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GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

X-Men Reviews - Page 1

Go here for a complete list of other series/character reviews

"Mutants -- feared and hated by the world they have sworn to protect. These are the strangest heroes of all!"

For other X-Men related books see: Best of Marvel '96, Excalibur, Son of Origins,
WOLVERINE GNs and TPBs are reviewd here, and Storm appears in The Aladdin Effect
see also Nightcrawler, X-Men/Micronauts and the 2nd X-Men/Alpha Flight mini-series in my Mini-Series review section (the 1st X-Men/Alpha Flight mini-series is reviewed here)

"Astonishing" X-Men Reviews...





Prologue...

I read and reviewed these four Astonishing X-Men TPBs when they first came out, but the first two reviews had been for another site, and the links here I realized were dead. So I decided to re-post all the reviews here -- but decided to sit down, and re-read the 25 issue run first.

When Joss Whedon was tagged to write an X-Men run it was seen as an "event" -- Whedon a writer for TV and film had already accrued a huge fandom, and had made no secret of his love of comics (and The X-Men especially). So readers knew he came at it with true respect and sincerity for the material. Marvel even cleared a place for him by creating a whole new X-Men title -- Astonishing X-Men -- to play with, and just to add to the prestige paired him with acclaimed artist John Cassaday. The significance of Cassaday is not simply that he's a popular artist, but his style has a hyper-realist, almost photographic vibe (aided by the colours, mostly contributed by Laura Martin) so the comic looked more impressive than simply comic book art. Like Whedon and Cassaday/Martin were presenting their version of an X-Men movie series -- but one that actually stayed true to the comic book mythology.

The line-up Whedon was playing with included Cyclops, Wolverine, The Beast, Kitty Pryde, Colossus, and Emma Frost, while introducing a new character, Armor -- a membership perhaps deliberately aimed at older fans, since most of them go back a few years and feel nicely "iconic" (as opposed to some line-ups where, I'll admit, I don't know half the characters, and those I do don't necessarily interest me!)

Over these issues Whedon did various things of variable impact on the X-Men mythology. He brought back a previously dead character (Colossus), killed off another one, and introduced a brand new X-Man -- Hisako (Armor) who makes her first appearance in Gifted, but only becomes a significant later in Torn and Unstoppable and remained with a the team after Whedon left. He creates a new arch villain (Danger), toys with a few old ones (Sebastian Shaw, Cassandra Nova), introduces a new alien world to Marvel's cosmic geography (Breakworld), a new branch of SHIELD (SWORD), and adds a new wrinkle to the traditional Danger Room and reveals a dark secret Professor X had been concealing.

My hope when first reading this run was for the X-Men era to end all X-Men eras: a team line-up I could get behind, a top notch writer I adored, and a striking visual artist. But I realize my opinions can be filtered through my -- sometimes -- overly critical, somewhat jaded perspective. Because though my ratings for the different TPBs varies, I'll concede that Whedon/Cassaday deliver some of the best X-Men comics I've read, both in terms of character-focus (really making you believe in the humanity of the characters individually and their relationships to each other) and in telling stories that unfold with a few twists and turns, and where the action scenes feel like part of the story -- not just a mindless fight for x-number of pages. But that's compared to other comics (including Grant Morrison and others) but that still doesn't mean the Whedon/Cassaday run gets a critical free pass from me just considered in the light of whether they were delivering "great" stories.

For the result, you see, proved a little more up and down...

Note: I've presented them in chronological, rather than strictly alphabetical, order:


Astonishing X-Men (vol. 1): Gifted 2004 (SC TPB) 144 pages

cover by CassadayWritten by Joss Whedon. Illustrated by John Cassaday.
Colours: Laura Martin. Letters: Chris Eliopoulos. Editor: Mike Marts.

Reprinting: Astonishing X-Men #1-6 (2004)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 4

I first read this when it originally came out and my review was posted on another website for which I had been commissioned to do reviews -- and for a long time the link I had here was dead (that website having changed hands a few times, eventually getting rid of its reviews section). So I kept meaning to post my review here -- but figured I should do so after re-reading the book and, indeed, in the context of re-reading the entire 24 issue (plus 1) arc of The Astonishing X-Men.

