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Sunday Slugfest - Astonishing X-Men #13

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Michael Bailey, Kevin T. Brown, Ariel Carmona Jr., Michael Deeley, Kelvin Green, Shawn Hill, Shaun Manning, Robert Murray, Jason Sacks
“Torn”

Michael Bailey

Plot: The X-Men slowly begin to pick up the pieces of their lives as the Hellfire Club begins to put their ultimate plan in motion.

Commentary: After reading this issue, I really have to agree with a good friend of mine who suggested that the next issue of X-Men should open with Logan waking up to find Mariko in the shower before waking up again and finding himself back on the X Cross so the continuity can start over from there.

In all honesty, I am not the biggest X-Men fan on the planet. This is one of those books and groups of characters that I have a great deal of affection for, but that affection comes from a love of the books as they were written in the eighties. The current feel of the X-Men books (with the exception of X-Factor, which is not overly associated with what is going on in the regular X-books) holds very little interest for me because I don’t feel the connection to the characters that I used to.

Joss Whedon is a good writer. I’ve enjoyed his past work and thought that the first issue of this series was fantastic. He brought back the sense of fun that I thought was missing from many of the X-books that I had picked up over the years. I didn’t get that same feeling with this issue. Maybe if I had been following the book then it would be different, but then again I haven’t been following Daredevil, and I enjoyed the heck out of Ed Brubaker’s first issue.

I’m sure if I stick with the story, my opinion will change. There is a great deal of potential here, and any story that has Colossus and Kitty getting together (flawed as Colossus’s return is) is okay in my book. The plot is interesting enough, and Whedon definitely got my attention with the cloaked mystery member of the Hellfire Club. I just don’t think there was enough in this issue to really make me want to stick around for the next few months. I’m not usually a “wait for the trade” type of guy, but in this case, I may take that route.

In The End: As the first story of a new arc that is garnering such attention, this issue was kind of a let down. The writing was decent enough and the art was nice, but I just didn’t get any kind of vibe off of it that would make me want to come back for more. Again, a lot of this has to do with the fact that I am not big on the current era of X-Men, so those readers who are may disagree with me, as is their wont. As someone coming in from the wilderness, I feel the issue didn’t sufficiently bring me up to speed other than some confusing text next to a picture of Wolverine’s claws. I don’t need Storm explaining her powers every time she uses them, just a little heads up on what I may have missed. I don’t think that it is too much to ask.




Kevin T. Brown

Welcome to the shortest review you’ll probably ever see from me. Which fits, given the amount of actual story you get in this issue. Joss Whedon hit the ground running with the first few issues of Astonishing X-Men. Since then, the book has slowed to a very mediocre crawl. This issue is no exception. If anything, it’s even more of a crawl.

I can give you the plot of the issue in just a few sentences and probably not ruin much of anything. Ready? Here we go: You see Emma talking to Cassandra Nova. You see Logan talking to a roomful of children. You see Scott talking to Hank. You see Logan talking again to the kids, with claws popped. You see Kitty and Peter together. Oops, dream. Oops, now not a dream. Emma and the Hellfire Club talking. Agents of SHIELD talking. Nice space station. Kitty and Peter talking and then kissing, as Emma spies on them. Emma trying to get Scott into bed as he pays bills.

Okay. There you go. What a story. Wow.

The only saving grace for this issue is the art by John Cassaday. As usual, he does a great job. I only wish he had an actual story to draw. It’s a shame to see him wasted like this. But he definitely draws a real nice space station. And I do have to admit that last page is Cassaday at his best.

Overall, an astonishingly dull story with fantastic art.




Ariel Carmona Jr.

Plot: While co-headmistress Emma Frost is scheming and dealing with ominous forces and is privy to predictions of a cataclysmic event, Wolverine is at Xavier’s in the Danger Room training new mutants. Beast and Cyclops are at odds while Kitty and Peter try to make sense out of being together again, despite everything that’s happened to them since Colossus’s death. S.H.I.E.L.D. is suspicious of S.W.O.R.D.’s dealings with the X-Men and of their handling of Ord.

