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Sunday Slugfest - Astonishing X-Men #6

Posted: Sunday, November 7, 2004
By: Keith Dallas

“Gifted: Part Six”

Writer: Joss Whedon
Artist: John Cassaday

Publisher: Marvel Comics





Average Rating: 8/10

Bob Agamemnon:
Jason Cornwell:
Dominic Davies:
Kelvin Green:
Shawn Hill:
Shaun Manning:






Bob Agamemnon

Plot: Nick Fury’s involvement with the current X-Men baddie, Ord of the Breakworld, is explained, and when the latter flees, he is treated to the liberal application (or threat thereof) of adamantium claws. An unsettling conversation between Emma Frost and an unknown party promises to launch the book into its next story arc.

Comments: When sifting through discussion about the endless and oft-lamented glut of X-titles Marvel is currently publishing, it never takes long to come across the most hotly contested question: Who is the heir to Grant Morrison (if such a creature is even possible or, indeed, desirable)? The current output of the myriad X-pens at Marvel ranges from the nostalgia-rich but bland Chris Claremont to the simply unreadable Chuck Austen. But the name that has generated the most buzz is “Joss Whedon.”

There are those who maintain that Whedon, creator of the gone-but-never-forgotten Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, was the only reason to own a television set for the last eight years. However, when it was announced that he would helm the premiere X-Men “Reload” book, some comic-book readers feared that Cyclops would suddenly start speaking like Xander Harris and that all of the gravitas Morrison had brought to the title— along with the psychedelic physics of his sci-fi plots (sentient bacteria, anyone?)—would be washed away with a blast of trivial teen-talk. Others saw Whedon as the ideal magnet for drawing fresh readers into the world of comics, particularly since his tenure on Astonishing X-Men would coincide with the first Whedon-free TV season in years.

With issue #6, which marks both the midway point in this run and the conclusion of the first story arc, some comic enthusiasts will still insist that Whedon is good, but not that good. They will likely, however, recede into the minority. This issue demonstrates the strengths that have been consistently present since the first issue. The tense stand-off between the X-Men and S.H.I.E.L.D. and S.W.O.R.D. agents over the body of the injured Ord at the beginning of the issue is handled with such smoothness that one hardly notices that four pages of exposition have gone by without a hint of action. The voices of Emma Frost, Wolverine, Beast, and Nick Fury are captured with a perfect ear; the humorous jabs (Beast: “The government and their acronyms . . . honestly, it’s adorable”) provide rhythm for the showdown without adding a drop of frivolity. These jokes are dead serious, right at home with Kitty Pryde’s unflinching demand of Nick “Bad-Ass of the Marvel Universe” Fury: “This is Peter Nikolaievitch Rasputin. And you owe him the goddamn truth.”

Writing, of course, is not the only strength of this issue. Many in the comics audience would buy a book scripted by an illiterate monkey if it were drawn by the highly (and rightly) esteemed John Cassaday. In many ways, Cassaday is the perfect artist for Whedon. The scene described above would never have been so successful had it been presented merely as rows of talking heads. There is a clarity of composition and a sense of motion in the arrangement of the frames which brings to mind a masterfully edited sequence of video. In last week’s Planetary #21, Cassaday accomplished a similar feat on a much grander scale by turning in a riveting 22-page conversation between Elijah Snow and a dreadlocked peyote “scientist.”

This is not to say that Astonishing X-Men #6 is all talk. Cassaday and Whedon deliver the X-action efficiently and dramatically. A double page spread of Wolverine hurling through the fiery air in pursuit of the fleeing Ord is followed by a concise confrontation. Everyone has seen Wolverine fight (last week, he fought for 11 pages in his own book), and Cassaday realizes that this character’s battles are a matter of gesture rather than a minute tracking of his every move. By combining a strong shot of one of his poses with clever use of the claws, Cassaday satisfies his readers’ desire for action, and the drama retains its momentum.

So is the Whedon/Cassaday team the one true torch-bearing duo of Grant Morrison’s radical overhaul of the X-Men? Not at all, and who cares? The frenetic pace of those now-old New X-Men stories, and the cosmic-scale drama they recounted, have been replaced by a more human-sized approach in which relationships between characters have taken on a powerful and realistic tone. The success of creative visions as diverse as these—and on the same title—is a testament to the greatness and the flexibility of the X-Men. Regardless of how many copies of “X-Dudes” and “X-Etera” we have to suffer through, each era seems to produce its own great X-Men stories to tell.





Jason Cornwell

Plot:
As the X-Men find their efforts to take out Ord are hindered by the arrival of S.H.I.E.L.D., the group is given the back story for the villain. They then learn Ord has a very good reason for wanting to wipe the mutant race off the map, as a mutant is destined to destroy his home world. However, in spite of a looming intergalactic war, the X-Men decide Ord attacks on mutants need to be stopped.

