Thursday, June 28, 2007

Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men 1

[I do not know if I am going to stick with this, but trying it seemed like the right thing do to after the Morrison run. I am not committing to a whole issue by issue thing, but I at least want to do this one, and try the next one. Then we will see. Astonishing has the blogging virtues of being 1) not by Morrison (I focus on him too much), 2) related to what we just finished, 3) simple and relatively short, 4) of mixed quality (so I am not just simply complaining, or enthusing).]

Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men #1 can only be properly appreciated in the context of Morrison's New X-Men run. I have mentioned this before, but it is worth noting again -- Morrison and Whedon have a subtle antagonism. Whedon took over Morrison's X-Men, Morrison was thinking of Whedon's "Hush" episode of Buffy during his "silent" New X-Men issue (which ends with the same words Whedon's "Hush" did), and his Vimanarama could not be more Whedonesque if it was fan-fiction.

Whedon's Astonishing opens up with a horror scene of a demonic monster and a little girl. Of course it is primarily just an exciting hook. Formally it features two twist reveals on the same page -- first, the horror turns out to be a dream, then the child's bedroom turns out not to be in a house, but in a facility with two way glass, and a dark figure watching. Whedon always finds the way to turn the screw one more time than you think he will. But this prologue also serves to create continuity between this work and Whedon's Buffy, which was all about little girls and monsters. As in Buffy, the monster and the little girl's relationship is not what it seems. But, twisting that screw again, Astonishing is more than a continuation of Buffy: it is also a return to Buffy's roots, as by his own admission Kitty Pryde, who re-joins the X-Men in this issue, was the inspiration for Buffy (girls who kick ass); I would add she is also the template for the tough girl geeks no Whedon show would be without: Willow (from Buffy), Fred (from Angel) and Kaylee (from Firefly).

Morrison's wild experimentation -- including making a biting commentary that the X-Men franchise is incapable of change -- needed to be reigned in, and so Marvel made the dramatic hire of the high profile Whedon to fix the insanity, and make it stick. This issue is the counter to Morrison's first issue.

Morrison's first line of his first issue was Cyclops telling Wolverine "You can probably stop doing that now." The narrative point was that Wolverine had probably busted the sentinel enough, but the line also served as an announcement of Morrison's initial aim -- the X-men should stop repeating themselves, stop doing what they have been doing, and aim for something new. Compare this to Whedon's first (proper) line. After the prologue the first words of Astonishing #1 are Kitty Pryde returning home and thinking "Nothing has changed." She remarks that the mansion has been rebuilt (from Morrison's Magneto attack) just the way it was because Professor X would want to "give everyone a sense of stability, of continuity." Instead of radically redesigned costumes we get visual representations of memories, scenes from old comic books, just to make sure we understand Whedon's double meaning on the word continuity -- this is about comic book continuity. Morrison, Whedon implies, changed too much, ignored the continuity of, for example, the current design of the Beast.

Morrison's first issue featured classic sentinels being destroyed and redesigned ones being created; Whedon has classic sentinels appear to attack the school, but they are only danger room illusions. What Morrison does in his first issue, Whedon deftly counters point by point.

In his first issue Morrison had the X-Men meet in a virtual place (Xavier's mind-scape) and discuss their new costumes and the fact that they never were superheroes (both excellent examples of Morrison's major revisions). In Whedon's first issue he has the X-Men meet in a virtual place (an illusory Danger Room landscape) to discuss the opposite -- getting back into their old outfits and being old-fashioned superheros again. "All the black leather is making people nervous" Scott says of the Morrison uniforms. (Were they making Marvel nervous because Morrison's NXM was not selling as well as they wanted?). Where Morrison gave us stylized fashion spreads, Whedon gives us a drab locker-room with Kitty and Emma changing clothes realistically -- no pop sexy here. "The spandex goes on one leg at a time, just like everybody else" he seems to be saying.

