Joss Whedon and John Cassaday on Astonishing X-Men: When “awesome” just isn’t good enough
Three men sit in a bar in midtown Manhattan, circa late 2003. Let’s call them, for the sake of argument, Joss, John, and JoeyQ. Let’s listen in …
JoeyQ: So. Let’s hear your ideas for the new X-Men book.
Joss: Where’s Kitty Pryde? I had a huge crush on her back in the 1980s. She was such a teenaged cutie. My 13-year-old self wanted to get with that!
JoeyQ: She’s in college. The previous regime thought it would be best for her to move on. Too many X-Men seem to get stuck at Xavier’s and never grow up.
John: We’ll bring her back. I agree with Joss, she’s a hottie now. College sucks. I’m sure if she were real she’d rather live in a strange, isolated, insulated, weirdly incestuous community of like-minded people rather than, you know, getting to know some non-mutants for a change.
Joss: Plus, we can reference old issues of Uncanny X-Men! That would be awesome.
JoeyQ: Sure, we can bring her back. Why not? We have Emma Frost on the team, right, and Kitty doesn’t like her.
Joss: Damn. Catfight! We can have a scene where she bitch-slaps Emma – figuratively, of course.
John: Hell, I’d draw them wrestling in jello. That would be awesome.
JoeyQ: Not quite yet, John. Maybe down the line a bit.
Joss: If we have Kitty return from college, she has to hook back up with Peter. Colossus is awesome.
JoeyQ: Um, Joss? Colossus is dead.
Joss: What? So? He’s a freakin’ mutant – they come back from the dead all the time. You can set your watch by Jean’s resurrections!
JoeyQ: Yeah, but, y’see, when I came on board here, I famously said, “dead is dead.” You don’t want me to go back on my word, do you?
Joss: But I dig Colossus. Man, he killed that dude in the Mutant Massacre. That was awesome. And John likes him!
John: Colossus is shiny.
Joss: Plus, if we bring Colossus back, you know what we can have him do …
All three: FASTBALL SPECIAL!
JoeyQ: Ah, hell, you twisted my arm. The fanboys will eat it up! Who cares if we cremated him? You’ll figure something out. Fastball specials are awesome.
John: And we figure we’ll put them back in costume – I mean, uniforms. I love Grant’s work, but everyone wants to see Wolverine the tough guy in a yellow outfit.
JoeyQ: What about Emma? She always dresses like a whore. Do we give her a uniform?
John: Hell, no. She doesn’t dress like a whore, she’s “empowered.” And in battle, nothing is more sensible than a bustier.
JoeyQ: Okay, fine. So what’s the story?
Joss: You’re gonna love this – someone develops a cure for mutants!
Joss: What? What?
JoeyQ: Um, Seagle did that plot. Less than a decade ago. Bachalo drew it.
Joss: Who cares? Nobody was reading X-Men back then, even though it was your top-selling book. We’ll do it the right way. And we have to do it.
Joss: Because Henry McCoy will be interested in taking the cure. And Wolverine doesn’t like it. So those two can fight. Everyone wants to see the X-Men fighting amongst themselves. Tension within the group is awesome. Can’t you just imagine John drawing Logan and Hank in a big throwdown?
John: The Beast is furry.
Joss: And we can have Sentinals!
JoeyQ: How, exactly?
Joss: Shit, I don’t know. Oh, I know! They’re just a simulation! But it will give John a chance to draw big honkin’ robots!
John: Sentinals are shiny. And awesome.
JoeyQ: What else? The fanboy in me is overriding the editor in me. This all sounds awesome.
Joss: Well, we have to have a scene where Scott blasts Logan with his optic beams. Because, you know, tension within the group is awesome.
JoeyQ: How about Logan baits him because Scott is boinkin’ Emma? That’ll be a hoot.
John: Awesome. And I wanna draw SHIELD’s heli-carrier. I smell a full-page spread on that.
JoeyQ: Sure, why not? That heli-carrier is awesome.
