[This post is part of a series of posts looking issue by issue at Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run. For more in this series click the Astonishing X-Men links in the right toolbar.]
First of all, this issue has surely one of the best X-Men covers of all time – a white background and Wolverine’s head, looking around the corner in the lower left hand side like a frightened little girl, one claw the tip of his teeth like someone who bites their fingernails as a nervous habit. When you see a really striking cover like this you realize how little variation is allowed in superhero comic book cover design. It was one of the reasons Planetary was so exciting when it was first coming out. You never knew what the covers we going to look like.
This issue opens suddenly, with no context, into a sequence of more than five pages in which Kitty and Peter have a son, years pass, the X-Men (including Peter) take her son from her (with vague justification about the kid having “terrible power”), and she returns to confront Peter and get her son back. The emotional pitch here is as good as anything Whedon has ever written in any medium. The cutie pie happy stuff (Kitty: “I made him myself”) gives way to the X-Men coming, in uniform to take the kid. The uniforms are a nice touch – when the X-Men visit Kitty in the hospital they are casually dressed like friends – when they arrive in uniform they are much more imposing. In a heartbreaking moment Colossus turns on her and helps his team-mates take his son from Kitty. This could have been handled as a nightmare scenario in which everyone turns on Kitty for no reason, but Casaday and Whedon have Colossus seem very upset by what he is doing. Had he smiled evilly we would have said “Oh, this is all a dream sequence…”. Here we are less sure, which gives the moment more emotional resonance.
We immediately cut to dark and stormy night in which Kitty has the handle of an axe phased through Peter’s temples – “You blink and I let go.” The image is stunning because it is a serial killer tableau (though the axe is being used differently, it would be the weapon of choice anyway). Amazingly the previous four pages make us side with Kitty, even though the image, in isolation, would have us feeling otherwise. When Peter pleads, Kitty says “Don’t talk to me like a person. You’re not a person! Big metal fucking robot and somehow I didn’t see it.” The frighteningly few pages Whedon has for this sequence are all the time he needs to tell this powerful little story. One of the best moment in Astonishing, period.
It is all a mental manipulation – taking up 18 months of her mental time -- to get Kitty to break into a box in the mansion. Kitty is being made to believe her son is in the box, but whatever is in the box is what the Hellfire club is after.
One scene here that maybe got on my nerves. Whedon has had a lot of serious stuff in this issue and he needs to balance it out with some humour. I feel like there are scales on his end, and that the darker he goes the lighter he needs the humour to be to counterbalance. The problem here, maybe, is that he counters with a scene in which Wolverine – brainwashed to act like a Dickensian waif by Nova – gets hit on the head with a can of beer in the explosion of Danger and Ord entering, and remembers who he is. This is funny, but it also feels a little too broad. Barely too broad. You can argue Nova is not paying attention – that this would have worn off anyway -- but it is awfully silly for this story. I do not hate it, but I am also not sure how much I like it.
Kitty gets the thing out of the box thinking it is her son – it is a pile of green goo readers will remember as the alien that Emma trapped Nova’s consciousness in at the end of Grant Morrison first year on New X-Men. Looking at something issue by issue is bound to get a little redundant, but I will just say it again: Whedon draws on Morrison’s run in surprisingly specific ways, and does it very well. Whedon’s use of the Hellfire Club was all a big distraction. It looked, for a moment, like he was using a this set of villains to avoid using a bad guy Morrison used, but it turns out it was all smoke and mirrors for the real story he was telling: The Return of Casandra Nova. The way the story is told we do not feel like we are going around in circles, which is important, as “we are going around in circles” was one of Morrison’s big (and stupid) themes.
In another of the best moments in Whedon’s run Emma is shot in the back, and the ending page reveals Cyclops, in his New X-Men jacket and no glasses, holding the smoking gun. Casaday puts the “camera” low, so Cyclops is even more imposing. Whedon may be drawing on Morrison’s Nova and his New X-Men run, but here he has earned to right to be so bold as to outdo Morrison in the treatment of Cyclops. The difference between Morrison’s Xavier suddenly just having a gun at the start of New X-Men, and Whedon’s Cyclops needing a gun this deep into Whedon’s run is telling – the symbol is the same (Change is Here) but the execution is more convincing, because it is less arbitrary. Cassaday has been stunning throughout this issue (especially in the axe scene) but this last page is where he really needs to come though. And he sells the moment perfectly.