As much as Morrison put his stamp on the book, Whedon does too, as much as he can. Kitty apologizes to Emma for being late with "I'm sorry. I was busy remembering to put on all my clothes." As Scott and Wolverine fight over the memory of Jean, Emma says "Superpowers, a scintillating wit, and the best body money can buy, and I still rate below a corpse." Standing in a miniature Hawaii Kitty just blurts out "Now I have cloud hair." Emma makes fun of Kitty's many code names. Whedon counters Morrison on many points, but he embraces fully the auteur status Morrison had.

Cassaday is great, though he uses photo-realistic elements, such as carpet patterns, to poor effect, and he fails to sell the key moment in the book -- The X-Men in costume. I do not understand the purpose of placing them so far back in the frame, and at an angle like that. Ord and Dr. Rao I will save for later.

Whedon's first issue is solid on its own merits, and his run stands well against Morrison's run. But in this issue he fails by taking on Morrison's incredible first issue so directly, and comes off as more stodgy and conservative than he deserves. To be fair Whedon may be bowing to editorial pressure to put the X-Men back in uniform, for example, but once he takes on the book we get to blame him for stuff like that, as surely as a soldier is fair game to shoot at, even though he did not start, nor does he control, the war.


Jason Powell said...

Damn. So The Maxx is out?

Geoff Klock said...

The problem with the Maxx is that my issues are in Sara's parents attic. When I get them down, I will do the Maxx.

Geoff Klock said...

The other thing was that I felt like if I was going to do Whedon I need to do it now, right on the tail of Morrison's run, where it belongs.

Stephen said...

Great post. A few random thoughts --

1) This is definitely the right series to do as a follow-up to your Morrison New X-Men series, for all the reasons you mentioned. I hope you do keep up an issue-to-issue: I'll be there (well, through #18, after which I'll bail for fear of spoilers, 'til the trade comes out).

2) River Tam is also one of Whedon's strong geeks -- an interesting synthesis of Buffy and Willow, in some ways.

3) The most interesting point in this post are all the parallels with Morrison's first issue. Hadn't noticed those.

4) None of this convinces me that this issue is weak. I don't think "conservative" (in an aesthetic sense) is necessarily a bad thing. Innovative, conservative -- it's all about how well it's done.

5) On the other hand, you're right that Cassidy (who I generally think is quite good) fails to sell the "back in the costumes" moment.

6) Your final metaphor is flat-out awesome.

Looking forward to the rest!


Geoff Klock said...

Stephen, you wrote "I don't think "conservative" (in an aesthetic sense) is necessarily a bad thing. Innovative, conservative -- it's all about how well it's done." I know from your blog that you like these kinds of conversations so let's have one.

I think conservative aesthetics is necessarily a bad thing, though I am open to being corrected (It may be just because I cannot think of a good counter-example off the top of my head). I think this because I believe aesthetics relies on surprise and audacity to work. Otherwise it is forgettable, and so not a success.

By putting the X-Men back in uniform and having Cyclops give a big speach about them all being superheroes again he says "they are what they were." That is a mere repetition. Much of this issue, especially the dialogue, is great and stands out. But the superhero-costume thing does not, and lowers the issue in my estimation. It does not lower it that far -- I still think it is solid, as I said. But it fails to live up to the shock and whim of Morrison's first issue. Is that an unfair comparison? -- I do not think it is, because it is one that Whedon insists on, by bringing up Morrison's first issue point by point.

Stephen said...

I think conservative aesthetics is necessarily a bad thing, though I am open to being corrected (It may be just because I cannot think of a good counter-example off the top of my head). I think this because I believe aesthetics relies on surprise and audacity to work. Otherwise it is forgettable, and so not a success.

I think that you're confusing boring, forgettable, predictable aesthetics with a boring, forgettable or predictable story. Aesthetics is about the rules of the game, not how it's played. I think that your statement is equivalent to saying that all chess games are dull because you already know the rules, or that all rock music is dull because you know it'll be in 4/4 time. (I'm pretty much of a musical illiterate, so if that metaphor's wrong, please alter it.)

