Why Joss Whedon’s “Astonishing X-Men” Is a Must Read

A lot of these people aren't actually involved.

A lot of these people aren’t actually involved.

Silverwolf:  Hello everyone and welcome to another awesome comic discussion! I’m Silverwolf!

Elessar: I’m Elessar and I think you and I have met before…

Silverwolf: Yes…probably somewhere? Anyway down to business! Today we’re here to talk about what is, arguably, the best run X-Men has ever had: Astonishing X-Men by a sort-of kind-of famous guy Joss Whedon. I think he directed some successful movie at some point?

Elessar:  The Avengers I think it was? Either that or Alien: Ressurection. He’s also worked on some TV shows, I think. Something called Buffy? What kind of stupid name is that?

Silverwolf: Well, people can check his Wikipedia page if they want. Anywho, why don’t we start talking about what makes Astonishing X-Men such a great series. I think the best thing to start off by saying is that you and I, like most people who grew up in the 1990s, were introduced to the X-Men from the awesome animated show which was amazing in so many ways.

Elessar: I was pretty heavily into the X-Men Animated Show as a kid, but I think the thing that really cemented the X-Men as one of my favorite superhero teams was X2. I think it was, at the time, the best superhero film ever made and probably still one of my favorites.

Silverwolf: Agreed, X2 is definitely the high point of the film franchise thus far. I have to say that the animated show, X2, and Astonishing have one very key thing in common: they get to the core of what makes the X-Men appealing. These three different forms of media all wrestled with the “mutant issue,” while showcasing a solid, core team.

Elessar: See one thing I think Astonishing X-Men did that even the animated series didn’t do very well is keeping the team small and their power levels manageable. The X-Men work best when they have a wide variety of powers, but not a huge number of members and aren’t too powerful. It’s hard to feel for them as underdogs when they’ve got people who can blow up the world. By keeping the team as just Shadowcat, Wolverine, Cyclops, Emma Frost and Beast (and later Colossus) it kept the team and their power levels manageable and helped everyone to have a role in the story.

I actually think Beast is showing more skin than Emma.

I actually think Beast is showing more skin than Emma.

Silverwolf: I definitely agree. It gives the team diversity, while still preventing them from solving every problem in five seconds or forces them to be pitted against God-like entities every time. I think the core team for Astonishing was especially good because it was essentially a “classic” team, just with Emma Frost in place of Jean Grey. Given that the White Queen has an actual personality, this was definitely a good choice (rather than, say, resurrect Jean for the 15th time).

Elessar: Oh Jean Grey. Someone with more knowledge of Marvel continuity should write an essay on how badly the Dark Phoenix thing damaged the X-Men continuity, long term. But one thing I’ve noticed, that they changed from the classic team is that they sidelined Professor X. I think that’s because he tends to make things too easy, as noted by all of the X-Men movies working hard to sideline him by the end of the second act.

Silverwolf: Yeah, Professor X, and similar Jean, fall into the problem category you mentioned earlier. Both are just too darn powerful. When you have characters like that, what can you really have the rest of the team DO?

Elessar: Well you generally have to scale the threat up so that they need more help, at which point the secondary people tend to become useless. This is known as the Justice League issue.

Silverwolf: Ah yes, and then we get the Batman Problem, where you need to make the weaker characters do some kind of ridiculous, BS thing to justify them being there. Best example ever was in Superman/Batman “Absolute Power,” where Batman’s role was essentially “knock away the kryptonite.

Elessar: Yeah. This is one of the reasons Wolverine’s power level tends to get kind of ridiculous occasionally. Astonishing didn’t have that issue, because Wolverine’s actual powerset was kept under control. I remember once in volume 4 I think, where he’d gotten hit pretty hard in a fall and had to sit there and wait for himself to heal. That’s more interesting than “I can be melted down to my bones and still survive.

Silverwolf: Yeah, it was also a funny scene, which makes me realize we forgot to mention another great part of Astonishing: it introduced the world to Armor, who had a great persona combined with a really interesting power set.

Elessar: I’ve not kept up with her since Joss stopped writing for Astonishing, but she and Blindfold were definitely standouts in the student characters. And speaking of standouts, I’ll definitely give Joss this: He might be the only person I know who can write Cyclops and make him interesting.

Silverwolf: I agree 100%! Cyclops is a rather problematic character: he’s the first X-Man, is the team’s leader, the de facto successor of Xavier’s legacy (which has been…derailed a bit in recent years), but he’s just so damn vanilla. I think Whedon cued in to the fact that, at the end of the day, you need someone like Cyclops as the leader. Sure, he may not be as edgy as Wolverine or as smart as Beast, but he knows how to balance all the disparate personalities of his teammates and instruct them on how to use their skills to reach their full potential.

