The Comics of Joss Whedon: Astonishing X-Men
In his introduction to the collected edition of Fray, Joss Whedon describes how Kitty Pride of the X-Men was the biggest inspiration for his own greatest creation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In so doing, Whedon spelled out what was obvious to any X-Men reader who also watched Buffy: Whedon is a fan. Classic X-Men plots like Weapon X and the Dark Phoenix Saga have their fingerprints all over Buffy. When an all-star creative team was needed to follow the ground breaking work by Grant Morrison on the X-Men in 2004, Whedon had just wrapped the TV show that his favourite X-Man had inspired. Thus the path was clear for the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Whedon and Marvel Entertainment from which the fans benefit the most.
Two pages into the first issue of Astonishing X-Men, an intriguing plot is already established. Four pages in and Whedon’s love for the X-Men’s history is obvious. Six pages in and it’s exciting what a deft understanding he has of the characters. And on the seventh page, John Cassaday shows that he is the truly astonishing part of this book.
The X-Men Whedon chooses for his team are Cyclops, Emma Frost, Beast and Wolverine and of course, Kitty Pride. It’s a time of re-building and re-evaluation for these characters after the events of Grant Morrison’s run and Whedon puts all of that self doubt and conflict centre stage along with the action. The team deals with a threatened cure for mutation (a plot unsuccessfully co-opted into the X3 movie), the return of a long lost teammate, a homicidal A.I., a betrayal from within and an intergalactic threat to the whole Earth.
Simultaneously, the X-Men try to re-establish themselves as a superhero team for all humanity as opposed to a group of mutant activists. This latter plot thread also allows Whedon to show his love for the Marvel Universe as a whole, with cameos from the Fantastic Four and others.
Whedon’s signature humour is priceless throughout. In most instances, his sharp understanding of the characters is best seen through the humorous parts of the story. Whedon doesn’t stop at showcasing classic characters though, he adds new and interesting players to the cast, most of whom have embedded themselves in the X-Men mythos since. He also created a logical extension to Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. in the form of the extraterrestrial S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient Worlds Observation and Response Department) and the tenacious Agent Brand. Likely odds say we can expect to see Agent Brand and S.W.O.R.D. in Whedon’s next Avengers movie or at least referenced in the upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show.
The real superstar of the series though is John Cassaday, working with colorist Laura Martin. The scale Cassaday brings to the book is breathtaking. Reading Astonishing X-Men is practically a cinematic experience, only for the long-time X-Men fan its better. There are panoramic panels in the comic that are almost photo-realistic but still dynamic and sequentially absorbing.
Cassaday and Whedon also employ a neat idea for the X-Men’s Danger Room – using it to create more visually interesting backgrounds when there are dialogue-heavy pages in the story. Cassaday hits every one of the emotional beats Whedon pitches and every character gets their time to shine, though Wolverine is mostly used for comic relief. Which isn’t to say that Cassaday doesn’t draw a ferocious looking Wolverine. Or a truly feral Beast for that matter.
Astonishing X-Men was only the beginning for Whedon and Marvel. After this series he also penned a six issue arc of their cult hit series Runaways, created by Brian K. Vaughn, who in turn wrote an arc on Buffy. Avengers was the biggest blockbuster of the summer and Whedon is finally making his return to TV with the S.H.I.E.L.D. series which started filming last month.
If you’re not a comic reader, be assured that Astonishing X-Men is better than any X-Men film or animation you’ll ever see. The same is true for lots of X-Men stories but the familiar tone for fans of Whedon’s writing, combined with Cassaday’s art makes it especially accessible for new readers, even though Whedon writes for the fans. They’ll make you one too.