Monday, April 26, 2010

Review - Astonishing X-Men

Astonishing X-Men
Written by Joss Whedon; Art by John Cassaday
2006 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series
2005, 2006 Eisner Winner for Best Penciler/Inker

The was once a time when I liked the X-Men quite a bit. Over time though the way the franchise became a bloated mess drove me away. The lack of anything vaguely resembling interesting stories helped keep me away. So a few years ago I was hearing from people like me that had become sick of the X-Men say that Grant Morrison had managed to make the series readable again. They were right; he did it by throwing out the accumulated baggage and bringing things back to the core themes. When Morrison left Marvel Comics thought they had the formula worked out to keep the re-energized franchise going and tried to catch lighting in a bottle for the second time by handing over their flagship franchise to Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. The result was something firmly average; not aggressively awful enough to be tossed aside but little more than a generic superhero comic.

In fact that is exactly how the run starts. There's a firm announcement that they've gotten away from that whole superhero thing and have to go back to it. And when I say announcement I don't mean that Whedon started out with them doing superhero things; they literally sit down and say, "We need to be superheroes again." And that sets down the themes for his stories. Lots of action, big threats, and high concepts that would look good on the movie screen. It's all shallow and without texture though.

The run opens with its high point. As the X-Men attempt to reform their image by acting as superheroes their cause is undermined by someone discovering what is in essence a cure for mutants. Since the reason for their existence is the promotion and protection of superpowered mutants this threatens to undermine their position and handling superpowers as a disease could change everything. And since this is a fairly complicated ethical issue in a comic that has announced its intention to be a superhero book again it turns out to be a plot by alien invaders, is resolved by punching some people a lot, and the complications that should have been created by a cure for mutants is quietly dropped.

After that first storyline it's all action all the time as they fight an evil computer, a mind controlling enemy, and aliens who to blow up the earth. These stories wind up being defined by who they fight rather than what the characters do. The one exception is in the mind control storyline where there are a few clever moments where some traditional characterization is subverted. It's not very clever but it is a step up from what is going on.

The characterization is a major part of my problem with Whedon's writing. He writes X-Men like he wrote Buffy (which is just like how he writes a lot of things when you get down to it). There's a lot of teen angst and romance which doesn't really fit with adult characters. You also have tough girls (I can't really call them women) including a new character who seems to exist solely to be the cute but tough new girl. If there's anything else to her I didn't see any evidence of it in the stories.

The absolute best thing about Astonishing X-Men is John Cassaday's art. He tends to draw well detailed figures but before simple backgrounds and consequently keeps the focus on the characters. This is a book that is dependent on the action sequences and Cassaday does a great job there in creating sequences that are easy to follow, well paced, and exciting to look at. This is a book that matches his talents and I enjoyed the visuals quite a bit.

I can't say I hated Whedon's writing on Astonishing X-Men. My feelings about it just don't rise to that level. Disappointed might be a better way to put it since there's nothing in the writing to distinguish it from any other superhero book on the shelf. Cassaday on the other hand did a stunning job with his artwork and for that reason I didn't mind reading it. I still wouldn't recommend it to anyone other that superhero fans and even there I'd say try a small sample of it first.