Astonishing X-Men

(4 volumes or two larger volumes or one omnibus)

  • Author:  Joss Whedon
  • Artist:  John Cassaday
  • Published:  2004-2007
  • Publisher:  Marvel Comics
  • Pages:  656
  • First Line:  “Mommy is screaming.”
  • Last Lines:  “You take what you can get.  Cause it’s here, and then gone.”
  • Film Version:  none, although elements from the first volume were used in X-Men: The Last Stand
  • First Read:  Winter 2006 and then ongoing until it ended

Back in 2007, I wrote a piece entitled “Whedon, You Stupid Bastard” with the intention of sending it to one of a couple of websites that I occasionally contributed pieces to, but in the end, I didn’t.  But I still have the piece sitting on my computer and parts of the piece below are straight from that piece (the parts in red), written back when things in my life were a lot different.

I’m 33.  When I began reading comics, the X-Men consisted of seven primary characters: Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Colossus, Rogue and Kitty Pride.  The team changed a little, but for a few years, that was pretty much it.  Chris Claremont was the writer, it only had one other title (New Mutants) and for less than $1.50 you could follow both storylines.  And, oh yeah, it was the best comic on the planet.

I got into comics for a variety of reasons; my brothers both collected comics, I was very introverted and liked to escape into my own world, I loved to read, I didn’t make friends very easily.  By the time I got into high school, I had two close friends who read comics, plus my brothers, but that was it.  It was considered odd, nerdy, geeky, something that helped in making me an outcast.  Because I entered high school in 1988, the year before Tim Burton’s Batman made comics a part of the true popular culture.

I went through high school a lot of things changed.  The prices started going up because suddenly comic books, like baseball cards, were collectible, something people bought, not for enjoyment, but for financial gain.  They had become like stocks.  Also, I became less interested because other things happened in my life and I became much more of a movie buff and I started devouring classic literature and politics became a more important part of my life (after all, we had an election to win and finally had a good candidate, one William Jefferson Clinton).  That, and there suddenly was a lot of storylines to follow.  The X-Men had expanded and expanded again.  There was X-Force and X-Factor and far too many mini-series to keep track of.  And even though they had found phenomenal popularity with Gambit and Psylocke, I simply missed Kitty and Kurt, and Peter just wasn’t the same without Kitty.

Then Claremont said goodbye to the X-Men in all of the all-time great comics, X-Men #3, the death of Magneto.  I started buying less and less as I went off to college and had other things on my mind and then at the start of my Sophomore year, Marvel reversed itself and brought Magneto back to life.  Though it was to be expected, because as they say, everyone comes back except Bucky and Uncle Ben (and now only Uncle Ben because Marvel can’t leave well enough alone), it still felt like a betrayal of such a great storyline.  But to me, the kicker came the issue before Magneto came storming back.  It came in Uncanny X-Men #303 when they killed off Illyana Rasputin.  Illyana had been such a great character, the connecting link between the X-Men and the New Mutants, and her friendship with Kitty was unlike any other comic friendship.  But then they reversed her age.  Then they killed her in a comic book that made me start crying.  Not because they were killing one of my absolute favorite characters, but the way they did it.  She got sicker and weaker and had her life eaten away by the legacy virus, and then Jean Grey begged Xavier to let her die, that sometimes you have to have the strength and the love to let someone go.  And that felt like a real death, not like a comic book death.

And so I quit.  I got Uncanny #304 and X-Men #25 for the final battle where Xavier wiped Magneto’s mind (something I knew wouldn’t last) and I didn’t buy any more comics.  I had quit cold turkey.  And that’s where it sat for thirteen years. Flash forward to 2006.  I had read some stuff off and on working in bookstores, but hadn’t bought anything.  Then a friend of mine pointed out how good Astonishing X-Men was.  He had been so amazed by one issue that it actually caused him to write his first letter to Marvel after twenty years and it was printed (good for you Jose).  So I broke down and I started reading from the start.

