Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Astonishing X-Men, Book 2

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 astonishing book 2

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.

astonishing breakworld“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).

astonishing cyclops

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.

giant-size-astonishing-x-men-poster

 

 

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – House of M

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: Brian Michael Bendis House of M cover

Artists: Olivier Coipel

Issues: House of M #1-8

While Avengers Disassembled may have kicked off the current era of massive crossover events that continue to dominate Marvel comics ten years later, I think it was House of M that really solidified the months-long event series as a viable and popular story-telling device.

House of M centers around the fallout following Avengers Disassembled – the Scarlet Witch had gone a bit insane and several Avengers had lost their lives in the battle with her reality-shifting powers. In the very first issue we get a fun crossover as the X-Men visit the Avengers to basically decide what to do with her. Wanda Maximoff is currently being guarded and treated by Professor Xavier, Magneto and Dr. Strange in the ruins of Genosha (as detailed in the final two issues of Excalibur – read my Final Thoughts), but they’re unable to help her.

There’s a neat scene where some of the most popular heroes in the Marvel Universe get to argue about whether to ‘take care of’ Wanda; some are horrified at the concept (Captain America) while others are more than ready to do what’s necessary (Wolverine: “How many more of you need to die?”). When our heroes arrive on Genosha, however, something strange happens as Wanda’s powers reach a height we’ve never seen before – she reshapes the entire world to give them all their hearts’ desires.

A new reality is created where the previously persecuted mutants are now the dominant species on the planet, and a benevolent Magneto is the supreme ruler. Mutants openly walk (and fly) the streets with all manner of powers, abilities and unique appearances and the world is littered with House of Magnus propaganda – referring to Magneto and his family.

house of m avengers

The second issue gives us a fun look at this strange new world and where our heroes fit. Dazzler is a talk show host, Captain America is just an old man (never frozen), Kitty Pryde is a teacher, Gambit is a petty thief, Falcon is a detective, Dr. Strange is a psychologist. Wasp and Beast (sans fur) are scientists working for Tony Stark, while S.H.I.E.L.D. is Magneto’s (and thus the world’s) personal police force – with sentinels! It’s a super fun alternate reality glimpse.

Writer Brian Michael Bendis writes the majority of the story from Wolverine’s perspective. Since his heart’s desire is to regain his memories, Scarlet Witch accidentally started the chain reaction that would eventually bring about the downfall of her fantasy world. Logan wakes up in bed with Mystique – both operatives of the new S.H.I.E.L.D., and seemingly the only person that knows that this world isn’t right.

The story then follows Wolverine’s mission to seek out the others and make them see the truth, which is greatly accelerated thanks to the introduction of a young teenage girl that also knows the truth, Layla Miller. Her powers, from what I understand, are a specialized telepathy that allows her to reveal the true memories to everyone.

Once Wolverine meets up with the Resistance (mostly comprised of non-mutants, or as this world derogatorily calls them, Sapiens, such as Luke Cage and Hawkeye) they quickly move to a montage of visiting all their former allies, like the happily married Emma Frost and Cyclops, and a Spider-man that’s enjoying life with the not-dead Gwen Stacy and Uncle Ben. It was these moments that were the most intriguing, as for many of our heroes that have faced innumerable hardships in their life to suddenly have their perfect fantasy world revealed as a lie is heartbreaking (Spider-Man’s is especially brutal – he has a son in this world).

Since I read the months-long event in a matter of days things seemed to move very quickly to me, as Wolverine and company gather more allies and find a way to strike at Scarlet Witch by directly attacking the House of Magneto at a summit meeting. It definitely paints our heroes as the bad guys in terms of launching an assault at a peaceful political meeting (with other global leaders like Black Panther, Storm and Dr. Doom).

However, Bendis goes out of his way to show that this world is far from perfect. Tensions between mutants and sapiens are as strained as ever, and now a terrorist group called The Sapien League strikes out at the mutant population. It’s an interesting and satisfying concept that even if the roles between mutants and humans were reversed the result is still the same: hatred, fear and death.

Eventually our heroes mount a massively awesome attack against Magneto and company, and Dr. Strange discovers the truth. While previously Wolverine had blamed Magneto for using Scarlet Witch to create this world (seeing as he’s the new head honcho), Strange finds out that it was actually his son and brother to Wanda, Pietro (Quicksilver) that convinced Wanda to reshape reality to avoid being imprisoned or executed.

house of m magnetoMagento is furious when he learns this and goes on one of the more satisfying rampages I’ve seen. The combination of dialogue, art and lettering meshes together into an amazing climax as Magneto turns on his son. When Quicksilver falls, Scarlet Witch, who was finally convinced that her toddler children are nothing but figments of her imagination (made sort-of real by her powers), cradles him in her arms on the cover of the 7th issue. At the end she utters three of the most powerful (and now legendary) words the Marvel Universe has ever heard: No More Mutants.

The final issue sets up the future of the universe as things revert back to normal – only not quite. The Scarlet Witch obliterated the mutant gene from most of the world’s population, reducing the number of mutants from millions to less than 200 (most of our main heroes and villains are still powered, of course). This ended up creating a huge shift and world state change in every Marvel book, but especially all the X-Men series, and helps make House of M one of the more beloved and interesting events to happen in the last two decades.

I’d been hyped up to read House of M ever since I began this grand Marvel comics catch-up, and can satisfyingly report that it more than lived up to it. The alternate reality world is incredibly fun and interesting, Wolverine plays an awesome starring role, and the final climax and fallout are some of the greatest scenes I’ve read in any comic. It helps that I’m a huge X-Men fan and this series directly affects their future for years to come, especially in the months following (known as Decimation).

house of m no more mutants

Bonus: I read a few House of M tie-ins, and though not enough to write a full Final Thoughts for each I’d like to mention them here (I did mention Cable & Deadpool’s tie-in issues in my Cable & Deadpool Book 1 Final Thoughts).