Elessar: Well as Buffy proved on a couple occasions, Joss knows how to make superpowered people seem relateable and balance team dynamics, but I think it goes deeper than that. Volume 3 (I can’t remember the names of the volumes) really went deep in Cyclops psyche and managed to make him and his backstory really interesting, in a way I haven’t seen done a lot.

Silverwolf: That’s true. There was a hole analysis of the core of his character which went back to his youth, which I think is very important. I think Whedon did that a tiny bit with Wolverine as well…though in a much more humorous way when he was mind controlled.

I could give this more context, but I won't.

I could give this more context, but I won’t.

Elessar: I think a lot of that was poking fun at the way Wolverine is treated by the fanbase. He really boiled Wolverine all the way down to his roots, made him a fairly straightforward (if well written) brute and kept him there. I think it worked though; Wolverine has a tendency to overpower a lot of narratives if not kept under control.

Silverwolf: You might say he…peeled Wolverine down to his bones? Eh? Eh?

Elessar: No. No we wouldn’t.

Silverwolf: But in all seriousness, Wolverine is a character who is wildly popular, but most of his fans point to the same two or three Wolverine stories. Sadly, the vast majority of Wolverine stories usually end up as “I’m running into this person from my past, he or she in unpleasant, they’re going to physically hurt me a lot, then I’ll win and learn nothing. The end.”

Elessar: I could make a joke about how comic books tend to be repetitive, but yeah, good Wolverine stories tend to be in short supply lately, which is a shame because since he’s one of their most popular characters, he’s in freaking EVERYTHING!

Silverwolf: He’s the best he is at what he does (selling comics), but rumor has it Marvel is actually going to kill Wolverine off later this year. I mean…as if that’s supposed to shock anyone.

Elessar: Yes and I’m sure that is one character death they will stick to. No ressurection for him. But we’re getting off topic.

Silverwolf: Very true. I think we’ve touched on a lot of the writing of Astonishing, care to comment on the art?

Elessar: I’m…not an art expert, so I’m not certain. I think it was well drawn, although of the comics expert of the two of us, you’d probably have more to say on that subject than me.

Silverwolf: I suppose so. Personally, I think John Cassady did great work on the series, from the opening issues in the Xavier School all the way up through the coolest Fastball Special ever (on a planet full of crazy gladiators, no less). I’ve not seen Cassaday’s work elsewhere, which I think is a shame since he’s rather talented.

Elesssar: Hm. I think he had some interesting design, especially on some of the secondary students and aliens (like Blindfold or the dragon type thing who worked with SWORD). It’s just a shame the design on the aliens was so…I dunno if bland is the word for it. Cliche?

Good use of a Sentinel too.

Good use of a Sentinel too.

Silverwolf: Yeah I guess that’s true. The inhabitants of Breakworld weren’t exactly super memorable, but if that’s the low-point of the art it’s really not a big deal. Though I realize something that IS a big deal: we almost forgot to mention this series introduced Danger

Elessar: I did like Danger’s story arc a lot. She was a really interesting take on a staple of the franchise and a pretty fascinating charactet to boot. I’d never really thought about the Danger Room in any depth before, and the fact that it occured to them to make the Danger Room a character was pretty billiant. Did Marvel continuity stick to that at all or did they just ignore it?

Silverwolf: Oh, they stuck with it! Danger is still around, and is a member of the new X-Factor, in fact. I think they’re currently implying she has a crush on Gambit which is…interesting, but I’m getting off topic again. Overall, I think Danger was a great idea for a character, since the X-Men excel at having really weird characters join their team. The fact her powers and weakness were unique were another plus.

Elessar: Well everyone has a crush on Gambit. Comics Gambit that is, not the…unholy thing from that unholy movie that no one liked.

Silverwolf: Haha very true. We’ll reserve a discussion about Gambit for another day (since he is probably my favorite X-Man). Anyway, any closing thoughts on Astonishing?

Elessar: Not a ton of closing thoughts. I stopped reading Marvel around Civil War and DC around Countdown and only return for very specific things like Runaways or Secret Six. But I think Joss’ run on Astonishing X-Men was really excellent, and a good primer for what he’d do with Avengers. And what he did to Shadowcat is a good primer for what to expect for Age of Ultron. Take it from someone who has 7 Seasons of Buffy on his DVD shelf: Do. Not. Trust him.

Silverwolf: I think that’s true. I’m looking at YOU, Iron Man! Anyway, that’s all for this week’s roundtable! Join us next time for another awesome discussion about pop culture! Have a good one, Moar Powah fans!

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