Joss: You know what? This is gonna be an awesome comic book.
Okay, so I doubt that’s how it happened. But when I read the first trade paperback of Whedon and Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men, “Gifted,” that’s what I thought. I resisted buying these in floppy form because it started right after Morrison left X-Men and I was a bit burned out on mutants. I figured that Marvel would collect it, and sure enough, they did. I considered buying the big 12-issue collection that came out, but the good folk at this blog assured me that six issues of the embodied Danger Room beating up the X-Men wasn’t worth it. “Stick to the first six,” they told me. Those, they told me, are – you guessed it – awesome.
What is promblematic about “Gifted” is what is problematic about several mainstream superhero books these days. Cronin has mentioned this in connection with Infinite Crisis, but it’s emblematic of so many books these days. In catering to the fanboys in all of us, Marvel and DC have decided on a policy of “awesome” moments – comics have always been very good at this sort of thing, more so than perhaps any form of literature, and I am not immune to them. When Jean Grey steps in front of the laser beam and sacrifices herself; when Batman shows up for the first time in Dark Knight Returns; when we turn the page in Miracleman #15 not knowing what to expect but certainly not expecting the utter carnage of Johnny Bates’ rampage through London; when Thor and the Avengers bust into Ultron’s stronghold and our favorite Thunder God says, “We would have words with thee.” Comics are practically made for awesome moments – much more so than movies, which are not a static medium and therefore we can’t simply open one up and check out an awesome moment. If I want to, I can dig through my long boxes and take out a comic that I know has an awesome moment in it and simply stare at the gorgeousness of it all.
However. Astonishing X-Men is built on awesome moments, and they feel pre-determined. There is the flimsiest of plots – the mutant cure, which Seagle and Bachalo did back in ’97 or ’98 (the X-books were particularly aimless back then, despite that talent and Alan Davis on the book as well, so my memory of the issues is cloudy), and this flimsy plot serves simply to bring about awesome moments – Logan fights Henry! The X-Men get their uniforms back! Peter returns from the dead! Peter throws Logan almost into orbit!
“Gifted” reads like a survey of comic book fans. Here it is:
1. Which X-Man do you want to see return from the dead?
d. Doug Ramsey (ha, we’re kidding with that one – everyone knows he sucks).
2. Which X-Man should have a confrontation with Emma Frost?
a. Iceman, because she once possessed his body.
b. Shadowcat, because she when she first met the X-Men, Emma messed with her.
c. Phoenix, because Emma stole her man!
d. Gambit, because he’s kewl.
3. Which famous manuever and/or phrase from X-Men history do you want to see return?
a. “The focused totality of my psychic powers!”
b. “I’m the best there is at what I do.”
c. “Fastball special, Petey!”
d. “A world that hates and fears them!”
4. Who on the X-Men should fight each other?
a. Any two women, because catfights are awesome.
b. Beast and Wolverine, because Logan kicks ass!
c. Cyclops and Wolverine, because Logan kicks ass!
d. Gambit and Wolverine, because Logan kicks ass!
5. Costumes: good or bad?
a. Good – superheroes rule!
b. Bad – superheroes r stupid!
