Sunday, February 10, 2008

Review: Astonishing X-Men

This comic is so good it feels like I'm cheating by writing about it. Honestly, my critiques are so minor compared to how many things I feel are not just done right, but perfectly, it's hard to start. Hence me rambling on in this self-conscious manner.

Astonishing, cribbing the name from one of the Age of Apocalypse books, picks up where Grant Morrison's New X-Men left off; Jean's dead (for a while this time), Emma and Scott are a power couple running the school while Xavier helps in Genosha, and the X-Men in general are scattered and confused. With that, Cyclops essentially decides that since someone will lay claim to the X-Men name, the mutant community is best served by having the highest quality X-Men possible, and assembles the team himself.
For reasons of having a balanced skill set and good public image (discarding the all-new, all-leather costumes of the Morrison era, except as casual wear), he brings together himself, Emma, Hank McCoy, Kitty Pryde, and Wolverine. Later on, Colossus has his shot at returning to life, joining the team and resuming his relationship with Kitty.
The arcs more or less break down as the X-Men dealing with a malicious alien attempting to wipe out mutantkind with a "cure" and violence, the sentient A.I. of the danger room, the apparent return of the Hellfire Club's Inner Circle, and a resolution of the issues with anti-mutant aliens (the latter has yet to be collected, but is almost finished).

When it comes to the writing, I would be sorely tempted to call this my perfect image of the X-Men. Everyone gets their due (even Scott), but nobody overshadows the rest of the team (not even Wolverine). The dialogue is as good as we've come to expect from Whedon, being interesting and witty while remaining in-character for each of the distinct personalities. The plotting is solid, with the only low point being the second storyline, "Danger," which shoehorns Whedon's ideas about A.I. in a disjointed story. Arcs aside, Astonishing's two year run reads as one long story with self-contained issues in six-issue arcs. Therefore, don't look to this for and single-issue reading; give yourself some time to read at least an arc at a time.
John Cassiday's art is detailed, active, and expressive. Action has punch, and you'll never confuse characters as everyone has their own unique features. However, he may have some sort of eyelash fetish, seeing as he exaggerates their portrayal on everyone's face. Even the aliens and robots. Regardless, his use of form and color leave one with a "real people in a comic setting" impression that compliments Whedon's writing perfectly.

The bottom line about this series is: "If you've ever liked any of these characters or even the concept of the X-Men, read it, dummy." Also, if you've always felt that nobody ever "got it" when you've tried to read X-Men, give Whedon a chance to win you over. He probably will.
Thus far, the storylines collected are titled "Gifted," "Dangerous," "Torn," and "Unstoppable" (again, yet to be collected). Taking over after Whedon is Warren Ellis (who apparently writes 75% of Marvel between him and Bendis). I'm greatly saddened to see this run end, but if Whedon feels he's finished I won't argue. Besides, maybe with Ellis Astonishing can go back to being monthly instead of every other month.
Yeah, I'm so hooked that I buy every single and the trades. Try it, and see if you blame me.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Dark Phoenix Saga *Non-DPS Spoilers*

This story has in many ways set the tone for all comics in this franchise right up to today. It was at the time just one link in a chain of major storylines dreamed up by Clairmont, but is now seen as a major point in not only X-Men history, but mainstream comics on the whole. For example, let's look at what pieces are present here:
1) As stated, Wolverine gets plenty of face time, and his multiple homicides are ignored.
2) Cyclops is shown as a competent leader, powerful fighter, and compassionate person, but is not written as doing anything terribly vital.
3) Jean taps into Phoenix powers, dies. Hints at drama with the previous two.
4) There's an emphasis on the growing divide between the Professor and the team, which has only recently become an issue again. Then again, I imagine since he's dead now, it's a bit moot.
5) Lots of people get involved in stories. This is to me the hallmark of X-Men storylines, with heroes and villains from all over showing up, often in unexpected roles.