So -- yeah, it took awhile to get to it.

In the ever multiplying and expanding canon of X-Men comics, Astonishing X-Men (which itself was a title previously used for an earlier, unconnected, mini-series) was part of the trend of finding homes for A-list talent by creating a new comic for them. In this case, TV and film writer/director Joss Whedon, paired with fan favourite artist John Cassaday. And the two stuck with the title for 24 issues (and an annual) presenting four storylines that combined to shape an epic arc. Whedon, meanwhile, comes to the X-Men with genuine credentials -- not only have comic book tropes featured heavily in his TV creations (and subsequently he would, of course, write and direct The Avengers) but he had often claimed his signature creation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was nominally inspired by the X-Men's Kitty Pryde -- a character Whedon deliberately returns to the team here.

Gifted acts as decent jumping on point -- at least as much as anything can when based upon long running characters and comic books. But even though the story does draw upon and reference the existing mythos -- equally, it works as a fairly intimate, focused tale. The core team Whedon uses is of a manageable size (Cyclops, Kitty Pryde, Wolverine, The Beast, Emma Frost -- and a surprise addition) and though the plot here is a "big" concept with potentially far reaching impact...it doesn't turn into some cross-title monstrosity or exist simply to work in a zillion cameoes or anything. These are the only issues you need to read to follow this central plot.

The series kicks off with Kitty Pryde returning to the team -- and the X-Men's elite boarding school -- after a long absence, taking on a faculty position. It both provides a nice "in" into the story, a starting point, even as it clearly wants to play on our sense of nostalgia -- at least for older readers. As Kitty walks the halls she has fleeting memories of scenes from comics first published back in the 1980s. It isn't just Kitty who has come home -- but Whedon and, in a sense, readers of Whedon's generation.

But this happy homecoming coincides with an announcement that a research lab may have found a "cure" for the mutant gene -- an announcement that also seems to tie into a mysterious alien villain who is keen to target the X-Men.

When I first read this in 2004 I pretty much loved it -- and especially loved it as someone who had an in again/off again relationship with the X-Men, but hadn't been a regular reader in years. And I often found the times I did dip into it again, I wasn't necessarily impressed enough to stick around. So Gifted struck the right nostalgic chord for me, and really made me feel like I had back in the days when I regularly bought the comic (back around when Kitty first joined the team). It was evocative of the comics from the Claremont/Byrne heyday but reinvented for my now adult, sophisticated tastes. Whedon and Cassaday delivered smart, witty, heartfelt storytelling and I didn't mind using the term "astonishing" in my original review.

Well, now I'm re-reading it, a decade later. I'm older, jaded, not maybe as prone to such fanboy enthusiasm. But if not quite as "astonished" as I was -- Gifted is still pretty enjoyable.

Whedon does a good job of juggling his signature witty quips and wry dialogue (to make for some funny banter that will get a chuckle or two) with his equally signature angst and nuanced human emotion. I've complained a lot of modern comic writers are good at the quips -- but often scarifice the gravitas, the sense of real people behind the masks and super powers. But Whedon still makes you believe in Cyclops, Kitty, etc. as real people with real relationships -- just given to witty and quirky banter.

The possibility of a "cure" raises all sorts of ethical issues and dilemmas (and of course relating to the comics' long established metaphor for minorities and minority rights). At this point, the Beast seems to be regressing into a (physically) primordial version of himself, and is genuinely tempted by the prospect of being free of his mutant curse -- even as others point out that, as X-Men, they have a responsibility to be role models for mutant kind and mutant pride.

And equally there is adventure and good action scenes, Whedon (and Cassaday) don't just indulge in mindless page-consuming fights but actually craft interesting action scenes and build suspense.

