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Tales to Astonish
Astonishing X-Men: Gifted
Joss Whedon, John Cassaday
January 20, 2005
The Gentleman (exclusive
to Shaking Through)
It's enough to make longtime comics writers weep. Joss Whedon, star creator
of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, makes his
Marvel Comics debut with Gifted, and his prior TV experience moves him to
the head of the class. He not only gets to play with Marvel's biggest franchise,
the X-Men; he gets to launch an all-new X-title featuring some of the property's
most valuable players.
Lucky for Whedon, then, that Gifted bristles with the wit,
characterization and general attention to storytelling that helped make Buffy
a beloved cult hit.
Starting with the last first: Gifted involves two seemingly unrelated
developments. One is the announcement of a "cure" for the mutant gene by Dr.
Kavita Rao, a geneticist colleague of X-Man Henry McCoy (the Beast); this news
throws a shock into the mutants at Charles Xavier's school, including the X-Men
themselves. It also causes friction within the team when McCoy secures a sample
from his old colleague; his teammates sense that he's seriously considering
testing it on himself, to reverse his continuing mutation.
The second development is the arrival of a mysterious antagonist named Ord, who
holds a bunch of rich folks at a gala event hostage for the sole purpose of
testing the X-Men. (How does he know they'd respond? Good question. Luckily for
him, Cyclops, co-leading the team and the school in Xavier's absence, has
announced that the X-Men need to emphasize their superheroic aspect with the aim
of hopefully improving their image in the world at large.)
Ord, an alien from someplace called the Breakworld, masks an agenda that
involves (Spoiler alert!) defeating the X-Men before they can fulfill a
deadly prophecy known to his people. Complicating matters for the X-Men is the
apparent involvement of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel Universe's super-spy
intelligence organization, with Ord (and Ord's involvement with Dr. Rao).
Whedon's characterization is subtle but effective: Hank's conflicted emotions
over the so-called mutant "cure," despite the dangerous implications it poses
for mutantkind (the X-Men predict the U.S. government forcing all mutants to
submit to the cure); Wolverine's contempt for Cyclops, especially the latter's
sexual relationship with former evil mutant Emma Frost, so soon after
of his wife, the late Jean Gray ; the deep, instinctual distrust that the
newly returned Kitty Pryde, on hand as an instructor and student liaison, feels
for Emma. There's also a poignant moment involving one of the school's mutant
The wit, we get mostly via catty barbs between Emma, now co-running Xavier's
school with Cyclops, and Kitty. (When Kitty gets flack from the scantily clad
Emma for arriving late for her first big assembly, she replies "I'm sorry. I was
busy remembering to put on all my clothes.") Whedon doesn't overuse his gift for
banter, and his sense of comic timing adds an enjoyable new dimension to many
standard dialogue exchanges.
One aspect of Buffy that Gifted doesn't share is its bang-up
action. Oh, there are a number of well-staged action scenes throughout,
including a pair of skirmishes in which Wolverine fights first Cyclops and then
McCoy (there's also a nice confrontation between Wolverine and Ord toward the
end of the book). But they're all (too) purposefully underplayed. Part of this
is due to the fine linework of John Cassaday, one of the cleanest and most
expressive artists working in comics today; his pencils, enhanced by colorist
Laura Martin, give the book a good cinematic feel. But it also feels as if it's
because Whedon, so good at crafting thoughtful exchanges and emotional
confrontations and leaving the fights in his shows to choreographers, is still
finding his way, looking to discover the right amount of physical conflict.
But ultimately, that's a minor quibble, especially given the major bombshell
Whedon drops regarding the re-introduction of a long-dead character. The major
shock waves of that reappearance haven't fully subsided, and Whedon throws a
couple of other curves along with it (who is Emma talking to so cryptically on
the last page? Does she mean to betray the X-Men?). In all, Gifted is an
engrossing tale that makes readers impatient for more, graced with some of the
best artwork being produced today. Here's hoping Whedon and Cassaday decide to
continue on Astonishing beyond their current one-year commitment.
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