Astonishing X-Men 2: Dangerous by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday: B

From the back cover:
A tragic death at the Xavier Institute reveals a powerful enemy living among the X-Men that they could never have suspected—and no, it’s not Magneto.

Things heat up in a way none of the X-Men ever dreamed, but will teamwork save the day when they can’t even depend on themselves?

You know those episodes of Buffy where the supernatural threat is pretty dumb, and yet the episode is worth watching because of the amusing dialogue and the good character work going on? Well, the second arc of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run is just like that.

In a nutshell, at some point in time, the Danger Room, used to train the X-Men by putting them through all manner of dangerous situations, became sentient, thanks to a contradiction in its programming that ordered it to kill the X-Men and yet stop short of killing them. Professor Xavier was aware of this development but ignored it, essentially keeping the sentient room trapped there to do his bidding. Now it’s gained enough control that it’s able to wreak some havoc, and eventually fashions itself a body to facilitate its revenge.

While I definitely appreciate the morally grey implications of Xavier’s actions (or inaction) and Peter’s response to same—Peter, aka Colossus, who has just been rescued from years spent as a prisoner/experiment himself—I just couldn’t get very interested in this scenario. Perhaps I wasn’t meant to, though: Joss is beginning to spin out a few plot threads that are obviously meant to continue for some time and possibly just needed to give his characters something to do in order to get those ideas across. Of chief importance is the question of where Emma Frost’s loyalties truly lie, since it’s heavily implied here that she’s feeding information to someone else. There’s also the issue of Agent Brand, who believes that the death of the X-Men is necessary to protect the planet from vengeful aliens, and who has an unknown mole on the inside at Xavier Academy.

On a more personal front, there’s also the awkwardness between Kitty and Peter to deal with, since she’s concerned that she has scared him off with her emotional response to his rescue. I love how Whedon shows Peter in battle against a monster while his thoughts distract him (“I am riding a monster’s nostrils. I really should concentrate.”), followed by Kitty in battle while her thoughts distract her (“Came on too strong…”), followed by Wolverine in battle, absolutely free of mental interference (“I really like beer.”).

Kitty continues to be a likeable character: she’s smart, capable, and determined to fight, even though her particular brand of abilities brands her as a noncombatant. John Cassaday’s character design for her is terrific, too, and must be commended for its consistency in a medium where lack of same seems the norm. She’s definitely pretty, but it’s a very normal sort of pretty. I do continue to hear a lot of Buffy in her dialogue, as in this exchange…

Emma Frost: (in response to Cyclops getting all commandy) I positively throb when he gets that tone.

Kitty: Your not saying that would be nifty.

…but it made me giggle, so I can’t really complain too much.

In the end, this arc has a relatively humdrum plot that nonetheless has an impact on character relationships and sows some seeds of distrust amongst the team. As Angel proved (most notably in season four), this will likely not end well.

Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, and Richard Isanove: B

From the front flap:
The year is 1602, and strange things are stirring in England. In the service of Queen Elizabeth, court magician Dr. Stephen Strange senses that the bizarre weather plaguing the skies above is not of natural origin. Her majesty’s premier spy, Sir Nicholas Fury, fends off an assassination attempt on the Queen by winged warriors rumored to be in service to a mad despot named Doom. News is spreading of “witchbreed” sightings—young men bearing fantastic superhuman powers and abilities. And in the center of the rising chaos is Virginia Dare, a young girl newly arrived from the New World, guarded by a towering Indian warrior. Can Fury and his allies find a connection to these unusual happenings before the whole world ends?

The basic premise of Marvel 1602 is an interesting one: characters from Marvel’s roster of heroes are born 400 years too early, and here we see them as they would appear in the final days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Nick Fury is Elizabeth’s intelligence chief, Dr. Strange is her physician, and various other familiar characters appear as either “witchbreed” (the X-Men), inquistors (Magneto), freelance agents of the crown (Daredevil), or antagonists (Doctor Doom).

This would seem like a recipe for much coolness, but unfortunately the plot is a rather convoluted. There are no less than four subplots going on at once, and though they do converge at the end, early chapters are rather disjointed and later ones feel rushed. Even though I was never really invested in the story, it’s still fairly decent overall, with some elements that are more appealing than others. One thing that I thought was kind of lame was having characters make prescient comments, like when Professor Xavier remarks, “Sometimes I dream of building a room in which danger would come from nowhere.” Okay, even I get that and know how cheesy it is.