Issue #10 of Captain America takes place right in the middle of the Winter Soldier arc (Final Thoughts here), and is a super boring, fairly pointless issue about what old man Steve Rogers is doing while Wolverine and friends are gathering allies. It was poignant I suppose, but ultimately awkward as Cap has absolutely nothing to do and no role to fill in the House of M world.

Wolverine #33-35 acts as a minor backstory to Logan’s character and situation in the House of M world, though it’s a little strange as his story in House of M begins with him waking up and realizing the truth. The three issue arc centers on Logan’s past joining up with S.H.I.E.L.D., being trained by Nick Fury and having a relationship with fellow agent Mystique. The story is just okay and unfortunately barely takes any advantage of the unique setting. Not terrible but easily forgettable.

I read the five issue Mutopia X without realizing it stemmed from another ongoing Marvel series, District X (which I need to check out since I adore Bishop). Now this series very much took advantage of the unique world state of mutant domination, and it was super interesting seeing the world’s politics and people from the common man’s viewpoint, human police detective Ismael Ortega and his new partner Lucas Bishop. Izzy is married to a mutant and has mutant children, and the implications create some great dynamics and dramatic moments. It all ended a bit confusingly however, as I was unaware it tied into a larger series at the time. Still a fun tie-in and probably the best one I read.

 

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Astonishing X-Men, Book 1

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!

Astonishing_X-Men_Vol_3_1Writer: Joss Whedon

Artist: John Cassaday

Issues: Astonishing X-Men #1-12

Ironically the last time I tried to get back into comics was right when Marvel was splitting the X-Men up into three separate, ongoing series and teams (2004). I was in the middle of college at the time and the desire proved fleeting. Skip ahead ten years and I find myself right back in the same place, only with a much stronger desire and the right frame of mind and lifestyle.

I knew I wanted to first jump in with X-Men as they’re my favorite of Marvel’s creations, thanks in large part to the superb animated series that ran for an incredible five seasons in the early 90s.

I’d read really good things about Astonishing X-Men. Written by nerd-famous (now mainstream famous) Joss Whedon, it focuses on the X team that still hangs around Xavier’s school while the others go have zany adventures.

The Astonishing team is made up of Cyclops, Emma Frost, Beast, Kitty Pryde (and Lockheed), Wolverine, and later, Colossus. Whedon very much likes to focus on the relationships between his characters, namely Kitty and Piotr’s budding young love and Cyke and Emma’s complicated but lusty romantic entanglement.

Book 1 is the TPB containing the first two major six-issue story arcs (originally released in TPB form as Vol 1 and 2). The first, “Gifted,” deals with a weird prophecy about the destruction of an alien planet by an X-Man, and the resulting battle with a not-so-friendly alien ambassador that wishes to preemptively stop it. The bigger plot point is that Colossus is brought back from the dead in a completely inexplicable way (seemingly captive in a research lab the whole time). I never cared much for Piotr Rasputin, and only vaguely heard of his death in comics years before.

However, Whedon is damn good with leading women roles and presents the story (and series in general) from Kitty’s point of view. Newly returning to the Xavier Institute, Kitty’s phasing powers are a fun way to solve many issues, and it’s refreshing that she uses it in a myriad of ways, from rescuing people from a burning people to discovering the holding cell deep underground where Colossus was held.

Overall the first story is super meh and the alien villain Ord is lame, but Whedon does a fun job of sprinkling in future story and character arcs (like Agent Brand of SWORD) as well as introducing recurring students. It’s easy to forget that one of the X-Men’s primary roles is to provide a safe haven for young mutants, and here we get to meet Armor, Blindfold, Wing and the triplets. Armor and Blindfold particularly get to play crucial roles in future storylines.

Astonishing-X-Men-Dangerous

The second story arc, “Danger,” is much more interesting – the famous X-Men training room, the Danger Room, reveals its sentience and it’s none to happy to have been cooped up for so long. Violence is all it knows and it soon unleashes hell on the students and the team, culminating in an epic battle where she (it eventually forms into a feminine robot) flies to the destroyed remains of Genosha in an attempt to kill Professor Xavier (who’s currently involved in the Excalibur story line, see my Final Thought soon). At one point Xavier goes all Terminator and rams into her with an 18 wheeler. It’s pretty awesome.

Kitty gets to save the day by phasing into the wild sentinel that Danger summons and overall it’s an exciting and much improved story. Emma teases some underlying sinister plan to set up the next story arc, we get to see everyone fight a pretty awesome new villain and Whedon grounds everything with a vulnerable yet resolute Kitty at the helm. I honestly never cared much for Shadowcat before but Astonishing has instantly made her one of my favorite X-Men.

Unfortunately one of my all time favorite X-Men is not given such a great treatment. You can tell Whedon is just not a big fan of Wolverine as he’s mostly used as random comic relief, both in combat and with the students. It works well enough most of the time but very little is given to his character. The same could be said of Beast. I still can’t stand his new cat-like appearance (thanks to a secondary mutation) and he’s also given little to do. The spotlight is very much centered on Kitty, Cyclops and Emma.

Overall I was happy with these 12 issues, though I vastly preferred the second story arc to the first. As a jumping-on point I respect that they didn’t feel the need to break down the last few years of craziness the X-Men weathered under Grant Morrison’s run, and the smaller cast gave us much bigger insight into our heroes while being able to introduce new ones. I enjoyed it enough to pick up Volume 2, which concludes Whedon’s run with another 12 issues – look for my Final Thoughts soon!

astonish them