Astonishing X-Men “Gifted” is one of those storylines that will make long term X-Men fans purr with delight beginning the Claremont era flashbacks in issue one. (Cassaday mimics Byrne’s art quite well.) It also can turn fans (like me five years ago) of the films and cartoons into mutie and comics junkies. Whedon pays homage to older X-Men stories without getting mired in continuity and quickly places his own stamp on the franchise by creating a new alien foe for them (Ord of the Breakworld), exploring the mutant as outsider metaphor with the cure of the X-gene, giving SHIELD a new branch (SWORD), and also bringing a beloved character back from the dead (Colossus) in a touching, visceral way that serves the long term storyline. However, the best part of Astonishing X-Men “Gifted” other than John Cassaday’s detailed, cinematically composed art and Whedon’s insanely quotable dialogue is the character arcs for each X-Man nestled in the bigger plot.
Character development is a big trademark of Whedon’s television and film work where half a dozen cases come to mind ranging from Wesley Wyndam-Pryce’s shift from feeble, by-the-book Watcher to morally grey demon hunter or Willow Rosenberg’s continued growth from frumpy geek to Wiccan goddess with a trip to the Dark Side along the way. Astonishing X-Men “Gifted” is only six comic book issues so the examples aren’t as distinct as these, but Whedon does spend time exploring these characters through action, dialogue, and the occasional psychic probe.
Returning to the POV character role she had in Chris Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men in the 1980s, Kitty Pryde is back as the older, wiser X-Men liaison to the public and students of the Xavier School. She begins a little disoriented as she shows up late to her first school assembly and is taken aback when Cyclops wants to make the X-Men tights wearing traditional superheroes again. However, Astonishing X-Men #1 has small touches that show that Kitty is acclimating quite well to this brave new world as she stealthily saves civilians in a hostage situation by phasing them through the floor while Wolverine and Cyclops break windows and take gunfire. There is even a big turning point in her relationship with Emma Frost, who she tells to her face that she is Kitty’s personal embodiment of evil, when Emma tells her that she picked Kitty to join this X-Men team to keep her from doing morally questionable things. (Ironically, Emma teaches ethics at the Xavier School.)
Kitty also gets to play a major role in solving the mystery of who Kavita Rao and her super sketchy Benetech genetics lab are experimenting on to get the cure for the “mutant disease”. While the other X-Men are getting shot to pieces and having visions of old lovers, Kitty stealth phases her way (with great use of shadow and vertical panels from Cassaday) through weird alien space metal and discovers Colossus is still alive and a guinea pig for Ord of Breakworld. For their reunion, Whedon uses a subtle touch as writer and let Cassaday’s art show Colossus’s emotions as he goes from rage to sadness (He thinks he is seeing Kitty in the afterlife.) and finally an emotional reunion with some tender dialogue. He understands their pure, emotional bond that belonged to a more innocent era of comics and contrasts it with Cyclops and Emma’s relationship.
Emma Frost might be the best character of this volume as the glue holding together the team and the Xavier School as well as probably being the most powerful X-Man in this lineup. She does questionable things, like have a simulated Sentinel attack during a school assembly, but is always aware of the fact that humans will never accept mutants even if they act peaceably or have high social standing, like Emma. Even though she has an edge through her telepathy, Emma truly has a handle on the tension and fear around the Xavier School when the mutant cure is announced. She is also aware of the effect the characters’ petty infighting have on the students. However, the shadowy final page casts all her pragmatism into doubt.
Joss Whedon uses Wolverine sparingly in Astonishing X-Men and balances his violent behavior towards Cyclops and Beast (when he wants to take the cure) with jokes and his paternal relationship with Kitty. He also gets to be an irresistible force of violence and a strong defender of being happy as a mutant despite the pain that comes every time he pops his claws. He shares a lot of scenes with Beast, who gets a sad arc in “Gifted” as he secretly gets a vial of the cure from Kavita Rao and thinks about using it because he thinks that he is becoming more feral. Whedon and Cassaday do a good job of showing this in an extended fight scene between him and Wolverine showing the darkest side of the man of science, Hank McCoy.
The X-Men are really at their best when their storylines balance creative superhero team-up fights with character interactions and a dash of real world metaphor. The mutant cure storyline definitely goes along with some bigoted people’s idea that LGBT people can be “treated” for their condition and not be who they are any more. (Emma even alludes to this in a heated conversation with Kavita Rao.)
However, it also works as a return to the X-Men as dysfunctional hybrid of a superhero team and family with a fully functioning school thrown in for good measure. Whedon’s skill with dialogue gives each X-Man a unique voice (Emma’s dry, upper class snark shines brightest.), and he knows when to cut back on the exchanges and let Cassaday’s visuals do the heavy lifting, especially in the fight scenes. Astonishing X-Men “Gifted” is a great place for new readers to start with the X-Men and also works as a character driven, superhero comic with a sci-fi conspiracy storyline running in the background.