Possibly I would’ve liked this more had I more readily recognized the characters that were being portrayed. Certain ones are easy—I can recognize most of the standard good guys in Marvel’s stable of stars, it seems—but I completely failed to grasp clues as to the Grand Inquisitor’s identity (two major ones being the identities of his two helpers) until his ability to manipulate metal made me go, “Ohhhh.” I’m sure that real Marvel fans had figured it out way before then. I’ve also never before encountered the character of Black Widow so I didn’t recognize her. Kudos to Gaiman for employing her in a role—a freelance agent helping Nick Fury and Daredevil—that seems to be perfectly in keeping with the character’s established history.

In the end, Marvel 1602 is a pretty fun read. It didn’t rock my world or anything, but it did familiarize me a little more with some elements of the Marvel universe, even while presenting them in an alternate time line. I can’t complain about that!

Astonishing X-Men 1: Gifted by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday: A

From the back cover:
Dream-team creators Joss Whedon and John Cassaday present the explosive, all-new flagship X-Men series—marking a return to classic greatness and the beginning of a brand-new era for the X-Men!

Cyclops and Emma Frost re-form the X-Men with the express purpose of “astonishing” the world. But when breaking news regarding the mutant gene unexpectedly hits the airwaves, will it derail their new plans before they even get started? As demand for the “mutant cure” reaches near-riot levels, the X-Men go head-to-head with the enigmatic Ord, with an unexpected ally—and some unexpected adversaries—tipping the scales!

While I’m by no means an X-Men aficionado, I can at least claim that I was familiar with the characters before the movies came along, courtesy of a high school boyfriend with a small comic collection. I remember reading some of his X-Men issues with genuine, though ultimately fleeting, interest. I’d never considered buying any for myself until Joss Whedon got involved. I cannot, therefore, attest to whether this volume achieves “a return to classic greatness,” but I can say that it’s excellent.

A small group of X-Men have reopened Xavier’s school and taken up positions as professors. This includes Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat), who is returning from a long absence to teach a computer course and serve as a student advisor. Also on staff are Scott Summers (Cyclops) and his girlfriend Emma Frost, which guarantees much inter-team conflict when Logan (Wolverine) is around, owing to their extensive personal history. Rounding out the quintet is Dr. Hank McCoy (Beast), who provides some conflict of his own when he expresses interest in the new mutant cure that has just been announced.

If the notion of a mutant cure sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because this arc was one of the inspirations for the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand. Besides the cure and the doctor responsible, however, very little remains the same. There’s no Phoenix or Magneto here. Instead, the story focuses on how and why the cure was created, what it represents to the mutant community, and how to keep it out of dangerous hands. There are some terrific scenes in which McCoy must weigh the potential to have an ordinary life with the message it would send if one of the X-Men should opt out of his powers. Too, there’s a lot of emotional goodness for Kitty as she struggles with her distrust of Emma (a former villain) and Scott’s seeming compliance with her suggestions.

That’s not to say that all is drama and tension. This is Joss Whedon, after all, who is adept at injecting humor into such moments. I giggled more than once and, even though I don’t know these characters near as well as the Buffy cast, I’d argue that this is better written than the Buffy comics.

Speaking of Buffy, a Twitter conversation about Kitty Pryde revealed that some feel her characterization here is too similar to the Slayer. I must admit that Kitty has several lines of dialogue that I could easily imagine coming out of Buffy’s mouth, and the way her grim sense of purpose gives way to raw emotion in a pivotal moment is also similar. The thing is, though, that I like Buffy (possibly more than many fans do) and I like Kitty, and if they both happen to be extremely strong, sad, and lonely young women, I think I’m okay with that.

I am more than okay with John Cassaday’s art, which is the most gorgeous comic book art I have ever seen. In addition to being markedly consistent, it’s also extremely expressive and he does marvelous things with perspective and shadow. What really blew me away, though, is his depiction of Emma Frost in her diamond state. I swear I marveled at one particular panel for a solid minute. Can this guy draw the Buffy comics, too, please?

I’ll definitely be reading more of this series, and it’s got me intrigued about the franchise as a whole. Could it be I’m becoming an X-Men fangirl? What else should I read?

Runaways 8: Dead End Kids by Joss Whedon: B+

From the back cover:
Rebellious teens Nico, Chase, Karolina, Molly, Victor and Xavin are survivors. All children of super-villains, they turned against their evil elders to become amateur super heroes. But when the authorities chase them out of Los Angeles, the Runaways forge an uneasy alliance with East Coast crime boss Kingpin, placing them on a collision course with the killer vigilante, Punisher. The ensuing disaster hurls the kids a century backward in time, trapping them in 1907 New York—home of child labor, quaint technology, and competing gangs of super-folk known as “Wonders.” Can the Runaways get back to the future? Find out in a timeless tale of comedy, romance, and old-fashioned heroism!