The result works quite well as a TPB collection. It ties into existing and past X-lore so that, yeah, it's not exactly completely friendly to a novice reader. But, equally, I'm not up on everything that occurs in the mutant universe and I picked up on most of what needed to be picked up on. Still, I do have the background, and there's no doubt there were emotional and nostalgic resonances that wouldn't have the same impact on everyone (including the usual comic book revelation that someone long believed dead -- isn't). And by wrapping the story around familiar tropes and cliches of the X-Men -- from the dilemma of a cure, to the X-Men having to infiltrate a mysterious research facility -- it can be nicely archetypal and familiar even as it doesn't just feel like Whedon is lazily recycling cliched scenes.

In this Whedon is aided by artist John Cassaday who brings a quasi photo-realist visual style that suits visuals for a script written by a guy used to working with real actors. And it lends the story a lavish, "prestige" vibe that makes it seem a little bit more than just another X-Men comic. Maybe nudging the thing in the direction of someone like Alex Ross (also credit the colourist) -- even as Cassaday isn't quite that realist. His figures can be a little stiff and his facial types are fairly limited. But for me it lends Astonishing X-Men a feel of being something a little more special, even unique, when placed next to other X-Men comics.

The six issue arc does build to a suitable climax (I had half expected it to end ambiguously, or with the villain escaping) -- but with that said, it is meant to set things up for the remainder of the Whedon/Cassaday run. But it still works read for itself alone.

Whedon and Cassaday's entire run would prove uneven, and I do think the six-issues-per-story-arc format was problematic. But Gifted certainly started things off well. And as I say, part of its appeal is not so much that Whedon and Cassaday are pushing outside the box, or doing something exceptional with the material. Rather, Gifted's strength is that the two take familiar characters, familiar themes, and even familiar story ideas -- and use them extraordinarily well.

Astonishing? Just maybe.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $14.99 USA.


Astonishing X-Men (vol. 2): Dangerous 2005 (SC TPB) 144 pages

cover by CassadayWritten by Joss Whedon. Illustrated by John Cassaday.
Colours: Laura Martin. Letters: Chris Eliopoulos. Editor: Mike Marts.

Reprinting: Astonishing X-Men #7-12 (2005)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Dangerous, the second story arc from the "dream team" of Hollywood screenwriter Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and hot artist John Cassaday, faces the "sophomore curse" that creative types are often plagued by when their initial effort is well regarded. And their first Astonishing X-Men story arc, collected as the TPB Gifted, was well regarded indeed. In my review of it I was tempted to draw upon the series' own adjective to describe it as almost astonishingly good.

So can Dangerous live up to that?

Each of Whedon's arcs it could be argued focus on particular archetypal X-Men stories.

So Gifted tackled the familiar terrain of the X-Men facing prejudice in the wider community, involving infiltrating their opponent's H.Q. and with a reasonably complex plot where separate threads end up dovetailing together

Dangerous, on the other hand, scales back to a more intimate tale, going the route of a mysterious new foe attacking them on their home turf (as the back cover cheekily advises: "And no, it's not Magneto"). Perhaps more than most super hero teams, the X-Men spend a lot of time on the defensive, rather than proactively seeking out villains. And for the first couple of chapters there's a suspenseful claustrophobia and genuine creepiness as strange things occur at the X-mansion and the X-Men are unsure who, what or why. Unavoidably it loses something when the nature of the enemy is revealed (which I won't detail) and it becomes just another conflict with another bad guy -- though Whedon does credibly create a new villain who can legitimately claim to know how the X-Men fight better than they do themselves.

Whedon wraps each issue around a specific fight/conflict that nicely gives each chapter its own focus. And by evolving the nature of the threat from issue to issue, there's a clear attempt to keep the action from stagnating. I said it's an "intimate" tale -- but that ignores the big scale of the dangers they face, the story eventually climaxing in the burned out ruins of Genosha, a mutant city destroyed in past X-Men stories. Though I also mean intimate in that Whedon stays focused on his core characters and his core plot. The X-Men franchise has so expanded over the years, with multiple X-comics on the stands in any given month, that often X-Men comics can just feel cluttered, with too many characters and references to ancillary events. But reading this, you'd barely be aware that there are other branches of the team with their own concurrent comics -- and frankly, that's good, or at least makes it easier to become embroiled in this adventure.

