[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.