Review: Astonishing X-Men Ultimate Collection Book 2 trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

[Continuing Doug Glassman's month-long spotlight on Kitty Pryde stories.]

Joss Whedon started out on Astonishing X-Men with Gifted, a book I enjoyed. Gifted kept up the momentum generated by Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, while also inspiring a new creative drive in the X-Men titles. The Dangerous arc that followed Gifted, however, was not quite up to par; even Joss Whedon admits that the story isn’t his best. But for Torn and Unstoppable -- collected here in the Astonishing X-Men Ultimate Collection Vol. 2 -- you don’t need to know much from Dangerous apart from the existence of Danger, the sentient—and angry—Danger Room brought to life, and about the Sentinel she created to attack the school.

However, you do need to know some of the New X-Men backstory to really get into the comics. The first arc centers on Cassandra Nova, the “evil twin” of Professor Xavier who was a major foe in Morrison’s books. Another villain, Negasonic Teenage Warhead, appeared in New X-Men’s first issue, and there’s a reappearance of the “Black Bug Room,” a terrifying place in Cyclops’ subconscious. On the other hand, Whedon brings back Sebastian Shaw from the Dark Phoenix Saga, along with an amazing visual homage to Wolverine’s “Now it’s my turn” panel from that story. They were included because Whedon was a fan during that era, but they also allow readers who left the franchise in the 1990s to ease into the new stories.

A fun sequence of Wolverine acting as the new Danger Room brings Hisako Ichiki, a.k.a. Armor, to the forefront. Hisako is the latest in the long line of “Wolverine’s young female sidekicks,” following in the tradition of Shadowcat and Jubilee. Their teacher/student relationship begins slowly, and it takes a wild turn when Wolverine is regressed mentally into a twelve-year-old. The original Origins story is a sore spot for some fans, but its existence is justified by how hilarious Wolverine is during the Torn arc. He’s a total sissy with antiquated social views. John Cassaday’s facial expressions really sell the sequences with Wolverine, especially in the sequence where he recovers.

The other X-Men are affected as well, with Beast regressing mentally into a mindless creature, Colossus getting beaten by Shaw, Cyclops losing his powers, and Kitty phasing uncontrollably. All signs point to Emma Frost as the perpetrator, and she is… sort of. The ending of Torn and the transition to Unstoppable outline Whedon’s major weakness when it comes to comics. On many pages, the last panel becomes the first panel of the next page, indicating a swift transition. Unfortunately, this obfuscates certain plot points, especially during the climax of the battle at the school. Whedon clearly struggled with how transitions are different in television and film versus comic books. I had to re-read the last pages of the Torn storyline to understand exactly what was going on and how the villain was dealt with.

Luckily, Unstoppable corrects a lot of these flaws and unfolds in a much more logical manner. It’s the culmination of the Breakworld plot begun in the first issues, putting the X-Men in space for almost the entire time. I’m not sure if this is a coincidence or a plot point, but none of the X-Men on the Astonishing team are able to fly. Only Shadowcat has any transportation-related abilities. This puts them at a disadvantage, and it forces them to rely on S.W.O.R.D. and its leader, Abigail Brand. The unflappable and arrogant Brand becomes a foil to the ever-logical Beast, leading to the romantic partnership seen in No Room To Breathe. Cyclops demonstrates his leadership skills despite temporarily losing his powers, and Whedon succeeds in avoiding making Cyclops the unlikeable jerk he’s been recently.

Kitty Pryde’s storyline throughout Astonishing X-Men Ultimate Collection Vol. 2 is linked with that of Colossus. The shock of the sudden resurrection of her longtime beau is still present, and Kitty is forced into a nightmare in which Piotr betrays Kitty so that the X-Men can take their young son. Even though it’s a hallucination, it felt so real that it spoils their relationship for quite a while. Their romantic relationship is one of the most memorable parts of both storylines; Kitty phases through the floor when they have sex for the first time. At the end, when Kitty sacrifices herself to stop a massive bullet from destroying the world, you can feel Piotr’s pain at losing her just after he came back.

Perhaps the greatest appeal of Astonishing X-Men was John Cassaday’s art. It took three years to publish twenty-five issues, but like George Perez, Cassaday’s art is worth waiting for; an advantage of waiting for the trade is not having to deal with such delays. He has a deep dedication to detail, carefully drawing his expressions and backgrounds and laying out the panels expertly. At the same time, he knows when to cut back on the details for dramatic effect. For instance, when Cyclops gets his powers back and lets loose, all the reader sees is the back of his head and a pure red background. It’s the perfect representation of his powers from that angle, and numerous pages are bathed in red shading to demonstrate Cyclops’ might. Cassaday even gives the male characters progressively more stubble as the story continues. to show the passage of time.

My favorite sequence involves the coordination of Whedon, Cassaday, colorist Laura Martin, and letterer Chris Eliopoulos. In issue #22, the team and Brand have a seemingly normal strategy conversation. This is where having the trade comes in handy: the page is reprinted in the next issue. However, this time, it’s overlaid with telepathic text bubbles, in which the real plan is discussed in secret to fool a bug on the ship. The original page is faded into the background, and Eliopoulos planned the initial word bubbles so that there would be enough space to put in the new ones.

I highly recommend the Astonishing X-Men Ultimate Collection Vol. 2, combining the Torn and Unstoppable collections. Despite some pacing and plotting issues, the dialogue is snappy, the character interactions ring true and the art is gorgeous. It’s worth getting this larger edition, as you save some money versus buying the two trades individually.
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3 comments:

  1. Gotta say, I miss this run a lot these days. I didn't even like Kitty Pryde before it, and now I do because of it. Great review.

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  2. The way Whedon paced his last two arcs was so fantastic that people don't even care that he never addressed what happened to Cassandra Nova after "Torn". To this day I'm surprised that none of the writers on the X-Men books ever picked up that loose thread, although Gillen wrote a pretty good arc featuring the Breakworld survivors.

    I wiss I had stopped reading X-Men after this run ended, but instead I got to see Cyclops, Wolverine and the Beast turn into hypocritical a-holes. Bendis sure has a lot of damage to undo.

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  3. Cyclops is pretty much irredeemable at this point, but they're doing decent work with Wolverine and Beast in "Wolverine and the X-Men" (which is next week's review). Mind you, the less said about X-Force, the better...

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