Monday, June 25, 2012

Comic Review: Astonishing X-Men Volume 1 & 2

    I read comics very briefly as a young lad, and I was never into the spandex heroes.  Heck, I didn’t even care for the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and I wasn’t all that enamored of Tim Burton’s take on Batman.  Just not my bag.  In junior high, when a friend convinced me to try X-Men all my fears and prejudices were confirmed.  Chris Claremont’s ‘writing’ was so shockingly appalling that even my young brain was disgusted.  They were starting the story over at #1, right?  So you can just jump in, right?  Wrong.  Page 1, issue 1 and there’s still 30 years of back story being referenced, a gigantic cast of characters you’re supposed to know, and long running storylines you’re supposed to keep track of.  All that sucked.  But what really sucked was the dialog.  Comics are a visual medium, so unless you’re Stan Lee and it’s the 60s, there’s really no excuse for dialog bubbles explaining in detail everything happening in the panel.  And when there are two characters talking to each other, they don’t need to use each other’s name in every bubble.  When I talk to my co-Dork Brad, it doesn’t sound like this: “Brad, I need you to get me some chips right now, Brad.”  “Matt, I’m not getting you any chips today, Matt.”  “Brad, now I am punching you in the face, Brad.”  “Matt, your punches are like those of Kitty Pride, another mutant that was once part of our team but is now not part of our team and living in Canada, Matt.”  Seriously.  Worst.  Writing.  Ever.  And it convinced me that comics weren’t my thing, a belief I held for well over a decade.

    When I did finally get into comics, I still avoided the bigger titles from Marvel and DC and X-Men didn’t even enter into the equation.  While I enjoyed the X-Men movies (except Wolverine: Origins…yeesh!), my memory was still haunted by the craptastic comics I’d read all those years ago.  So, when I recently decided to join a newly birthed graphic novel book club, and Astonishing X-Men was chosen as the first book, I experienced a momentary twinge of trepidation.  But, hey, I was riding the high of having just seen The Avengers, and hitting up Free Comic Book Day.  I was feeling no pain, geek style.  And Joss Whedon, for all his faults, is a real writer who earned the title; he didn’t just get it out of a Crackerjack box (Claremont!!!). 

    Right from the start you’ve got to know that this isn’t some kind of re-launch or reboot.  The story starts after a lot of stuff that I don’t know jack squat about has just gone down, and the characters are all recovering and licking their wounds in the fragile peace.  I know a few of the characters, either through the movies or from things I’ve gleaned over the years.  Kitty Pride can move through solid objects.  I knew that from some old comic book covers.  Emma Frost was bad, but she’s good now.  That seems to be big in these long running comics.  Good guys who go bad, and bad guys who go good.  And of course, they all go back and forth over the years.  And of course, Wolverine and Professor X and a few others, I know from the movies and various dork conversations over the decades.  The nice thing about this story is that it usually gives you enough background on past events that you get a gist of what happened, without feeling like it’s bashing you over the head with exposition or flashback.

    There’s a lot of Whedon in the dialog, so it’s still stylized and slightly unnatural.  But it’s not stilted and Whedon doesn’t feel the need to expressly describe every event in caption or word bubble.  That alone makes this 100 times better than the issues I suffered through almost 25 years ago.  Beast and Kitty Pride (Shdowcat?) are easily my favorite characters here.  I still just don’t like Wolverine.  He seems too ‘13 year old boy’ to me, like Venom or Lobo.  Characters engineered to be ‘awesome’ to a young kid dealing with puberty and parents who don’t ‘get’ him.  Scott (Cyclopes) is still a douche.  He’s a character that always seems to have the short end, because he’s shoehorned into the leadership position, and he’s clearly got that stick wedged up his ass.  But of course, he’s not good with people, so he’s usually right but nobody wants to listen.  Ugh.  That kind of dramatic tension gets old FAST.  But nearly 50 years later, X-Men hasn’t hung it up.  And something that I guess is very popular among the long time fans, but has always annoyed the crap out of me is the seemingly obligatory fights between team members.  Wolverine and Cyclopes, then Wolverine and Beast battle it out for little reason, without advancing the plot.  It feels like the stuff they gave that creepy name in anime fanboy circles (panty shots, cat girl costumes, and similar sketchy crap): “fan service.”  *Shudder*  That term is enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. 

    John Cassady’s art is quite nice.  And Laura Martin’s coloring.  There’s nothing amazing; no image that stands out after reading the volume.  But it’s solid all the way through.  Not at all manga looking, which is so nice to get away from in modern comics.  Also, not the four-color, muscles on muscles, super-distorted perspective, everything exploding all the time look that was so big in the late 80s and early 90s.