Comments: The most tantalizing bit of information included in the obligatory “previously” page of AXM #13 is the ominous revelation that Emma Frost, formerly the White Queen, has been communicating with a brand new Hellfire Club, unbeknownst to the X-Men. Just reading that sentence should send shivers down the spines of many die hard X-geeks who remember with fondness some of the best stories from Uncanny X-Men in the 1980s. Of course, for this new generation, the mantle of the X-Men has been handed off to Whedon and Cassaday whose initial 12 issue run on the title has been somewhat of a renaissance for the children of the Atom.

The dialogue in this title is always crisp and enticing. As wordsmiths go, Whedon is one of the best in the business, and he always manages to inject his projects with the right amount of whimsy, conflict and romantic tension. Take his take on the House of Idea’s affinity for acronyms; he’s created a new and clever one: S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient Worlds Observation and Response Department), and he’s also put his stamp on the series by exploring new personal relationships between the characters, the most interesting being an affair between Scott and Emma, though seeing Kitty and Colossus together again is also very interesting.

Unfortunately, the second part of the book is not as good as the first 12 pages. Mostly, it consists of banter between Emma and Sebastian Shaw and the new members of the Hellfire Club. There is a lengthy discussion between Emma and the group, and she seems to be on the fence about their secret “holy” mission. It’s all very melodramatic, especially after the appearance of the shadowy figure who seems to be pulling the strings these days, but it’s slow paced and devoid of the very action Shaw appears to crave. The scene then switches to a somewhat contrived tete-a-tete between S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Commander Hill and lead S.W.O.R.D. agent Brand and that agency’s handling of Ord, but again, the pacing is notoriously slow and leaves the reader with a feeling that not much is advanced by the time we reach the impressive splash page which ends the interlude of talking heads. I suppose the interaction which follows between Kitty and Peter is supposed to be one of those character moments which Joss writes so well in between the big revelations and bang up action, but it doesn’t seem to work as well here. We get that they’re going through an akward period of re-adjustment, but the dialogue seems painfully stilted.

Cassaday’s artwork continues to evoke some of the X-Men’s best artistic endeavors from years past, even if his Wolverine looks too much like Hugh Jackman this issue and his furry “catlike” Beast still takes some getting used to. Still, the cliffhanger is more than enticing enough to warrant at least a look at upcoming installments.

Final Word: Not the series best effort thus far by any means, but still sparks enough interest to ignite future incendiary conflicts between Xavier’s mutants and the new Hellfire Club.




Michael Deeley

The X-Men take a day to reassess where they are, given recent events. House of M has left them with only a handful of students. Secret War sent Nick Fury into hiding, leaving S.H.I.E.L.D. under new control. Kitty rekindles her relationship with Colossus. And Emma has a meeting with the new Hellfire Club, including Cassandra Nova.

One word: Eh.

The dialogue is good. Kitty’s scenes with Peter feel natural, yet clichéd. Emma’s caught between two rocks thanks to her selfish nature and self-preservation. It fits her character perfectly and puts her in the most interesting places. Scott and Henry McCoy have personal problems they’re hiding from. It’s hinted at here, and will probably be developed later.

This issue feels isolated from the rest of the X-Men comics. This works in its favor and to its detriment. By publishing a truly “stand-alone” series, Marvel can sell it to X-Men fans who don’t have the time, money, or patience to slog through the half-dozen other series. On the other hand, the sweeping changes made to the Marvel U and the X-Men in particular are briefly mentioned and dismissed. I’d call this the comics version of Mackinac Island, Michigan: an island in Lake Superior, between the USA and Canada. It’s surrounded by a larger world, yet still isolated. (And BTW, it’s pronounced “MACK-eh-naw”).

John Cassaday’s art is spectacular as always. Unfortunately, he isn’t given many spectacular things to draw. There’s the Mastermold in the jungle and Kitty’s nightmare. But most of the issue is just people talking. I don’t care if this makes for a more mature, intelligent character-driven story; it’s boring! What’s the point of having a superhero comic if there’s no fight scene? No major display of superpowers? So Joss Whedon takes an issue to reestablish the characters. Great. Will there be fighting next time?

The return of Astonishing X-Men is a mixed bag. We get another 12 issues of Cassaday’s art (if you need a fix when Planetary ends later this year), an X-Men book not mixed up in “Decimation,” and the return of Cassandra Nova. On the other hand, this book is about as dull as dishwasher soap with familiar old patterns of love and betrayal. I don’t think Whedon’s ever been really original; just skillful and stylish.




