[This guest review comes from Silver Tomato Productions]
I have a confession, guys. This confession may make you click the red X in the corner of your browser faster than you can say "Excelsior," but hear me out. I've read two, maybe three, Marvel trades. All of them, in my honorary opinion, were poorly written, badly drawn, and had all the writing finesse of the back of a cereal box.
There was strike one.
I'd heard a lot about Joss Whedon, but never really cared either way about him. So, as far as I was concerned, his name on the cover of the book didn't win any prizes from me.
There was strike two.
I kid you not, readers, as I flipped to the first page of Astonishing X-Men: Gifted, I was the cynical comic book guy. Literally, as I opened the book, I muttered aloud, “Show me what you’ve got, Mr. Whedon.”
To recap: two strikes, and a critic more nitpicky and crass than Statler and Waldorf combined.
Despite all of this, if you’ll pardon the pun, Astonishing X-Men: Gifted, well, astonished me.
The plot, at first glance, seems fairly formulaic. We follow mutants Emma Frost, Cyclops, Beast, and Hugh Jack -- err, Wolverine, as they try to train a new generation of students, in the absence of usual mentoring master, Charles Xavier.* Meanwhile, world-renowned geneticist Dr. Kavita Rao sends shockwaves through the mutant community, having supposedly found a cure for the so-called "disease" of being a mutant.
And if that’s not enough, there’s aliens!
Yes, folks, on top of Dr. Rao’s supposed “cure for the mutant disease,” the newly gathered X-Men have to stop an apparent takeover by your resident Skrull stand-in, Ord, an alien from a mysterious place called the Breakworld. In the middle of the press conference in which Kavita Rao presents her cure, Ord decides to pull a few robberies, leading to a violent confrontation with the newly-formed X-Men team. Considering that most of the regular, average citizens of the Marvel Universe seemingly have the intelligence of a dog chasing a laser pointer, they immediately associated “conquering vile alien” with “mutant,” only adding to the prejudiced stigma our heroes bear.
If you’re like me, however, that’s just not enough for you. You need character development, and emotion, and, God forbid, dialogue that’s witty and natural. Good news: there’s that, too. Whedon seems like he’s been writing these characters for at least three or four years, even on his first issue. It doesn’t feel like all the characters are interchangeable, nor that they’re all carbon copies of each other. Their dialogue quirks and personalities are so real and varied that the cliché of “the character leaps off of the page!” is actually applicable here.
I’m serious when I say that every main cast member, with the exception of resident booze-happy action hero Wolverine, gets a moment to shine under Whedon’s spotlight. For example, I used to think of Kitty Pryde as an X-Men equivalent to Scrappy Doo. That is, before she managed to pull a Batman-esque psych-out by kidnapping several guards from under the floorboards, give a verbal lashing to Emma Frost that must be seen to be believed, and council a new student about embracing his talents even after he calls her several nasty names, all in the span of twenty pages.
And it’s not limited to just Kitty, either. Beast shows more moral depth in the pages of Gifted than I’ve seen him show in all his animated appearances and the first three volumes of Ultimate X-Men combined. Out of all the X-Men, his life has been, perhaps, the one most affected on a personal level by his status as a mutant. Even though he’s one of the gentlest, most chivalrous, and most selfless people you could possibly meet, nearly every human in his life has been scared of him. That’s why it makes sense, organically, for him to break into Dr. Rao’s lab and steal the cure. He’s internally conflicted by this new development. Did he steal the cure for himself, as Wolverine believes, or to find out its shady and mysterious origin, as was his original goal? In comics today, you generally find that characters are motivated not by how they would really react in a situation, but simply as stepping stones to whatever eventual goal a writer has, a la "One More Day." This isn’t the case in Astonishing X-Men. It really seems as if the characters act in the way they would, and no one goes on a rampage or becomes evil for no reason whatsoever. The story Whedon tells here isn’t built on action, but rather reaction, characters who mingle and bounce off of each other.
In addition, there's a bit of controversy in this storyline regarding the resurrection of a certain fallen X-Man. I thought it was handled skillfully, but it did come off as a bit contrived. We really don't get to see the fallout from this event, which is definately a teeth-gnashing moment, but Whedon took the cards he was dealt, and, in my opinion, came out unscathed.
Art isn’t usually a factor in how I judge a comic, unless there are notable differences from panel to panel or issue to issue, such as Fables or Ultimates Vol. 3. I do think the art is great in this book, but the writing is so good that you’d hardly notice it if the art was simply a transposed, photocopied image of a stick figure.
I do have one minor complaint, though, which I’m sure some of you will find more of a positive. Although Emma Frost is written well, and also drawn well, we don’t need to see her breasts as often as we do. I’m not talking Dark Knight Strikes Again levels of cheesecake, and we certainly don’t get as much cheesecake as we could’ve, but when it happens, it distracts a bit from the story, if only because you spend a minute pondering what the point of a panel of cheesecake is. Still, it’s not enough to take away from what otherwise is an awesome story.
If that’s still not enough, Astonishing X-Men features Cyclops wearing a tutu for a panel. I mean, if that’s your thing ...
Thanks for reading!
* I don't know exactly why he's gone, because I'm not a regular reader of the X-books. Either way, no Xavier for you!