Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Astonishing(ly protracted) finale

Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men finally came to a close this week with Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1, more than four years after the series first began. While I have defended this book from its critics in the past, and this issue had a number of lovely moments, it ended up feeling like far less of an important story than it seemed at the beginning, and not everything in the oversized finale worked as well as it needed to in order to give the story the sense of grandeur it was clearly shooting for. To me, this is a relatively minor X-Men story with some cool but disposable alien villains, overinflated thanks to its length and Whedon and Cassaday's superstar status. There was plenty of filler in the 25-issue run, especially for a story that turned out to be fairly straightforward in the end. I imagine that read in one sitting it will hold up well, but will it be one of the greatest X-Men stories ever told? Certainly not.

This final issue does play to many of Whedon and Cassaday's strengths: The dialogue as always is crisp and clever, although the sexually charged interplay between Agent Brand and Beast is a little awkward. Whedon demonstrates a talent for writing old-school quippy Spider-Man that might get him asked to join the current Amazing Spider-Man creative team. And he clearly loves Kitty enough to give her a lovely semi-sendoff, in a moment that's truly emotional and heartbreaking even if the stakes never quite seem as dire and real as they should. My guess is that this book is a set-up for some crazy Whedon Kitty Pryde miniseries a few years down the road, and I hope Marvel holds off on doing anything with her and lets him get to that in his own time.

Cassaday also does amazing work as always, and any real scope or heft that the story has as an epic is thanks to his breathtaking art. Here he gets to draw a bunch of Marvel superheroes, and proves that he could totally kill a big crossover book if he ever wanted to. He really sells both the absurd (a giant bullet passes through the Earth!) and the intimate (the emotional moments feel real and not posed). However, as cool as it is to see Cassaday draw all those heroes, their presence feels like a forced delaying tactic to pad the story out, and they don't ultimately add anything by showing up this late in the series. Whedon resists making Reed Richards invent some silly deus ex machina, but then indulges in it at the same time by throwing it in in a dream sequence. It's just superfluous, no matter how great it looks.

As much I still have a fondness for the X-Men, I'm sort of glad this series is finally over, and I hope the next big comics project Whedon takes on will be an original creation that he can do more with than just trot out for nostalgia's sake (even if he does a pretty good job of that).

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