Thursday, August 04, 2005

This geek's Holy Grail

Maybe this is a sad thing to admit, but, like peanut butter & jelly, two of my favorite things have combined to create something excellent (better than pb&j, in fact, since I don't enjoy peanut butter without jelly and vice-versa).

The first half: X-Men

I was a big comic book fan in my youth and the X-Men were always my favorite. People outside of comicdom don't know who Chris Claremont is, but those in-the-know acknowledge him as the best and most significant writer The Uncanny X-Men has seen since its creation in the early '60s. I stopped following comics about the same time Chris Claremont left (after something like a 10- or 15-year run). By all accounts X-Men basically stunk for the next ten years.

Another big name in the comics world then stepped in - Grant Morrison. For three years he revitalized the X-Men (re-dubbed "New X-Men"). Having just read those collected works (in three gorgeous hardcover, glossy paper editions) I can safely say that he's definitely significant in his own way. But he never approaches the mastery of Claremont. He's a modestly successful hyper-intellectual storyteller vs Claremont's more visceral, gut instinct approach.

With Morrison's celebrated run ending, Marvel needed a new top-tier scribe to take up the reigns.

That brings me to the second half: Joss Whedon

Glorious Joss Whedon. Emmy-nominated writer/creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly (soon to be resurrected as "Serenity" in theaters in Sept), and Academy Award-nominated for co-writing Toy Story. My favorite writer. My writing hero. A man so multi-talented and, frankly, a bit weird, that he wrote a musical episode of Buffy (because it was a life-long dream of his to write a musical). His uncredited re-writes of Speed, the first X-Men, and a few others contain his trademark humor (e.g. Wolverine's "You're a dick" line in X-Men or Mr. Potato Head's "I'm a Picasso!" line in Toy Story).

He too was a comic book junkie and X-Men were among his favorites.

And now... drum roll.. Joss Whedon is writing X-Men!

(I told you this was going to be a little sad to admit, but seriously, I'm so excited I could wet myself)

Re-Re-dubbed as Astonishing X-Men (clearly they're running out of adjectives, and what was wrong with "Uncanny" in the first place?), Whedon completes his first (and only?) year at the helm this month with issue #12.

The first six issues are already collected into one volume and show a remarkable difference from Morrison's style. First off, and maybe I haven't stressed this enough, Joss is a very very good writer. He goes right at the characters' deepest, most conflicting emotions and finds ways to continually play them off against the other characters in ways that are fascinating and engrossing. He infuses real human qualities into the realm of super heroes.

This is no surprise to Joss fans. People scoffed at the idea of Buffy but the naysayers rarely actually watched the show. It too had an almost shocking depth of character and emotional conflict. Firefly's short-lived TV run is some of the best television I've ever seen. Joss can write. Wait, let me restate: Joss. Can. Write.

Morrison's almost cold, meticulous approach is replaced by Joss' heart, heartbreak, and excruciating personal conflicts. All while telling exciting, entertaining, and humorous stories. It's almost sacrilege to say it, but - and this is no surprise to me - Joss is better than Claremont.

And still being a bit of a collector at heart, I had to get my hands on the original Astonishing X-Men issues. So, thanks to the wonders of eBay, I am now the proud owner of near-mint, first-prints of issues #1-11 (#12 hits newsstands in a week or two). At an average cost of less than $4 an issue, I practically got them at original face value. It's not about investing in a possible collectible. It's about having tangible proof that sometimes the stars align and great things do happen (again, did I not say I was a geek?!).

So if you're curious and you've got some (a lot of) time to kill, do the following: Read a few of Claremont's classic Uncanny X-Men collections (the Dark Phoenix Saga being required reading), then hit Morrison's New X-Men (collected in three hardcover volumes or seven trade paperbacks), then gobble up Joss' Astonishing X-Men run (the Volume I collection is a steal at only $10).

Only then can you really appreciate Joss' storytelling brilliance.

And with his one year, 12-issue run reaching completion, Volume II will collect issues #7-12 and will be released in September.

Geek Holy Grail.

I just hope Joss finds the time to keep writing X-Men. With no Buffy, no Angel, and no Firefly on TV, I gotta find a way to get my regular Joss fix somehow.

ps - This isn't Joss' first foray into comics. Check out Fray, an excellent spinoff of the Buffy mythos that melds sci-fi future with Buffy old-school mysticism.

Not surprisingly it features strong characters, emotional depth above and beyond the norm, and solid, rock-star level storytelling.


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