I mean, sure, it's sometimes fun to play a new game, or to hear a new type of music. I'm all into that. But some rule structures work really well played straight. For me, conservative aesthetics are like that.

Hell, wasn't it in your book that I read that great Grant Morrison statement about how (paraphrasing) superhero comics were like rock music, you only had three chords, but you could create an endless number of great songs with them?

All that said, I don't actually think that putting the X-Men back in costumes was that big a move -- I just didn't think it was that big a deal, really. Whedon had an editorial mandate and, given that, he did it gracefully. (I love the Beast saying "Am I the only one who's dying to see the outfits?") But it doesn't drag down the issue for me; it's more of a null effect -- not a plus, but not a minus either.

Then again, Morrison taking the X-Men out of uniform didn't do much for me either. I don't pay much attention to people's clothes in real life -- and I don't in comics either.

For that matter, Morrison's outfits looked pretty much like superhero costumes to me. Sure, they were uniforms, but so are the original X-Men outfits -- IIRC Shadowcat was wearing one of those in Astonishing #1, and I think the Beast too.

I wonder if this is related to our disagreement about the importance of "pop/sexy" in Morrison's run?


neilshyminsky said...

Geoff - I'm not sure that I buy the return to costumes being a conservative gesture, necessarily. When Cyclops says that "We [the X-Men] need to get into the world. Saving lives, helping with disaster relief... We need to present ourselves as a team like any other," he expresses a certain self-reflexivity about returning to costumes. It's not about embracing a dream or what-have-you so much as a self-consciousness semiotic utilitarianism: "Avengers, Fantastic Four-- They don’t get chased through the streets with torches". This is a return to the visuals of the superhero, but I don't get the sense that Cyclops actually thinks they're superheroes like the Avengers or Fantastic Four.

And that strange team shot at the odd angle and from a distance? I was of the feeling that this was the equivalent of Michael Bay's signature spinning, worm's eye shot of the hero as he goes into battle. They use it to hilarious effect in Hot Fuzz. Here, though? Yeah, it's just kinda weird.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Geoff Klock said...

Stephen: I will admit that in a story aesthetics and story are closely related, but I am a little lost in the abstract here. I certainly did not mean to say something like "all rock music or all chess games are boring because I know the rules" -- certainly rock music and chess can be aesthetically successful -- but only when the really surprise you, surprise you with what they can do within the narrow rules they work under. Morrison's point in the quote in my superhero book was that Rock follows strict rules but add in some minor chords and you can really surprise people; it is the little things that cause a rule bound thing to feel surprising and fresh and this is what the Beatles do in their songs, and this is what Morrison claims for his comics (we have to be careful here though -- someone around here who is NOT musically illiterate as you and I are pointed out that Morrison's metaphor is just crap, and I remember believing that person). I renew my claim that surprise in necessary to aesthetic success, and that the back in costume thing lacks surprise, because it is merely returning to the old ways.

I think this is related to our disagreement about pop sexy x-men. I think all of this comes down to the simple fact that you are a smart guy who does not care about clothes in real life or in comics and I am a 15 year old high school girl who is always looking for cool shoes. :)

Here is what it will take to convince me -- an example of something aesthetically successful that lacks surprise, audacity, whim, or whatever. (although I guess your point was that no costume change can actually do those things because clothes are irrelevant).

Neil: yeah, that's a fair point. Whedon's first issue is still nowhere near as audacious as Morrison's first issue, which, again, is important, because Whedon goes to so much trouble to compare the two.

Geoff Klock said...

the deleted comment above was spam, not someone who dared to disagree with the almighty Geoff Klock. All my words are recorded for posterity (I am so going to start saying that when I get my doctorate).

maskedcomicdork said...


Great post.

I think Morrison and Whedon both thrust the core 'xenophobic' thematic element of the X-Men concept back on its audience in different ways. The nature of these books are operatic--cyclical--whatever--and the average fan is typically someone who finds comfort in the "status quo" nature of these timely periodicals. So, the necessity for unmoving, unchanging story elements creates the argument which Morrison chose to champion--he went against the "status quo" grain--and he was heralded negatively by the average fan--because he was changing things so drastically. Hell, I remember people balking at his symmetrical logo for the book!

