopey and all the men in general had horrible hair. The women all looked amazing however, and dare I say sexy without being exploitative. The facial close-ups and smoldering eyes sold sexiness and power better than any cleavage or midriff exposing outfit.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows with Whedon’s run, however. Most notably aggravating was the almost complete lack of continuity with other series and the Marvel universe in general. There’s absolutely zero mention of House of M (read my Final Thoughts), which is, uh, kind of important to mutants. In the wake of Decimation (read my Final Thoughts) Xavier’s mansion is surrounded by Sentinels and a refugee camp for mutants is established right outside, which Whedon never acknowledges.
It’s bizarre for someone like me that’s reading several series at once and I imagine even more jarring at the time, to where many have speculated that Whedon’s X-Men team may exist in an alternate dimension. More likely was the fact that Whedon was outspokenly against crossovers and events and was notoriously late on delivering his work. I’m not saying every series has to constantly involve other events and goings-on, but when so much is happening right at Xavier’s school at the time it creates a major disconnect.
A lack of crossover or continuity acknowledgement becomes a minor quibble when the main story and characters are so fantastic. The insane (astonishing?) length of these Final Thoughts are a testament to how much I enjoyed this series as a whole, and the second half especially. I fully plan on adding my voice to the chorus of fans that whole-heartedly recommend the Whedon-penned Astonishing X-Men run as not only a great place to start with X-Men, but a wonderful introduction into how enjoyable comics can be.