There are some clear signs of DPS, great as it is, actually not being as good as it could have been. For one, since trade paperbacks were not collected at the time, the recap dialogue is ever-present, since a reader may have missed the last issue (thank Buddha for the modern recap first page). The other is that some plot points reek of editorial mandate, "Quick, we need a character to reach out to that new demographic! Make a disco character!" Oh, the immense fail that is Dazzler, whose name was originally supposed to be "The Disco Dazzler."
Nonetheless, it's a classic story that's earned it place. No wonder this is the fourth time the story's been printed; once originally, once in X-Men Classics monthly, and two printings (at least) in trade. It's kind of a big deal.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The X-Men in other media...

Considering how insanely popular the X-Men have become within my lifetime, it's a no-brainer that they'd show up outside their comfort zone of comics. However, I will warn you, reader. I may myself stray from the intent of this post, and be prepared for a long one.

Before movies, cartoons and video games, comes the merchandise. I myself ate X-Men fruit snacks, chewed X-Men gum, wore X-Men clothes, and owned several dozen X-Men action figures, so I may be said to be something of an expert. Wolverine has appeared in all of them, in something that will quickly become a habit. Speaking specifically, since the Marvel Secret Wars toyline in 1984, no less than 73 figures of Wolverine have been produced. In fact, while Wolverine found a place in the Secret Wars line, it wasn't until 1993 that any other X-Man was made into a figure. Nonetheless, once the dam broke in '93, it would be hard to ever again look into a toy isle and not see some sort of X-Men (read: Wolverine) representation.

The video games were, as comic book games often are, mostly mediocre. With a few bright spots in the mid-90's beat-'em-up genre and the fantastic X-Men Legends, they have essentially forgettable. The one unifying thread? The characters of Cyclops, Storm and (of course) Wolverine, who've appeared in every one to my recollection, with Iceman, Gambit, and Colossus being the most often used otherwise. A nice range of ethnicities, I suppose, though I'd like to see Banshee implemented somehow.

The cartoons many of us have seen. The first was the unfortunate attempt at a girl's show, Pryde of the X-Men, whose quality was so low that the people who green-lit Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends (also featuring X-men) killed it after one episode. The early-90's one, smack dab in the middle of the X-Boom, played loose and fast with the canon, but stuck to the heart of the characters (while giving Wolverine plenty of robots to cut in half). Most recently was X-Men: Evolution, which served as a sort of animated Ultimate X-Men, while thankfully avoiding the Jean Grey/Wolverine subplot by making Jean (and most of the team) about fifteen. However, we can only imagine how the upcoming Wolverine and the X-Men will fare, considering that he's been given top billing over the entire franchise.

Lastly, the movies. Dear gott im himmel, the movies. I'll say this; they're fun little action romps. But to put it one way, I actually laughed when I heard that a Wolverine movie in the franchise was planned, because last time I'd checked, I'd already seen three Wolverine movies. You see, when someone writes Cyclops as being a dull jerk, they're being lazy. When someone writes Jean Grey as psychic powers with romantic tension and red hair, they're being lazy. When someone has to incapacitate Professor X before every single fight, they're. Being. Lazy. however, when that person then decides to write Wolverine as being a level-headed natural leader of men with no problem making emotional connections to people, they're just being idiots. By the end of Wolverine 3: The Last Stand, he was acting more like Cyclops that Cyclops had been (before they killed him off-screen five minutes in, which apparently bothered no one).

Wow, that was not the post I had planned. I was going to do an even handed review of each category and make recommendations based on my favorites, but that Canadian bastard is just so grating in his popularity that I can't avoid the prick.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The X-Men *musings*

The X-Men are, by far, my favorite team. I don't have much of a Marvel/DC bias, but one thing I'll always want to know is what's happening in X-Men, even when I lose track of everything else. Maybe it's the broad metaphor they present; whatever you are, if you feel oppressed, the Mutants of X-Men can be that too. Maybe it's the huge, rotating cast of characters with the constant potential for new ones, everyone with their unique powers and personalities. More than likely, it's the way all of these come together, often with top-notch writers pulling the strings.

