Writer: Joss Whedon
Artist: John Cassaday
Publisher: Marvel Comics
And that, ladies and gentlemen at Marvel, is how you write the X-Men in 2006. I laughed, I cried, it was better than... well, okay, it's up against Claremont and Milligan in the core books, so any comparison is a no-brainer. Still, this was really, really good.
With Cyclops out of the way, the new Hellfire Club is free to move against the rest of the X-Men. Meanwhile, Ord is approached by a villain I never expected to see again, proving once more that Joss Whedon is Big Picture Guy.
If I had to characterize Astonishing X-Men as a whole, I'd emphasize a combination of two specific elements: it's ostensibly a sequel to Grant Morrison's New X-Men, in terms of continuing the major character arcs of that run (Hank's fears of devolution, Emma's ambivalence, Scott's attempts to redefine himself), but it also invokes a great deal of affectionate nostalgia for the early Claremont run of Uncanny X-Men, most strongly centered around Kitty. This is the book's greatest strength, and why it's one of the best X-Men series currently on the market: it admires the past, but isn't shackled to that past. It echoes classic Claremont without channeling classic Claremont.
This issue serves as a prime example, as it's a subtle parallel to Uncanny X-Men #132 (the first encounter between the X-Men and the Hellfire Club). In both cases, the Club members spring a trap and neutralize the X-Men one by one. In both cases, a single X-Man escaped - the last panel of this issue is a mirror image of Wolverine popping his claws and swearing payback in Uncanny #132. But there's a twist on the old story: back then, the fight happened on the Club's territory, and they were largely-unknown enemies. This new Hellfire Club, by contrast, is made up of pre-established villains (with the possible exception of Perfection), and they strike at the team from within the mansion itself. As a result, things get much worse for our heroes than simply being beaten up: Shaw's battle with Colossus concludes with a wince-inducing blow, while Cassandra Nova's "castration" of Wolverine is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious. Fans of the Singer movies will no doubt recognize the latter as an indirect reference to X2; remember what Xavier said he'd do if Wolverine kept smoking in Cerebro?
Emma's been very interesting throughout this arc, because of her ambiguous depiction: whenever she's on-panel, there are no thought bubbles or captions to indicate what she's thinking. The first page of this issue is a perfect example: is Emma simply forcing herself to cry, so she can be more convincing? Or does she really feel remorse? It's a mystery among countless others: what is the Hellfire Club really after? Who is Perfection? How does this all connect to Genosha? Who is Agent Brand's mole in the mansion? Who
(or what) is the Destroyer of Worlds? These questions push the plot forward, expertly meshed together with in-depth characterization, humorous scenes ("The moose has caught my scent again! O!"), and the occasional aside to students like Hisako and Blindfold (another payoff I'm sure is fast approaching).
Whedon gets the X-Men, in a way that very few of his contemporaries do. While the pacing is a bit problematic due to artistic delays, this arc - and the entire Whedon run - are going to read magnificently in trades.
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