Volume 1: Gifted  (issues #1-6)

As will be mentioned below, I was a bit leery of this title.  The hit title New X-Men had been a smash critical hit but I had hated it.  I thought Grant Morrison’s writing was the most over-rated in comics and that his constant partner, artist Frank Quitely, drew people with no emotions and whose faces looked like their chins were melting.  I abhorred it when everyone else was praising it.  Plus it had brought together Scott Summers (Cyclops) together with Emma Frost, an idea I really hated.  I had to get over their relationship in order to be able to read the book.  That was helped quite quickly because in walks Kitty Pryde in those first pages.

As fnord says so succinctly here, “Kitty Pryde was the imaginary girlfriend for probably every straight guy that read X-comics in the 80s, and so i think a portion of the fanbase is a little… possessive about her.”  Yes, we are.  I had written in my head essentially an entire comic run in which a character (based on me) ends up married to her.  She’s absolutely at the top of my list for comic characters (Kitty, Hal Jordan, Barbara Gordon, Batman, Illyana, Scott).  To see her walk in and immediately not take any of Emma’s shit, just made the comic perfect.  The art was good but the writing was fantastic.  I had never been interested in watching Whedon’s Buffy (which is ironic since in high school I crushed on Alyson Hannigan in My Stepmother is an Alien because she looked like the girl I had a crush on at the time and she’s just exactly seven months older than me) but this comic was hooking me from the start.

The first storyline bounces between various aspects: there’s the team needing to come together with Scott and Logan constantly at each other’s throats because of Jean’s recent death.  There is the supposed mutant cure that has just been discovered (that’s the part that was adapted into X-Men: The Last Stand) and there is a creature from a planet called Breakworld who is after the X-Men because supposedly one of them is prophesied to destroy his world.  I was able to deal with the relationship between Scott and Emma because of lines like “Of course Kitty thinks I’m mentally controlling everything you say.”  “But you’re not, right?”  “You will never see me naked again.”

Then came the splash page that changed everything, the moment that Jose told me about that made me want to read it again.  Yes, it sucks that comic books can’t bother to keep anybody dead.  But sometimes they bring back characters in a way you weren’t expecting and it’s a glorious surprise.  And suddenly, in a fantastic splash panel that showed how good the art was, Colossus was back.  We know it’s really him, because when Nick Fury asks that very question in the final issue, Emma replies “I read his mind,” Hank says “I matched his DNA”, Logan adds “I smelled him” and then Hanks throws in “I did that too.”  Later, when Fury explains that everyone will walk away and Hank says that he must be joking, Whedon again shows his great knowledge of the characters and perfect dialogue for them as Fury replies “Of course.  This is one of those jokes I’m so famous and beloved for.”

We end the first volume with the cure dealt with (it and the research behind it are destroyed) with Ord subdued but still around and the hint that something is wrong with Emma and that she will go after Kitty first.

I was never fully comfortable from the start because I had heard about the way Scott and Emma had ended up together and I didn’t like it.  It just didn’t fit Scott’s character (I had the same issue with the whole Parallax aspect of Hal Jordan until Geoff Johns finally pulled a fix for that and proved that he knew Jordan better than anyone).  But the writing was so good, and the team was so perfect and there was such great humor (“We could have Scott and Logan fight again.  The kids enjoyed that.”).  And they had finally brought back Kitty Pride.  And then I got to the point Jose had told me about where they brought back Colossus.  And I was hooked.

Volume 2: Dangerous  (issues 7-12)

What you think about Professor X, I suppose, might depend on how you first encountered him.  As was made clear in this long piece I wrote a couple of years ago celebrating the first appearance of the X-Men, I am not a big fan (except on screen – I quite like how both Stewart and McAvoy have played him).  I find him to be overbearing and not a great field leader and his tendency to mind-wipe everyone and their brother was always disturbing.