Comments:
Having the villain’s motivation explained by a third party did rob it of a great deal of its emotional impact, but Ord does become a far more engaging character after his actions are explained, and I look forward to the follow-up. There’s also a great little moment where we see the wholesale destruction of a populated planet by the Dark Phoenix returns to haunt the X-Men, though I’m sure continuity obsessed readers are bound to point out that Dark Phoenix wasn’t Jean Grey. However, this doesn’t make the scene any
less enjoyable, as the X-Men have been effectively told that one of their number is going to destroy a populated planet, and they aren’t allowed to dismiss it out of hand, as they know it has happened before. The issue is also littered with a number of cute dialogue exchanges that make Joss Whedon’s work a personal favourite of mine, as how can one not smile at the response that is offered up when Jean’s death is brought up, and the
interaction between the X-Men & Nick Fury produced some amusing back and forth exchanges. The big action scene was also well presented, as the fastball special makes a memorable return in this issue, and Wolverine gets a fun tough guy moment. I also enjoyed the character moments that this issue offers up, from the scene where Hank and Scott discuss the cure, to the closing scene where Kitty and Colossus discuss his return from the dead. There’s also a solid little final moment, as Joss Whedon deftly introduces
the idea that Emma still has some question marks surrounding her true intentions.

First off, I have to give the issue full marks for it’s cover, as it’s an undeniably powerful image that is sure to catch the eye of many X-fans. As for the interior art, John Cassaday continues to impress, as while most of this issue is made up of talking heads, he manages to keep things visually engaging by offering up a wide variety of facial expressions and some great reaction shots. The art also manages to make the most of the action that we do get in this issue, as there’s a great double-page shot where Colossus and Wolverine are captured in the midst of a fastball special, and there’s a lovely follow-up scene where Logan manages to stop Ord's escape. I also enjoyed the way the final two pages managed to capture the awkward tension between Colossus and Kitty, with the final close-up of Kitty being a great looking shot of the character.




Dominic Davies

Plot:
After Colossus's spectacular take down of Ord and the appearance of S.H.I.E.L.D the X-Men are told that Ord's activities on Earth are purely diplomatic and that it is an X-Man who shall destroy the Breakworld. Ord almost escapes with the cure and Tilde but is brought back care of Wolverine. The X-Men are told to walk away and count their blessings (with Pete back). But things seem ominous with the war seemingly inevitable and a mysterious new character secretly plotting with Emma Frost.

Comments:
Out of all the X-Titles at the moment its fantastic to see at least one of them continue to push the boundaries and maintain a standard throughout. Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men has certainly done just that. This being the final part of his first storyline “Gifted” has quickly grabbed the X-World’s attention with a fantastic story laced with clever dialog (I love Emma's icy wit) and photo realistic art. I really like how the X-Men are dealing with the cure to mutation (particularly Beast) and we see that while the threat is mostly over, it is only really a setback and there are still going to be repercussions. It’s nice that Whedon hasn't taken the easy way out and completely destroyed the cure and it will be interesting to see if/when he brings it back up. Whedon has also opened up another door with the news of the Breakworld's inevitable destruction at the hands of an X-Man (followed by another reference to Phoenix/Jean's comeback) and a possible war against Earth to stop it. What really gave me the giggles however in this issue was the inclusion of the old Wolvie/Colossus Fastball Special move and it really brought it all back for me. I love Colossus, I love his mutant power, I love his character and I love Kitty Pryde. I'm so terribly happy that he is back (although a lot of people will disagree with me) and I can't wait to see what happens between him and Kitty (something that I'm sure Whedon will take on).

While most of my praise seems to be heading Whedon's way I can honestly say that it would not be the same without award winning Cassaday's (coupled with Laura Martin on colors) artwork. Strikingly realistic work does a great job heightening the fantasy and his pencil really deserves just as much praise as Whedon's does. His detailed artwork always perfectly fits the mood and scene. The Fastball Special two page spread and beautiful Cover-work is a perfect example of this and set tears to my eyes. I have to start reading Planetary.

Final Word:
It seems there is a lot to look forward to in this series and I hope that Joss and Cassaday really stick with it for the long haul. I haven't enjoyed reading anything to do with X-Men this much since the Morrison days, it is clearly (by far) the strongest X-Book on the shelves and seems set to stay there for a long time. Pick it up!





Kelvin Green:

Well, our illustrious reviews editor was right when he predicted that I'd remain distinctly non-Astonished by this issue. Perhaps Marvel should change it to Quite Solid But Not Really Astonishing In The True Sense Of The Word (Unless You're A Whedonite In Which Case It's The Best Comic Ever (Except For Fray)) X-Men. Of course, that may warrant publishing the comic in the old newspaper-sized format, just to fit the title in...

The truth is revealed, and everyone stands around being quite angry about the awful human rights abuses going on at the mutant laboratory. Nick Fury does a great Bush impression with his "I don't know nuffin' honest" approach to the mess, the bland Indian scientist hangs around being bland, and the X-Men bugger off back home, apparently completely forgetting that the reason they even went to the lab was because they thought Jean Grey's body was being experimented on there. Oops.