Kelvin Green

That sound you hear is the soft, wet, plop of a great big communal turd that Marvel is squeezing out onto Grant Morrison’s X-Men work. Because what better way to develop and improve on Morrison’s characterisation of a tough, bitchy, antagonistic but ultimately heroic Emma Frost than to steal an idea from DC and have all that redemption be a result of a psychic lobotomy? You know Marvel, a creatively defunct and inane retcon is still a creatively defunct and inane retcon, even if it’s done by a successful screenwriter.

I don’t know exactly why this bothers me so much; perhaps because it’s the latest incident in the systematic deconstruction of everything Morrison built up, or perhaps it’s just because Emma Frost, The Reluctant Hero is infinitely more interesting than Emma Frost, The Enemy Within. I mean, how bloody interesting is this antagonism between Kitty and Emma going to be if Emma really is out to destroy the X-Men? Cretins.

But I shouldn’t be surprised by such dunderheaded creative decisions. After all, Whedon (allegedly) delivered the moribund and illogical Porno Grip Ultron arc, Quesada reportedly despises Morrison, and the editorial department evidently haven’t been paying attention for a long time.

The Absurd Emma Frost Retcon isn’t the only bit of weird storytelling, of course. It has gotten to the point that I wonder if I just can’t effectively process the information in certain comics. I’m baffled as to why Colossus and Kitty kissing is a big deal, and I have absolutely no idea why exactly I’m supposed to find that last page in any way dramatic, as we’ve seen Emma doing this very thing before, in New X Men, the book this is ostensibly a continuation of. I’d ask if anyone involved has actually read those earlier stories, but the Mega-Sentinel in the previous arc and Cassandra Nova’s frequent appearances suggest otherwise.

What’s worse is that there’s an awful lot of empty, utterly forgettable, blathering this issue, and these big allegedly dramatic moments are clearly supposed to offer a contrast with all the fluff; as a result, what we’re left with is a story that waffles and meanders without much happening, except for a couple of set pieces which don’t work at all. How the heck are they going to keep interest going in this as a bi-monthly?

It certainly won’t be through the art, as while it’s as sharp and confident as ever, Cassaday and colourist Laura Martin are utterly wasted here as they’re given nothing of interest to draw. Kitty has to daydream her father tearing off his own head in order for the art team to break the monotony, and that strikes me as a bit excessive. It pains me that such a good art team is languishing away with this when they could be relaunching the Scion of Asgard or putting the Fantastic back into the Four (as they did briefly in an earlier issue of this title).

This isn’t a really bad issue, and Marvel have published and are publishing much worse, but given this creative team, it should be much better; it really fails to make any kind of splash, and that’s perhaps the more damaging flaw. A high profile title like this shouldn’t be coming back from hiatus with such an average and unexciting issue (not that it was a planned break; it’s pretty clear that this should have come a month after #12, but still, you’d think that when the gap became necessary that they’d reshuffle things a bit to make this a more effective “season premiere,” although again, that would imply an editorial office with the capacity to make coherent editorial decisions). The problem isn’t that the comic is bad, the problem is that it’s flat, and it’s dull, and that’s just not good enough, given the hype, the creative team, and even the title. But I suppose “astonishing” needn’t necessarily mean “astonishingly good.”




Shawn Hill

Plot: Emma can’t help but plot against the X-Men; she has had a divided loyalty all along. At least she’s unhappy about it. Kitty and Peter are still getting to know each other, all over again, finally as adult peers. Wolverine’s nurturing qualities come out with the traumatized remaining mutant students, and by that I mean they now have a crazy drill sergeant to contend with. Scott’s still skirting his newfound fine line between boring and kinky. It’s all way better than Danger.

Comments: Whedon is at his best writing arguments, and that’s what every discussion in this issue is, whether calm or loud. Unlike when Bendis reels off a talking head issue, the point isn’t about our mutual confusion and inability to empathize with another’s weird perspective. Talking is much simpler in Whedon-verse. It’s about who wins.