In “Gifted,” we hit all of these plot points without really earning the right of awesomeness. You see, “awesome” moments have to be earned. It’s not enough to simply say, “How cool would it be if Logan and Henry fought each other?” Their fight, like much of “Gifted,” comes out of nowhere. Yes, Logan was once a crazed hothead who would fight you as soon as share a beer with you, but those days are long gone. If Whedon wants to read that Logan, I suggest he read early issues of Claremont’s X-Men instead of writing Logan that way. “Gifted” appeals to us in the worst possible way. Most of the reviews of it mention how it’s a return to the Claremontian X-Men we all loved back in the 1970s and 1980s. Well, that’s a lie. Pick any six consecutive issues of that book and I can guarantee that at least three times as much stuff happens. But that’s not the point – “writing for the trade” is the norm now, and I’ll have to deal with it. Claremont’s issues weren’t built on “awesome” moments – think of the awesome scenes in Uncanny X-Men from 1976-1991 and the chances are that it was built up over pages and pages and issues and issues, so when it comes, it’s truly spectacular. One example leaps to mind: when the Reavers attack Muir Island in the #250s. The awesome moment, of course, is when Forge blows Skullbuster away. But leading up to that, we had the attack, the death of Irene, fighting between Freedom Force and the bad guys, Avalanche’s death, Pyro’s failure to create fire, Lorna almost saving the day, Banshee showing up – lots and lots of little cool moments that allowed Forge the time to build his weapon and start kicking ass. It only took a couple of issues, but Claremont built up to that moment, and when it happened, we said, with conviction, “awesome.” Whedon doesn’t do any of that. Peter’s resurrection is supposed to be a shock, I know, but why on earth would Logan simply attack Henry? Because he’s curious about the cure? It makes no sense. Of course, the whole idea of a cure makes no sense either. I do not like when Marvel delves too deeply into the mutant gene idea, because we are forced to confront the fact that a displaced gene gives someone weird powers, and that makes no sense (for the record, Morrison’s “secondary mutation” idea annoyed me too, before you think I believe everything the man writes is golden). The problem is, of course, is that the story does not matter – all that matters to Whedon and Cassaday is that they get to do “awesome” moments – and the plot is secondary to that. This makes “Gifted” a pretty and occasionally interesting story, but ultimately a failure.
Yes, it’s a failure. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it on some levels. Cassaday’s art is beautiful, and Whedon does write Kitty, especially, well. Ord is, well, stupid, but at least he’s new and not “someone from the depths of the X-Men’s past!!!!” Scott and Emma are a worse couple than Scott and Jean ever were, but at least Whedon tries to make them believable. I don’t really give a tiny rat’s ass if every single Marvel character ever created comes back from the dead, but JoeyQ’s famous dictum should hold for a while, shouldn’t it?
What I’m puzzled about is the overwhelming positive reaction to this, at least the first arc (the sentient Danger Room arc is another story). I suppose the only thing I can think of is that this is pandering to the fanboy in the worst degree. As I said, I’m a fanboy as well, and I appreciate the “awesomeness” of the scenes, but is that just the initial reaction? Have the people who lauded Whedon as the true successor to Claremont gone back and re-read these issues and seen how devoid of anything else they really are? Like I said, “Gifted” isn’t awful, but it’s not the greatest mutant book ever written, either. It is probably the best X-Men book of the three, but that speaks more to the others’ lack of quality than anything (and I still think Milligan’s work is slightly more interesting, as wrong-headed as a lot of it is).
What Whedon did, really, is pull back on the insanity of Morrison’s run. Many people reacted negatively to Morrison because he didn’t care about building on what Claremont did. He spat on our memories. We’ll ignore the fact that he took the X-Men further than anyone since Claremont and even, really, ended up trying to fit the X-Men into the continuity of their own history – people thought he was too weird, and John Sublime was too bizarre, and Quitely’s women were too androgynous, and Cassandra Nova too difficult to understand. Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men is meat-and-potatoes mutant comic book stuff. That’s part of why people like it, but it’s also the problem. There is nothing here that distinguishes itself from anything else we’ve ever seen on X-Men. This run is as memorable and important as (dare I say it?) the stuff in the late 1990s. Nothing more, nothing less.
Of course, this is what we want from our comic books. Astonishing X-Men sells well. Infinite Crisis sells well. “Awesome” moments make up good-selling comic books. It’s a shame, because it’s tapping into the nostalgia we feel for the books of our youth, and that’s holding back creators from really telling good stories. We all remember the “awesome” moments, as I’ve mentioned, but we should also remember the quality story-telling and characterization that made those “awesome” moments so much better. Something like “Gifted” is short-hand storytelling – all payoff. And that gets boring after a while. At least it does for me.