So there are some duff notes in the writing then. That's okay though, since the general standard of the writing in this book has been high (although not "Astonishing"), and I'm surprised that there haven't been more slip-ups, considering that Whedon is not primarily a comics writer. It's conventional superheroics, but it's done very well. There's a sense of fun to the proceedings, such as when Wolverine and the newly-resurrected Colossus easily fall back into their team-up as if one of them hasn't been dead for years. Best of all, Whedon manages to keep things at a sensible level. Yes, the whole plot concerns a war with an alien race, but unlike Claremont's silly X-Men stories in which everyone acts like a Celestial, this is kept to a more manageable level. The X-Men have powerful members, but they're not the Avengers or the Fantastic Four, and so this more low-key approach works well. The dialogue crackles along and the characterisation is top-notch. Except...

Obviously, I'm going to wait and see how it turns out, but the hints in this issue that Emma Frost is heading back into full-fledged villainy don't fill me with excitement. Having her be one of the good guys (just) has been one of the more interesting character choices that the X-office has made in recent years, and both Morrison and Whedon have done excellent work with her, so it would be a shame to see that wasted by having Emma go back to her villainous roots. As noted, it's too early to tell where this thread is going, but I hope it's not how it looks.

The art team does its usual excellent job, although I am concerned that apparently I'm the only person in the world who doesn't spontaneously ejaculate upon seeing Cassaday and Martin's artwork. It's good, but evidently there's some hype at work here, because it's not THAT good.

Perhaps it's because I've never been an X-Men fan, but I don't see this as being the world's greatest comic as so many others do. It's just not innovative and exciting enough for me to be really impressed. That said, it is exceptionally well-written and very well illustrated, and as such is undeniably an excellent comic book.





Shawn Hill

Plot: Whedon wraps up his first arc in typical Whedon-esque fashion: answering some questions, starting up new ones, defying expectation in some cases, and piling on the exposition in others.

What’s interesting: I like that “Hydra-Hair” isn’t a member of Hydra or another of their many queens, but is rather a sneaky S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (or, rather, subdivision S.W.O.R.D. agent, heehee), even if of a morally compromised type to make Val Cooper look tame. It’s a neat twist that the subtext of this story is an alien-invasion in X-Files vein; only our collaboration with the aliens takes the more benign form of diplomacy rather than full-on conspiracy.

It seems Ord has a legitimate beef with the X-Men, as everyone’s precogs are fully certain that a mutant will destroy his Breakworld (kinda’ self-fulfilling nomenclature then, right?) at some point in the future. The talking heads’ confrontation is tense and reasonable, a conversation between adults whose competing agendas require either fight or compromise. Everyone’s experience and wisdom is on display, as are Emma’s and Scott’s leadership skills. Fury is both cool and mad as hell in just the right way.

Also interesting: Whedon excels on emotional expression, using characters’ feelings as motivation for action and plot developments. Peter’s revival is part of a grounded love story for Kitty, and I think they’re both actually mature enough at this point to make it work. Peter was worth more than a sacrifice to Legacy anyway.

Visually interesting: Cassaday’s work is just as strong here as on Planetary; he makes what could have been a boring verbal confrontation and keeps it tense with facial expressions and the careful placement of figures as he subtly forms alliances and oppositions. His Emma is a bit too Lulu/Georgie Girl for my taste, but she’s tough as nails, as are all these characters in a stellar cast. That fully half of the panels in the opening confrontation are swipes and repeats of his own work didn’t even dawn on me until right now, because the cropping is expert.

The cover is the sexiest image I can remember in ages from Marvel, since Quitely’s drool-worthy Emma from New X-men at least. Cassady makes a brilliant visual argument for why these two characters belong together, with Peter’s stoic impassive form merging with Kitty’s quite literally. His hand over her belly makes me think of babies.





Shaun Manning

“Wasn't he dead?”

Buffy creator Joss Whedon’s first arc comes to a close, and there’s not-a-one who could say it ended well. The X-Men succeed in thwarting an otherworldly attempt to “cure” the mutant gene, but in the process learn that one of their own will be responsible for the death of an entire planet. S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury learns that an even more secret government agency has been negotiating with Ord, the lizard-faced villain responsible for the X-team’s misery, but also for the resurrection of one of their dearest allies. And what is Emma Frost up to?

In the wake of recent (*ahem*) events, the proliferation of covert government operations does not sit too well with me. Particularly when the X-Men are effectively neutered by S.W.O.R.D.’s mandate. The good guys get in a bit of saucy payback, but there remains a feeling of deus ex machina to Nick Fury and company’s sudden appearance. Still, this is possibly the most action-packed issue of Astonishing, and the dialogue is clever as always.

Visually, I’m warming a bit to Cassaday’s art style, although I still maintain that Emma looks like an ’80s porn queen and Wolverine conveys all the menace of a bristled housecat. Kitty Pryde and Colossus look great, though, particularly given that the latter is fresh out of the grave. His hair looks less silly than it has in years!

Those still waiting for Whedon to turn up the pressure will likely be disappointed by the conclusion of his first arc. With a rich history and a huge stable of characters to work with, it is pretty astonishing that the writer hasn’t been able to accomplish more with the tools he’s been given. Still, it’s hard not to get excited at the possibilities to come, at the near certainty that this is merely the prelude. And if this is the best it gets, Astonishing X-Men will still be an incredibly solid X-book, with snappy dialogue unrivalled in its uncanny and adjectiveless contemporaries.



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