Astonishing X-Men (Whedon/Cassaday Run)

Note: This is a review of the first four volumes of Astonishing X-Men (2004): Gifted, Dangerous, Torn, and Unstoppable.

Picking up after the events of The Dark Phoenix Saga, Astonishing X-Men attempts to bring the group back together into something that resembles a team. Cyclops and Emma Frost run the school supported by Beast while Wolverine and Kitty Pride return to the school with some amount of skepticism. Tensions rise between the group, but when an alien known as Ord shows up, the group is forced to work together.

As one would expect from the lead writer of shows like Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, Astonishing X-Men flourishes when it comes to character interactions. The rising tensions between the characters and the dialogue is smartly written. Whedon gets a lot of traction out of the characters and their conflicts.

Most notable is his treatment of Cyclops/Scott Summers. He’s often written as a boy-scout and a bit stuck up, and he’s still that way here. However, Whedon teases out his self-doubt and apprehensions while also recognizing the elements that make Scott worthy to be a leader. Even in spite of those apprehensions, Scott has a level head and often doesn’t jump to conclusions.

However, where the book starts to unravel is the absolutely abysmal plotting. The series starts with the Ord threat, but then shifts to a new threat when everyone discovers that a “cure” has been developed for the mutants. Only an issue or two after this idea is introduced, it’s shuffled away for another plot altogether.

The Danger Room becomes a sentient robot that wants to kill all the X-men, a new version of the Hellfire Club is using Emma Frost to infiltrate the school, and an organization known as S.W.O.R.D. is attempting to deal with Ord. While in and of themselves, none of these are particularly bad plot strings, the way Whedon organizes them makes for this jumbled, unfocused flow where the story schizophrenically jumps from one to the other.

It’s also disappointing that the book never quite seems to decide what it wants to be. The long running X-Men series is notable for its social commentary on the marginalized, and Whedon teases that idea here before crafting an action adventure decontextualized from the larger world. It’s disappointing to get a strong sense of world context only to have it all tossed away for a mind-numbing action-heavy book.

If that sounds like criticizing the book for what it isn’t, it’s more of a criticism that the book does a bait and switch that results in something Whedon’s not great at writing. As big action comics go, there are many comic writers who do a better job of making epic, intergalactic stories. Whedon works better in more personal contexts and the more he gets into an intergalactic storyline, the less interesting the book becomes.

On the art side of the book there’s not as much to say simply because Cassaday’s art is a lot more consistent and stronger than Whedon’s writing. As an artist, Cassaday’s strength is in drawing characters. His background can sometimes be a bit too simplistic, but those make his character designs stand out even more. And it’s the use of colors and the way he makes the tones and hues play off each other that brings everything to life.

As superhero comic books go, Astonishing X-Men is weak. While there’s some great character interactions, the storyline is not there. Great characters can only go so far in a weak story, and the story here only becomes weaker and weaker with each passing issue. It’s never bad, but its glimmers of greatness only make the overall result of mediocrity that more disappointing.

© 2015 James Blake Ewing