But too many big fight scenes can be, well, too many big fight scenes, even despite varying the threat (this month it's a giant monster, this month they're battling the mansion's rogue security systems). So that by the time of the climactic showdown it actually doesn't seem that climactic.

Dangerous has a clever adversary...but at six issues it's a bit long for what is a fairly simple, linear plot. Whedon clearly has blocked out his run in these six-issue plots, rather than letting the story run to whatever number of issues is required (even if only two or three). Particularly as this time around, Whedon is a bit more miserly with the characterization. There are good character bits (particularly with Kitty), and undeniably witty Whedon-esque repartee, but the focus is on the action-adventure -- and when you realize this represents more than half a year of publishing, such meagre development/exploration of the personalities is disappointing (particularly as the comic is going on temporary hiatus while Whedon finishes other projects).

Whedon also falls into the tiresome trap of "hot" new writers who try to make their mark by retroactively inserting a moral lapse into a hero's history, just to make things edgy n' gritty. Yawn. (Though at least no one was raped or murdered this time around!) That's actually worth sticking with for a bit because it is such a cliche (including some of the ol': "What you thought you knew about past X-Men lore is wrong!") it can be seen as Whedon deliberately, almost cheekily, dragging out a trite cliche associated with a new writer coming on board -- or simply Whedon falling into a predicable cliche.

The problem with these "moral lapse" stories is it's often presented as though the writer wants to shake things up, to peel away the false goody-goody patinia of super heroes and show how they'd be as prone to ethical flaws as anyone. But isn't the end result simply that it normalizes and, ultimately, justifies those lapses? Far from trying to raise the ethical standards, it actually lowers them because any writer knows -- Whedon included -- that all will be forgiven and excused a few issues down the line, certainly by the next writers to take on the series. Basically it says: character "A" was seen as an unimpeachble mensch; ah-hah! I'm going to challenge your childish notions of heroism by showing "A" wasn't the paragon you believed; but, don't worry, no sin is unforgiveable as long as "A" is one of the "good" guys.

Dangerous is still a good read -- it has some suspenseful moments, some effective cliff hangers, amusing lines, occasional character bits, and an observation by Cyclops on the nature of the news media that should be clipped and pasted to everyone's fridge. The beautiful art by Cassaday (and colourist Laura Martin), if a little stiff, nonetheless boasts an almost photographic verve. A big appeal of these Whedon/Cassaday collaborations is the way Cassaday's realist art, devoid of cartoony/comic book stylings, complements Whedon-the-writer-for-TV-and-film -- as if we're actually seeing a movie version of the X-Men that actually sticks to the mythos of the comics. And Cassaday's art is, like Whedon's script, open and uncluttered.

And, the book satisfies my personal criteria for a TPB, of being a complete story (sub-plots excepted) so that if you just pick it up on a whim, it'll entertain.

But the sophomore curse has struck, because it falls short of astonishing.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $14.99 USA.


Astonishing X-Men (vol. 3: Torn 2007 (SC TPB) 144 pages

cover by CassadayWritten by Joss Whedon. Illustrated by John Cassaday.
Colours: Laura Martin. Letters: Chris Eliopoulos. Editor: Mike Marts.

Reprinting: Astonishing X-Men #13-18 (2006)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

This is the third of, ultimately four, TPB volumes collecting the Astonishing X-Men series by A-list creators, writer Joss Whedon (better known for TV and movies) and artist John Cassaday. The first volume, Gifted, I thought lived up to its adjective -- it was astonishingly good, mixing Whedon's witty, smart dialogue and a genuine feel for these long standing characters, with Cassaday's beautiful, almost photo-realist art. The second volume, Dangerous, was okay, but no longer astonishing. Whedon, who seems to have blocked out his run rather miserly as four multi-issue story arcs, had fallen into something of the hubris -- or laziness -- of modern comics writers, with their penchant for so-called "decompressed" storytelling: turning a story that would've been better served as three or four issues into six.

And now we come to Torn.