    Did this comic woo me into being an X-Men fan.  Not hardly.  I still don’t care for them.  Too much teen angst and frankly, they don’t make a lot of sense in the larger Marvel universe.  Why, in a world where the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, and so many other strange, monstrous, and marvelous characters exist, would people give two craps about mutants?  Sure, disconnects of this sort do exist.  I mean, we live in a world where mass slaughter happens, where we’re about 3 billion people past the sustainability point, where our atmosphere is starting to go into a crazy spiral that will reshape biological life for thousands of years, and where people with political power are actually trying to engineer a Biblically based apocalypse (no joke, read up on it), yet many people think that a guy marrying a guy is something we need to be seriously concerned with.  So, this kind of perspective skewing isn’t unheard of, but with X-Men, it seems out of hand.  A big chunk of what X-Men is about is the fear and hatred the masses feel for them…but why?  Sure, they give reasons, but those reasons don’t ring true.  What I think it comes down to is, ‘we need the crowd to hate our heroes, so that’s how they’re written,’ which I think is bad writing.  I know, it lets them do all kinds of moral analogy tales, be it racism, gender bias, or what have you.  And, if the X-Men existed in their own world, where all those other over the top crazy Marvel characters didn’t exist, I think it could really work.  But they don’t, and it doesn’t.  However, that’s a conceptual issue I blame on the powers that be at Marvel, and while they effect this volume, they are not caused by it.  As a comic, this is a pretty good read.  Not really my kind of thing, but good, none the less.  The book left me with a few questions about past X-Men events that I’m going to have to look into.  Like what’s the deal with this mutant paradise, Genosha?  And really, I know the basics of the Jean Grey story, but what’s up with her haunting like everything that ever happens around the X-Men?  Jean Grey is to the X-Men what World War II is to Captain America, it seems.

    The second volume picks up where the first wrapped, continuing the story of Emma Frost and her mysterious allegiance.  As well as pushing forward the whole Breakworld/Colossus plot.  This volume sees Whedon doing his darnedest to make Cyclopes less of a tool, and eventually, he kind of succeeds.  It feels like Whedon had become more confident and pushed more of his style of storytelling by this point.  The characters, especially the women, take on more of his usual female voice.  The quips have that certain something that lets you know who’s writing.

    The first half of the volume deals with some crazy psychic stuff about the Hellfire club and whatever.  Though it has a few cool moments, and there are a bunch of important bits of growth for characters, the actual plot never captured my interest.  I also think it had a lot of references I didn’t get.  The whole business with the green blob?  What was that all about?  I guess this story is rooted deeply in Emma Frost’s past, which I don’t know and honestly don’t care about.  And scared child Wolverine is even more annoying than regular Wolverine.

    In the second half, the crazy gets ramped up, as all the alien stuff that had been talked about and implied takes center stage.  A voyage to Breakworld becomes a mystery as the details of the overall plot are unraveled, with plenty of twists and turns.  The action is ramped up.  There are lots of changes in relationships, new allies, new romances, new enemies, and as it’s Whedon, you know not everyone is going to make it.  It’s never a matter of will he take someone out, it’s only a matter of who and when.  Working within the constraints of the Marvel Universe, there’s only so much he can do to change things.  But, unlike the exceptionally frustrating Planet Hulk arc, this one doesn’t just have a ‘reset’ button pressed in the final issue to take everything back to status quo.  By the end, things have changed, characters have come and gone.  I don’t know where they took the story after Whedon’s run, but it feels like he moved the setting forward a bit, at least. 

    There is also a lot less of the ‘everyone hates us mutants, even in a world where there are tons of other freaks of various sorts that they don’t seem to have that much problem with, for some reason’ whining in this volume.  Perhaps because it moves away from the ‘cure’ storyline to a more cosmic thing.  I guess it’s no surprise I preferred the last part of the story, what with my usual interest in the more cosmic type comics.  If the X-Men spent their time traveling to other worlds or battling aliens, I’d be a heck of a lot more interested than I am reading about a bunch of mopey teenagers and teachers sitting around a school in upstate New York, waiting for the next congressional subcommittee to outlaw them, or ban mutant/non-mutant marriage, or whatever current social allegory the writers wanted to focus on next.

Astonishing X-Men Volume 1
Author: Joss Whedon
Artist: John Cassady
Publisher: Marvel
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6194-3

Astonishing X-Men Volume 2
Author: Joss Whedon
Artist: John Cassady
Publisher: Marvel
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6195-0


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