Xavier’s failure to do the right thing is at the heart of the second storyline, as the team discovers that the Danger Room has become sentient and starts attacking them and that Xavier had known about its sentience for years.  Before we get to that, we continue to get some great action and humor as the X-Men take on a monster in Manhattan with some assistance from the Fantastic Four (“Didn’t they come up with a cure for your kind?” Thing says to Logan.  “You got a problem with mutants?”  “I meant Canadians.”).  Some nice conceptual art from Cassaday and some great writing from Whedon shows why I’ve always been a big fan of Scott Summers as he gets rid of a sentinel attacking the mansion.  One of the reasons I no longer read Marvel Comics is because of the fucking idiots there who have completely ruined Scott’s character but this series understands how awesome he can be.

Then we get into the heart of the storyline as the team faces off against Danger and then is off to Genosha (long story) and Xavier himself must deal with the terrible choices he has made and his own metaphysical children turning their backs on him.

Volume 3: Torn  (issues 13-18)

Being torn apart is what sets them up to be taken down from within.  Part of the problem is Emma though part of the problem is also that Emma doesn’t actually know she’s the problem.

It would take too long to explain how Emma was part of the Hellfire Club and a villain or who Cassandra Nova is but those are the villains that we face in this storyline, though it takes a while before the team even understands what’s going on.  Over the course of the first three issues, along with some important down time that I’ll mention in a minute, the time gets dismantled in a storyline that is somewhat reminiscent of when the team took on the Hellfire Club back during their introduction in The Dark Phoenix Saga.  One of the issues in that story ended with the iconic panel of Wolverine, the last man standing, in the water, looking up, vowing that he was coming for them.  The halfway point of this storyline is Kitty in the same pose, in the water, and vowing that’s she coming for them.  The next issue has the cover on the right.  For the first three volumes of the trades, the cover of the trade itself was the first issue of the storyline, a cover that included the whole team.  But instead of that cover, I’m going with the fantastic cover of Kitty coming through the wall.

But before we got to that, there was some time with Kitty and Peter.  Kitty had been struggling with Peter’s return to life and her love for him, which had been very real since they first met.  Then, they finally have some time together in his room and are kissing passionately.  The next page is what we see above as we jump down to the living room, with one of the students watching television.  I think Cassady’s art and Whedon’s writing make it all brilliantly plain and hilarious.  Then it gets even better the next morning when they come down for breakfast.

More than anything else, more than the return of Peter, more than the other hilarious writing, this was what I wanted to read.  Fnord’s my age and he’s right, we are possessive of Kitty.  Kitty’s a comic book character, of course, and I wasn’t ever going to actually marry her.  But I always felt she belonged with Peter and it was so nice to see this finally happen (reminiscent of Ben and Leslie in Parks and Rec).

I started buying comics again.  It was haphazard because it was the longest story arc ever written and it wasn’t being published on anything like a normal schedule, but I kept buying it.  And when Joss Whedon finally had the great idea to have Kitty and Peter sleep together and she phases through the floor, I could not stop laughing.  Because he had finally found the perfect blend of action and humor that had marked the X-Men back in Claremont’s prime.  Whedon had single handedly done what nothing in the intervening thirteen years had done: he had gotten me hooked on a story line that I bought each and every month.  It had the added benefit of not quite tying in with everything else, so I didn’t have to go broke trying to buy eight different titles.

Volume 4: Unstoppable  (issues 19-24, Giant-Size #1)

There was a slight problem, however.  Whedon and Cassaday couldn’t keep the comic on-time.  Issue #1 had been cover-dated July 2004, so #19 should have been February of 2006 and instead it was February of 2007.  I was dying to find out what was going on and how it was going to wrap up and it was taking forever.