Now my first note is that I'm re-reviewing this both after having last read it a few years ago, and as part of binge-reading the whole Whedon-Cassaday run over a couple of weeks. And looking over my previously posted review of it, I was, I'll admit, pretty harsh. Harsher than I am now. Whether that was a bad thing (I was too critical) or a good thing (because now I've simply lowered my expectations) or simply I'm a different person coming at it from a different perspective, I'm not sure.

I'd mentioned that each of Whedon's four arcs could be seen as deliberately trying to come at the franchise from different angles. Although Torn is, in a way, a repeat of the previous one, Dangerous, in that once more it's a fairly intimate tale of the X-Men being attacked in their own mansion, again with them not fully aware of the menace for the first few issues. Except this time around Whedon has deliberately shifted the focus to a more psychological, character-exploring front, as the enemy is deliberately attacking the X-Men in their psyches.

The premise is that team mate, Emma Frost, the former villain The White Queen, may actually have returned to her old ways, and seems to be in league with a reformed Hellfire Club comprised of Sebastian Shaw, Cassandra Nova and a couple of other characters. Unaware of this enemy within, the X-Men fall victim to various psychic assaults. The most extreme examples reducing The Beast to the level of a feral, savage beast, and Wolverine -- in a deliberately comical turn -- retreating into the mindset of his Victorian era childhood. The point being both the horror of seeing the team's most civil, intellectual character reduced to an animal and the comedy of its most fearsome, savage fighter reduced to a timid child speaking in exaggeratedly verbose Victorian speech.

It's a moody, claustrophobic tale in some respects, both because of its focus on the characters, and by virtue of not straying much from the mansion's grounds. But once again it can feel a bit stretched for what it is, taking six issues when it could've taken less. Whedon (and artist Cassaday) devoting whole pages to simple reactions and the like. As well, the nature of the story means that a lot of the main characters either end up unconscious, or out-of-character, before the end -- so it's a six issue arc in which a lot of the main heroes are sidelined.

Kitty Pryde remains a focal character, the arc maybe more about here than anyone else (and Emma, too, at least in terms of her psychology). Now might be a good time to mention Hisako, a student at the school who over Whedon's run became a defacto team member, with this being her first major outing as a crucial part of the story.

Still, it works reasonably well -- despite my earlier, more critical assessment. Particularly if you've kind of acclimatized to the way such six issue arcs suffer from decompression these days. I think part of my softening comes from reading it quicker, in a batch, as opposed to stretching it out chapter-by-chapter where you become more conscious of lack of plot progression.

Whedon offers some clever and amusing bits, whether sly quips or the more obvious slapstick of Wolverine-as-Little-Lord-Fualteroy. There is some subtle stuff that makes sense, but you need to infer things (like how Cyclops suddenly emerges to save the day) -- and others things that, dealing with inner motivation, and telepathic implants, you just have to take on faith.

However an issue I did have with it was continuity stuff. Whedon's initial arc, Gifted, was drawing heavily upon X-lore and nostalgia, but I thought in a way that a newer reader could follow what was going on -- and was deliberately aimed at older readers of Whedon's own generation. But here there's a lot more -- and a lot more current -- continuity stuff that does kind of interfere with the story, or at least the nuances, if you don't know it. I had no idea who Cassandra Nova was when I first read this (though I understand she must be a big bad villain in modern X-mythos). And the story hinges upon the villains seeking something hidden in the mansion's basement -- but I wasn't sure if we, the reader, were supposed to know what it was or knew it was there already, or if it was supposed to be a surprise. As well, Whedon tightens threads teased throughout his run, involving cutaways to some other characters that assume you've read the last two arcs (though, to be fair, there is a handy "previously" intro at the beginning of the TPB).

This even then builds to a climax in which the end of this story is hi-jacked to make way for a cliff hanger to lead us into the next (and final) story arc. It actually means the ending here is a bit muddled (you can sort of understand how the villainess is defeated, but it's confusing). It also seems part of Whedon's deliberate nostalgia, as the ending, involving the X-Men being teleported away onto a space ship, mirrors a similar scene in the classic Dark Phoenix Saga (as does an earlier panel where Kitty emerges from a river vowing revenge).