The whole reason I began reading Runaways in the first place was because of the news that Joss Whedon would be writing an arc. I was not disappointed. While elements of the plot are rather lacking, there is some great character development, which could be said for quite a few episodes of Buffy, as well.

Volume seven ended with a cliffhanger, though it’s been so long that I don’t remember any details. That’s okay, though, since this arc ignores that entirely. We open with some unseen observers introducing the team and their abilities, and then transition to a meeting between the Runaways and Kingpin, a big (figuratively and literally) crime boss in New York. It seems they’ve fled Los Angeles to get away from the Avengers, and so are forming an alliance with this guy in exchange for a place to hide. He agrees to protect them, but they must steal something for him.

The item in question turns out to be an apparently one-way time jump thingie that a couple of the Runaways’ parents made, so they appropriate it and end up using it to escape a fight, ending up in 1907. And here’s where the plot gets really confusing. In 1907, those with super powers are called “wonders,” and there’s a couple of different factions of them. It’s entirely impossible, however, to keep track of who is affiliated with what faction, who’s good, who’s bad, if we’re supposed to be rooting for anyone in particular, et cetera. There’s also a pretty lame love plot between Victor (the cyborg) and a girl he meets.

There are also many good character moments, however, and quite a few funny lines. Chase seems to get the amusing Xander-type dialogue, like, “And I in no way am a part of that he said that” and “That’s more than the usual amount of ninjas.” Each character gets some development here, but most notably Nico, who powers up in quite a major way and whose personality grows more grim and dark as a result. Relationships between characters also change in various ways; I particularly like the conversation between Nico and Chase near the end of the volume.

Kudos, too, to penciler Michael Ryan and colorist Christina Strain for producing some of the nicest, most consistent comic book art I have seen in ages. Maybe ever. Inconsistency in character faces is my major complaint about American comics, but I didn’t notice any instances of that at all in this arc. Too, there are some nicely colored bits, particularly a scene where Karolina and Nico are talking outside at night and the alien glow of the former is reflected upon the latter’s face.

Dead End Kids would work okay as a stand-alone, especially given the character intros at the beginning, but many of the quieter moments would probably lack resonance if one were unfamiliar with what came before. The easy solution to that, of course, is to start from the beginning!

Runaways 7 by Brian K. Vaughan: B+

From the back cover:
The Runaways say good-bye to the past, and make hard decisions about their future. Plus: Still reeling from the events of Civil War: Young Avengers/Runaways, the teenage heroes must now confront a horrific enemy who threatens to tear the team apart!

I seriously don’t know what the horrific enemy was, and nothing here seemed to have any bearing on the Civil War arc. Lame blurb writing!

This volume was a marked improvement over the last couple. The big purple monster in the first few chapters was a little silly, except that the monster was really an old dude who was doing horrific stuff because he just wanted things to be like they used to be.

Which was totally symbolism for the real meat of the arc, which was the fact that Chase was prepared to deal with some villainous sorts to get Gert resurrected. I really liked all of this stuff, even though it was supremely reminiscent of two Buffy plots: Dawn’s immediate reaction to Joyce’s death and Willow going all Big Bad after Tara’s death. The only bad bit was that the villainous sorts were too conveniently on the verge of disappearing, thus forcing Chase to choose quickly or forever lose his chance.

Toss in some personal interaction within the team, especially regarding the new members, and you get a concluding arc that managed to salvage some good stuff from the wreckage.

Runaways 6 by Brian K. Vaughan: C+

From the back cover:
The return of the pride!

The secret super-villain society is back, but this all-new group isn’t make up of the Runaways’ evil parents. Who are these shadowy players, and what do they want with the Marvel Universe’s next generation of heroes? Plus: When the youngest member of the Runaways is separated from her teammates, Molly Hayes must survive a night alone on the mean streets of Los Angeles! The eleven-year-old mutant girl soon hooks up with a new group of runaways, but is their mysterious leader a hero or a villain?

After the rather pointless first chapter in this volume, the story deals with the online buddies of a former member who perform several unrealistic feats of haxx0ring and resurrect an old villain.

It’s all very meh. I don’t have faith that this was really planned in advance, so a lot of the things mentioned felt like retcon to me. I was also spoiled on what’s supposed to be the shocking climax of the arc, so that probably didn’t help matters, either.

