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Tales to Astonish

 

Astonishing X-Men: Gifted

Joss Whedon, John Cassaday

Marvel, 2004

Rating: 4.2

 

Posted: January 20, 2005

By 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 the death 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 students.

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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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