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Astonishing X-Men Omnibus by Joss Whedon & John Cassaday

Why did I have to follow Grant Morrison?

– Joss Whedon’s email correspondence with Marvel

What with all that talk of Whedon directing The Avengers on the big screen, I decided it was worth checking out his run on one of the most enduring superhero teams of all time.

Is this a breakout hit?

The last decade was an interesting one for the X-Men, long a staple of Marvel’s publishing output. There was obviously the still-ongoing film series which helped launch Hollywood’s current fascination with spandex-clad superheroes, not to mention the franchise’s key role in launching Marvel’s “Ultimate” line (essentially a continuity reboot of the Marvel universe). In comics, the series was launched from one gigantic crossover event to the next – House of M and Decimation come to mind, with Second Coming kicking off at the moment hot on the heels of Utopia.

However, the really fascinating stuff was happening in individual titles and individual runs. On one hand you had Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, a mindbending and borderline revolutionary look at the franchise, its meaning and its future. On the other, you had Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men, perhaps the most high-profile foray of the television god (who is responsible for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly among others) into the comic book medium.

Cyclops is seeing red...

It’s worth noting from the outset that Whedon seems to have a love-hate relationship with Morrison’s earlier work on the title, which seems a little odd when it appears to be pitched as something of a complementary (or even ‘sequel’) run. Sure, there were other writers on X-Men between and around Whedon and Morrison, but it would seem they are mostly ignored – be it in the narrative itself or in the supplementary material. Whedon seems to genuinely appreciate the thoughtful work put into the title, but respectfully decides to head another direction. Among the supplementary material here (which is surprisingly sparse), there’s a spoof email from Whedon in which he outlines his “Grant Morrisonesque mission statement”. Item #6: “Do I even need to say, ‘Gayathon’?”

Which is grand – what would be the point of changing writers if you didn’t want a slightly different take on the story? Whedon tips his hat to his predecessor in any number of ways. The climax of his second arc, Danger, takes place in the graveyard that used to be Genosha. Charles Xavier’s evil twin, Cassandra Nova, makes an appearance. In the opening arc, Gifted, Whedon also has Nick Fury make reference to the events of Morrison’s penultimate arc, Planet X, which is a courtesy that Marvel has rarely made a point to pay – deciding to effectively rewrite it and pretend it didn’t happen.

Colossus goes through Kitty for a shortcut...

On the other hand, Whedon smartly refuses to be tied down. His handling of Cassandra Nova ignores the fate that Morrison alluded to (but never outright stated). He has Beast openly criticise his own actions during Morrison’s tenure (“I made jokes,” he shamefully admits, remembering his time sifting through the rubble on Genosha). Indeed, one of Whedon’s first actions (and it isn’t a spoiler, because it’s on the cover) is to bring back Colossus, the member of the team Morrison had wanted to use but had decided to leave dead for the integrity of the franchise. This is a very different run.

Gone is a lot of the cultural commentary. Though Whedon skilfully alludes to the “mutant as oppressed minority” metaphor throughout his run – brilliantly subtly in Danger – he doesn’t tackle it outright. Gone is Morrison’s smart study of liberal prejudice and the changing face of racism. Morrison’s first issue was described as an agenda, and Whedon does the same thing here. Perhaps the most telling line of Whedon’s introduction comes from Cyclops, who reminds his team, “We’re a superhero team, and I think it’s time we started acting like one.” After Morrison made a point of removing the superhero costumes from the team (much to Wolverine’s relief), Whedon brings them back (including Cyclops’ “full-body condom” look). Although it should be noted that once Cyclops loses his powers – and thus, in his mind, ceases to be a superhero – Whedon has him dressed in his New X-Men costume again.

Well, at least Cyclops is aerodynamic...

Sorry, Logan. Superheroes wear costumes. And quite frankly, all the black leather is making people nervous.

