Review: Astonishing X-Men: Gifted hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Monday, March 15, 2010

[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!
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12 comments:

  1. That's a really nice review of the book - I strongly reccomend you read Whedon's run in its entirety, as he gets do develop and unravel a lot of seeds planted in this first arc.

    The professor shows up in the next arc, "Dangerous", and that's my one gripe about Whedon's X-Men, in that it's part of an ongoing process of villifying Xavier that I, personally, find utterly unecessary.

    Finally, I respectfully disagree with you regarding Emma Frost - Unlike many, many other examples of uber-sexualized-for-no-reason-at-all-but-the-t&a-factor female characters in comics, being overtly sexual is actually part of Emma's character. I think the way she dresses complements wondefully the way Whedon writes her and the other character's reactions to her (such as Kitty's, when she first spars with Emma at the opening speech to the students in chapter 1).

    Best,
    J.

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  2. "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."

    That's quite an ignorant remark from a supposed comic book reviewer, and an unforgivable slight to John Cassaday's contribution to the success of this book (and I am not talking about its commercial impact, but its triumph in conveying the story).

    I won't be mentioning any names, but I can easily think of quite a few so-called artists that would have made this book fail utterly, no matter how good Mr. Whedon's script may be.

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  3. Cassaday is well-regarded, to be sure, but in this case I thought the reviewer made clear he wasn't much of a judge of art (with comics, I think, you'll find different reviewers may review one, the other, or both) and therefore couldn't much speak to the issue; his point was instead to praise again the writing. I understand this didn't resonate with you.

    As someone who can speak to the art side, please tell us more about how you think Cassady helped convey the story; that'll help balance it out.

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  4. I will admit I've been guilty more than a few times of venturing a bit too far into hyperbole. Even so, as has been said above, it wasn't that I thought the art was bad by any means, just that I liked the art, but I'm not much of an artist and I never really pay attention to the finer points of the art, so I'm not going to unfairly judge what I can't.

    As far as Emma Frost- like I said, I'm more of a DC kind of guy, and as such, haven't read much Emma. It's possible that her clothes are meant to say something about her character, but there was no evidence in this particular story to support this. As such, if there was any meaning there, it was, unfortunately, lost on me. I'd be happy to read more Emma (and Marvel in general!) if any of you gave a few suggestions, either in my blog linked above, or in these comments.

    Thanks for the feedback, both positive and negative- and hopefully I'll do another one of these soon!

    Tomato

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  5. I do like Whedon's run (and Grant Morrison's New X-Men run is probably the best run I've read on the book), but if you're looking for great modern Marvel runs, I'd recommend Bendis or Brubaker's runs on Daredevil.

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  6. I'm a DC guy, but Whedon's Astonishing run was outstanding in every way.

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  7. English is not my first language, and therefore I lack the fluency I would deem necessary to explain myself further on Cassaday's artistic merits (at least, not without a considerable effort and time on my part), so you'll have to excuse me on that.

    Anyway, while I can not completely agree on a reviewer focusing solely on one side of the equation, it is not that what really bothered me anyway, but that remark about the script being so good that it would have worked just as well even with bad xeroxes of stick figures passing for art. Because, let me tell you, no, it would not. With a lesser artist than Cassaday, you won't be finding Whedon's script that memorable, it wouldn't resonate with you the same way.

    Yeah, I know that was hyperbole on your part, but it is in clear disregard of how essential is the art and the visual storytelling for a script to really work and to elevate it to its best. And if I were the artist here, I would be very offended by that suggestion.

    To make a long story short: it's the reviewer choice to just write on the writing part (a bad choice, if you ask me, but his choice), but then he should have let that final remark out, because it is simply wrong, unfair and, ultimately, false.

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  8. Would have appreciated more info on extras (or the lack thereof), as well as comparison/contrast with other editions to determine value for money based on content/page count.

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  9. Response to above person:
    It's been about three weeks since I've written this review, and it was borrowed from my awesome comics-carrying public library, so I don't have it anymore. From what I can recall, though, no extras were present. The page count, I felt, could've been meateir, but maybe that's just because I liked it so much. If you could find a good deal on them, I'd go with the omnibus series.

    Hope I helped, and I'm glad you liked the review!

    Tomato

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  10. This was my first exposure to the X-Men and man was it great. A lot of people say that New X-Men should come first before this but I think maybe you should read this first if you find yourself turned off by not great art, which New X-Men v.1 & v.2 has plenty of. This, on the other hand, has excellent, naturalistic art.

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  11. @ Silver Tomato Production: Is the omnibus still in print? I've had mine on order for months at amazon.co.uk and it's still "temporarily out of stock".

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  12. Darren-

    I believe they're still in print, as they were one of the titles caught in that Amazon glitch a while back. I got the trade, and not the omnibus, from my local library.

    Tomato

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