Wednesday, June 20, 2012

New adventures with old friends (WHEDON WEEK - Part Three)

So about eight years ago, Joss Whedon signed on with Marvel Comics to be the writer of a monthly comic, Astonishing X-Men. I guess he had nothing else going on at the time? Or possibly it was the realization of a lifelong dream, which I suggest only half-jokingly; there are a surprising number of successful entertainers in various mediums who, apparently, really don’t feel as if they’ve done everything they ever wanted until they get to tell comicbook stories for a mass audience. By 2004 I, personally, was getting a little burnt out on the X-Men in particular, so I didn’t follow along on that excursion of Whedon’s at the time.

Of course you can’t get burnt out on something unless you spend a lot of time on it to begin with, and X-Men comics were front and center of my collection for a long, long while. I was a lifelong Green Lantern fan, of course, but for a decent stretch I was more of a fan of the concept than the played-out, wheel-spinning issues that were available on the newsstand every four weeks, and I wouldn’t come back to picking up new Green Lanterns religiously until close to the end of high school. During the adolescent sweet spot, though, ages eleven twelve and thirteen? There were two comics I was really into: Spider-Man and X-Men. For very different reasons.

Spider-Man will probably always stand as the pinnacle example of the Everyman hero, and that’s what he meant to me. I could relate to Spidey. He had money problems, and family problems, and girl problems, and both respect and self-respect problems. The message, smuggled into every Spider-Man adventure and aimed squarely at the adolescent-perpetually-on-the-verge-of-despair, is that you can have all those kinds of problems, even all at once, and life will still go on. You might even score a victory here and there, now and then, if you just hang in there. (Remember, Spider-Man can’t fly. He swings through the city streets, hanging at the end of a very thin thread. Just sayin’.) There’s something vastly reassuring about Spider-Man, not exactly the “Everything is going to be fine” of Superman, but “Mostly everything is going to be all right, or close enough.”

The X-Men, on the other hand, I could not relate to at all. Abilities derived from radioactive arachnid bites notwithstanding, Spider-Man is really just a nerdy white boy from New York, and the vast majority of his problems come down to petty annoyances and indignities. Generously include New Jersey in the scope of greater NYC, and all of that applies to me as a kid. The X-Men literally belong to a different species, and they hail from foreign lands and varied exotic ethnicity, and they attend a private boarding school, and their entire existence is rooted in fear that they’ll be hunted down and exterminated. They don’t have fitting-in problems, they have genocide problems. They don’t have girl troubles, they have starcrossed tragic love affairs gone wrong. And so on. None of the histrionic melodrama that overflowed in the X-Men’s world really applied to me and my life, not even symbolically, but I was hypnotized by it all the same. Really, literature is intended to serve one of two purposes: helping us better understand ourselves, and helping us understand others who are not like ourselves. Spider-Man achieved the former, and X-Men, the latter.

In order to hit those crazy, life-undreamed-of highs, though, X-Men had to rely on serialized storytelling that put televised soap operas to shame. So ultimately, I credit X-Men comics with transforming me from someone who enjoyed comicbooks and would read an issue of Superman here and an issue of Fantastic Four there, into someone who absolutely had to have every single issue as it was published so that I could keep up with the ongoing developments in the sweeping grandeur of the whole saga. That inspired the kind of devotion that could, and did, lead to burnout farther down the road.

Lucky for me, I have likeminded (yet not identically minded) friends, like my buddy Clutch, who did pick up all the issues in Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men, and he loaned them to me recently so that I could finally see how the man acquitted himself playing entirely in someone else’s sandbox. I basically had my answer (which, SHOCKINGLY, is “quite well indeed”) in the whereabouts of the first page of issue #1.

Whedon chose Kitty Pryde as his main viewpoint character, which is a thoroughly unsurprising thing for the man most associated with Buffy to do. So the first issue begins with Kitty’s internal monologue, and soon enough she drops in the word “continuity”. It’s a perfectly valid use of the word, in context, as Kitty is pondering how the Xavier School has been rebuilt (after recent plot developments penned by other authors) to look exactly as it always did before, to help minimize psychological distress by creating a sense that things will continue as they always have and the present is connected to the past &c. But of course “continuity” is a loaded word in comicbooks, as it refers to the ongoing serialized nature of those universes, and how every published story (unless specifically contra-indicated) is canon and must build upon and take into account what has gone before. So Whedon is very plainly putting forth a statement of intention to the readers, presumably dedicated X-Men fans, who took the leap of faith and picked up his new series: Hi, I’m Joss, and I am well aware of what continuity is and that the X-Men have a lot of it. I have no desire to be held in contempt for violation continuity. I’m here to play by the rules. Trust me, it’ll be fun.

Not long after that there’s an even more overt nod to continuity which further burnishes Whedon’s credentials. Kitty passes through the front door of the school and remembers a time when she stormed angrily out the same doors, and in the panel artwork her recollection is superimposed on the image. The whole recollection is also a near-perfect recreation of an iconic panel from an issue of the X-Men that came out in 1983. Clearly this is not just “hey, I dig that the X-Men have a history, I read every issue that came out last year” but rather “son, I been reading X-Men comics since before you were born.” Fair enough.

That’s not the end of paying homage to the past, either. Throughout the course of his run (twenty-four regular issues and one giant-size edition to wrap everything up) Whedon delights in playing with elements of X-Men continuity, sometimes both reinventing and paying reverent homage in the same go. The artistic echoes continue, as well. I’m sure a lot of people would say that the best example of this is when, facing a reconstituted Hellfire Club later on, Kitty has a very Wolverine moment and gets to say “Now it’s my turn!” – different character but same dialogue as a classic moment, same composition in the artwork. My personal favorite, though, comes late in the run as the X-Men manage to turn the tables on an entire alien army by linking minds telepathically and cooperatively weaving a web of lies as a feint. Cyclops, enabled by the psychic powers of his girlfriend Emma Frost, broadcasting “To me, my X-Men” just like Professor Xavier used to back in the day – that was killer, and got a hearty nod of appreciation from me. (It probably would have gotten something more voluble if I hadn’t been sitting on the train during morning rush hour at the time.)

I think the best thing an established writer can do when working with someone else’s properties is make the most of the pre-existing elements that make those properties viable and beloved, while also bringing to bear his own greatest strengths. And I think that is exactly what Whedon did on Astonishing X-Men. He did not radically upset the mutant apple cart. He added to the X-Men mythology, sometimes deepening what was already there, sometimes creating new concepts which nonetheless feel very much of a piece with the whole. He wrote some great dialogue which had that stylistic Whedon snap to it, but which seemed very natural coming out of the mouths of the characters. (And he did it all without once mentioning vampires! Sure there was some chosen one prophecy and a lot of girls-who-kick-ass, but no vampires!) All in all, he knocked it out of the park, and if there should come a time in the near future where Marvel announces he’s embarking on yet another series of superhero comics for them, that would probably be enough of a draw to get me back in the shops on Wednesdays once again, jonesing for my fix.

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