Cassaday's art remains a big appeal of the run. Even as I'm aware of its flaws (a certain stiffness to the figures, a kind of limited facial types so it's even hard to sometimes tell characters apart at first glance) the strengths far out weigh them. It isn't just that his almost photo-realism (aided by the colourist) is appealing, or that his storytelling is generally clear, but his panels are generally clean and uncluttered -- detailed enough to fill in the environment, the corridors and rooms, without being an insane mess of lines and busy-ness. And as I've repeatedly said: the photo-realism helps make Whedon's run seem slightly different from the other X-Men comics -- almost like an X-Men movie.

Ultimately I liked Torn well enough, but it is perhaps the least new-reader friendly of Whedon's arcs, at least for a casual reader like me who knows my X-Men mythos -- but not every little detail. And again it feels like it could've been tighter, the whole more repetitious than it needs to be.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $14.99 USA.


Astonishing X-Men (vol. 4): Unstoppable 2008 (SC TPB) 188 pages

cover by CassadayWritten by Joss Whedon. Illustrated by John Cassaday.
Colours: Laura Martin. Letters: Chris Eliopoulos, with Joe Caramagna. Editor: Mike Marts, Nick Lowe.

Reprinting: Astonishing X-Men #19-24, Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1 (2007-2008)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Unstoppable collects the final story arc from writer Joss Whedon and artist John Cassaday. At six regular issues, plus the double-sized conclusion, it's the longest of the duo's four arcs, and the most narratively complex -- and the one most meant to feel like an epic summer blockbuster!.

I was a fan of Whedon's TV work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (etc.) and it's hard not to appreciate John Cassaday's striking, realist art. The first story arc of their Astonishing X-Men run, Gifted, blew me away. And though a subsequent re-reading muted some of my initial fanboy idolatry, it still remains a strong, engaging effort. But with each of their subsequent arcs, my enthusiasm was being chipped away at.

Still, Unstoppable would prove the final arbiter on the Whedon-Cassaday run...particularly because it becomes clear this really is meant to be viewed as a 25 issue saga, as threads introduced throughout all three of the earlier arcs are all played out here.

The background from the previous issues is that aliens from the planet Breakworld are convinced, through prophesy, that X-Man Colossus will destroy their world...and they are determined to prevent it, whether by killing the X-Men, mutants in general, or the whole planet earth. A U.S. government organization -- SWORD -- specifically mandated to deal with extraterrestrial matters, is determined that won't happen. The previous TPB collection ended with the X-Men being transported aboard a SWORD space ship as it blasts off into space...

All of this is explained at the beginning of the TPB so you can get the gist of what's going on, even if you haven't read the earlier issues (but there remain various secondary threads and character bits that'll be a mite confusing).

This is the most complexly-plotted of Whedon's stories. The X-Men must run a gauntlet of Breakworld vessels, crash on the Breakworld, separate into smaller pairs, reunite, and follow various threads (including discovering a rogue movement on the Breakworld opposed to their planet's uber-militaristic culture -- a culture that doesn't even have a word for "hospital" because they don't care about the weak). There's a lot going on, room for machinations and surprise revelations, nice character bits, and Whedon's patented witty quips. It was proving to be a great epic, and going a long way towards justifying the excitement I first felt reading Gifted.

And then it kind of doesn't.

There are some plausibility issues that, though not crippling, chew away at its legs a bit. From simple spacial geography (where is this Breakworld that it can fire missiles at earth?) to the very notion of SWORD, a basically Star Trek-like organization with intergalactic travel and a network of alien contacts. Then there's the Breakworld. It's supposed to be a savage culture that doesn't even have a word for "hospital"...yet somehow has such advanced medicine they can revive people our science would declare dead. (And there's a whole bit with Cyclops' optic powers, where Whedon seems to be sort of imply his traditional lack of control is mostly psychosomatic, that seems a bit ill-explained).