To me, Morrison's New X-Men was not only an affront to the masturbatory nature of the modern comic book--it was an exclamation for fans to open their eyes at the companies that absconded with their hard earned dollar month after month.

Whedon's Astonishing is in complete opposition to Morrison's run--in that, fans flocked to it because it gave them back the safety of the Claremont era without all the strings attached--kind of like having a "booty call with no strings"--and honestly, I don't think that audience was even ready for that relationship yet--more bad stories were still being told in the other X-franchise books outside of Whedon and Cassaday's little slice of "risk free" heaven.

So in essence--out of what--3 booty calls only one of them was decent--but she really just kind of laid there the whole time while you did all the work. Uncanny and "Adjectiveless" had you running for a penicillin shot at that point.

Bringing Kitty back was safe. Brining Colossus back was the natural course in lieu of Kitty's return--as a slightly bored reader, I guessed his return before the "big surprise"--even though I love him as a character that has been tempered by tragedy in his 30 years of existence.

Whedon's take on the X has homogenized the xenophobic element right out of the book--it's become "Buffy" and as someone who didn't like Buffy I really lost my taste for Astonishing rather quickly. Whedon's work has no density beyond the immediate--much like a television show or a story that starts 'in medias res'.

This thought leads me to suppose that one of the current failings at Marvel Comics is the lack of reverence to its source material--the years and years of storytelling that has taken place before the shipment of current periodicals. Astonishing was a "mercy purchase" for me beyond the sixth issue because the couple of characters I enjoy have been held hostage there.

On the flip side of that coin--it's the same reverence to the source that scares off new readers who can't plumb their wallets for the fifty bucks to buy the CD containing all the issues of X-Men to the current period.

I'm kind of glad that the fans have weathered both Whedon and Morrison--because with Whedon on his way out--and Mike Carey and Ed Brubaker are giving the two remaining books an edgier reverence and xenophobic status quo--something that readers, new and old, can find a common ground on and yet still enjoy a fresh take.

Steve Ekstrom
Contributor, Newsarama

sara d. reiss said...


Christian said...

I'm going to be completely honest and say that I've sort of had to struggle my way through Whedon's run. I don't know what it is, but until Torn, I really didn't feel emotionally invested.

Also Cassaday's costume designs (and one alien design) are some of the worst designs I've ever seen him do. What happened to the exciting and different looks of Planetary?

The book is solid, but I must admit I was bored in a good portion of the process. With the exception of a good part of Torn and the Scott/Emma relationship.

Brendan Hogg said...

I find the idea that Whedon is in direct opposition to Morrison (which isn't what you're saying in your review but is coming through a bit in some of these comments) a little odd. It feels to me like he is taking the core ideas that came out of the Morrison run and integrating them into the overall continuity. Rather than retcon them completely, which I suspect many people would have done and many fans would have said they wanted prior to seeing what Whedon did, he's putting a spin on them that makes them fit more smoothly into the overall world of the X-Men.

To make an exceptionally naff metaphor: contributing to an ongoing comics line is like helping to build a wall. Morrison has just finished putting in very odd-shaped stones, but they look quite cool. There are two ways to go on from there: build round them to make the wall stable again or take them out. The new-old costumes (and yeah, the first time I read it, I had to flip back and forth to that double page a couple of times before I really got what it was going for -- though "we have to astonish them" is a very nice slightly-metafictional Whedon line) are really the only thing that come down to taking a brick out; the rest of the time he's building on and propping up Morrison's funky bricks, but making the wall stable for the future too.

Incidentally, as someone who mainly reads things in trade and doesn't pick up everything, I'm unsure how Astonishing fits together with the big events of House of M/Decimation. It doesn't really seem to matter when considering Astonishing on its own -- Whedon is telling a story about his core team (which is essentially Morrison's + Kitty, who we know he had a teenage crush on from the Fray supporting material, and later Colossus because he's her love interest) -- but I'd be grateful if someone could explain to me how it all fits together.

