Thursday, July 19, 2007

Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men 5

[This post is part of a series of posts looking issue by issue at Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men run. For more of the same click the Astonishing X-Men link at the bottom of this post.]

In this issue, the team rallies back against Ord and Dr Rao and the newly returned Colossus saves everyone before SHIELD shows up and stops the whole thing.

Cyclops wakes in a dreamscape caused by him being knocked out; Whedon uses the opportunity to make fun of code names (Ability-to-hop-man) and busy nineties costume design (all those pockets). This is all good fun, as is Kitty's demand to know if Colossus back from the grave is "a clone, or a robot or, yeah, a ghost or an alternate universe thingie .. a shapeshifter or illusionist." The switched body explanation makes no sense, but I do not really care about continuity stuff that much. Emma has a nice bit where she mentally controls two guards to vomit uncontrollably for 48 hours every time they hear the words "parsley," "intractable," or "longitude" which is awesome; Cyclops says in small letters "my girlfriend is very weird." And funny. Emma putting Dr. Rao between her and Ord is also a nice character moment. You can read comic book after comic book and have nothing like this. It is simple and small, but it is important. Comics should be fun, and a little silly goes a long way.

But there is a mistake brewing here -- I could talk about it later, but this is as good a time as any. At the end of issue three Hank says the problem they face is about the bodies Benetech is running tests on; Hank says "why does nothing ever stay buried" and Scott ends issue 3 with a muted "Jean?" In issue four they go looking for bodies at Benetech: Cyclops says "we probably won't find anything conclusive" and Emma says icily "Like a warm body?" Then Wolverine and Hank smell something: "Female. Dead." When they find the body, someone they don't know, Cyclops says "This can't be the only body." Then Colossus shows up. Issue four or five was promoted with an image of the Phoenix and the promise of a return; it may have been the same image as Cyclops's hallucination, but even if it is not that image serves as a parody of what we were expecting.

A fake-out can be great fun -- I loved the Ultimate/Regular-universe fake-out that led to the first appearance of the Zombie universe. But there the Zombies were pretending to be something that looked like the regular Marvel universe. Reed was tricked as we were. Similarly in Ocean's 12 much of the film is a fake out -- we are tricked as the Nightfox is. But here, we are led to believe the X-Men are looking for Jean for one, maybe two issues (depending on when you figure out you should give up on her return) -- and we have no surrogate in the narrative being tricked in this way, nor anyone in the narrative doing the tricking. All of those lines I quoted above are part Whedon's plan to make us think they are looking for Jean; but they must have known they were not looking for Jean moments after the final panel of 3 but before the first panel of four. Whedon is tricking us directly with no narrative surrogate of any kind. I am going to be bold and call this a reasonably sized gaff on Whedon's part, a full-on error.

I would like some debate on this point, if you are up for it.

Cassaday Repeat/Background watch. Cassaday reuses an image of Cyclops, a zoom in on Kitty and Colossus, a double take on Colossus, another double take on Colossus, another double take on Cyclops, a double take on Emma, a double take on Ord's weapon, a double take on Wolverine, and a double take on Ord. Many panels of Cyclops have no background, which is ok-- he is on the floor for those scenes, and a few panels are in a dream scape. Cyclops and Kitty have a conversation in an interesting space -- a red alien area underneath Benetech, but for much of that conversation and a whole page of the kids back at the school there is no background of any kind except for the shaded color. That, to me is a mistake, especially since early in those scenes a background is established. Cassaday just decides not to continue to draw it. Many panels in the fight with Ord have no background for a reason (that bold yellow is used again to communicate a strike), but many have no background for no reason, and then some do have a background -- it is all pretty random. You may think this lack of background is for emphasis. But it is not. I checked panel after panel for that kind of explanation. It works sometimes, but it is in no way consistent enough to call it a technique.


Elijah Fly said...