They may not have the automatic mythology of one of the DC greats or the constant personal struggle of Spider-Man, but the X-Men have a feel to their stories that is specific to their world, one of scientific philosophy, soap opera dramatics, and as much action as any other premise.

Which is why it's so frustrating to see people get it wrong. Coming first to mind would be the movies; which I enjoy on the base level of a moviegoer, but loathe to my core as somebody who actually (god forbid) likes Cyclops. On this week's Blackboard forum, you'll see I'm no major Wolverine fan, but I'll admit he has his place in the menagerie. For me, reading the highlights of the Clairmont run are essentially history lessons, as he made the X-Teams into what they are today, allowing Whedon (and soon Ellis) to create such superhero masterpieces.

This post is kind of aimless, but it sets the tone for this week-and-a-half. I'm going to talk about the X-Men a lot over the next few days.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Understanding Comics, part 2

Okay, so I've been thinking, reading, and listening to what some of my compatriots have to say about Understanding. And while I'm not going to place McCloud up on a pedestal, I'm also not looking to write off everything he says either. I honestly doubt that it's possible to write a comprehensive theory relating to any media without being pretentious in one way or another. The very act of thinking about art in general terms like this assumes that the thinker can ultimately understand that art completely.
However, it's not the philosophy present in Understanding that ever captured my attention at all. It was the frank, solid examination of things like shape, color, and time in comics that kept me reading, and here, I was hard pressed to find any pretension. The conclusions might be different from what others might have come to, but all in all he's just talking about comics in a scholarly light.
Honestly, from what I've heard about the man and his encounters, it seems like McCloud is simply taking his own theory too seriously. While much of the point of Understanding was for the purpose of taking comics seriously, McCloud apparently has trouble with the idea that not everyone will agree with his theories and concepts wholeheartedly. It's kind of like a large-scale internet forum; there's some good ideas here, but it's too close to everyone's hearts for them to discuss it dispassionately.

Non-Class Review: Superman: Red Son

Is it just me, or is the Silver Age aesthetic en vogue right now? From Alex Ross' Justice to Darwin Cooke's New Frontier (more on both of those later), it seems like the area from 1960-1975-ish is being mined pretty frequently. This is undercut, however, by how much all of those projects rule. As is the case with Red Son, it seems like everyone's respect for the Silver Age makes them work to their best.
Red Son is in many ways, only theoretically about Superman. My reading (which not everyone would agree with) is that it uses the Superman mythos specifically and DC at large to tell a story about moral relativism and the impact super-humans can have on politics and philosophy. The moral issues in particular are key to the story; in many scenes, I found myself cheering on the absurdly intelligent Doctor Luthor, defender of America, and more than once Superman commits what I would call unforgivable acts.
As with many "Elseworlds" titles, Red Son features alternate versions of mainstream DC characters. Some are the "same" as their counterparts having led alternate lives, such as Lois Luthor (nee Lane) and Jimmy Olsen (who eventually finds himself director of the CIA). On the other hand, many are odd parallels to people from the regular continuity, like Piotr Roslov, a twisted doppelganger of Pete Ross.
If you don't know who Pete is, then many of the subtle references may escape you. However, even if you don't know who the Atomic Skull is, you'll get the bid stuff and will be able to enjoy the story all the same. The point of the story is not hidden among these Easter Eggs, but if you get it, you often can't help but smile.
On top of all that goodness, the writing is solid and the art has a simple, 60's sci-fi/superhero style that's perfect for the flow of the story and action. It feels like a cop-out to put that all in one line, but I dare you to read this story and think about anything other than the quadruple twist ending, which actually fits perfectly while still leaving you breathless from awesomeness.