So far this issue the winners are: Cassandra over Emma, Wolverine over Scott and the kids, Kitty over Peter, Agent Brand over Director Hill and Emma, always, finally, over Scott. Oh, and somebody mysterious over the Hellfire Club. Scary mysterious, since she somehow keeps Emma, Cassandra and Sebastian in line.

The nice thing about these sorts of skirmishes is how introductory they are. Next issue might overturn everything. Properly, it should. Whether it’ll do it through clever chess moves, or cheating emotional tricks won’t matter. Whedon plots, but he only does if for one reason: to get us to feel. If the proper emotional payoff comes, he won’t worry a second about needing to drive a Mack truck through a cavernous hole to get there. He never has. And with dialogue this good, he doesn’t need to. These are fictions. Fictions meant to move us, not logical puzzles meant to engage our detective skills. That’s what went wrong with the last series for some. Carrying out that bloody argument between Danger and Charles required more and more outlandish feats, and mixing them in with his clear inspiration (Morrison’s Genoshan disaster) muddied the waters far too much. Learning that Danger was sentient didn’t mean so much; we’d never met her before. But it mattered to Whedon, because it concerned a theme he shares with Morrison: it was a story of a bad daddy. Charles was bad. And had to be shown that, even if only by his now unsympathetic victim.

Whedon is actually mixing up recent Bendis plot points with Morrison’s definitive run, showing yet again how he may be the only Marvel writer capable of reconciling the two. Slott and Heinberg have shown they can patch some of the damage Bendis has done to the Avengers, but Brubaker can make no such claims for the X-Men. Milligan hasn’t tried, and Claremont has tried and failed. But Whedon may just pull it off. Director Hill shows her virago face here, too, fresh from ruining Alpha Flight’s day due to her petty Avengers hatred. Much to her consternation, she gets immediately out-virago-ed by Agent Brand.

This is just one of the many places I must drool over Cassaday’s art, as he tops a magnificent shot of the Heli-Carrier with an even more magnificent shot just pages later, moving up a whole scale of magnitude effortlessly. He’s done something different with his style for this new series, tweaked the inks to be a little more prominent, simplified body types even further. His Kitty looks like a young heroine again, and his Peter has recaptured his long-lost innocence in his resurrection. His Wolverine is dead sexy, and his Emma (still for some reason played by that English mod Lulu) is singularly grumpy and morose. Sure, the panels are big, but when they’re this gorgeous, they’re not the same as poster-ready splash pages.

This is, on one level, an issue in which nothing happens. That’s as it should be; it’s a re-introduction, and a new starting place. Things are poised to go in exciting directions, and one feels a certain streamlining in effect. The X-Men have lost their dead weight. As usual, it was Charles.




Shaun Manning

Hm. No, still not Astonishing. Despite having an incredible writer, despite the art of a fan-favorite illustrator, despite having the X-Men everybody wants to see, AXM still fails to pop. The stories presented in Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s first twelve issues were enjoyable but imminently forgettable, and the “Year Two” start appears to offer more of the same.

The issue opens with Emma Frost consulting Xavier’s evil twin sister, Cassandra Nova, about an upcoming catastrophe that Emma will not survive unless she undergoes a secondary mutation—revealing the origin of her diamond powers. Now, Emma answers to the new Hellfire Club, whose mysterious leader is about to give Headmistress Frost her first task in counterintelligence. Meanwhile, Wolverine trains students in the neutered Danger Room, and Kitty Pryde has a nightmare.

Sigh. Kitty’s dream. Everybody seems to be visited by dead relatives these days, and they invariably cry out some damning curse before crumbling into dust. Secret villains in hoods are a bit played out, as well. As these aspects make up most of the conflict in the issue, it must be said that things don’t look good.

The remainder of the conflict, though, is compelling: for all its sappiness, Emma’s genuine affection for Scott Summers set up some very engaging drama. Emma is so pathetic, too, in her desperate attempts to hold Cyclops’s attention as to foreshadow a particularly nasty falling-out. Despite the inherent appeal of the premise, though, Whedon uncharacteristically stumbles even here: the final page reveal is neither shocking nor touching, and leaves the reader with a sour taste at the end of the issue.

Logan’s homeroom, though, is a lot of fun. Wolverine vs. a bunch of kids. In this episode, and this episode alone, Joss puts his full skills to use, crafting sharp dialogue and over-the-top fun action.