– Cyclops

So this is very much a more traditionalist X-Men story, without the trappings or forced sophistication of a genre somehow desperately trying to appear mature or considered. It isn’t new or brave or daring or “out there”. Though none of those are necessarily complaints. So, what does it have, if it doesn’t have any of those more thought-provoking attributes?

It has Joss Whedon. And, being honest, that’s more than enough.

Kitty receives a Frost-y reception...

I’m going to controversial and admit that I liked the characterisation of the X-Men during Morrison’s run, as that’s frequently an area where he finds himself heavily criticised. That said, Whedon is Whedon. He’s great with dialogue and characters – they’re really his bread-and-butter. So it’s no surprise that where this series comes into its own is drawing true and deep characters from each of the members of the team – particularly Morrison’s new X-Man Emma Frost, the notoriously under-written Cyclops and Kitty Pryde. Apparently Whedon based Buffy herself off Pryde, who has been a character who has drifted in and out of the franchise over the years, so it should be no real surprise to anyone that he reintroduces her here. In fact, in many ways, this collection is more her story than anyone else’s.

I’ll admit that I really wasn’t overly impressed with Whedon’s storytelling here. He is very consciously channelling the wonderful and defining work of Chris Claremont on the title, drawing a tale of intergalactic prophecy and strange new aliens and other such devices (while introducing classic X-Men features such as Kitty’s “pet dragon” Lockheed and the Hellfire Club), but at times it feels like there’s just too much going on – and Whedon consciously favours action! action! action! above the commentary aspect (but not exclusively, it must be said). Whedon structures his story as three arcs – Gifted, Danger, Torn – which all play into one giant cinematic finish in Unstoppable. The problem is that the individual elements in each story tend to get overwhelmed by the big arc-friendly elements.

The new spandex isn't THAT bad...

Take, for example, the opening arc, Gifted. The story introduced the notion of a “mutant cure”. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was borrowed by X-Men III. The story doesn’t really get fully to grips with the notion of what it means – though it plays with the idea of one X-Men considering taking it – before using it as a vehicle to establish Whedon’s mysterious alien antagonists and bring back Colossus. There’s really no notion that the X-Men might consider opening a public debate on what a cure would mean, and whether they need to be ‘cured’. Instead it’s a smart idea that’s thrown out there and never truly explored – which is a shame. That said, House of M was being published at the same time – so, perhaps, the notion of a cure seemed a bit redundant as the mutant population of the Marvel universe was greatly reduced.

Still, the character work here is just about strong enough to counterbalance issues like this. Even ignoring Whedon’s flair for dialogue (my own favourite moment has Beast concede that “I thought I’d have a lot more fun if I ever got to say this”, before quoting Star Wars and observing that “that’s no moon”), he really does stunning work with Cyclops. Pitching the idea that Cyclops’ eye beams aren’t really involuntary, but simply a form of subconscious self-discipline, Whedon imbues the character with a wonderful sense of badass-ary. Even without his eye beams, Cyclops is a natural leader – despite, as Emma alludes, the fact that he probably likes “homework and vegetables”. Throughout the run it’s Scott, still grieving for his lost wife in his own way, who leads the team – who guides them. At the climax, an antagonistic government official concedes that she’s turned to the X-Men “because right now I need superheroes”, and it’s hard not to get the sense that Scott’s work has paid off.

Pryde of the X-Men...

In fact, Whedon’s run is packed with enough fantastic individual character moments for the ensemble that it’s simply a blast to read. Charles Xavier only plays a small role in the series, and is consciously sidelined by Whedon. I suspect Whedon did this in order to allow Scott to come into his own as the leader of the team, rather than being overshadowed by his former mentor. The only real purpose of Xavier’s appearance is to undermine Scott’s trust and faith in him, which – interestingly enough – plays into a character arc developed over the past number of years across the X-Men titles, from Messiah Complex to Nation X where Charles Xavier has been repeatedly benched as an old, out of touch fogey by writers like Fraction and Brubaker.

