Some readers may flinch at the very scent of a superhero comicbook. Decades of flat artwork, turgid prose and hypertrophied subplots have frightened off all but a handful of masochists from the world of capes and glutes.
It’s a trend Marvel Comics means to change.
Letting, as Comics Journal managing editor Dirk Deppey calls it, “the Hidden Hand of the Marketplace” guide its affairs, Marvel last summer set fists to teats on its fattest cash cow (X-Men), milking its glorified franchise in a campaign of reinvention dubbed X-Men: Reload.
With the X-movie buzz dying away between sequels, the object of the campaign was to strafe the marketplace with product — a handful of new titles and reshuffled creative teams (including diarrheal X-writer-in-residence Chris Claremont) on the half-dozen extant X-books — in the hopes of lodging a few in people’s regular reading lists. The move also extended an olive branch — hell, a whole jar — to new readers, opening an entry point (in the parlance of the marketing X-ecs) that wasn’t crammed with backstory and didn’t reek of stale ideas.
The coup was the rustling-up of wundermann TV writer Joss Whedon, 40-year-old creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Known for his saucy banter and acute characterizations, Whedon was set loose on a new title, Astonishing X-Men. A fanboy himself — he says he based Buffy on osmotic X-Woman Kitty Pryde — Whedon dove in fully dressed and set out on a story arc that has now been collected in trade paperback.
The graphic novel — well, not exactly, but what passes for one in the Marvel/DC nomenclature — Astonishing X-Men Vol. 1: Gifted comprises the first six issues of Whedon’s purported 12-book run, though it makes a satisfying narrative on its own. And as an X-world welcome to the uninformed, it’s as friendly as a drugged kitten.
The series’ basic premise is a trope long familiar to X-readers: a biologist has found a cure for the mutant gene, and a small core of X-Men are wrestling with the implications, the attention and a spinach-faced alien that’s been terrorizing high society and the denizens of Charles Xavier’s infamous school for the paranormally inclined.
Whedon exploits the inherited premise of a functional mutant community (comprised of such amusing members as a boy who’s far too shellfish and a man who can replicate himself down to his sweater lint), and draws the obvious and popular parallel to prejudice in the real world. It’s a reliable hook, and gives the tale at least a coverlet of realism, an essential part of its mandate to attract non-genre readers.
As advertised, Whedon brings to the franchise a cool, casual pace — no portentous narration or numbing exposition crammed into voluminous speech balloons — and a sparkling sense of character and dialogue. Emma Frost’s icy Brit banter (“Now get into the Danger Room before I make you bloody tango”), Wolverine’s uncouth ejaculations (“I ain’t up to anything don’t have the word ‘beer’ in it”) and so on, are all lovingly rendered in the most filial tones. He makes Scott Summers (a.k.a. Cyclops) a mildly crotchety Kevin Bacon; Dr. Henry McCoy (Beast) is Wilford Brimley bubbling with growth hormone; and there’s a twist at the end: the late arrival of a popular character once thought extinct, victim to Marvel’s purging of the X-universe several years ago (before the publisher’s brass had second thoughts about thinning the ranks).
But the star of the show, little surprise to those who know Whedon, is Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat). She’s the first X-Person the reader encounters, and it’s through her baby browns that the drama unfurls. Whedon saves her the frothiest fulminations (“I’m sorry. You have to know that if you’re a clone or a robot or, yeah, a ghost or an alternate universe thingie, I can deal…”), and it amounts to a reasonably convincing character sketch, with frailty and backbone both. In fact, all the assembled — down to incidental characters like the students at Charles X — have a semblance of personality, a rarity to be treasured in a genre overrun with simulacra.
Whedon scripts some great action scenes, too, including a fan-sating tangle between Wolverine and Beast that lasts six canine-bearing pages. It’s all handled gamely by artist John Cassaday, and particularly colourist Laura Martin, who enlivens nearly every panel with stunning nuance. Astonishing X-Men doesn’t muffle the subject’s inherent silliness. But silly, well done, is well worth reading.