“I don’t like games, Emma.”
“No, you’re Scott Summers. You like homework and vegetables. But you do play games with me.”
“Professor? You forgot to assign homework.”
But by the end of Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men, I was willing to believe in another Scott Summers. Maybe an anti-Cyclops. And because he threw down the single-eyed, single-minded visor, I am prepared to call him Biclops. Haggard, angry, and almost unrecognizable from his previous manifestation, Biclops was everything Scott Summers probably wanted to be. The Snoopy to his Charlie Brown. The Fonz to his Richie Cunningham. The Shawn Hunter to his Corey Matthews. The Spike to his William the Bloody Awful Poet. The Wolverine to his….well…
And for me, I’ll always remember Astonishing X-Men as a favorite X-Men story because of its peculiar relationship to history. It is at once reverent to the stories which came before, while also a complete subversion of the characters we’ve come to know. In the Torn arc, Whedon delivers a fluffy and gun shy Wolverine, a primal Beast, and throughout, an adult Kitty Pryde. This serves the story, but it’s also a series of wink, or maybe one big collective wink to the fans. That’s not to say that it feels at all hokey or post modern in the annoying way. Because this is a story about growing up and about facing realities. It’s also a celebration of the best things about the X-Men. For a series so closely associated to the science and philosophy and question of human evolution, this is a book which hearkens back and emphasizes all the strongest moments of a decades-old story and asks “what’s next?” It’s survival of the fittest.
In that regard, Astonishing X-Men is a shining success. It is a self-contained story which is strengthened by a working knowledge of character history, without necessarily requiring it. It is a complete story with a real sense of authorship and focus. While there are some stumbling steps along the way, the view is always pretty interesting. I’m of two minds on the Scott Summers thing. This is what he should be. It’s a logical progression that does not feel so jarring. His relationship with Emma is not just a good idea, it’s probably the best possible idea. But because this story is isolated and not the flagship X-Men title in the line, it’s a bittersweet thing to see a character develop into something far more interesting than he was before, knowing full well that it doesn’t carry over into the main branch of his continuity. Astonishing is something of a missing link in the evolutionary chain. Imagine a really smart, really savvy Bigfoot loping around the Pacific Northwest as the path not taken.
Runaways. This one almost baffles me. Almost. See, they broke the mold after Joss Whedon, but somehow they managed to reassemble it and sculpt Brian K. Vaughan. So it only makes sense that one could successfully further the other’s projects. But this is over-simplifying the very complicated process of emulating the style of another storyteller, or more accurately, guiding that story with your own hand. Depending on the work, this could be like tagging-in to finish a friend’s chess match, or hurtling head long into a game of squash, already in progress. I was excited to see Whedon’s name on the new roster. But months later, I’m ready to call my three Brian K. Vaughan scripted Runaways hardcovers a complete set. Whedon’s time travel arc Dead End Kids just didn’t pan out. Comparing it with his previous Marvel project is going to shed some light on the big Why.
The same isolationist strategy that helped Astonishing X-Men develop into a satisfying, self-contained story damned Dead End Kids to a lackluster response. This is an ambitious storyline which introduces a whole score of new characters and a new environment for our heroes, probably more world building than a new arc of a continuing storyline ought to attempt. Looking at the status quo of Dead End Kids, this could potentially be the concept for a new series in and of itself. At the very least, it’s a new direction for a series with what should be lasting ramifications. But as Runaways readers, we know it’s just a temporary stop along the way. Whether pulling the Runaways out of current Marvel continuity was a failsafe to stay the tentacles of surrounding events or an actual, honest-to-goodness time travel story idea is not clear. But I certainly wouldn’t blame him for wanting to set his own blockades to protect his little corner of the Marvel universe, if only for a brief time. The downside is that the arc is probably doomed to becoming a footnote in the ongoing saga of the Marvel Universe, and maybe even the Runaways themselves. This all adds up to a low impact story with seemingly high impact ambitions.
The two books suffer from the same afflictions, but the thing to remember is that while the Astonishing X-Men story led up to that off-world jaunt, that isolated adventure isn’t the whole of the story. There are three trade paperbacks worth of build-up. And so much of that buildup was also a deconstruction of the established X-Men mythology. Runaways doesn’t have the history that characters like Scott and Kitty and Peter and Logan have. And while I count Astonishing as one of the best series on my shelves, again, stop and think just how much that work relies on a celebration of history. Take away all the deconstruction, all the homage, all the echoes of past glories, and you’re left with a book that is really quite beautiful and well-scripted, but also pretty on par with the adventure Whedon delivers in Dead End Kids. Which isn’t to say it’s bad. Not at all. But so much of that book is a tribute to decades of great storytelling. Astonishing is a love letter to all the good decisions made by the writers of a book which has had many ups and downs. And that history simply doesn’t exist with the Runaways. So there’s no real level of perspective. Unfortunately, this says less about Runaways than it does about Whedon’s abilities as a comic book writer. Dead End Kids is not a bad book, but it doesn’t really stand up to those issues that came before it. My short answer is that the culprits are ambition and pacing. I think a single arc wasn’t enough to tell that Runaways story, just as I know a single arc wouldn’t have been enough to tell the Astonishing story. A short comic arc or miniseries does not equal a season of television. And while setting a story outside of the bounds of continuity is a great way to keep a story safe, it also opens it up to scrutiny and holds it back from making the kind of impact it could potentially make.
Once again, history and continuity stand to either raise a story up or bury it in obscurity. The price of evolution.
Paul Montgomery is concerned about the mutant problem. To receive a pamphlet, write to email@example.com. You can also find him on Twitter.
And later this week, listen to his first episode of the award winning audio drama Wormwood: A Serialized Mystery, co-written with Wormwood creator David Accampo. Paul joins the writing staff with season 2, episode 14. All previous episodes from seasons 1 and 2 can be found for free at wormwoodshow.com or on iTunes.