While I don't have the comics in front of me, my particular reading of the issues is the recurring plot point that Emma ranks lower than a corpse to Cyclops. I was under the impression that the bad guys were using the body of a deceased X-Man, Cyclops automatically thought of Jean. "Jean?" popped out because she's that important to her. It's not a fact, its just where his mind automatically went to.
Emma's line comes up because she's frustrated that Cyclops won't let Jean go or grow up, something that is brought to the forefront in a later issue.
"Female. Dead." is just misdirection and the phoenix panel is a fake, "leaked" to the media to support the possible return of Jean. Thus everyone was surprised by the Colossus reveal.
I don't think the X-Men explicitly thought they'd find Jean down there. I don't believe they thought they had evidence that Jean was there, they had evidence that mutants were being experimented upon, including an X-Man. It was more Cyclops feeling that hope, and how that would make those around him feel.

Geoff Klock said...

EF: thanks for commenting, man. Keep it up.

As for your comment you and I are in agreement. The X-Men did not think they were going after Jean; but we the audience were made to think they were. My point is that is a bad idea.

Elijah Fly said...

I misread your post a tad. That said, I believe the story still works for me. The surrogate is Cyclop's initial reaction and the lingering hope that he feels. Again, I don't have the comic in front of me, but I believe the idea is that Beast tells the X-Men that Ord and Rao are experimenting on a dead X-Man. Beast saying, "I don't know who," is implied to have been said (albeit retroactively) between issues. Or that is implied in general. I don't think that they knew Jean wasn't there at first. I think the points support this. They (We) don't know what's in the suitcase, just that it's valuable to the characters.

It's Cyclops and the readers that are dragging the baggage kicking and screaming into Joss Whedon's X-Men. I love the work that Morrison and Whedon are bringing to Cyclops, calling on him to finally grow up. (I loved the later issue where Emma enters Scott's mind. I was really excited by the last panel, as I thought she 'healed' Scott's eyes.)

My other point is this, the phoenix image was outside of the story proper. It was a fake image drawn by Cassidy for the internet to play with reader expectations. It's like saying Stan Lee created the Sentry before the Fantastic Four, or Joe Quesada saying 'Dead means dead.' just long enough so that readers will think we won't be seeing Magneto anytime soon (an interesting point that was missing from the New X-Men posts. Why would we ever think Xorn was Magneto? Joe Quesada assured us that deaths were going to stick this time!)

These examples are pieces of evidence that are unable to be entered into the story itself. They're autonomously playing with the outside world through the already dubious use of internet forums and solicitation text.

So, I just don't see a mistake. I could be wrong, but what I see is a textbook example of characters reacting to the red hair herring. Someone took an Uncanny X-Corpse, and they're too busy getting it back to dig up the X-Graveyard to figure out which one was stolen.

neilshyminsky said...

I'm agreeing with Elijah, here - a lot of the heavy hinting is the fault of Marvel, it seems, and not Whedon himself. Whedon is deceiving us to some degree, sure, but the fact that the characters aren't discussing Jean at the beginning of issue 4 - as one would imagine they would if Cyclops' guess was right - seems to be a pretty fair indication that she isn't the one they're looking for. Sure, the identity of the person whose DNA Hank found it a mystery, but I was pretty confident it wasn't her.

And just generally, I was pretty confident that the end of issue 3 was a swerve - you don't reveal the big return only halfway through the story, y'know?

Matt Brady said...

I would agree with Neil and Elijah here; in fact, I was not even aware of a leaked Phoenix image (but I didn't really follow comics news on the web at that time). I think the story functions pretty well outside of the whole marketing twist.

Geoff Klock said...

Elikaj, Neil, Matt: you are all mad as hatters.

Elijah: how on earth can there be some kind of marker that tells you you have an X-Man but not which one? I though it was DNA or something, DNA they had on file. And this problem is not solved by answering my question -- my point is Whedon needs to explain it. I cannot believe, given the issues, that THEY THINK they are looking for Jean. Someone would have said something to make it clear.

My points about marketing was only that it exacerbates an existing problem. IN THE STORY Whedon makes it seem like they are looking for Jean, then IGNORES this hint, keeping the audience in the dark while ALL the characters are not.

Neil: your point is that in issue 4 it should be crystal clear that they are not looking for Jean. Maybe that is it exactly. Maybe I am just crazy for thinking there is a fake out IN issue 4 at all.

I should read it again.

Elijah Fly said...