However, even though his role here is tiny, Whedon makes sure to give the Professor a rather memorable introduction – driving an eighteen-wheeler straight into an enemy of the team. Even a morally-compromised former mentor is still a force to be reckoned with, when Whedon is writing. It’s hard not to smile at these sorts of moments, no matter how big or small. In a way, Whedon has crafted something of an explosive action blockbuster, with fantastic character moments.


There are some lovely ideas here, even if they aren’t really developed or explored. As Brian K. Vaughan (himself a scribe of Ultimate X-Men) suggests, Danger works particularly well because it’s a subtle metaphor for the unconscious oppression of one group by another superior one. “Evolution” is mentioned several times, and – to Whedon’s credit – it isn’t just a genetic idea. He hints at societal evolution on the Breakworld, but also the evolution of consciousness. Evolution isn’t something reserved for homo sapiens and homo superior, but rather something which occurs everyday.

More than evolution, Whedon’s run is about freedom. He frees Scott of his subconscious control mechanisms and ponders whether Emma can ever be free of her own guilt. Both the wild Sentinel and the sentient Danger Room must decide what to do with themselves with their new-found self-awareness – while the Sentinel can free itself (and, burdened by its own guilt, seek atonement in the stars), the newly formed Danger is still captive to its programmes and commands (to kill the X-Men, as it was designed to do).

Without Jean, Scott finds himself truly adrift...

Even Colossus, who can escape death itself, finds himself arguably a prisoner of fate. What does freedom mean? How do we attain it? Is the only true freedom the kind that Scott finds, drifting in the empty void between worlds in that iconic image up above? These are big ideas and themes that Whedon finds himself playing with, and they help give the run a wonderfully epic scope. It doesn’t feel like your average X-Men adventure, but feels like a giant cosmic superhero epic extravaganza.

I love John Cassaday’s work. It perfectly suits Whedon’s style. Bright primary colours! Lots of them! Clearly drawn, but vaguely cartoony characters! He captures the essence of what Whedon is going for – an old-timey, yet strangely modern, X-Men vibe – and just runs with it. It seems like the two are just perfectly in step.

Is Professor X an ex-professor?

I’d feel a bit crap if I didn’t take a moment to mention the covers. Those covers. They truly are beautiful, like little works of pop art. Were I to get some comic book art framed for my gaff, it would quite possibly be one of these. Sometimes they’re images from the story, sometimes they’re rather abstract images which play into the themes of what Whedon is writing. They’re always beautiful, though. Always absolutely stunning. It’s lovely that this collection keeps the “Astonishing X-Men” title in the artwork, as that’s always incorporated perfectly.

As for the collection, I’m a little disappointed. Maybe it’s Whedon himself who isn’t willing to share too much of a glimpse into his process, but there’s really just a short (but interesting) email thread here from the writer. Which is odd, because he’s kinda a big deal. There’s a nice interview with Cassaday, a lot of variant artwork (the covers are pretty awesome), and a foreword (at the end) from Brian K. Vaughan. I was just expecting more. Maybe an interview with Whedon, or a commentary or something. Just something more. But then, some Marvel Omnibus collections are better than others, I suppose.

They appear to be Russian into things...

Whedon’s run isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn great. Awesome, in fact. Although my head tells my that Morrison’s New X-Men run is a far more stimulating read and a far more satisfying exploration of the concept, I can see myself going back and reading Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men much more frequently. It’s a very well put together little book and certainly one of the highlights of the X-Men franchise over the past decade.

2 Responses

  1. Whedon, unlike other writers, really knows what to do with Cyclops as a character. As my favorite character it was always disappointing to see him get the short end of the stick regarding storyline, especially in X-3.

    • I think that Whedon gave Cyclops his own “secondary mutation”: the power of being a badass. It really is a definitive take on the character, and one long over due. I think the way Cyclops was treated is what really left a bad taste in my mouth about X-Men III, as if to say, “you’re not a big enough star, Marsters, so here’s Wolverine, the would-be adulterer, to teach us the meaning of true love”.

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