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Astonishing

September 17th, 2008
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The various X-Men comic books have been a sales juggernaut for Marvel Comics for almost forty years now, and the success of the three X-Men films has certainly furthered the spread of this franchise.  There have been a heck of a lot of talented writers and artists involved in the X-Men over that long stretch of time, but one man really deserves the lion’s share of the credit: Chris Claremont, who wrote The Uncanny X-Men comic book from 1975-1991. 

Over the course of that incredibly lengthy run, Clarement shaped the characters, the stories, and the world of the X-Men, so much of which is known and loved world-wide today. 

I started reading Uncanny X-Men towards the late-middle of Claremont’s run, in the mid/late 80’s.  I’d been reading comics for a few years (my enjoyment of Marvel’s Transformers comic book series lead me to various super-hero titles such as the Fantastic Four and the Avengers), and people kept telling me “you can’t be a comic fan and not be reading X-Men.” I finally took the plunge, and I was immediately sucked into the series.  Claremont was incredibly skilled at crafting interesting, really three-dimensional and human characters, and his stories were dense and sophisticated.  (Claremont was the master of the “sub-plot,” in which various story-lines would weave in and out of the comic, sometimes for YEARS, before finally dovetailing with the main story being told.)

After Claremont left the X-Men comic in 1991, I continued to follow the series for many years, but it was never able to recapture for me the greatness of the Claremont era.  Various writers and artists would rotate through the book, and some entertaining stories were told… but after a while I finally began to get bored, and I ultimately stopped reading.  Once or twice a year I’d pick up an issue or a mini-series, but nothing ever held my interest enough to warrant my reading the title again on a monthly basis.

Then, in 2001, the British writer-artist team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely took over one of the X-Men comics.  (By this point, there were several!)  I purchased their first issue, titled “E for Extinction,” and was blown away.  Suddenly, the characters were interesting again, and the world those characters inhabited seemed dangerous again.  I was hooked, and with no small amount of disbelief I started reading an X-Men comic every month again.

Maybe I’ll return to this topic at a later date to write a lengthier review of Morrison’s run, but ultimately I was disappointed by what had begun so promisingly.  From the beginning, Quitely wasn’t able to keep up a regular schedule, and without his magnificent art the stories suffered.  (It didn’t help that the fill-in artists each had dramatically different styles, which made it really jarring from issue to issue.)  And while at first I was really intrigued and excited by the amazing density of new ideas that Morrison brought to each issue, by the end of his run I started to feel that the characters of the comic had drifted too far from the world that I had grown up with.

Why am I writing about any of this?  I’m getting to that!!  After Morrison left, the X-Men comics seemed directionless again, and I again stopped reading.  But only a few months later, Joss Whedon began writing a new X-Men comic, titled Astonishing X-Men.  Whedon is known to many as the creator and show-runner of the much-loved Buffy and Angel TV shows, and while I had never (and still haven’t) seen either of those series, I had fallen head-over-heels in love with the next TV show he created:  Firefly.  

Whedon was joined by one of the best artists working in comics today, a gentleman named John Cassaday.  They began a 25-issue run on the title that wrapped up this past spring.  When I purchased the final issue, I decided that before reading it I wanted to go back and re-read their entire run, which I finally had a chance to do this past week.

It is magnificent.  Whedon was able to bring to the comic everything that makes his writing for TV so addicting – most particularly his knack for creating characters who you immediately fall in love with.  The way he is able to create dramatic stories that are also filled with fall-out-of-your seat humor, without turning into self-parody, is also quite stunning.  Whedon was able to capture everything that made Claremont’s run on X-Men so amazing, while also not losing sight of the modern continuity of the book (including many of Morrison’s more far-out ideas, such as secondary mutations, Cerebra, and the idea that Cyclops and Emma Frost – once a deadly enemy of the X-Men – would fall into a love affair).  This is a singularly impressive feat. 

Whedon & Cassaday’s run is divided into four main stories, each of which can be found in collected editions.

“Gifted” (issues #1-6) – Probably my favorite story, in which Whedon re-introduces the characters who will serve as the main focus of his run:  Cyclops, Emma Frost, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, and Beast.  In issue four, Whedon adds a sixth main character, crafting a very emotional resurrection of a classic X-Men character who had been killed off in the 90’s, and I will love him forever for that.  I’ll also love him forever for returning Kitty Pryde (the young Jewish girl who seemed like she was a favored character of Claremont’s back in the day – she certainly was a favorite of mine) to the forefront of the X-Universe.

The main story concerns a scientist who discovers a “cure” for mutants.  Elements of this story-line were used quite liberally in the third X-Men movie,  so its interesting to go back and read the (far superior) source material now.  I think the aspects of this story that made it into the third film were some of the best parts of what was, ultimately, a very disappointing movie.  The question that our characters must confront — is being a mutant something unique and vital to who they each are as people, or is it just a disease that they want to be cured of with a drug or an injection — is powerful stuff, and its one of those ideas that’s so good that one wonders why it took over 30 years for someone to come up with this story-line.

“Dangerous” (issues 7-12) – In which the Danger Room (the X-Men’s training facility which they use to test their mutant abilities) achieves sentience and attempts to carry out what has always been its main programming: to kill the X-Men

“Torn” (issues 13-18) – In which the Hellfire Club (a great group of villains from Claremont’s run – they figured prominently into the original and famous Dark Phoenix saga) return, and the Cyclops-Emma Frost relationship is explored in a very deep and intriguing way.  Also, Kitty Pryde and Peter Rasputin (Colossus) do it.

(The above, by the way, is one of the most hysterical – and also the most poignant – stories in Whedon’s run, and again, the way he is able to weave humor and pathos together is really amazing to me.  I certainly found myself getting very emotionally involved in the Kitty-Peter relationship, and in the way that plays out in the final arc of Whedon’s run.)

“Unstoppable” – In which the X-Men find themselves brought to an alien world which Colossus is prophesied to destroy.  All of Whedon’s storylines and character arcs converge here, and its terrific.  My only complaint is the ending, which is a bit abrupt and cries out for a continuation.  More Whedon/Cassaday X-Men comics, someday, please!!

I highly highly highly recommend these comics.  While there is a LOT in there that really speaks to a long-time X-Men comics reader like myself, NO prior reading is required to enjoy this story.  If you liked the first two great X-Men movies, and/or if you’ve enjoyed any of Whedon’s TV work (Buffy, Angel, Firefly and the big-screen follow-up Serenity), then I urge you to check these comics out.  Its not exactly “great literature” the way graphic novels like Watchmen or Maus or V for Vendetta or Jinx (I could go on and on here) are, but it is terrifically entertaining escapist fantasy.  Super-hero comics at their finest.  

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