I need to read it again. I thought it was "generic file full of evidence that points out using unidentified mutant corpses," not a verifiable portion of DNA. I remember rereading the damn thing the first time, and coming to a conclusion like that.

For the sake of agreement, if they knew it's not Jean, wouldn't they know Colossus was there?

time to get some reading done.

neilshyminsky said...

Geoff: I think the fake-out is at the end of 3, (maybe - again, I ask, who ruins the big reveal of a return from the dead like that?) and that's it. At the beginning of 4, it's obvious that it's someone other than Jean if only because no one's talking about her - it's too conspicuous an absence.

My guess is that Whedon was simply trying to get the obligatory 'is it jean?' fan-talk out of the way. Cyclops is asking the question that's first to pop into our heads. But writers rarely show their hand like that, which is why it's either not a fake-out or it's a particularly bad fake-out.

Stephen said...

I think Elijah, Neil & Matt are right, and Geoff is wrong. And I think Elijah had a point Geoff didn't quite address: it wasn't only a fake-out for the readers; it was also a good part of a larger character arc for Cyclops: that he is still stuck on Jean, even postmortem. That the X-men many not have thought it was Jean... but Cyclops did, just out of hope.

Marc said...

I could never get that worked up about the misdirection; one of my main problems with this issue, and with Whedon's run in general, is that all the awesome good fun Geoff mentions in his second paragraph struck me as not especially funny, not at all awesome, and entirely too pleased with itself. Whedon's tendency to copy Warren Ellis's clipped dialogue and cutesy non-sequiturs also cloned some of Ellis's embarrassment at his source material, and his unconvincing attempts to cover it up with cloying self-consciousness. (Making fun of nineties costumes and code names? Did that still need doing?)

This stuff struck me as the verbal equivalent of Casaday's superfluous splash pages and repeating panels: filler to stretch a thin plot out to a then-mandatory six-issue arc.

Elijah Fly said...

Making fun of 90s costumes and codenames always needs doing.

Marc said...

Yeah, nothing's funnier than shooting fish in a barrel.

neilshyminsky said...

marc: You'd think that, but just visit any number of the more popular message board sites (, and you'll see that a lot of people aren't even convinced that there's a barrel to begin with.

Marc said...

I'm not sure I need to read a comic that lets those sites set the discourse. (Well, since I dropped Astonishing after the Danger arc, I guess I know I don't need to read that comic.) Anyway, if the 90s X-men comics are really that ridiculous--and I certainly think they are--why not just ignore them and write about something different and better?

Sometime after I wrote the last comment I remembered how Morrison handled the 90s costumes in his run: mostly ignoring them, except for one brilliant line (Bollywood) which found a new context that made them work again in his more fully considered world. It was a self-reflexive gesture that actually added to the setting instead of stopping the story cold for some smarmy in-jokes. Or, for another point of comparison, Cyclops' old costumes spilling out of his parachute in Emma's psychic therapy/seduction vs. the cheap 90s joke in Whedon's dream. Again, the self-aware continuity references build the character and advance the story instead of serving as jokey asides. An especially striking contrast when the jokes are neither original nor (IMO) especially funny.

Emily  said...

Thank you for bringing such nice posts. Your blog is always fascinating to read.

Anonymous said...

I was just pointed to this blog, and first I'd like to say I love reading it. It is so very insightful.

I'd like to address the marketing scam and the in story explanation:

"though it was DNA or something, DNA they had on file. And this problem is not solved by answering my question -- my point is Whedon needs to explain it

I think Whedon did explain it through Beast. When they confirm his identity, Beast says, "I matched his DNA." Emma says, "I read his mind." Wolverine says, "I smelled him." And, Beast says "I did that also." I think this exchange proves that Beast corrected Scott between issues, and Cyclops and Beast were aware of the identity of the mystery mutant. Obviously, Beast didn't match his DNA then and there. That exchange answered all the lingering questions I had. I can't remember if I was surprised that it was Colossus who returned or not, but as an audience I certainly did not feel out of the loop.

As for the marketing strategy, I think it was brilliant. Marvel got some Phoenix hype and it may have even detracted some of the fans who were adamant against Peter's return after his heroic death.