Whedon layers on the twists and surprise revelations -- which is good. But (at least after a first reading) there's a nagging feeling that some of the double crosses don't really make sense. As if Whedon was trying to come up with what would be surprising...more than what would be logical. And there's a major twist that does worse than threaten logic...it rips the guts out of an aspect of the story that initially was making it seem like a deeper, grander, more richly profound saga...in favour of just a cheap movie serial twist. (More on that in a bit).

As much as I really like Whedon's stuff, the down side to his having a distinctive style is that it can get a bit repetitive. Although he doesn't lose the essential core of the characters (Cyclops as the master strategist), they do tend to all talk like characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Still, Whedon's X-Men seem mostly dead on. These are the characters they've always been -- just, y'know, a little more quip-y. But later in the saga, Whedon throws in appearances from various other super heroes, including Spider-Man, Mr. Fantastic, etc. And maybe because we do know what Spidey sounds like being witty, having him talk like Xander Harris just seems like Whedon has too few character types in his bag of tricks.

It's hard to explain some of my reactions without giving too much away, so I'll do my best, but there'll probably be some spoilers, if only by implication.

For one thing, Whedon goes for the downbeat ending of having one of the X-Men sacrifice themselves in the end. (I'm not sure if readers knew someone ahead of time was going to die or not, but there are plenty of scenes that seem like deliberate red herrings and mis-directions, as if we are supposed to think one or another character is going to bite the dust). I could say that that's needlessly depressing. I could say it leaves a bad taste. But really, I'll just say what has to be said.

It. Is. Trite.

It seems every time a "hot" talent takes over a comic, the first thing he does is kill somebody off (or resurrect someone or else reveal a hitherto dark and sordid secret one of the characters was concealing...both which Whedon had done in the previous arcs). One suspects Whedon was influenced by the classic Dark Phoenix saga -- weren't we all? -- and there are obvious echoes and homages of that saga throughout Whedon's run. But the reason the Dark Phoenix saga had an impact was both because it was a long building story arc, and a natural resolution of the themes...and because killing off a major character was then still seen as an unusual thing to do (not unheard of, but unusual).

Here it just feels tired and creaky. And maybe that's why it leaves a bad taste: Whedon sacrifices the character in order to shock us with his "gritty edge"...and it just feels humdrum (not to mention killing characters kind of lacks impact when Whedon begins his run...by resurrecting a previously dead character!)

So it's sad...but instead of being sad/tragic...it's more sad/annoying.

And there's just a whole overall tone to this arc that is...unpleasant. Actually, let me step back a bit and say that, well, there's a whole tone to the last few years -- even decades -- of comics that is unpleasant. At best, there's a moral vacuum -- at worse...well, I don't want to think about worst. It's not a big deal, just breezing through the story as an adventure. It's more once I close the final page and let the story percolate with me that it starts to bother. The whole "heroes don't kill" philosophy that was at the core of super heroes for so many years has long since been discarded, so there is just a kind of cavalier approach to violence throughout. There's no longer even token angst or soul searching when a hero finds himself obliged to use lethal force. And half the "heroes" are of the morally pragmatic stripe!

The Breakworld itself is one of those brutal, warrior worlds that seem to be about the only kind sci-fi writers can imagine these days. And though that can make for an intriguing dilemma, as the heroes work to save a world that, in a way, almost doesn't deserve it (ala Thor: Alone Against the Celestials) it does make the whole environment kind of unpleasant. But by the end of the story, we are basically given to understand that the warriors of Breakworld are honourable people who can be negotiated with...so long as the heroes embrace the same brutal, savage techniques. While Liberals are explicitly likened to Joseph Stalin! Is that Whedon's philosophical intention, or is it just an unintended result of his desire for a plot twist? Or might even he not be consciously aware of what motivates him to write certain scenes? Probably it's just for the sake of surprise plot twists. But it doesn't change the result.

Heck, the fact that Whedon would craft an arc which, by the end, has eliminated one character whose powers were kind of atypical and passive, while re-introducing Colossus, and introducing a new character (Armor) who creates psycho-kinetic armour -- in other words, characters whose main attribute is they can hit things real hard -- makes its own statement.

