Now we come to the halfway point of my Comics! list. Adam surreptitiously got me to think about why THESE particular comics, making me rethink the reasoning behind this list. Simply put, it’s the comics I’m reading now, those I currently enjoy, those that may not necessarily get as much exposure as others (but, of course, neither Thor nor Hawkeye fit into this category), and those that are a good introduction into comics for those uninitiated (with the exception of Angel & Faith).
I first got into comics because of Guillermo del Toro’s magnificent Hellboy movie starring the incomparable Ron Perlman. (Who is in EVERYTHING.) Before that, I, classicist that I was, thought anything written before 1950 was not any good and that contemporary literature was passe and uninteresting, lacking any sort of relevance or power that novels before that had. Comics didn’t even enter into the equation, me thinking that they were just picture books for those too unaware of the greatness of Dostoevsky or Dickens. Then I saw Hellboy and realized that if a movie that awesome was based on a comic, well, then it was time for me to see what all these comics were about. Mike Mignola’s interesting blend of dark and stark panels, the magnificence of the statues and corpses he draws and the beauty therein in ruination and dilapidation made me realize that comics could be just as interesting and worthy as the dustiest piece of Russian Literature. I hope to inspire others to take the same chance, to read something new in a way they’ve never read anything else.
With the outpouring of superhero movies in the last twenty or so years — yes, twenty, as I count Blade to kind of be the start of a ‘serious’ comic movie instead of a very comic-y movie like Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman or the Dick Tracy with Warren Beatty — it’s easier than ever to pick up a comic and not be intimidated by the last 60 years of history behind it. These are stories that are just, simply put, good storytelling, just with pictures and speech bubbles.
So I guess I’m attracted to a certain type of story, which isn’t necessarily what most comic book lovers are looking for. I like the complete universe stories with definite endings. Though the DC and Marvel universes are escapist and so richly detailed, they’re not as alluring to me as something like Sweet Tooth or four out of the top five left on the list.
Number five is the last of the superhero comics. Remember when I said that JMS was one of two movie guys to make the list? The other is the exceptional Joss Whedon.
5.) Astonishing X-Men (Marvel) 2004-2007 — by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday.
Now, before you start dissing on Whedon for his somewhat loud-mouthed fans, or for disliking his series, know that yes, I understand that Joss Whedon can be rather…difficult to work with and that his legions of rabid fans can be somewhat off-putting, but that doesn’t dissolve any of his talent or ability to make a good story. The dude is dang-talented and sometimes that lends itself to a big ego. Is that a bad thing? When interacting with people, maybe. When making fantastic TV shows and comics? Not necessarily.
This was my first (legit) superhero comic of the Marvel variety, not even to say of the X-Men variety. I was told that it would ruin other X-Men comics for me and while nothing can come close to its brilliance, I find myself still being able to read, say, Wolverine: Weapon X; Insane in the Brain and still enjoy it, even though it’s not nearly as well-thought out and detailed as Astonishing X-Men.
In case you haven’t gotten the memo, Buffy is just Joss Whedon’s take on Kitty Pryde, his favorite X-Men and she is featured prominently in this series and does she ever become much more than just the shadowy (ha!) figure. Sometimes writers don’t know how to handle superpowers well. Someone, like Kitty Pryde, may not necessarily seem useful, until given the right platform from which to evolve her powers and showcase just exactly how awesome they can be. Whedon does this perfectly, bringing a somewhat minor character to the shining forefront.
Like other Marvel stories, there is a whole lot of background for these characters and it can be daunting and somewhat difficult to jump in the middle. This being my first X-Men comic, I only had the knowledge base from the 1990s animated series to inform me who was who and sort of what had happened to them before this adventure. But, a few issues into the run, I found myself not caring whether or not I knew how Colossus had ‘died’ earlier, caring only that now he was back and that complicated things for Kitty Pryde. I didn’t mind that Professor X was off somewhere doing something with someone I didn’t know, only that his absence caused a disruption in Scott Summer’s leadership abilities. It was inconsequential how Emma Frost changed from being a member of the Hellfire Club to co-leader of the X-Men with Cyclops, only the ramifications that presented. Whedon’s story is so good that, even though I was missing huge chunks of X-Men history, I only became concerned with what was happening to these characters NOW.
It follows a few major story arcs, some being about the Danger Room becoming sentient and attacking the X-Men — as a friend of mine succinctly put it: “Was Star Trek mad?” — to everyone becoming victims of their own personal fears, leading to some of the most brilliant comedic scenes I’ve ever read in any comic, ever. Whedon has a biting sarcasm that mixes well with witty dialogue and truly heart-wrenching character development. To go from laughing to shock in a short time is one of his fortes in Buffy and, given how things change so quickly in comics anyway, Astonishing X-Men is no exception. Just like his other works, too, his X-Men run has a fairly complicated plot (for comics) and is best over a long-range, rather than issue-to-issue.
It was also very refreshing to have him take a step back from the (somewhat) ridiculous Wolverine obsession. I too, like a good short, hairy, clawed berserker, but, especially with the X-Men movies, Wolverine has become something more than he was ever intended to be. At his core, he’s a warrior, one who loses his temper, gets brain-washed entirely too much, and, at the end of the day, likes a cold beer more than he likes brooding about the things from his past he may or may not remember. The film version is a little bit more romanticized (not that there’s anything wrong with different interpretations of characters, especially from comics to the big screen) but I find I like the simplistic brawl-y, bub-talking Wolverine, than the Hugh Jackman version. Whedon utilizes Wolverine rather effectively, even parodying some of his toughness, while not alienating those who want a little more emotional depth.
Overall, this is a comic not to be missed. Yes, it’s hard to get into, especially at the beginning with so much background being needed for contextualization, but by the end of it, you won’t mind. There’s a big omnibus of Whedon’s run, which I recommend, because you won’t like the wait in-between trades if you start reading it.