Though the plot was disappointing, there were some moments of interpersonal interaction that were good. Some things in this arena were rushed and over-angsty, but I particularly liked Nico’s struggles with leadership, as it reminded me of Buffy’s possibly-too-harsh approach from S7 of that show.

All in all, the second “season” of Runaways is not as good as the first one. However, I happened to read the first issue written by Joss Whedon, and it’s quite good, so I’m still going to continue on to the final volume of this storyline.

Runaways 5 by Brian K. Vaughan: B-

From the back cover:
When a dangerous alien invades Los Angeles, the Runaways’ own Karolina Dean may be the only hero in the Marvel Universe who can stop him… but at what cost? Plus: The Runaways embark on a coast-to-coast adventure, guest-starring Cloak and Dagger AND the New Avengers! When Cloak is accused of a crime he didn’t commit by the heroes of New York City, the vigilante is forced to turn to the teenage Runaways for help. This story will take our teens to a place they’ve never been: NYC!

Gah, what the hell happened? The first two chapters deal with some very important events, but are rushed to a ridiculous degree. Also, some guest artist who I don’t like was filling in, so besides the pacing problems, there’s all this weird-looking art to distract the reader from what’s going on.

Next comes the arc with Cloak and Dagger, which is okay, but not anything special. It’s like the author had nothing else to do, so he sent the kids to NYC so they could meet yet more Marvel folks. Marketing tactics (read Runaways ‘cos Spidey’s in it!) seem to be leading the day here. The focus is just on getting people to shell out to see familiar characters, rather than spending time developing the ones he’s got. One character gets a little bit of special attention, but it’s a too little, too late sort of deal. Plus, what is with that completely random, out-of-the-blue snog?

Runaways 4 by Brian K. Vaughan: A

From the back cover:
When a group of teenagers discovers that their parents are actually super-villains, they run away from home… but that’s only step one! Now that the evil Pride is gone, nearly every bad guy in the Marvel Universe is trying to fill the power vacuum in Los Angeles, and the Runaways are the only heroes who can stop them! Plus: What does a mysterious new team of young heroes want with the Runaways, and which fan-favorite Marvel characters are part of this group?

In February, I read an omnibus edition that compiled the 18 issues of the first series of Runaways, which were originally collected in three paperbacks. The second series starts in the fourth trade paperback. So, though it looks like I may’ve skipped something, I really haven’t.

I can’t explain what makes this series so engrossing, but it completely is. I already like this story arc more than the first. The team’s more used to each other, and now their tale expands beyond conflict with their villainous parents. The art has improved, and the consistency problems I noticed last time with a couple of characters are gone. It’s also funny. One character reminds me of Xander at times. And there are all sorts of silly pop culture references, including Teen Girl Squad!

I didn’t recognize any of the “fan-favorite Marvel characters,” and though I didn’t dislike any particular aspect of the story, I found their segments to be the least interesting. I doubt this would’ve been different had I known who they were beforehand, however. One of the strong points of Runaways is that its appeal isn’t limited to traditional comic book fans.

Runaways 1-3 by Brian K. Vaughan: B+

From the inside flap:
They were six normal California teenagers linked only by their wealthy parents’ annual business meeting… until a chance discovery revealed the shocking truth: Their parents are a secret criminal society known as The Pride. For years, The Pride has controlled all criminal activity in Los Angeles, holding the entire city in its iron grip. With their true natures exposed, the members of The Pride will take any measures necessary to protect their illicit organization—even if it means taking out their own children!

I confess I never would’ve been interested in this Marvel comic had it not been announced a few months ago that Joss Whedon was going to take over the writing duties after the second series. I’m not a big fan of comics in general, but when the library had this nice big hardback compiling all 18 issues (also available in three paperback volumes) of the first series, I thought I’d take a look.

The story wasn’t the best I’d ever read, and I thought certain developments transpired too quickly, but it none the less held my interest and I practically read it in one sitting. Each of the families has their own gimmick: mutant, evil scientist, et cetera. The kids either inherit or steal their parents’ abilities, making for a variety of skills. Interestingly, the team is comprised of four females and two males rather than having a few token girls along. Pop culture references abound, though I don’t get how they don’t know the A-Team but did know The Neverending Story, since I remember adoring both in the same year.

Of the characters, my favorite is Nico, who looks especially lovely on the cover to the first issue. Too bad her character design is one of two subjected to inconsistency issues. I experienced a similar issue with Fray, where her facial features kept changing and I could never get a grip on how she was supposed to look. Is this a normal thing in comics? It was incredibly distracting and seemingly confined to these two characters.

I liked this well enough to continue on with the second series (comprised of twenty-four issues). And after that, it’s Whedon time!