Astonishing X-Men #1
Marvel Comics – Joss Whedon (w); John Cassaday (a)Well, I can’t envision any scenario where this book isn’t the most reviewed title of the week from the online comics community; there’s just that much hype behind. And that being the case, it’s really pointless for me to throw my two cents in. But I’m going to do it anyway, so there.
A few weeks ago, when I reviewed the first issue of Mark Millar’s Spider-Man, I mentioned that it was one of the rare occasions where I actively wanted to dislike a title without knowing anything at all about it (and, for the record, I was pleasantly surprised). Astonishing X-Men, on the other hand, is one of those instances where I’m hoping I’ll enjoy the book (because I have at least moderately positive feelings about the creative team and cast of characters), but find myself feeling let down in the end. I think partially it’s because no book could ever hope to live up to the expectations that the Mighty Marvel Hype Machine builds for it (*cough cough* 1602 *cough cough*), but honestly, it’s mostly because Astonishing X-Men… well… isn’t very astonishing. It’s the exact opposite, in fact.
The Xavier Institute is going through a period of change. With the departure of its founder, Charles Xavier, Cyclops and Emma Frost (their romance now entirely in the open, following the death of Jean Grey) have taken over headmastership of the school, rebuilding and reopening in the aftermath of Magneto’s final rampage. Things seem to be progressing nicely, aside from the late arrival of Kitty Pryde (serving in a new capacity at the Institute: a teaching position), with a full house of students and a well-stocked teaching staff. The peace is soon shattered, however, by another all-out brawl between Cyclops and Wolverine over (what else?) their mutual admiration of Jean Grey. Meanwhile, in the city, a doctor’s press conference, announcing the discovery of a “cure” for the mutant gene, is contrasted against a band of homicidal mutants terrorizing a charity event. As the issue closes, the X-Men prepare, as per usual, to spring into action to save baseline humans from the depredations of less scrupulous mutants.
The problem is that it all just feels too familiar. Scott and Logan fight over Jean. Again. Humanity wants to get rid of mutants. Again. An evil mutant stirs up trouble for the peaceful ones. Again. The X-Men are wearing brightly colored spandex. Again. The X-books are ushered into “a new era.” Again. Whedon’s story, to be perfectly blunt about it, lacks the sense of wonder that Grant Morrison’s tenure on New X-Men conveyed, that feeling that you’d never seen these kinds of stories told in an X-book, or at the very least, never seen this kind of story told in this manner.
And really, it’s probably an unfair criticism. Joss Whedon has made his career in television by aping the Claremont years of X-Men, for good or for bad, so the way this book turned out should come as no surprise. In fact, in retrospect, it’s exactly what I should have expected, so I’m partly to blame for buying into the hype, despite my best efforts not to. As well, it’s probably not quite fair to complain that the plotlines seem to be rehashed, since basically every corporate superhero book has a handful of stories that are reused over and over. Batman swings around the city and fights crime, Iron Man drinks too damned much, Hank smacks Janet around, with great power comes great responsibility. But how many of those books have writers whose arrival has been trumpeted and crammed down our throats for so damned long? Not many, man, and for some reason I just expected more.
So is it a prettier X-Men book than we usually get? Oh, God yes, no question about it. Is it a better-written X-Men book? Yes, but that’s only because the X-titles have been poorly written for so such an inordinately large percentage of their existence. I mean, at this point, anyone who can string together a relatively coherent sentence is already way ahead of the stuff that Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza produced in the ’90s.
However, a lot of people will claim that it’s the best X-Men book on the market and I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Frankly, I’d say it’s no better or worse than the first issue of Claremont’s most recent return to Uncanny X-Men. It’s certainly better than Austen’s X-Men, but then again, a kick in the crotch is better than being beaten with a claw hammer, but that doesn’t mean either of them are enjoyable. Astonishing X-Men simply doesn’t live up to its billing or its hype (and what could, I ask you?), but it does succeed in being slightly above average in regards to writing and visually quite stunning (as though you expected any less from Cassaday). It’s by no means the worst thing you could do with three dollars on a Wednesday, but it’s far from the best.
Proving that Marvel by no means has the market cornered on over-hyped disappointments, DC released another issue of Azzarello and Lee’s slightly underwhelming Superman run this past week.
