Comics 201 – Astonishing X-Men

by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday

Originally posted by Stuart Kirkman

Welcome back to this series of comic book recommendations, which started six weeks ago with A Beginner’s Guide to Comics. We’ve already been through a handful of mini-series, and now we’re ready to move on to something with a bit more meat on the bones. The next five stories will be between 4 and 7 volumes in length, so they require a slightly bigger financial commitment, but the rewards are all the greater. Some of the best comic runs in existence were short and sweet, told by creators who planned where their story was going, and knew the benefit of getting out before they outstayed their welcome.

During the first phase of Marvel Studios ambitious cinematic universe, everything was building towards the first Avengers film and it felt like there was a lot at stake. This project needed to succeed in order to pay off on what six other movies had built over the last few years. So when Joss Whedon was announced as the Director of Marvel’s first Avengers movie, the collective consciousness of comic book nerds breathed a giant sigh of relief, as they knew that this film was in the safest hands possible. This was a guy with years of experience in telling serialised ensemble stories, but there was another reason to rejoice.

Whedon had recently written one of the best X-Men stories of all time, winning Eisner awards for Best continuing Series two years in a row. Though it’s only 25 issues long, it took several years to come out, mainly due to delays in the artwork. A lesser series would have drafted in a new artist to finish the book and get it out on time, but Marvel thankfully allowed them all the time they needed so that this series could be enjoyed all the more in it’s collected format. Now, years later, we can all appreciate the benefits with this fantastic book:

Astonishing X-Men

It’s not easy to write an ensemble story, as each character has to be given their own story arc and moments to shine, all while serving a central plot in some way. This story focuses on a small team of X-Men, including fan-favourites Wolverine, Cyclops and Beast, along with Emma Frost, Colossus, and the star of the show, Kitty Pride. Some new characters are also introduced to the Marvel universe, including the head of S.W.O.R.D. (an intergalactic version of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Abigail Brand, as well as a young mutant called ‘Armor’, and the embodiment of the mutants training facility, ‘Danger’, all of which are still kicking around today.

If this series received any criticism, it’s usually levelled at the villains, almost all of which were created by Whedon specifically for this story. The problem isn’t necessarily with these characters, it’s that the main crux of the story isn’t in stopping a villain, there’s normally something more complex at work. The first story, Gifted, poses the question of what would happen if the mutant community were offered a cure, and the division this causes is the real focus of the plot. Danger is a ‘Sins of the father’ story about the decisions that Charles Xavier made coming back to haunt his children. Torn is about the evil-turned-good Emma Frost facing her inner demons, and Unstoppable is a culmination of everything that came before, in an interplanetary romp where the X-Men try to defeat destiny itself.

These volumes are filled with so many memorable sequences that it’s difficult to choose a favourite. Each character is given their opportunity to show what makes them great, and the relationships between the characters changes in significant ways as the story develops. Whedon’s pitch-pefect writing coupled with Cassaday’s incredible art makes this series a true masterclass of comic book storytelling. If someone could only read one X-Men book in their life, this would be the book to choose, and they could find it in four Trade Paperbacks or two Ultimate Collections. There are some copies of the Omnibus, and two oversized hardcovers still knocking around in the second hand market, but they can cost a pretty penny. As an alternative to physical versions, you can of course find it all on ComiXology and Marvel Comics Unlimited.

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Same Creator

Buffy Season 8

Buffy Season 8 by Joss Whedon (with others) & Georges Jeanty

If you liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as our very own Alex Waite then you should know that the series was continued in comic book form. Joss Whedon oversaw this series himself, and even wrote a couple of the big storylines. The art by Georges Jeanty perfectly captures the look and mood of the TV show, and the storyline really takes advantage of the format by leaning into the superhero nature of the Slayers powers, and doing things that wouldn’t have been possible on a television budget.

The first ‘Season’ of this series can be collected in eight Trade Paperbacks, or four Library Editions, which are a really nice way to read them. The print size is much bigger than a normal issue, and the paper quality on these volumes is fantastic, especially considering the price, as they’re much cheaper than the similar-quality Absolute Editions from DC. The series is currently coming to the end of Season 9, which involves a companion book called Angel & Faith, so if you enjoy this there’s plenty more to go at.

Similar Characters

Uncanny X-Force

Uncanny X-Force by Rick Remender & Jerome Opena/Esad Ribic/Phil Noto

If you’re looking for a follow-up to Joss Whedon’s story, there are several more eligible than this, but of all the X-Men books that came after…this is probably the best.  Uncanny X-Force is set in a time when Mutants are an endangered species, thanks to the events that took place at the end of the House of M event, and Cyclops decides to give Wolverine carte blanche to do what he needs to do in order to preserve their race.

Logan decides to assemble a Black-Ops team out of some of the more dangerous and socially-challenged mutants in the roster. Together they target people who represent a danger to the continuation of the species, and put a permanent end to them. Each story arc is involves them killing a single person, but it’s not about the act itself, it’s about the toll it takes on them as individuals and as a team. The ongoing plot tackles themes of Destiny vs Free Will, and Nature vs Nurture in a really interesting way, but everything is underpinned by the question of what is Good and what is Bad.

This is arguably Rick Remender’s strongest work-for-hire project, and he’s joined by an all-star line up of artists including Jerome Opena, Esad Ribic and Phil Noto. You can find this story in 7 Trade Paperbacks or 2 Complete Collections, but the Omnibus is sadly out of print.

Similar Tone

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy by Dan Abnett/Andy Lanning & Paul Pelletier

If you’re looking for en ensemble story that’s full of heart, humour, intelligence, and complex interpersonal relationships, then this is the story for you. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning co-wrote a great deal of Cosmic Marvel stories over the years, but this series is probably their finest hour. It follows Star Lord, Rocket Racoon, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora and several others, as they tackle some of the Universe’s biggest problems.

This story contains the same love and levity that James Gunn skillfully recreated in his Guardians of the Galaxy movie; in fact, he has openly said that this is the story he recommends to people who want to read a Guardians comic. The one downside is that it’s tied in to several bigger storylines that were taking place in the Cosmic corner of Marvel at the time, but it does a good job of telling it’s own story while weaving in and out of larger plot lines.

The entire run has recently been collected in an Omnibus, and there are also a couple of Complete Collections that are fairly easy to find if you’d rather go down the paperback route. As usual, you can also find it on ComiXology and the subscription service Marvel Comics Unlimited.

That’s the end of this week’s comic recommendations – but come back next week for another instalment, and check out the index at the bottom of the original post to catch up on any you might have missed.

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