At some point in the not to distant future I will write about my complex relationship with X-Men comics and why despite loving the characters and certain stories I rarely buy them. But for now we have the next part of my journey with the Marvel Ultimate Graphic Novels Collection and the starting point of one of my favourite X-Men runs from my own personal Nerd Jesus, Joss Whedon.
My all time favourite X-Men run is Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and my second is Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men which is odd when you look at it because Astonishing is pretty much an anti-Morrison statement on the X-Men. Morrison’s time was all about expanding the horizons of the mutant race and the sheer number of them. It was all about defining mutant culture and looking at what would happen when Xavier’s dream was starting to be realised (The answer: explosions, genocide and huge setbacks on the road to peace). Joss Whedon immediately ditches all of that. The movie inspired leather look and costumes are gone. The X-Men swing back from being the vanguards of a race to a superhero team and the big threat is the possibility of a cure for the mutant “desease.” It destabilises the mutant culture that Morrison built up and makes room for a tight and brilliant team book.
Joss Whedon’s trademark TV and film writing style translates seamlessly into the world of comics (past efforts such as few issues & one-shots of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the stellar Fray series may have helped him make the transition). The dialogue is peppered with a sharp wit and the team while dysfunctional actually works and feels like a team rather than a who’s who of popular mutants. The stakes for the story are quickly raised after a brief introduction to the main players. As the volume plays out we experience the twists and turns along with the X-Men and get a sense that there is much more to come. A lot of things that come later on in Whedon’s run are seeded in this first volume in both obvious and subtle ways too which is a boon to people reading it once again.
Kitty Pryde (who Whedon has said on multiple occasions is one of the main inspirations for Buffy Summers) serves as the reader’s closest point of contact as she finally returns to the X-Men-fold after a long absence. At the time of publication she served as the guide for all the people who bought the book just because Joss Whedon’s name was on it. Now years later she serves that purpose for anyone reading the book because the X-Men of Gifted are far cry away from the ones currently featured in the regular comics. Both Kitty and Emma Frost continue Whedon’s streak of writing strong female characters. The best part being that they are polar opposites of each other and butt heads regularly to both comical and thought provoking effect. Kitty the hopeful dreamer and Emma the ice queen mega bitch.
The rest of the team has extra layers added to them too. We see Cyclops struggling with his new found status as head of the X-Men and school, coming to terms with his new found place as the face of mutant kind. (Which as we now know from Avengers Vs X-Men does not end well for him!) Beast is forced to confront his feeling about his mutation head on as he is presented with a cure that would make him normal once again. Thankfully his internal conflict is not because of the traditional, “I’m blue and therefore sad about it.” It is out of his fear that he will loose his considerable intelligence if his secondary mutation to “devolve” continues. We even see the normally distant and strong Wolverine take mutant-kind being labeled as a disease personally and going out of his way to convince Beast to stay a mutant. The book is full of moments that hit the core of each character and a few of them pack huge emotional punches such as when Kitty unwittingly frees Colossus and sees that he is alive for the first time.
No dialogue or narration, just four panels of John Cassaday’s gorgeous art saying all that needs to be said. Cassaday’s art is amazing throughout the length of the book. Its grand cinematic style perfectly complements Whedon’s equally cinematic writing. This is one of those comics that feels like it is being presented in widescreen. Rectangular panels and grand double page spreads are the tools used to give a sense that this is a big book with a big story. Cassaday’s art never drops in quality and is full of finer details that demand to be poured over. Every time you read through the book you spot something new. A character’s expression in a key or not so key moment. A single pannel that tells a whole story. Pages that just flow effortlessly. I feel like I should be saying more but it is something you really have to experience for yourself.
It has been a few years since I last read this book but it still stands up incredibly well and puts many modern comics to shame. This is an example of comics at their best. A brilliant, tight and action packed story. With interesting and complex characters that keep you engaged. Coupled with beautiful art that enhances the book a thousand fold and finally, hints of greatness yet to come. Well worth re-reading or checking out if you have not already.