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Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes

(Marvel Comics; US: Aug 2009)

In the mid-to-late 1990s, the comics market was flooded with DC’s Justice League family of titles, similar to the glut of X-Men and Avengers-related books published by Marvel today. Faced with an opponent no low-selling superteam could withstand—cancellation—the line was canceled and quickly relaunched with one lone title: the now-legendary JLA, written by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter. Not long after that, Marvel axed their long-running but poorly-selling Daredevil, also giving the series a new first issue and a new creative team (Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada, eventually leading the way for the also-legendary run of Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev and, of course, Quesada’s rise to the position of Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief.


Instead of expressing distaste or even contempt for the new directions of both JLA and Daredevil, fans, to borrow a phrase, “embraced change”, and thrilled to tales of Batman’s defeat of the White Martians, the introduction of the angel Zauriel, the death of Karen Page and Matt Murdock’s mental breakdown.


So why, then, has there been an increasingly hostile reaction to Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi’s introduction to Astonishing X-Men? Granted, there are differences between the new age of JLA and Daredevil in comparison to the new order of Astonishing. For example, Astonishing was seeing its first creative shift in the title’s entire history, having been explicitly created as a vehicle for top talent to tell stories taking place outside of the main action but still firmly entrenched in continuity. The first team to tackle the series was, of course, television’s Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which owes its very existence to Kitty Pryde, whom Whedon returned to the spotlight during his tenure) and John Cassady, long-time Ellis collaborator on the soon-to-be-concluded Planetary. Their run—as opposed to the immediate previous incarnations of the adventures of the Earth’s premier superteam and The Man Without Fear—was hailed with great commercial and critical success and won multiple awards, and all this despite continued release delays.


Fans incorrectly assumed Astonishing X-Men’s tone to consistently be Whedonesque even after his departure, so when Ellis and Bianchi’s first issue hit and “Ghost Boxes” began, fans were in a tizzy. And who can blame them? Kitty Pryde and Colossus were gone. Storm was back. Bianchi’s art was darker than Cassaday’s. Ellis injected the characters into his patented world of wacky super-science and dark humor. The series may have borne the same title as that of the already-legendary run of Whedon and Cassaday, but it may as well have been a completely different comic.


To them.


This highlights a massive problem in the fan community today: the idea of “everything was better before” is pervasive, especially on the Internet, and shows how seemingly “dedicated” fans are nearly impossible to please. Everyone’s “before” is different; one generation of Spider-Man fans, for instance, prefer Peter Parker as a high school student; another wish Peter was still Gwen Stacy’s dedicated early-20s boyfriend; and yet another find his most appealing incarnation to be that of the once meek and nerdy Parker who is married to a supermodel and lives in Avengers Tower with Iron Man and Captain America. In ten years, there will be an entire generation who grew up reading the adventures of a Peter Parker who is not afraid to make Faustian bargains and “mack on Miss Girls Gone Wild”.


What’s more is that it’s obvious fans wanted the series to retain its Whedonesque tone. Joss Whedon, like most great writers, has a very obvious style. This is not a put-down in any way at all; if one looks at David Mamet, William Shakespeare, Kevin Smith, David Milch, Chuck Palahniuk or Edgar Allan Poe, they all have unique styles, tics, and themes echoing throughout their works. Warren Ellis, like Whedon or Milch, is no different.


And therein lies the problem: yes, it still has the same title, and largely the cast and place in the X-Men corner of the Marvel Universe, and expecting the X-Men to not change with the new creative team—to not evolve, as they already have to set them apart from the rest of humanity—is a fallacy at best and a colossal misunderstanding of the shared universe concept at worst.


If things were to never change in comics, Magneto would just be a villainous terrorist with no sympathetic backstory or noble characterization; he would merely be an angry jerk in a dorky costume seizing control of military bases to prove how much better he is than humans. Luke Cage would be a walking stereotype in a puffy shirt and tiara, saying things like “Sweet Christmas!” and “Where’s my money, honey?” instead of the intelligent, hard-edged father and committed married man he is today. Deadpool would be just another Deathstroke/Bullseye hybrid, a stone-cold killer with no sense of humor or, indeed, heroism.


In the real world, things change. They evolve. People get married. Children are born. Elections are held. Wars end. The new run on Astonishing X-Men reflects this, and contrary to what anonymous Internet fans who still buy it anyway will tell you, it does it well.


The storyline—an alternate world’s attempt to conquer the main Marvel Universe through devices called Ghost Boxes, which serve as gateways to the Multiverse—is intriguing, serving as a sort of amalgam between the Borg of Star Trek fame and, of course, the ZFT of the current hit TV series Fringe. Ellis, of course, brings his own twist to this horrifying tale by actually showing what happened to the X-Men after their initial encounter with one of that world’s agents. The readers are treated to dark realities where Armor, Wolverine and Beast travel a long road hoping to find salvation, a lonesome Cyclops commits suicide, and many others of equally emotionally dark resonance.


The use of Forge, one-time X-Man and former lover of Storm, is no surprise to fans of Ellis, whose interest in technology and what it means for the future has pervaded nearly everything he’s ever written, notably Transmetropolitan and Doktor Sleepless. The revelation of Forge as the arc’s ultimate villain comes as slightly more of a shock, especially since it has been nearly a decade since Ellis last wrote the character, but all the seeds are planted way back in his previous work in the X-universe, and he ingeniously ties it all together with recent events, explained quite ingeniously in a dialogue exchange between Forge and Beast. It is not over- or underwritten. It is just right, and moreover it feels right. Knowing how Forge sees Ellis, this is a natural progression of his character, sort of what could happen to Doktor Sleepless if he were a mutant ally of the X-Men.


Ellis’ trademark storytelling is clearly evident, as is his humor (an early chapter depicts a debate about whether or not Cyclops uses four letter words, which concludes with a hilarious Happy Days reference from, of all people, Wolverine), and both are helped to achieve their maximum potential by the artwork of Simone Bianchi. Yes, his art is dark and somewhat brooding, but so is the X-Men’s world at this point. Tonally, Bianchi suits Ellis’ tale better than any other artist could. After everything the X-Men have been through over the last several years—M-Day, wars over a mutant child, the Genoshan holocaust, the revelation of Xavier’s lies, the deaths of Jean Grey, Banshee, Kitty Pryde and Moira MacTaggert – why should their world be brightly colored and lit like a Joel Schumacher superhero movie? The simple answer is it shouldn’t, so it isn’t.


However, all of the implicit logic of anyone approaching Astonishing X-Men’s new era with a fresh mind is lost on the small but loud amount of “true fans” who prefer things to be how they were “before”…which can be as long as 30 or 50 years ago, or as recently as the previous issue.


Stories, like life, are about evolution. They are about the good and the bad, the joyful and the terrible. They are about birth, death and what happens between the two. They are about unlocking the secrets of the universe, delving into the depths of human souls and psyches, and, above all else, evolution and change.


JLA and Daredevil changed, so it only seems right that the X-Men should, as well. After all, every story can be boiled down to one simple theme, and if the X-Men are really, truly about anything, it’s acceptance of change.

Rating:

When Kevin M. Brettauer arrived at the nearest town which adjoineth the forest, he found many people assembled in the market-place; for it had been announced that a rope-dancer would give a performance. And Brettauer spake thus unto the people: I teach you the Superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?


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