Geoff Klock said...

Christian: I agree that Astonishing did not kick into high gear until torn. And yes, the costume designs do suck.

BH: yeah, I think it is for all intents out of continuity. Best not to think about it to hard.

Stephen said...

...I am a little lost in the abstract here...

Ah, my favorite place to be lost!

But I think I want to again insist on the distinction vis-a-vis this:

Here is what it will take to convince me -- an example of something aesthetically successful that lacks surprise, audacity, whim, or whatever. (although I guess your point was that no costume change can actually do those things because clothes are irrelevant).

Again, I think that this confuses the issue of a surprising use of aesthetic principles -- i.e. creating an exciting story, or whatever -- with a surprising, audacious, whimsical, etc, set of aesthetic principles, which is another matter altogether.

Whereas this:

I renew my claim that surprise in necessary to aesthetic success, and that the back in costume thing lacks surprise, because it is merely returning to the old ways. a different matter: I think you're right that surprise (or at least originality) is necessary to aesthetic success; it's just not the same thing as saying that surprising aesthetics are necessary.

If I were going to try to defend Whedon's re-costuming -- which I won't, for the most part, because it was just an editorial mandate and really who cares -- I'd argue that it works because Cyclops's argument for it was surprising.

-- But I also am going to let this drop, largely because I think we're arguing largely over terms, and that we agree far more than we disagree.

Except about clothes, natch.


PS: Your warning about taking Morrison's musical claims seriously are well-taken; thanks.

PPS: At least on my blog, if you remove a post (which I too only do for spam), and check the "delete forever" button, then it no longer even shows the "this post was removed...." notice: it just wipes it clean. FYI.

PPPS: "...for all intents out of continuity..."

Which means (referencing my question on the earlier thread) that the "all good superhero comics are out of continuity" argument just lost one of its counter-examples. On the contrary: I think that Whedon more or less began in continuity, and then had to choose between ditching continuity and ditching quality, and he chose the former. Good for him.

Kicksplosions are for lovers said...

I felt trepidation over the costume return becuase I felt like they were returning to the Uncanny X-Diapers. Why a badass, retired government assassin would ever wear blue underpants outside of his outfit is beyond me.

What is up with the underpants outside of the pants design choice? I believe Superman is the only one that sells it. It just seems so prevalent for the longest time. Is it just becuase it's Superman as the first superhero, or does it go further.

Perhaps a tad tangental. That said, I think you can achieve pop sexy with costumes, you have to be mindful of the times with a serious eye towards design. I know underpants don't go outside the pants, why can't my heroes realize this?

Anonymous said...

I'm coming very late to this discussion, but let me throw out a notion:

Morrison was interested in stuff the X-Men /did/. He referred several times to these as "riffs": the X-Men discover a new mutant, the X-Men battle Magneto, the future story, the school story, the Shi'ar story, etc. Over these individual arcs was the idea of evolution -- again, something that /happens/.

Morrison was less interested in the X-Men themselves. I wouldn't say uninterested... that goes too far; he had a lot of fun with some of them, especially the Beast, Professor X, and -- above all! -- Emma Frost. But you'll notice that the characters he engages most with are the ones he can change a lot. Or, at a minimum, play around with -- Professor X's new sibling, the Beast's new look.

The characters he's weakest with are the ones who are resistant to change, either because they're inherently sorta dull (Jean) or because they've been worked over so thoroughly that even Morrisson can't do much with them (Wolverine). Notice how Morrisson's Wolverine is sort of drab? A little passive, even? You can feel him trying to engage with the character, and not quite doing it.

Anyway. Whedon, I'd say, is much less interested in stuff that the X-Men /do/, and much more interested in the characters themselves. And he doesn't feel a need to change them, either. Change might happen, sure, but it's not the point. Whedon's willing to have fun just letting them bounce off of each other.

To oversimplify, Whedon does adjectives -- you'll recall that his motto is a single word: shiny! -- while Morrison does verbs.

Doug M.