Astonishing X-Men, Volume One: Gifted (Issues 1-6) and Astonishing X-Men, Volume 2: Dangerous (Issues 7-12) by Joss Whedon (writer) and John Cassaday (artist)
These two Astonishing X-Men trade collections by Joss Whedon — Gifted and Dangerous — make a great introduction either to superhero comics in general or to X-Men comics specifically. There are some goods reasons Joss Whedon was chosen to write and direct the latest Avengers movie, and one of them must be his incredible work on these twelve issues of Astonishing X-Men in 2004 and 2005. Joss Whedon, known for his excellent dialogue in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, shows off that talent in this book with great wit and economy of writing. It’s also a fast-paced action comic about six main X-Men — Cyclops, Emma Frost, Beast, Wolverine, Shadowcat, and Colossus — running Professor Xaxier’s school for mutants.
Why start your X-Men reading with this series? First, it solves one of the major problems of superhero comics: Often these long-established comics are difficult to start reading as an adult because many of us did not grow up reading comics, and the idea of picking up a series of comic books that are based on plot-lines and in-jokes going back to the 60s or earlier is overwhelming. The many similarly-named X-Men titles lead to even more confusion for the uninitiated than other less prolific superhero titles: Does one start with Astonishing X-Men, New X-Men, Ultimate X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, X-Force, or other various titles with X in them? Many trades collect multiple issues from Uncanny X-Men AND other series. To make matters more confusing, a trade might list X-Men on the cover and spine of the book, but the collection is actually made up of Uncanny X-Men issues. Though there were a few previous comics with the label Astonishing X-Men attached to them, you can’t go wrong if you get Astonishing X-Men books with Joss Whedon’s name on them.
Another solution Whedon offers concerns the problem of crossovers. A comic book series is often part of large company crossovers that require knowledge of events going on in the Avengers or other titles. In Astonishing X-Men, however, Joss Whedon managed to get Marvel to allow him to write his own plots while ignoring most other titles and crossover events in other X-Men titles and the Marvel Universe. For those new to comics, this approach is quite a relief. In this comic book, for example, Whedon introduces Shadowcat as she walks in late to the faculty’s opening address to the student body. The setting is clear, and the various tensions and comraderie among the different characters is apparent: Shadowcat and Emma Frost don’t like each other; Emma and Cyclops like each other a lot; and Wolverine is willing to fight with about anybody, particularly males. Any other backstory we need to know as readers is given to us quickly in flashbacks and conversations.
Astonishing X-Men, therefore, is a great title to start with because one isn’t required to have previous knowledge to enjoy it. However, the series doesn’t exist within a vacuum. I’ve been told that it builds on Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. Perhaps I’m revealing more than I want in admitting I haven’t read his work yet (I’ve got it sitting on my shelf, though), but I was actually curious for the purposes of writing this column to see if Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men would hold up on its own without having read Morrison’s series. My goal was to read the first six issues and write a review ONLY if I saw they were worth recommending. The result: I couldn’t stop after issue six. I had to keep reading. I even had trouble stopping at issue twelve. Obviously, since I’m writing this review, I think these comics are well worth your time (I rarely waste my time writing about and your time reading reviews about bad books).
Though the two books have been collected into one book — Astonishing X-Men: Ultimate Collection, Book One — these first twelve issues have two clear story arcs. The first story deals with the possibility of a cure for mutants. If you are as unfamiliar with the Marvel Universe as I was, you’ll want to know the mutants’ place in Marvel’s imaginative reality: A mutant is genetically born with his ability (even if it doesn’t manifest itself until later in life) and differs greatly from characters like those in the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Spiderman, and The Hulk, all of whom were changed by some kind of accident or experiment. Then there are the characters like Thor, Loki, and Odin incorporated into the Marvel universe from Norse mythology. Finally, other than some human characters like Nick Fury and The Punisher, there are aliens and cosmic beings: the Skrulls, the Kree, Galactus, Silver Surfer, some members of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thanos.
Basically, the mutants can be used in two primary ways in Marvel story-telling: 1) Their abilities are used to tell typical stories about superheroes saving us from nature or bad guys, or 2) Their genetic difference as mutants is used to represent biological, and sometimes ideological, differences for which they are persecuted. Therefore, the first basic plot of the first story is more controversial than it sounds: Whedon is using the story to ask what genetic differences are acceptable in our society. The “difference” of the mutant gene has been used by Marvel writers to represent a variety of “differences” for which groups of people have been historically persecuted, include Jews and African-Americans. In this story, obviously, Whedon wants us to be disturbed along with many of the X-Men that some mutants want the cure, which is labeled “Hope” by the drug manufacturer. If you substitue “Jew” or “African-American” for “Mutant,” this desire for “Hope” on the part of mutants is very disturbing in its real-world implications. But I like that Whedon doesn’t keep the story simple: The fact that even the X-Men are divided by the news of this cure leads us to see that Whedon wants us to empathize with those who have been treated as less than human for their differences.
The first story leads straight into the second, and I want to say very little about it because it took me by surprise, and I don’t want to ruin the fun for you. The pace of the series really picks up momentum in this second story arc, and the X-Men face one hell of an opponent. There is a ton of fighting, as is usual for an X-Men title, but Whedon is smart in giving one of the best reasons for all that fighting in this title. It actually makes more sense on a logical level in this comic than most superhero comics I’ve ever read. Whedon also asks one of those important two questions asked over and over by Philip K. Dick, one of the greatest science fiction writers in dealing with ideas: What is reality? and What makes us human? I won’t tell you which question is asked in this second story arc. But I’m sure PKD would have enjoyed this one.
Finally, the art is well-suited to the storytelling. It doesn’t call attention to itself unless it needs to, mainly in the large splash pages. Everybody wants to see some Sentinels in an X-Men title, and Whedon gives John Cassaday the chance to show off some gigantic, menacing Sentinels, rising from the past. But mainly, Cassady’s strength is in giving us large-scale, movie-screen style panels as he did with Warren Ellis in Planetary. Though I prefer the more trippy style of Cassaday in Planetary, his work here is necessarily more realistic: We end up believing that the X-Men really have these abilities, particularly that Beast looks like a Blue Beast and that Colossus can actually make his skin turn metallic.
If you’ve read some X-Men titles and want a new one to try, check this one out. If you’ve never read X-Men comics but have enjoyed seeing them on the big screen, this is one of the best places to start (though there are a few others I’ll recommend and review in the future). I suggest buying the Ultimate Collection. You’ll want to jump right into issues 7-12 as soon as you finish issue 6. And I’ll be surprised if you don’t also pick up Whedon’s next two story arcs — Torn and Unstoppable — either as separate volumes or as Astonishing X-Men: Ultimate Collection, Book 2, collecting issues 13-24 and Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men 1. The series is ongoing. It was picked up after Whedon by Warren Ellis, who was followed by Daniel Way and then Christos Gage. It was then written by one of the few female writers of mainstream superhero comics: Marjorie Liu. I’m up to issue 16 and have no plans on stopping anytime soon. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.