X-Men films generally miss the mark on what makes the X-Men such a compelling superhero team. As mutants, people who are hated and feared for being different, the X-Men each represent a sense of alienation in society. Many minority groups can relate to this idea of marginalization, from religious affiliations to sexual orientations. The X-Men represent the idea of rising above discrimination, choosing to be better by protecting a world that hates and fears them. They choose to be who they want to be, rather than who people think they are. What makes the X-Men special, however, is in the bond which they all share in this common feeling of isolation. These extraordinary individuals come together to become a family. It is the dynamic within this family which is so compelling, as the differences within the group truly shine, along with their differences from other groups. Despite individual differences, the X-Men act as a group that loves and accepts each other for who they are.
Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men captures all of these great aspects in a fun, modern approach to Marvel’s mutants. Anyone familiar with Whedon’s work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly knows that he excels when it comes to strange, sci-fi concepts. Whedon is also an expert at writing group dynamics, giving unique and humorous voices to each character. This 24 issue run is also the perfect jumping-on point for new readers. Not only does this run modernize the X-Men, but it streamlines the roster to 6 central characters (along with one new recruit). This gives the reader a chance to get to know the X-Men individually. This run is also a modernized tribute to the “classic” years of the X-Men, when Chris Claremont defined the team. For those who do not have time to read that excellent 16 year run, however, Whedon’s run encapsulates the spirit of the Claremont years pefectly (although I cannot speak highly enough of Claremont’s work).
On an individual level, each X-Man is provided with distinctly appealing traits. Cyclops, the X-Men’s leader, has truly come into his own in this run. He is more than just the obedient, bland, Boy Scout archetype which the movies label him. Whedon’s Cyclops is an experienced, visionary, strategic leader of the team, moving them forward into a new era. Cyclops steps out of Professor Xavier’s shadow to become a true leader of mutantkind. Beast, another founding X-Man, is the classic genius on the team. More than that, he is optimistic, charming, and sympathetic. Despite his rather beastly appearance, Hank McCoy still retains much of his humanity, endearing him to the reader.
Of course, like in any X-Men team, Wolverine must be included, and he is a real treat. Used in sparing doses, Wolverine is a no-nonsense man of action, with some genuinely funny moments. As the story goes on, Logan is even shown to have some surprising moments of heart, mentoring young recruit Armor as a new X-Man. Classic X-Man Colossus returns as well, embodying the simplicity of a Russian farmboy who was plucked into the wild world of mutantkind. Colossus continues to be the endearing, loyal muscle of the group, signifying someone who has found family with the X-Men.
New characters such as Emma Frost are included as well. Frost, a reformed villain, is given a biting wit, showing a lingering flair of nastiness in her attitude. Although Frost is seemingly holding on to her villainous attitude, Whedon still gives small glimpses into her desire to be better. New recruit Armor stands in for the audience, struggling to navigate her way around the world of the X-Men. Despite her struggles, Armor is given heroic moments to shine, demonstrating the true power of becoming an X-Man. The real star of the show, however, is Kitty Pryde. An X-Man since she was 13, Pryde is all grown up in this run, and fully formed. Whedon nails the smart, witty, and tough-as-nails personality of Kitty Pryde, and the reader can tell how much he enjoys writing the character. Pryde is the glue that holds this whole run together, exemplifying the strength and compassion behind being an X-Man.
It is the idea of what it means to be an X-Man which drives this whole run. From the beginning, Whedon speaks through Cyclops, clarifying that the X-Men are “a team. A superhero team”. This involves all of the bright, colorful, flashy costumes that come with the title. It is the colorful, heroic aspects of the X-Men which shine in this run, something the films are sorely lacking. For the first time in years, the X-Men return to these colorful costumes, re-establishing themselves as a force for good in the eyes of the public. The overarching theme of publicity calls back to the main idea of the X-Men: protecting a world that hates and fears them. Whedon has the X-Men brightly showing the world who they truly are, rather than the monsters which society sees them as.
In the spirit of larger-than-life superheroics, the X-Men tackle some of their biggest threats yet. Ord, an alien from the planet Breakworld, comes to Earth, as a prime example of the very things from which the X-Men protect humanity. In one issue, the X-Men are even shown fighting the Mole Man and his monsters alongside the Fantastic Four. This small moment in the run reintegrates the X-Men as heroes within the larger Marvel Universe. On a more personal level, the X-Men must also contend with their own Danger Room turning against them. This threat illuminates the darker history of Professor Xavier, forcing the team to question the idealized notion of their founder. The Hellfire Club, a longstanding villainous organization, also make their move, attacking the X-Men psychologically. This attack allows Whedon to display each of the X-Men’s worst fears, giving a greater insight into each individual character (Wolverine’s fear is hilarious). The most serious threat, however, comes in the form of a mutant “cure” presented to the public. This stirs debate not only within society, but within the X-Men themselves. As a result, Whedon highlights the true struggles of being a mutant in society, seen as a disease to be cured. The X-Men, as a result, must rise above this label and show the world how mutants are no disease, but extraordinary forces for good.
Like any great team book, Astonishing X-Men has some phenomenal character interactions. Whedon presents classic relationships such as Cyclops and Wolverine’s rivalry/begrudging respect, Kitty and Colossus’ star-crossed romance, the surrogate father/daughter dynamic of Wolverine and Kitty Pryde, and Cyclops and Beast’s longtime friendship from the original X-Men. Additionally, Whedon creates new dynamics within the team, especially with the addition of Emma Frost and Armor. Cyclops and Emma are depicted as a mature couple who must also work together as co-headmasters of Xavier’s school, Kitty and Emma have a sharp, bitter antagonism from Emma’s villainous days, and Wolverine even gains a new role as a mentor for new recruit Armor. As stated before, Whedon is an expert at characterization and group dynamics, elements which are at the core of the X-Men’s appeal. The different personalities make for an exciting team which is already so different from most of society.
John Cassaday’s artwork cannot go without praise. The vibrant, 3D imagery in each panel nearly pops off of the page. Cassaday is also given the hefty task of modernizing the classic X-Men costumes, which he accomplishes in great style. Each of the X-Men are given the heroic, colorful look befitting the themes of Whedon’s run. Cassaday also excels at fast-paced, cinematic action scenes, where the illustrations truly speak for themselves. Furthermore, the range of scenes from the horror-esque to the over-the-top sci-fi, truly demonstrate how varied Cassaday’s talent is.
Whedon and Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men is everything the X-Men should be. They stand as a group of extraordinary individuals, protecting a world that hates and fears them. The colorful costumes and bold heroics exemplify the true nature of the X-Men as a group who rises above how society would label them. Additionally, the X-Men are a family. Each member brings something different to the table, as each individual is unique. These distinct personalities exemplify a true family, not only alleviating the loneliness and isolation of the world at large, but coming together and becoming more than what you could on your own.
If you happen to enjoy Astonishing X-Men, here’s a few more X-recommendations:
- The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont and John Byrne
- Days of Future Past by Chris Claremont and John Byrne
- X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont
- Honestly, all of Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont
- New X-Men by Grant Morrison
- Wolverine and the X-Men by Jason Aaron
That’s all for this week! Thanks for reading! If you like this blog, be sure to share with your friends, and check back next week for the latest recommendation!