Sunday, July 4, 2010

Astonishing X-men #34 - Delayed Yet Only Half-Awesome

It seemed like only yesterday that Astonishing X-men was the alpha and omega of X-men comics. Under Joss Whedon, sure the books were delayed more frequently than Whitney Huston's divorce hearings, but whenever it did come out it was pure unadulterated awesome. Delays have always been the quickest way to make fans drill holes in their heads out of burning frustration, but so long as the wait is worth while we'll forgive you quicker than Kobe Bryant's wife. So when Astonishing X-men #34 finally came out (you know, the story that takes place before both Second Coming AND Utopia? Still not ringing any bells?) expectations were high. While Warren Ellis is a kick-ass writer, this comic wasn't so much a disappointment as it was a head-scratcher.

Now had this book come out on time when it was supposed to (which was actually close to a freakin' year ago), it would have had a much greater impact. But considering that it's coming out in the midst of a huge crossover like Second Coming, it might as well be pissing into the oncoming winds of a hurricane. Not only that, an entirely different Astonishing line called Xenogenesis came out before this book as well. Now you know a delay has gotten excessive when a spin-off has already been created and you haven't fucking finished the damn comic. Even though the tone of this story is very serious, because of it's lateness and it's inability to have even the slightest impact on the X-men continuity at large the grandeur is a joke even if the story itself is pretty awesome.

It starts out with a nasty confrontation between Beast and Scott. But wait, haven't we heard that before? Wasn't it a huge part of the Utopia arc which this story is supposed to take place before? Now if this actually did come out before then it would be a nice precursor, but sadly there's no impact here because readers have already seen where that story goes and seeing it here does nothing more than to evoke an exasperated groan. It does help that Ellis's dialogue is very witty and strong, but even that can't save it from the piss poor timing of this whole event.

Basically, Beast puts himself in hot water by revealing that all the research he did in regards to undoing M-Day (see Endangered Species) was hacked and the information was used to create these advanced bio-sentinels by Kaga, a wacked out geneticist who probably only has Mr. Sinister as a friend on facebook. Needless to say, Scott is pretty pissed. But unlike what happened in Utopia, he and Beast don't go Mortal Kombat on one another. In fact, the two start laughing and Beast even throws in a pee joke. Beast does something so few characters do in X-men anymore. He owns up to his mistakes while not apologizing for dong what he did under the circumstances. It would be so reassuring if readers didn't already know that these two would hate each other after the events of Utopia. But if you can remove that part of your brain that remembers this, it's still a pretty awesome scene.

While this dialogue is witty and fun to read, it does start to drag and it's on the verge of becoming boring. Then some action finds it's way in and a giant flying dinosaur attacks. No really, that's what happens. This is an X-men comic. Shit like that happens at least once a week and if you're not prepared for it you need to seriously consult your doctor about doing some additional brain scans (AMA and big insurance companies please send the check to Jack Fisher to that PO box in Baltimore I told you about when you get a chance).

But this dinosaur isn't just any dinosaur. It's the vampire life draining jerk off most X-fans will know as Sauron. It's been a while since he showed up in the books, but it's a nice moment that should at least give X-fans a semi-boner. The fight that follows is pretty intense and the art really shines here. It's definitely a step up from the fucking baseball uniforms used in Xenogenesis. Plus, Emma doesn't look like she's the slut version of the Elephant Man and manages to kick some ass by beating Sauron with her mind. It's not only awesome, but pretty damn hot.

While Sauron may have been defeated by a hot blond, he ended up doing plenty of damage because the flying ship the X-men were on was severely compromised and started going on a crash course. Oh yeah, did I mention that? This is all taking place on some flying hover craft. It's not the best place to have a fight even if it is pretty awesome. But at least this gives Cyclops a chance to make up for being a douche bag to Beast earlier. He formulates a plan on the spot, gives Emma a smooch, and heads off to carry it out. He's already looking cooler by any reasonable measure.

Cyclops then makes a visit to the hovering deformed head that had given them the answers that showed Beast's fuck-up earlier. To show he's not a complete jerk off he apologizes to the head before blowing it up. It may seem hallow, but at least the man is showing some sensibility. Even though it does seem contrived. While he's doing his thing Storm, Armor, and the others are heading back to the X-jet and bracing themselves for a rough impact that's sure to leave their bowls lodged somewhere between their liver and their thyroid.

The ship continues it's descent and that's where it gets ominous again. The ship doesn't just crash down towards some empty parking lot between a strip club and a McDonalds. It crashes into an opening in a mountain with an interior that looks like something Vincent Van Goah would dream up if he someone replaced his meds with LSD. It doesn't so much crash as it does land and makes for a fresh new scene, going from the darkness of a hover craft to the darkness of a mountain. It's about as novel as it sounds.

Along the way, the X-men get a glimpse of some nightmares pulled right from the head of Sarah Conner in terminator. A huge army of bio-machines are just hanging from the walls, not only carrying the ominous gaze of sentinels. But they're just as big as the sentinels as well. Never would there be a more appropriate time to shit one's own pants. It seems the battle with Sauron was just a prelude as is so often the case. There are still dozens of other sentinels to take down and at the rate of delays that this book endures, it looks like they'll be close to being done around America's tricentenial in 2076.

Of course, this is just a prelude. It sets the stage for a fight that looks epic, yet only to a point because we know they're going to survive and there will be absolutely no impact on the continuity. That alone is enough to take much of the punch from this otherwise awesome scene. At the same time, there's still a shot of an ominous onlooker who appears to be behind all this bullshit. He looks like the Professor, but again since this takes place before the events of Utopia and Second Coming there's about as much suspense as there is in a WNBA game between the two worst teams.

It is that lack of suspense and utter irrelevance that really brings this book down. By the end reading it seems more a chore than a dive into the pool of comic book awesome. Warren Ellis is a great writer who usually fills that pool well, but because of how late this book came out and how little it affects the X-men comics at large he might as well be trying to pump the awesome in with a teaspoon. It's a solid read, but it suffers from having too much dark ambiance and a weak context. The dialogue is as good as always and the art is several light-years better than Xenogenesis, but considering how long it took to get this to the stands it simply isn't enough to make up for it's shortcomings.

Now if this book came out before Utopia I would have no problem giving it a 4.5 or a perfect 5. But because Astonishing X-men has been so ridiculously delayed and so completely disregarded in the grand scheme of X-men, it's hard to really give it that kind of praise. This book could get away with it if it weren't parading around as something that happens in continuity. Yet this is supposed to take place in the greater 616 environment and because so much of that has been spoiled, it seems almost useless because there's no impact coming from it. Because of this, I can only give Astonishing X-men #34 a 3.5 out of 5. It's well-crafted and the art is great, but it's essentially a light fart in the middle of an erupting volcano. It would be best if this arc just ended as soon as possible so Astonishing can be allowed to assert itself in the new status quo after Second Coming. At least maybe then the awesome of these stories can be fully appreciated.

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