COMICS REWIND: ‘Astonishing X-Men: Gifted’

(Welcome to Comics Rewind, a weekly column devoted to discovering – or re-discovering – great comics published some time in the past. Here you will find looks back at comics published in every era, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, as well as retrospectives on the work of important comics writers, lists of “essential” comics, and evaluations of important works, as well as works worthy of a second look or a wider audience. Enjoy!)

I almost didn’t do this one, not because it’s not worthy, but because I felt certain almost everyone has read it already. It is the Almighty Whedon, after all, tackling perhaps the most perennially popular superhero team in comics. I’m sure you’re at least aware of it, if not deeply, intimately familiar. But even if you are, I think Astonishing X-Men is important to talk about just now. The Avengers is looming, after all, and we’re all looking for clues as to how the thing will turn out. Astonishing X-Men has clues for us, friends, and in them we find that, even if we hadn’t seen a single piece of Avengers footage already, we can still have complete faith in Joss Whedon.

“Gifted,” Whedon’s first six-issue arc on the series, is one of the best superhero stories in recent memory. I don’t care if you thought it was overrated. It’s just something I see as fact. It’s the perfect balance of character building, action, humor and nods to the X-Men lore of old. It features absolutely stunning art by the unfairly talented John Cassaday (he did Planetary, and therefore he is to be worshipped), and a roster of X-Men which, while not the conventional lineup those of us who grew up on things like the X-Men animated series are used to, is both refreshing and surprising in its complexity and interplay.

It’s a new era for the X-Men as the book begins. Professor Xavier is absent from the action, leaving Cyclops and Emma Frost to lead both the school for gifted youngsters and the superhero team into a new era. Wolverine is, of course, skeptical that they can pull it off. Kitty Pryde has just arrived to tackle both her past and a new group of students, and the entire team finds themselves suddenly facing an unexpected and nearly unfightable threat: a “cure” for mutation.

The first thing you notice is how quickly Whedon establishes a tone for the story he’s telling. He’s a master at this, which he’s proven time and time again on television, but comics is a little tougher. You don’t have actors, after all, to help guide your conveyance of ideas. You have to somehow nail down just what the feel of your book is going to be as soon as possible, and it’s not easy. Most writers don’t really get it done until about issue three, and that’s in no way a fault. Whedon seems to nail it by page three, and he never lets up.

This is made doubly impressive by the fact that this is a team book, and it’s a team notorious for being in a state of almost constant flux. How do you pin down the X-Men, make them steady but compelling at the same time? Many writers struggle with this. They solve the problem by focusing the story through the eyes of a single character, making the rest of the team seem almost like furniture by comparison. Others fill every page with action and leave the real behind the scenes dynamics until another day. Still others simply ratchet up the stakes in their plot until the book becomes all about the enemy. That doesn’t happen here. Whedon gets it all. Kitty’s uncertainty, Beast’s anger, Cyclops’ fear. He does it by never trying to bite off more than he can chew, by developing his story with patience and precision. In short, he does it like a master.

Read “Gifted” and you’ll likely have two things on your mind. The first will be “I can’t wait to read the rest of this run.” The second will be “If The Avengers is anything like this, we’ve got nothing to worry about.”

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