Last month readers were introduced to the concept (however vaguely explained) of a mass disappearance all across the globe, strikingly similar to the Christian concept of The Rapture. The key point of the issue, however, was the feelings of inadequacy and frustration that arise in Superman over his inability to prevent the vanishing in general and the loss of Lois Lane in particular.
This issue continues that thread, with Superman again speaking with Father Leone, the Man of Steel and a man of the cloth undergoing parallel crises of faith. The two meet in one of Metropolis’ parks after Father Leone is confronted with the lack of trust that many Catholics feel in the wake of the abuse scandals that have recently rocked the Church. The priest listens as Superman relates the story of his struggle in the minutes immediately following the vanishing to pinpoint the phenomenon’s point of origin, eventually tracking it to a war-torn region in the Middle East, a nation in the midst of perpetual civil war. Superman, interrupting a skirmish, disarms both sides of the conflict, declaring an end to their hostilities, only to find that people bent on destroying one another can manage to get the job done without assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
First of all, let me just say that, I can appreciate what Azzarello is doing here. Superman is a hard character to sympathize with, being as he’s typically portrayed as all-powerful, flawless being. After all, that’s why Batman is historically a more popular character: people are inherently flawed, naturally, so it’s easier to relate to a hero that’s equally flawed, if not more so. So any attempt to humanize Superman, I applaud.
That having been said, I think this project is going about it entirely the wrong way.
First of all, the inclusion of Jim Lee is just flat-out wrong. Lee’s books are, historically speaking, action-oriented affairs full of big, dumb, fun superheroics (and there’s nothing wrong with that, mind you). They are not, typically, talky, introspective tales where the main character spends more time navel-gazing than he does jaw-socking. So he’s branching out, you say. The guy’s paid his dues, he’s more than entitled to pick any kind of story he wants, right? Why should his name being attached to this book upset me? Because the kind of people who come running for a Jim Lee book, who hadn’t picked up a Batman title (or any DC title at all) in years (if ever) prior to Lee’s run, are not the kind of readers that you target with a story like this. Frankly, they won’t get it, they’ll be bored stiff by it and they’ll drop the book in droves once their love for Lee’s art is outshone by their confusion over the story. It’s going to happen. As my Dad used to say, hide and watch.
Adding to the confusion this book produces is the fact that what’s happening in this title clearly has nothing to do with or any impact on the rest of the DC Universe. High-profile books like Superman / Batman, Teen Titans, and Lee’s run on both Batman and Superman are, in effect, gateway books for lapsed Marvel Zombies. They’re titles with so much hype behind them that even die-hard Marvel fans, people who wouldn’t normally touch anything with the DC bullet on the cover, are willing to give them a shot, simply for fear of missing out on something cool. But when you have a much-publicized creative relaunch of a line, such as the Superman books have just had, and one book makes absolutely no sense in relation to the others, as this one does, the least you could do is explain it beforehand. To do otherwise is self-defeating, as the average comic reader has no interest in paying money for a book that makes him feel out-of-the-loop. If I had a dollar for every time in the past month that a customer at my store has said, “When did this vanishing thing happen in DC? I don’t remember reading anything about that,” I’d be…well, not exactly filthy rich, but I certainly wouldn’t be hard-up for cash either. And what am I supposed to tell them? That at some point over the course of the next year, Azzarello is going to explain what’s going on? That’s a nice promise, but if I tell them that, I’m actually just guessing, aren’t I?
I also have to complain about the way DC is promoting this issue. On the last page of most DC Universe titles is a short bullpen sort of column where an “insider” gives fans the heads-up on upcoming projects and a sidebar promotes notable releases for the month. So, of course, there’s one for this issue, which claims that Superman “unseats a ruthless dictator.” Uh…what? That simply does not happen and the lie is compounded, in a way, by the Lee cover art that seems to be promising a much more action-packed issue than is actually being delivered.
In the end, I think Azzarello’s Superman run, much like his recent Batman run, would have read better as an original graphic novel. It’s an interesting enough concept for a story, but honestly, it’s not lending itself well to the serial format, as it doesn’t feel like anything substantial has actually happened in the two issues published so far. And when you consider that one of the stated purposes of DC’s creative revamps of the Superman titles was to draw in new readers, it’s sad to think that only Chuck Austen is telling stories that a mainstream reader would find accessible and entertaining.