Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Almost As Astonishing As Ever!

It's not just good, it's...
Ah yes, Astonishing X-Men. Hardcover. Volume 1. I had already bought the first before the Omnibus was announced, and therefore didn't get the omnibus. However this is one of my favourite X-Men collections to date (and I know I have enough). For those not familiar with this particular book, it's what you get when you take Joss Whedon (of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Dr Horrible's Sing Along Blog, The Avengers movie et al,  fame), give him the writing duties of a new X-Men title, give him John Cassaday to do the art, and Laura Martin to do the colours. The first arc, "Gifted" (issues 1-6 of this book) was good enough for the 2006 "Best Continuing Series" Eisnser, and the whole book (all 320 pages) can be yours from $18 US (again Amazon are out of stock, so you'll need to hit the Amazon marketplace). Alternatively just lay down about $45 US for the omnibus, since this is good enough to warrant getting the second volume anyway.

The story (really the whole of Whedon's run was one big story) picks up after Morrison's (shudder) conclusion to New X-Men (though it ignores the whole time travelling Jean Grey thing as much as possible, and really just gives a few nods to the finale with Magneto), and moves forwards. We have the introduction of Ord from the Breakworld who believes an X-Man while be responsible for the destruction of his planet, Kavita Rao and her "cure" for the "disease" that s the mutant species, the return of Shadow Cat, Lockheed, Colossus, and... costumes, and the awakening of the sentient being that has been the core of the danger room for decades of our time (not so much continuity).
Personal favourite shot from the book.
As you can tell from the above list the story, for 12 issues, is a bit decompressed, or at least it's deceives you into thinking that. Certainly there are plenty of larger than normal panels, plenty of splash panels or pages, and plenty of panels without words. A 1960's issue of X-Men it isn't. That said, there's a lot o detail, and a lot of nuance in the art. The body language, and facial expressions makes a statement that a dozen $100 dollar words couldn't do. It isn't annoying, and you don't feel like you're being ripped off because you read through it too fast. You soak in the detail. Yes it feels like a movie (heck the whole "cure" lot thread was picked up for the horrible X-Men: The Last Stand) with it's lovely art, and well paced dialogue, but given Whedon's background that's not surprising. The joy of it is that it's clear that it's not just some unknowing movie writer coming into make a few bucks, nor is it Joss aiming to get a movie deal by writing a superficial but well received comic. You can tell that he's at least read the X-Men periodically (if not been a long time fan) from his references to classic Kitty Pryde moments from Claremont's time on the book, his use of Colossus, and his references back to New X-Men. His writing is just as good as it was on Buffy, Angel, and Firefly. The drama is appropriate. The action is required by the story, and not tacked on or left out entirely.

And another classic shot.
Then we come to Cassaday's and Martin's contributions. To say that the art is gorgeous is an understatement. Obviously it's the kind of thing you could never have done before digital inking and colouring. Obviously it's got the modern norms of big bold visuals with amazing levels of detail. But as I said above, it's not just there to show off. It adds to the story, it tells the story by itself. You could likely use much of this book as a "'Nuff Said" book if you wanted to take the dialogue out entirely. There's one thing I will say about the art that's not complimentary, and it goes for many modern comics: we've lost the motion lines that indicate where a punch is coming from, where some debris fell from, or just how quickly someone ducked. I understand it doesn't work well with the highly detailed art (leave alone art like Salvadore "photographs'll be fine thanks" Larocca's), but I miss that.

Over all this is a great read. It's still very relevant, it's still exactly what an X-Men book is meant to be, and given the time that's passed, I think we can safely say it's not going to be another Iron Man Extremis.

If I were you I'd get the full Whedon run on Astonishing in one form or another. It's a great story, and likely one that will hold up about a thousand times better than X-Men Second Coming.

Next Week I aim to challenge myself: finish this book, or wait until the week after for a review.
To be honest I'm mostly done, but it's a long slog.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why Multiple Choices aren't Always Logical Choices

Generally a good read.
After reading such horrible work last week, this week I planned to read something enjoyable this week, and enjoyable it was. Mostly. As well as relaunching the X-Factor series (in a somewhat original take), this book offers a decent story from Peter David, reasonable art from Pablo Raimondi, and no bonus material (sometimes that's a plus, sometimes the extras are worthwhile if you aren't paying for them). At present Amazon seem to be out of stock (try their marketplace, the hardcover, what I have hold of, goes for upwards of $27 USD for 120 pages).

