Graphic Detail takes an in-depth look at a new graphic novel or trade paperback released each week.
In 2004, Marvel Comics needed a way to follow up their cutting-edge New X-Men series from superstars Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. While that run had been a critical success, fan reaction grew mixed towards its conclusion, and Marvel felt it was best to embrace a new direction with their flagship X-Men title. Morrison had emphasized the cultural and educational aspects of the Xavier School for Higher Learning, playing down the X-Men's role as superheroes and taking away their costumes in favor of hip, minimalist black leather. It was a great idea, but perhaps one that had run its course; Marvel wanted to get back to the flashy heroics of earlier X-Men comics and try to win back some of the readers who'd felt abandoned by Morrison. To do it, they hired probably the best two people they could have for the job: on pencils the incredibly realistic-drawing John Cassaday (Planetary), and to write the book a gentleman by the name of Joss Whedon.
Though anyone who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel could deduce Whedon's nerdy proclivities, Astonishing X-Men was the TV vet's first serious foray into monthly comics storytelling. But while not everyone who makes that transition does it successfully, Whedon had nothing to worry about. Everything you love about Buffy and Angel makes it into Astonishing X-Men, but Whedon also makes it clear that he knows his comics. He's writing for X-Men fans and for his own fans… he's writing for everybody. And he doesn't let anyone down.
Joss Whedon's 24-issue run on Astonishing X-Men is probably the best set of X-Men comics ever… and there's a lot of competition. Yesterday, Marvel released the first half of those comics into one softcover volume, and that volume offers the perfect example of X-Men storytelling.
This book is divided into two stories. The first six chapters are called "The Cure," and are just mind-blowingly awesome (they kind of form the basis for X-Men 3, but we don't have to talk about that). Here, a geneticist named Dr. Kavita Rao comes up with a cure for mutancy that actually works, and mutants around the globe are forced to decide whether or not they should sacrifice their powers for a "normal" life, if such a thing is even possible. This story hits at the very core of the X-Men's existence—these are characters hated and feared for being different, yet they make the most of their strange conditions and actually make the world a better place for it. Should they give that up to have an easy life? Would you?
The second story's entitled "Danger." In it, the X-Men's artificial intelligence training ground called the Danger Room actually gains sentience, and its goal is to do the one thing it's never been able to before—kill the X-Men. This story, while not quite as successful as "The Cure" (what could be?), still makes a lot of interesting points both about the X-Men's history and philosophy. It also introduces a startling new villain that Whedon makes use of in the final 12 issues of his epic.
Devotees of Buffy and Angel (you know who you are) should really dig Whedon's work here. We all know how much he loves strong female characters, and that comes out in his focus on Kitty Pryde (aka Shadowcat), a mutant who can phase through solid objects. Though Whedon's got some major players of the X-Men universe to work with (Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast, Colossus and Emma Frost round out his team) Shadowcat's clearly his favorite, and she gets a lot of this book's best moments. There's also a lot of humor to be had here. For instance, Whedon plays up the fact that Wolverine is basically a one-note character by turning him into a scrappy brawler whose favorite thing in the world is beer. Hey, every team needs one of those guys.
Complementing Whedon's script perfectly is John Cassaday's art; this guy is incredible! The way he draws faces, especially, is among the most realistic in comics; the people in his books look like you could know them, even if they're monstrously furry cat people like Beast.
For people who wish we covered Marvel Comics more, hey, here's your moment. We've got nothing but praise for Whedon and Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men, which is a consistently entertaining, beautiful and thought-provoking read. Buffy fans, X-Men fans, check this out! Now, Marvel, how about that volume two? A