The twenty-six-issue run is spread over four story arcs that serve as component parts of a larger story. Whedon excels at this sort of episodic storytelling, and Astonishing X-Men gives him ample space to showcase many of the qualities that he would later use to bring The Avengers to the big screen so successfully. However, in comics, he has no budget constraints and can go much farther than a 120-page screenplay allows. The story here starts small, builds over time, and eventually goes huge.
I’m hesitant to give up many specifics about the plot, as Whedon carefully crafts his release of information to be as dramatic as possible. To say anything of what happens or who shows up would be a disservice. Suffice to say that the story involves an alien named Ord who comes from a planet called the Breakworld. Ord has a very specific and simple goal—the eradication of mutants, particularly the X-Men. How he goes about trying to do that, why he feels that it is necessary, and where the story eventually goes are things best discovered on your own. And, really, when it comes down to it, the external plot is not really what you come to a Joss Whedon story for. It really serves as a catalyst to get us into the deeper and much more interesting character relationships.
The X-Men of this book have been through some shit. Jean Grey is dead; Professor X is away; Genosha and its sixteen million mutant inhabitants have been destroyed. The team members who remain have given up the superhero lifestyle to focus on teaching and mentoring young mutants at the famous Xavier school. Things are far from settled. Former villain Emma Frost is now a fixture at the school and in a relationship with Scott Summers (otherwise known as Cyclops). This relationship is the primary point of tension for the whole arc. Wolverine hates Scott for apparently getting over Jean so easily. Kitty Pride, who returns to the school to accept a teaching position and serves as the run’s protagonist, despises Frost for her villainous past. In other areas of the school, Hank McCoy deals with the consequences of his secondary mutation (which has left him looking like a cat and fearful of the further loss of his humanity), and the students at the school try to learn to cope with their powers in a world that fears and hates them.
Each character, though very different, is extremely well drawn. Viewers of The Avengers will have already gotten a taste for Whedon’s specific style of characterization. Some quips can break tension at dramatic moments and can lead to scenes that overly rely on humorous exchanges, but I am constantly in awe of Whedon’s ability to convey character through dialogue. It always feels to me like Whedon has some mystical access to the root of characters. I felt that way watching Buffy and Firefly, and I certainly feel it here as well. Whedon’s X-Men are profoundly damaged people trying their best to live up to the expectations of being heroes, while at the same time trying not to murder each other. It’s fantastic drama.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other half of this creative team. John Cassaday’s art is superb. Though not as meticulously detailed as someone like Bryan Hitch, Cassaday’s characters are richly and cleanly rendered. He has a real flair for designing action sequences, and his panel layouts are interesting and engaging. Sometimes characters look weirdly bulky, or faces might look a little off, but in spite of these minor issues I came to love the way that Cassaday brought the world of the X-Men to life.
Modern comic book continuity has become so confused and muddled that I wouldn’t blame many who might otherwise be fans of big houses like DC and Marvel for throwing up their arms in frustration. Astonishing X-Men is a reasonable and satisfying jumping-on point for someone looking for a bombastic superhero story with Whedon’s signature level of craft and care.
The story presents the X-Men as a broken superhero group, dissects their inner demons, lays out the reasons for their distrust and their guilt, puts the broken pieces of the team back together, and puts them on a crazy roller coaster adventure that culminates in one of the most bombastic, awesome, over-the-top set piece moments I’ve seen in any superhero medium. It’s terrific fun from start to finish.
I give Whedon and Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men five pieces of lasagna.