It was severe withdrawal that made Joss Whedon’s “Astonishing X-Men” so welcome in 2004. “Buffy” had ended, “Angel” had ended, “Firefly” had been quashed. Where were the wanderers of the Whedonverse supposed to go? Why, to Xavier’s School for Gifted Children in Westchester County, New York. (School Motto: “Mutatis Mutandis.”)
Those first 24 issues of “Astonishing X-Men” are tightly packed with Whedonisms. (Ha! He said “tightly”! Cuz…. superheroes? Tights?). Pop put-downs abound (Colossus: “Who’s Paris Hilton?” Cyclops: “It doesn’t matter. On so many levels.”) There’s new characters, most notably Hisako and Blindfold, a “seer” who babbles prophecy in mad cadences that tie her genetically to Drusilla or River Tam. There’s impalings. (Not counting every vampire in “Buffy” and “Angel”, does Joss have an undiagnosed impaling fetish? Think Cordelia in S. 3, ep. 8.) Formula is subverted, and every third turn of the page is intended to provoke a “WHOA did NOT see THAT coming!” It almost always works.
Whereas the Buffy comics have been marred by off-putting artwork, John Cassaday ( who worked with Warren Ellis in “Planetary”) is a master, particularly in the earlier story arcs. Sloppiness and exhaustion do creep in once the series takes off for outer space. It’s on school grounds that Whedon is most comfortable. “High School is Hell” and Hell, (ask Dante) is more fun exploring than the heavens. The X-Men have always been nominally school-based, and Danger Room lessons have been the start of many a story-line, but when Whedon takes over, Xavier’s gets to be magical, (Kitty’s entrance: “Did I miss the sorting hat?”) It’s also pretty intense: it turns out high school is LITERALLY out to kill you. Even in Whedon’s uncredited script for “Speed,” life is a series of sudden, deadly scholastic exams. The villain’s catch-phrase there: “Pop quiz, hotshot!”
Some traumas we don’t outgrow.