Astonishing X-Men has everything going for it; everything except plot. It’s obvious Whedon knows these characters, how they think and speak and act; now he’s just got to find something interesting to do with them.




Robert Murray

Joss Whedon is the master of X-shock! Mr. Whedon has introduced a lot of different twists and turns during his run on Astonishing X-Men, almost to the point of becoming predictable. But, you can’t deny the overall enjoyment you feel when there is a revelation or a grand surprise in every single issue of this series. In conjunction with the spectacular art of John Cassaday, no one I have ever talked to has finished an issue of this series and felt cheated out of three bucks. Sure, there are those who find some of the proceedings preposterous or just plain lame, but I stand in the corner that thinks Whedon is a smart, deft writer who understands dynamic dialogue, tongue-in-cheek humor, and the art of consistently delivering the goods. Issue #13 is no exception. Beginning a new story arc called “Torn,” this is a tale that seems built on love and revenge, two topics that Joss Whedon is very familiar with.

Way back in Issue #6 (and I do mean “way back”!), we learn that Emma Frost and her secret co-conspirator (the Hellfire Club, from way back in Issue #12) have a sinister plan for the X-Men, and it involves dealing with Kitty Pryde first. Issue #13 begins the assault on Kitty with Emma manipulating her mind, digging up one of the darkest days in Kitty’s life. But, at least for now, the dream is swept aside by the resumed romance between Kitty and Colossus. I have read enough popular fiction in my life to know that something bad is about to happen to Peter, Kitty, or both. They seem so happy to have one another once again that I instinctively feel that doom lies on the horizon. Plus, an intimate scene between Kitty and Peter near the end of the issue is artistically shadowed by the menace that has become Emma Frost. Reading and watching Whedon’s work in the past, signs are clear that death and despair is waiting on the horizon. Is Whedon telegraphing future tales too clearly? To be honest, I don’t care, since this build-up is keeping me excited about the series. Plus, I know Cassaday will make the whole sordid affair look great!

All this said, I think the ending of this issue was a trifle cheesy, and there was a shortage of the unexpected thrills that have come to characterize this series. However, since this is the first issue of a new arc, I’m willing to let that go and wait in anticipation for the next major shake-up in the X-Universe.

By the way, is it just me or does Cassaday make Wolverine and Sebastian Shaw look identical in the face? Hmm...




Jason Sacks

First of all, my sympathies to associate editor Nick Lowe for having such an unfortunate name. For anyone growing up in the early '80s, Nick Lowe was the Jesus of Cool, a musician whose catchy and wonderfully off-kilter songs were among the best of the Stiff Records era. He’s a woefully under-known creator these days, but at the time he was amazing. Just google “Jesus of Cool” if you don’t believe me.

Well, that was a nice procrastination before diving into a comic that is decidedly not cool. (Though I'll leave it up to you readers if someone who just admitted growing up in the ‘80s can be cool.) But it’s not cool, and really not very interesting at all. Astonishing X-Men is just full of talk. Blah blah, Genosha is going to be destroyed. Blah blah, it’s the Hellfire Club. Blah blah, Kitty and Colossus are picnicking and being romantic (though apparently not having sex or even kissing, at least till later in the issue). Blah blah, Wolverine is going into the Danger Room with the young mutants, whatever the hell they’re called these days.

It’s all posturing and speechifying, characters saying what they think instead of just acting. There are some nice bits of dialogue - Wolverine’s scene with the mutant kids where he tries to overcome their fears in the way only Wolverine can do it is nice. But the dialogue gets old. There’s no zip or charm to any of it; instead, the dialogue just kind of plods along, with no flow or movement.

It’s hard to see why a star like John Cassaday is used for a pedestrian story like this one. Who wants to pay $2.99 to see Cassaday draw the Beast and Cyclops in a lab, or a very static and dull view of the SHIELD Helicarrier? We want to see action and epic from Cassaday, great vistas and tremendous battles. Instead readers get this very quiet world where people just talk and talk and talk.

If I wanted to hear people talk all day, I’d spend more time at work. I want action from a comic like Astonishing X-Men. And I expect any comic associate edited by a guy who shares his name with the Jesus of Cool to understand that.

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