Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chronic Review: Astonishing X-Men # 35!

Astonishing X-Men # 35
Marvel Comics

Script: Warren Ellis
Pencils: Phil Jimenez
22 pages for $2.99

To be honest, I had no intention of writing about Astonishing X-Men this week. But this ended up being the best comic I picked up today - and I grabbed Fantastic Four # 582, so that should tell you plenty right there.

Warren Ellis is not into superhero comics. Yeah, he's one of those. Doesn't care for them, finds the concept mostly mined and fairly silly. One gets the feeling that if he had his druthers, the old underwear dinosaurs would just have the good grace to park themselves in a tar pit to die.

So naturally he's writing Astonishing X-Men, one of the flagship superhero titles for the monster of mainstream comics. Hey, Warren's got bills to pay just like everybody else.

I just came back to this comic last issue, and have discovered it to be one of the most delightfully subversive books on the rack. Should I be surprised by this? I'm ashamed to say that I was.

Warren Ellis giving mainstream comics the finger is not a new thing. The Authority was a shot at the Avengers and the JLA. Planetary took potshots at everybody - the Fantastic Four were a running joke throughout, and the Vertigo roast in issue # 7 was a standout. Remember Nextwave? Awesome.

The difference I guess is that in the past Warren has only been able to bomb this stuff from the outside. Now he's essentially doing a parody book on Astonishing X-Men.

Let me show you what I'm talking about. Ellis doesn't take to the superhero genre for many of the same reasons you or I are off-put: the whole concept is pretty absurd if you're rational about it. These people...they're too perfect. The men are all carved out of granite and primed for action, and the powers all fall together perfectly. The women are all knockouts who are particularly blessed in the bust region, and they all seem to prefer fighting global level threats in the flimsiest of tight-fitting stretchy fabric.

No actual sane people would behave like this even if they could, and fact is, they couldn't. Mutation doesn't ordinarily make you look like Angelina Jolie and shoot fire your usually end up looking like a plague victim with fewer digits than you should have, and nobody wants to talk to you any more. There's your powers. Mutant.

And that's exactly the problem that Kaga has with the X-Men in this arc. Kaga is a real mutant. Kaga is all jacked up, had to scrape and borrow and steal just to keep himself alive. The X-Men as outcasts? Bullshit. They're a bunch of perfectly orchestrated models with private jets who whine all the time about how stricken, smitten, and afflicted they are.

Astonishing X-Men is the best hate letter to superhero comics I've read in a long time. This is a perfectly crafted big ticket action book that ruthlessly displays how stupid big ticket action books are. The key is that Ellis is so good at it, you can hardly tell you're reading meta commentary. All of the action pieces are there, the dialogue is sharp, the characters are strong. I'm not fooling around. The Beast and Wolverine in particular are as well rendered as you will find in any X-Book from any period.

The reason why it works so well is that there's humor in the malice, maybe even a little love inside the malice, if that makes sense. I doubt Warren would cop to this if you asked him about it. But really, I think his career has been defined by the influence of the mainstream superhero genre on him, his recognition of all the elements of said genre that are complete rubbish, his talking back to those elements, and then the genre incorporating his pushback.

Let's face facts. Most of what you're reading right now for big budget superhero comics owes a giant royalty check to his work on Stormwatch and The Authority. But as much as the mainstream obviously rankles the old could he possibly parrot the stuff at this level if he wasn't still emotionally involved in some way?

Astonishing X-Men does not read as the tirade of an angry man out of touch with his subject. It reads like a Swiftian farce so clever I'm not even sure Warren always knows that he's doing it.

Astonishing reads just fine even if you're not in on the joke. The stakes are high, the action moves along briskly. You've got your spaceship chase, your leviathan monsters that look lushly painted, some bondage jokes, a fastball special, and Wolverine punches a senior citizen.

And all this for $2.99? I wouldn't miss it, if I were you.

- Ryan

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