Granted, the story was well worth it.  Unlike the first two storylines, which had hints of what was going to come next, the third storyline ended with the new team (along with Armor, one of the teenagers learning in the school who had been well-developed as a character through the first 18 issues) being teleported to a spaceship and hurtling towards Breakworld, complete with Ord and Danger along for the ride.  The final storyline would deal with the prophecy that Peter was supposed to destroy the planet (“I have been planning to destroy Breakworld since I was a child” Peter says in a poorly timed joke).

Between a lot of non-stop action and some continued great humor (Kitty and Peter get into bed again but at one point an alien comes in and informs them “You’re to leave at first light.  You have about an hour if you wish to continue fornicating.”  There is Agent Brand, from SWORD (like SHIELD but for intergalactic threats) who is so awful that at one point Emma says “You’re so unpleasant even I’m impressed.  Do you visit orphanages to explain there’s no Santa?”  There’s a brilliant scene where we see what is happening and then an issue later we see it again and understand what’s really happening (with a great line from Peter “Is not courtroom drama Katya”) just before we get another brilliant moment that shows how brilliant Scott is a tactical leader and how freaking powerful he is.

But then we lead up to the end, to the giant issue that actually brings in other characters and reaches out to the larger Marvel universe and, well, I’ll just let my 33 year old self explain.

And now, SPOILER ALERT, it has finally come to an end.  I don’t just mean the storyline.  I mean me buying comics again.  Because I’ve got OCD and I can keep buying forever.  I can keep collecting forever.  But I’m 33 and I have a son and a wife and a job and they take up a lot of my time and I still have movies and literature.  I don’t quite have the time for everything and something has to give and I definitely don’t have the money.  And now I don’t have the heart.

Because Whedon did the same thing to me that Marvel did all those years ago.  He gave me the characters I wanted, kept me interested, finally gave the characters everything they had earned.  And then he took it away.  He took the most interesting, funniest, most original character and he killed her.  I kept reading the final few pages of Giant Size Astonishing X-Men, thinking, no, he didn’t do this, he can’t be killing Kitty Pride.  But he did.  She’s gone.

What can I say?  It’s a good issue.  A very good issue.  Ones with deaths often are the best (Uncanny #137, Squadron Supreme #12, New Mutants #45, Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, X-Men #3).  It’s got great action, some nice humor (“Clearly I was not bitten by a radioactive poet.”), great teamwork and a moving ending.  And I’m sure Kitty’s not really dead.  They’ll get around to her at some point.  After all, she’s destined to end up as President.

But this is it for me.  I’ve been reading comics most of my life.  Even when I wasn’t buying, I still read the thousands of comics I still kept.  But my favorite character is gone and I just don’t enjoy going down to Newberry to buy these anymore.  So, thanks Joss Whedon for a great run with a great team and a great story.  But did you really have to kill my favorite character, you bastard?

Well, here I am at 45 and writing about how brilliant this series is.  In the last several years, I’ve actually gotten back into comics (but not current ones for the most part).  I’ve discovered a lot of series that I had missed over the years that were amazing (Geoff Johns run on Aquaman, for instance) and Veronica has delighted to Squirrel Girl (which I have not) and Ms. Marvel (which I have because Kamala Khan is absolutely fantastic).  And so I have ended up buying some of the old comics that I used to have but this time in collected trades rather than in individual issues.  It feels dumb to be buying again things I used to own but honestly I’ve been doing that kind of thing for decades now.  And when we got our last chance to visit Southern California Comics before the quarantine hit and I saw the third and fourth volumes in the $5 bin, I went back and grabbed the first two volumes so I could have the whole storyline all together and get Veronica to read it and realize how brilliant it is.

And yes, Whedon is a bastard.  And yes, they brought Kitty back and they even teased the idea of her marrying Peter and pulled the rug out at the last instant like I knew they would (which is why I don’t read current comics).  But, like I wrote here, I remember the importance of a line like “Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness and love.”  So, yes, it’s bittersweet to get to that ending and to watch my favorite character but the journey is so absolutely worth it.