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Downright Astonishing

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This week's Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1 brings Joss Whedon and John Cassady's collaboration in the X-Universe to a climactic and dramatic end. Broken Frontier's Jan Rosenfeld looks back on a run that, despite its scheduling hiccups, was almost universally well-received among X-fans...

It’s obvious that the Marvel U isn’t the most stable of landscapes. There’s always a planet-threatening event looming on the horizon, or a status quo overhaul stretching across the various titles. Some of these work, but some aren’t so well-received. Comic fans are right to have a sense of entitlement; we’ve committed to these characters, sometimes for years (Brand New Day, anyone?) and when we don’t like where a franchise is going, we feel like someone, usually the creative team, is somehow taking it from us.

And then there’s Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men.

In an era where readers are at their most protective, the superstar team has consistently brought their "A" game to one of Marvel’s most beloved ensembles. Astonishing has become the dependable cornerstone of the company’s titles—in terms of readability and overall quality, the series is simply unmatched. While some books throw the fan community into turmoil, the X-Men keep delivering. Since 2004, we’ve been rooting for this creative duo, and with their legendary run coming to a close this week, it’s the perfect time to look back on what made Astonishing X-Men so damn good.

Right off the bat, Whedon defined the new team as super-heroes. We’ve seen the X-Men disbanded and reconstructed so many times that sometimes their plight overshadowed their purpose. These guys kick super-villain ass, and they do it with the clockwork precision that make a team-based book so much fun to read. By issue number one we were primed with the inner mechanics of these time-tested characters, and by issue two we saw them do what they do best. And it was all done with a sly wit and a nod to the great history that precedes them.

Whedon really made the book his own right away, with unforgettable lines like "Are you a #$*@ retard?" (certainly shocked me) and of course, the not-so-shocking reveal that when Logan is in the midst of battle, he’s probably thinking something along the lines of "I really like beer." It was those pop-culture references, never once sounding gawky or campy, that simply worked. The series had this palpable weight to it: the now-immortalized return of the Fastball Special had fans of all ages cheering for the X-Men once again. I get a little misty just thinking about it!

It’s hard to say how much of the book’s success can be attributed to that respect for the characters’ histories—the fact that Astonishing is such a good jumping-on point for new and old X-fans alike was such a welcome departure from indecipherable length of other X-Men books. When Whedon brought back the Sentinel for the first time, it didn’t feel overused in the slightest. The way the team reacted to it—a deep-seeded hatred and fear—was just completely believable. The history wasn’t being superimposed, it was completely assimilated between the lines. The arcs felt fresh every time—from a sentient danger room to the current off-world odyssey, fans were revitalized and excited to go on each journey with the group.

    

And the art. Oh wow, that art. What can be said about Cassaday that hasn’t been said before? He just. Freaking. Nails it. Pitch-perfect facial expressions, awesome interplay and blocking during the action. Laura Martin is the ultimate complement to his epic artwork. I could really feel that Cassaday was a huge fan of this lineup—especially in scenes with Cyclops. Boy, these guys have that character down to a science. When he unleashes his surprise optic blast on Breakworld, you couldn’t help but cheer. It’s immensely refreshing to see art that not only expressed the writing precisely, but expanded upon its ideas. Sometimes I think that Astonishing could be a silent book and I’d still read it.

But on that note, can I really mention this title without mentioning its delays? I think it pretty much goes hand in hand. I’ve heard the same thing everyone has heard - that the team gets the book in on time, they just have trouble co-ordinating their high profile schedules - but that doesn’t really change the fact that it hurts the fans to have to wait for such a beloved title.

Something really unique happened with Astonishing X-Men, though. The fans didn’t revolt. In all the reviews, all the fan chatter, nobody abandoned ship. The title was simply too good: the emotional twists and turns, the rebirths, the deaths. The unequivocally badass smack downs between long standing characters—it’s just too much to resist. Or maybe it’s the subtlety of the plot points that keep us coming back. Through the psychics, we get brutally staggering insights into our characters heads. We never thought for a moment that it wasn’t worth the wait.

Alas, the run is ending. Whedon and Cassaday are moving onto their respective projects (which likely won’t be anything but stellar.) I think I speak for everyone when I say that the disbanding of this creative duo deeply saddens me. All of their output worked on a deep, real level, and it stayed fun throughout the whole thing.

There’s a certain "all the stars aligned" element to their run. When great storytelling meets transcendent art, and something new emerges, something better than the sum of its parts, comic history is made. And when that happens, well, that’s just downright astonishing.

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