Obligatory Amazon pricing info out of the way let's get to the meat of the book. It's a detective story. A noir style one. No not that rubbish Marvel did a run of the other year, just something with the feel, but in continuity. In essence Jamie Maddrox (after leaving X-Corps in Paris) sets up his own detective agency (after sending duplicates all over the planet to learn things). During recruitment of Wolfsbane (he already has Strong Guy working for him), a near dead dupe shows up, and after absorbing him, Maddrox comes to with vague memories about his death. In Chicago. Here's my first minor gripe. Instead of sending a dupe to solve the case (safety first James), he leaves a dupe behind as cover (the dupe does get shot at, but only gets hit in the shoulder). Logically there's one reason to follow this approach: the dupes are flaky. What we're offered is "I take being murdered pretty personally." And it's almost believable.
Cue the second issue. Maddrox imposes himself on an old acquaintance, the psychic journalist type guy. He gets access to a computer, a place to stay, and the information that the guy is using his magnificent mind to write news articles of great worth. Also, cue my second minor gripe. Raimondi's art looks a little photo-tracey at times, and definitely is distracting. As is his lack of consistent height for dupes (they seem a little shorter than the original Jamie). The height thing may have been a deliberate act to imply the dupes are less than the original, or because they shrink as they are absorbed. Either way, distracting. The second issue also introduces the secondary plot thread (not sure why it was needed) of the X-Factor team back in Mutant town investigating a case of Astral Plane Adultery (you know it's a clanger when the Astral Plane is involved), and the rest of the core cast: The Hit-man, The Dame, and The Boss. Obviously Jamie goes to visit The Dame, and s captured by the goons of The Boss. It's predictable and inevitable, but David uses it to show that the dupes really aren't working out as well as Jamie might hope.
Issue three brings us Jamie not drowning himself, and escaping from a closet with his escape artist skills (before displaying his Bullseye skills). Throw in the couple pages that put doubt into the "I take being murdered pretty personally", line and evidence that The Hit-man has the same abilities as Multiple Man and you're doing okay. To keep the Mutant Town plot ticking along Wolfsbane is set up for her dramatic climax in issue four. Issue four lays out the final plot points. The Dame alleges she married the dupe. Jamie escapes with The Dame and comes to the conclusion that the psychic journalist type guy is behind it all. I'll grant Jamie his plot twist as it's a fair point for a noir story. However the better plot twist arrives with the final page (set amidst the burning fire of a paper factory) where The Dame reveals she can stab people to death with her bust. Truly marvellous. Additionally, Wolfsbane accidentally kills the Astral Plane Adulterer by slashing the throat of his astral form. See, I told you that the Astral plane always ends badly. Issue five closes up all the plot threads. Jamie gets to see The Hit-man die (assume it was a dupe, for all of our sakes: if he ever shows up again, it's a dupe that died), The Dame turn into a giant stabby insect monster thingy that's killed by The Boss, and The Boss lets Jamie go. Wolfsbane wraps up her end of things by not telling the newly widowed wife of the Astral Plane Adulterer that he was such, only for his lover to be in the bar and tell her himself. So key outcomes: none of the heroes died, X-Factor investigations has a verrrrry familiar logo on the door, and there's a book set-up in case Marvel want to run with it (I wonder if they did....).

The final score is mostly upsides. The logic is a little loose in places, as is Jamie's mental state, the art is serviceable for the most part (though it does drag you out of the story at times), but overall it's a worthwhile read. Problem is, it's not a cheap book to get hold of. The price I gave above for the hardcover is about what a used copy of the softcover goes for on Amazon market place (Amazon are out of that edition too). The question is therefore "do I need this book?" Answer "no, not really." See it's a good read. It sets up the ongoing X-Factor book of recent years. But you don't miss any major plot points if you don't read it.

Next week I may, astonishingly, have a bit more time to read, so I'll pick something a bit meatier, like the first half of some one's run on a book.