As I mentioned earlier, the story arc seemed to be on track to be some grandly profound saga, as the X-Men come to the Breakworld as enemies, then are presented with the challenge of possibly redeeming it -- but by the end, that's tossed aside as basically a red herring.

Admittedly, that's all if you try to take the story seriously, as something deeper than just a gee whiz, rock-'em-sock-'em adventure. But if you aren't expected to take it as anything deeper, then what's the point of going for the melancholy ending?

Perhaps an interesting contrast is despite Whedon's smart, frequently sophisticated dialogue, and multi-pronged plotting, and despite Cassaday's almost photo-realist, 3-D art, this story reminded my of Louise Simonson and Paul Smith's X-Factor epic, Judgement Day, from some 20 years earlier. Simonson's dialogue isn't anywhere in Whedon's league, and Smith's art was simple, comic book art with Old School colouring -- yet in some ways I actually regard Simonson's saga as the more rich and emotionally satisfying.

I did like Unstoppable...for the most part. As I say, it's certainly the most plot-heavy and "big budget" epic of the duo's run, a nice contrast to the more intimate, linear stories of the last two arcs. The beginning and middle were highly entertaining...but it's just the pay off that doesn't really pay off. (Also I'll admit Whedon's desire to throw in various super hero cameos in the climax, though understandable both from the point of view of a global threat, and Whedon wanting to play with all the Marvel "toys," is also a little awkward given I had been enjoying the Whedon/Cassaday run precisely because it seemed to be focusing on its core characters and avoiding the cluttered multi-character team ups that seem to typify so many comics sagas).

As Whedon tries to tie his plot threads and story themes together he ends up with a tangled ball rather than a beautiful tapestry (including leaving some awkwardly dangling threads, like a promise Emma makes to the newly minted arch foe, Danger). It remains the paradox with some stories I've read where I've suggested the less you demand from it, the more you'll enjoy it. And I freely admit this reads better a second and third time through.

But, really, there's nothing wrong with wanting more.

There's no doubt Unstoppable is funny, with plenty of Whedon's distinctive quips and wisecracks. There's no doubt that it's exciting and ambitious, as Whedon finally presents a story that demands the page count, with lots of characters and machinations. There's no doubt it has some effective twists. There's no doubt it hasd some emotional moments and pathos. And there's no doubt it's beautifully illustrated.

But though those are all the attributes you appreciate while reading it. Strangely, once the book is closed, and you're left with just the lingering after taste, what kind of stays with you is a vague sense that Unstoppable...is kind of Unsavoury.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $19.99 USA.

Epilogue...

So after re-reading the entire Whedon/Cassaday run over a couple of weeks -- probably a good seven years or so since I last read it -- what's the assessment?

Well the fact that it's been so long says something. I mean, not entirely (there are lots of stories I keep meaning to re-read, but never get around, to). But I think it indicates that as much as I loved aspects of it, on a visceral level it didn't quite lure me back or become the definitive X-saga I was hoping for.

Whedon writes some truly great dialogue, both the witty, clever quips, but also the subtle, nuanced emotional and character-driven moments (I started reading another run of X-Men comics and was immediately struck by the contrast). I've complained that a lot of modern comics are written with so much emphasis on the wisecracks and witty that they threaten to become sitcoms, losing the underlining sense of gravitas -- but not here. The run is very funny -- but still seems dramatic and, best of all, Whedon mostly manages to given the dialogue a distinctively Whedon-esque flavour without betraying the traditional characterization. Cyclops is the Cyclops we've always known. Wolverine is Wolverine. Kitty is Kitty. Etc. These are actually some of the best renderings of them.

But I do think the formulaic length of the story arcs is a flaw. It's a 25 issue run that is comprised of only 4 adventures, so that instead of seeming like a two year era of the series, it just seems like, well, four adventures. The length may also be why I haven't necessarily delved into it over the intervening years -- because you can't just impulsively decide to re-read a particular adventure one night, since it's six issues long.

And I guess it's all just visceral. And after all is said and done, despite the undeniable great things about it in both writing and art, as an overall run of stories, it failed to sustain a sense of...astonishment.

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