Nothing Short Of Astonishing

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When Marvel first announced that Joss Whedon, the legendary creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, would be writing an X-Men series, the anticipation was almost overwhelming. Whedon is one of the few people – like Ray Bradbury, Gene Roddenberry, Stephen King and George Lucas – who can create fantastic worlds and populate them with complicated and fascinating characters, who can bring a unique vision to fruition while showing us the wonder and horror of humanity in all of its glory and pain.

Now that the initial run of twelve issues has finished, it’s interesting to realize how Joss Whedon revolutionized the X-Men by quietly reminding us why we loved them in the first place. Instead of plotting out grand epics and multi-series crossovers designed to beat fans into dazed submission, Whedon brought back the idea of a core team of heroes fighting for what they believe in. In an age when every month brings news of another universe-shattering event in comic books, Whedon did what he does best. He told a simple story about a group of people who can conquer the greatest of enemies with little difficulty but are extremely vulnerable when it comes to the small events that shape their lives.

On Thursday January 19, Marvel held a phone conference with Joss Whedon to promote the return of the Astonishing X-Men series. The Marvel representatives freely admitted that, at this point, the book pretty much sells itself. Besides the interest that Whedon generates and the huge fan base that both artist John Cassaday and colorist Laura Martin have earned, the first year of Astonishing X-Men (which will be collected in a beautiful hardcover edition in April) was a tremendous success financially, critically, and with fans worldwide. As a result, Marvel was able to break with tradition in a couple of ways.

Instead of offering a “second season” of the series, a marketing gimmick that has become a major trend recently, Whedon wanted his run on the X-Men to feel like one complete story, so the opportunity to publish another “number one” issue was thrown to the wayside. Astonishing X-Men will be releasing issue #13 on February 22, 2006, and the story will continue from there. Also, the first four issues of the series will be sold bimonthly, then in September the series will return to a monthly schedule. Marvel considered holding up the book until May or June instead of releasing the issues on such an unorthodox schedule, but they’ve received so much feedback from fans anxious to read more that they decided this was best for all concerned.

Whedon didn’t go into much detail regarding the upcoming stories, although he did mention the run would be capped off with a giant-sized annual. The first arc will be largely internal, exploring what motivates the X-Men and what tears them apart, while the second arc will resolve the situation with Ord and the Breakworld, a storyline introduced in the beginning of the series. But Whedon did talk about what inspired him, what lessons he’s learned from readers, and how Buffy owed a debt to Chris Claremont’s brood. For fans of Joss Whedon and the Astonishing X-Men, it was a unique chance to look behind the scenes.

One of Whedon’s earliest memories of the X-Men was Uncanny X-Men #90, whose cover portrayed Angel shouting, “Professor X is dead!” (Whedon quoted almost verbatim the “Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary tale! This is for real!” tagline printed at the bottom.) He pinpointed issued #98 as the moment he became a bona fide fan, and had nothing but praise for Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and John Byrne. It was issue #165, the penultimate chapter of the Brood Saga and the first issue penciled by Paul Smith, that influenced Whedon the most, however.


“Transfigurations!” focused on the X-Men as they waited to die. Up until that moment, Whedon hadn’t realized comic books could tackle issues of religion and mortality with such integrity. Instead of an action-packed extravaganza, the Uncanny X-Men issue was a quiet but intense study of what defines heroes and humans. The story left an indelible memory. You can hear echoes of that pivotal chapter when Buffy says, “Giles, I'm sixteen years old. I don't wanna die,” in the mesmerizing first season finale of her television show. Whedon credits the blend of emotion and drama in “Transfigurations!” with contributing at least partially to the feel of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

It could also be argued that Kitty Pryde was one of the inspirations behind the Buffy character. Like her, Kitty takes things to heart, and while she isn’t afraid of a fight, she often feels like she’s in over her head. It’s not surprising that Kitty is one of Joss Whedon’s favorite characters.

Fans might be a little shocked to find out that Whedon relates the most to Cyclops, though. Once issue #14 of Astonishing X-Men is released, he says, it will be clear why he feels such an affinity for Scott Summers. Like Kitty (and Whedon, for that matter), Scott sometimes feels out of his element, yet he keeps going regardless.

Colossus, on the other hand, is an extremely difficult person to write. “I don’t have an unspoken thought,” Whedon confessed, admitting that Peter – who keeps so much hidden – scares him. But it was important to him to include Colossus, even though the character memorably lost his life years earlier. Although he didn’t say as much, it seemed obvious that Whedon wanted to reunite Kitty and Peter both for dramatic purposes and to make up for the string of tragedies Kitty has suffered in the past. When asked to address the circumstances behind Peter’s “resurrection”, Whedon felt that the details (it wasn’t Peter’s body that was cremated) weren’t nearly as important as the emotional payoff achieved after Kitty opened the door and discovered that he was alive.

If the first arc of the series was about establishing the characters and exploring the dynamics of the team, the second arc was the result of one scene that lodged in Joss Whedon’s brain: Emma Frost saying, “The danger room is angry.” Using that as the starting point – in the same way that most of his scripts are built around scenes that are important to him – Whedon wrote an arc centered on artificial intelligence, an idea that fascinated him. The response from readers was underwhelming, though (he compared it to the reaction to the sixth season of Buffy, when the main character lost her focus and the tone of the show darkened dramatically). Whedon thought readers wanted more action, but he found that readers were more interested in the personal side of the X-Men. That’s one of the reasons why the third arc, which begins in February, will be more internalized.

Another reason is – to put it bluntly – because Whedon wants to distance himself as much as possible from the mega-events and crossovers that plague the rest of the Marvel Universe, although he’d never be disrespectful enough to say it in those words. Originally, Whedon wanted to include Vision in his “Dangerous” arc, a natural fit considering the artificial intelligence topic. But the Avengers Disassembled storyline prevented that from happening. With everything else that’s been happening lately in the Marvel Universe – and with the Civil War event fast approaching – Whedon thought it best to make Astonishing X-Men as insular as possible. Although he won’t write anything that contradicts what’s happening in other series, he’s more worried about protecting the integrity of the Astonishing X-Men series than incorporating events and situations that might confuse readers.

I have to admit, I am a huge fan of Joss Whedon. I have all seven seasons of Buffy on DVD and bought the Firefly series the day it went on sale. I cried when I watched Serenity on TV, even though I’d already seen the movie in the theater a few months earlier. And even though I have both TPB collections, I’ll be buying the hardcover edition of Astonishing X-Men once it’s available.

I loved hearing Whedon say that Grant Morrison “absolutely brought me back to the X-Men” and praising the work he did, since I believe Morrison’s run was one of the best ever. I admired his commitment to his work, and his obvious desire to live up to the readers’ expectations. And I was thrilled to learn more about what inspires a writer that I respect greatly. Every word he said – whether joking about how John Cassaday and Laura Martin drag him down or getting passionate about what inspires him – only confirmed why I think he’s one of the most gifted writers of our time.

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Marvel hosted a press conference Thursday to promote the return of the Astonishing X-Men. Personally, I don’t think it was necessary. Fans of the initial twelve issues have been waiting eagerly for the series to continue, and nothing’s going to keep them away. Still, it was a great opportunity to learn a little more about what inspires a great writer like Whedon in the first place. And while people will decide for themselves whether or not this version of the X-Men is truly “astonishing”, there is no doubt in my mind that the writer sure as hell is.

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