I’ve mentioned in previous posts my admiration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, but I’ve never actually reviewed, with a letter grade, something that Joss Whedon created. That’s largely because there hasn’t been much to watch recently – Whedon’s last project, Dollhouse, was canceled well over a year ago – and I thought I had consumed all his old stuff. But I had forgotten, like many super-villains trying to take over the world, about the X-Men.* Astonishing X-Men, Joss’ take on Marvel’s iconic mutants, not only got me excited about Joss again, but also about the comic book medium. And it raised my expectations pretty sky-high for the Joss’ 2012 movie, The Avengers, which will also prominently feature men in tights saving the world.
I should start out by admitting that I know very little about the X-Men. I’ve seen two of the movies, but I never read the comics or watched the animated series. I knew that Wolverine liked to slice bad guys with his claws, but that was about it. So Astonishing X-Men, which is filled with obscure references and overlapping plot lines and flashbacks to back issues, should have lost me more or less completely.** Yet it didn’t, and I credit the emphasis on the interesting characters, figures that were so much more than collections of outfits and catchphrases.
This is what I’ve decided: if the characters in a work of fiction are interesting and compelling enough, everything else falls into place. From the first issue, AXM gave me characters to care about, like the Beast, an erudite and charming professor who just happens to look like an acid trip version of the Cookie Monster. Or the stellar example of a Joss-style heroine: the self-composed, hyper-verbal, molecular-shifting Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat. Pryde won my heart from her second line of spoken dialogue (“I’m sorry. I was busy remembering to put on all my clothes,” a retort after being scolded for lateness by a fellow super-heroine).
For characters as likable as this batch of X-Men, I was willing to follow along on the plot twists of interplanetary warfare, sentient virtual reality chambers, a cure for the mutant gene, and other complexities. I’ll admit to getting a bit perplexed by the waves of pyschic attacks, where most of the action was within people’s minds, but by the end, darned if everything didn’t fit together. I no longer felt like a noob; I had the proud, and false, feeling that I had been following the comic since the 1960s.
Even beyond characters and plotting, what Joss truly excels at is creating things that feel familiar and then adding a twist. AXM alternates between giving the readers what they want (fight scenes, witty banter, long-lost characters coming back from the dead), and pulling the rug out from under their feet. I was particularly pleased by the grand entrance of a villain who quickly discovered that all the heroes were out of town. (A student: “Did you wanna leave them a message?”) And by a character’s dramatic confession that ended up being a poorly timed joke. And by the following mid-battle banter:
Villain: Well, you know what they say… (Kitty Pryde pulls Villain through wall)
Kitty: ‘Aaahh?’ They say ‘Aaahh?’ You are pathetic.
This sort of flippancy, I would argue, has a greater impact than just humor. It demonstrates a playful post-modern acknowledgment of and flexibility with form. Of course, that sort of playfulness can become grating if there’s no emotional core underneath, which is why it’s important to combine it with a serious appreciation for the inner workings of the characters.
Astonishing X-Men does just that: it treats its characters, even those made of diamonds or those hanging on to giant mole-creature nostrils, with respect.*** The protagonists, when they aren’t throwing each other at spaceships, grapple with insecurity, survivor’s guilt, loss of control, and other intangible demons more universal than the literal ones. It makes for a comic book run that’s both a lot of fun and a honest emotional ride. Here’s hoping the Avengers movie is so satisfying.
* I would have gotten away with it too, if not for you meddling kids.
**Astonishing X-Men was initially a run of twenty-four comics, but I read them all at once as part of a big book collection. After completing the book, I noticed a preface entitled “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About X-Men but Didn’t Have Time to Read 500 Back Issues to Find Out,” which would have been helpful to have started with.
***And somewhere in here I should mention the artwork, by John Cassady, is absolutely fantastic, depicting complex facial nuance and explosive high-tech battles with equal skill.