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Thursday, 19 May 2011

Astonishing X-Men: Gifted

written by Joss Whedon
art by John Cassaday
colours by Laura Martin 

What's It About? 
Marvel created the Astonishing imprint as a showcase for big name creators. The idea was to give these high-profile creators free reign to work magic on their own favourite characters, to tell the stories they really wanted to tell. Astonishing X-Men was the first title in the imprint and paired Joss Whedon of Buffy and Firefly fame with the art team of Wildstorm's flagship title Planetary.

As a team of super-powered mutants the X-Men are ostracised from mainstream humanity. As such, they have always been a vehicle for allegorical stories about prejudice, be it racial, religious, sexual and so on. Whedon opens his series with the announcement that scientists have discovered a way to “cure” mutants, to safely remove their powers and render them “normal”. But where did this cure come from? What secrets are the Benetech corporation hiding? And what will this cure mean to the mutant community?

What's Good About It? 
The unique selling point of this series is that it is written by Joss Whedon. Fans will be glad to hear that this series was written before his current run of bad luck so unlike his last two television projects Astonishing X-Men does reach its planned conclusion.
Whedon is a writer with star power, so giving him his own X-Men series was a calculated move on Marvel's part to draw in a new audience. This first book in the series was always intended to be a jumping on point for readers with no previous knowledge or understanding of the franchise - not from the comics, cartoons or movies that have been produced over the years. Over the course of the first chapter Whedon deftly fills in the background of the X-Men, the school for gifted youngsters from which they operate, the public perception of mutants (bad, very, very bad) and the personalities of the characters on the team. He eases his readers in gently by using Kitty Pryde, one of the most “normal” members of the team, as his main point-of-view character for much of this first story. Returning to the team and the school after an absence of several years it's perfectly natural for her to be introduced to many of the concepts the other characters take for granted but which the audience may need filling in on.

Character has always been Whedon's greatest strength and he swiftly makes it clear that each member of the X-Men has a purpose in the narrative beyond their powers: from the everyman to the scientist, the old soldier to the reformed villain-turned-headmistress. What's more, the 'cure' storyline touches on a few interesting themes, not just of old X-Men chestnuts around prejudice but also on concepts of medical ethics and scientific responsibility. It's an intelligent script not just an action film in graphic form.

As to the series as a whole, it's split into four books and based very much along the lines of the television seasons Whedon is used to overseeing. Each of the first three books is its own, largely isolated story but all three contribute themes and ideas to the grand finale and the final battle with the obligatory “Big Bad”. 

What's Bad About It?
This series' biggest selling point is also, arguably, its greatest flaw. Joss Whedon's writing tends to provoke strong opinions and quite a few of the standard Whedon-isms creep into Astonishing X-Men. The main point-of-view character is a young woman with strong fighting skills (Buffy, River Tam) and the theme of the created family plays a big part in this series as it has done in almost all of his TV projects. The big one, the most divisive Whedon-ism of them all, is his dialogue.

In a Whedon script everyone is a natural born wit. Dialogue pings back and forth between characters and everyone has a comeback ready the moment it's needed. At its best this style works perfectly, imparting a fast-paced flow to proceedings. That's if you like that style. If you don't then it will seem like artificial, cheesy sitcom dialogue in a science-fiction setting.

The long and the short of it is that this is not an X-Men story written by Joss Whedon, it's a Joss Whedon story featuring the X-Men. Your mileage may vary. 

What's the Art Like?
The whole Astonishing X-Men project was designed to be as high profile as possible so Joss Whedon was paired up with artist John Cassaday, a man who made his name working on Wildstorm's flagship title Planetary with Warren Ellis. Comicbook characters have a reputation for possessing idealised figures (often ridiculously so) but Cassaday draws his figures with a more human edge to them. Still fit, still muscular but with more of an eye towards the rules of anatomy.
You can see Cassaday's attention to detail simply in the loose hairs of the two women here but also on the broader scale they have easily recognisable expressions. Since character work has always been a signature of Whedon's writing Cassaday makes a good pairing, matching expression to dialogue perfectly. If you take a close look at only one piece of art from this review then click on this one, the dialogue between Kitty and Emma is pretty representative of how Whedon sketches in the personal histories of the characters.

Here we have Cassaday drawing Hank McCoy, one of the less human members of the X-Men. Oddly I'm going to bring your attention to the same things with McCoy that I did with Emma and Kitty: his hair and his face. His fur is minutely detailed and his face, despite being barely human, conveys his emotions easily. The backgrounds of this piece also show Cassaday's eye for architectural precision. Unfortunately, this example, as well as the one below, demonstrates the only criticism of Cassaday's work that I have.

In its precision and exactitude, the art doesn't contain much in the way of kinetic energy. All comic art is a snapshot of a moment but many artists use tricks of angle and perspective to convey movement. The reality with which Cassaday draws his figures and backgrounds means there is little place for such effects: no movement lines or multiple images of the same figure in a single panel. Its a small criticism and one more than made up for by the depth and complexity of the art. 

Other Information
Astonishing X-Men: Gifted (ISBN 0-7851-1531-5) retails for £10.99 and is available from Amazon [here]. It is the first of four books collecting the complete the Whedon/Cassaday run. The reading order is as follows, with links to Amazon pages:

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