Saturday, November 26, 2011
Astonishing X-men #44 - Deceptively Awesome
Look at that cover. Just fucking look at it. Not since Madonna swapped spit with a pre-meltdown Brittney Spears has a kiss caused such an uproar. Somewhere out there a bunch of Neo Nazis and KKK members are banging their heads against the walls in between biting the heads off live puppies. But fuck them! What does this cover mean to comic fans? Why the hell are Storm and Cyclops, two of the X-men's most iconic and popular characters, kissing? Storm is married. Cyclops is boning Emma Frost, a woman who would probably rip his dick off and throw it in San Francisco Bay if he caught him cheating on her. Granted, those relationships aren't exactly popular, stable, or even healthy for that matter. But this goes further than asking why they're kissing. I think the real question is why the fuck didn't they do this sooner?
This cover is that of Astonishing X-men #44. That's right, I'm actually reviewing an Astonishing book. It bucks a recent trend of ignoring the Astonishing X-men books the same way the GOP ignores Ron Paul for making too much sense. It's not by choice, I assure you. It's not my fault that the Astonishing books have been boring, contrived, and utterly disconnected from the mainline X-books. But this cover got me and pretty much every other X-men fan with access to a message board and a capacity to bitch wondering. It's the first issue of a new run from a new writer. Greg Pak, who is best known as the last writer who actually told a decent Jean Grey story with Phoenix Endsong, has been kicking ass on Hulk for the past few years. Well now he's taking the plunge back into X-men and he's tasked with making Astonishing awesome again. It's a pretty daunting task when you think about it because this is a book that fans have given fewer and fewer shits about since Joss Whedon left. To make it awesome again, Greg Pak has to essentially beat fans upside the head with a baseball bat to distract them from all the action that's going on with the other Regenesis books. It's not easy, but the cover definitely helps.
Now before I begin, I'd like to point out one of my many pet peeves. Right up there with waking up hung over in a Chicago crack house, I have a slight aversion to covers of comics that are deceptive. What you see on a cover isn't always what happens in the actual book. That's okay to a point, but when the cover is deceptive I call foul. Maybe I'm weird in addition to being a drunk, but I don't like deception in my comics. If I wanted deception, I'd watch the presidential debates. So when a cover of Cyclops kissing Storm is prominent, I'm left with mixed feelings. Is this shit just that proverbial baseball bat to the head I mentioned earlier? Or is it real? Well that's what this comic is supposed to answer and I'll have to see if I end up in another crack den once it's over.
Astonishing X-men #44 does something that previous Astonishing books haven't from the get-go. It actually ties into the continuity of the other X-books. The issue takes place shortly after Schism. Wolverine and his crew have given Cyclops the finger and left Utopia. Cyclops's wounds from the ass-kicking he endured from Wolverine still haven't healed. Physically, he's fine. But as Dr. Rao narrates, inside he might as well be Lance Armstrong's surgically removed testicle. It's a great moment because we haven't seen Cyclops really deal with the emotional aspect of seeing his friends leave. Contrary to what his detractors my say, he's not a fucking statue. He has emotions and when he shows them he does it in a very badass way.
So Cyclops is in a shitty mood, so much so that he even shuts Emma Frost out and risks never seeing her naked again. But let's face it. Even the power of Emma Frost's pussy has it's limits when the mutant race has been divided and Cyclops holds himself responsible. So while he's moping like the whiny prick he tends to be at times like this, Storm shows up. And she shows in a way that even Lady Gaga would envy. She doesn't give much reason other than she goes where she's needed and right now Cyclops needs the company of a caring woman that doesn't belittle him or dies whenever shit gets heavy. She's also sporting Janet Jackson style abs and a mohawk. That may or may not be a bad sign, but it looks awesome so who gives a shit?
But Storm doesn't show up just to give Cyclops a Dr. Phil style pep talk. She actually shows up to pick a fight. It seems random, but keep in mind Storm was once co-leader of the X-men before Marvel shacked her up with Black Panther. It surprises some observers, but Cyclops reacts as you would expect the X-leader to react. He fights back and even while she explains to him that she stayed because he asked/begged her to. That means it's her job to put him in his place when he needs it. And unlike Emma Frost, he can't use the power of his penis to placate her. In many ways that makes her the only one who can truly stand up to Cyclops and measure up on every level.
The fight continues, but it has a very different tone compared to say the fight where Wolverine and Cyclops beat the shit out of each other in Schism. It actually gets creative with Cyclops using his blasts in unique ways to block Storm's lightning. At some point Cyclops even starts laughing. You almost get the sense their either flirting or this is their version of foreplay. Either way is sufficiently awesome, but it does seem to make a point. It kick starts Cyclops initiative, reminding him that moping about losing Wolverine and his team doesn't solve jack shit. He's still the leader of the X-men and he needs to pick his balls up all the floor, stuff them in his scrotum, and lead the X-men again.
Once Cyclops's balls are secure, Storm asks for his assistance on a mission. So I guess that means she didn't just arrive to give his ass a much needed kick. It doesn't matter because a mission is usually the best distraction for someone like Cyclops and Storm probably knows that. Well that and Emma Frost's tits, but those only go so far. Storm and Cyclops hop in the X-jet and travel to Santo Marco. They don't take a whole team. This is supposed to be Cyclops's healing mission. Assuming Wolverine doesn't kick his ass again, it can only go up.
When they arrive it doesn't look all that unusual. It's your typical sentinel battle. It seems overly basic, but it's not completely random. Keep in mind that this happens shortly after Schism. During that event, sentinel plans were leaked all over the world and aggressive countries were waving them around like assless chaps at a gay pride parade. So it's completely reasonable that there would be a few lingering around certain areas. This may not seem like a big deal, but seeing as how Astonishing X-men has always been so disconnected from the other X-books it's nice to have some connections with this series.
The fight unfolds as normally as you would expect. Cyclops and Storm turn the sentinels into the equivalent of the Zimbabwe economy. It ends pretty quickly with a few nice shots of Storm making Mother Nature her bitch and Cyclops showing why he's more than just the uptight leader that cock-blocks Wolverine around Jean Grey. All this fighting must have gotten Storm in the mood because when it's all over, she grabs Cyclops and plants a big wet one on him. She doesn't ask. It was somewhat built up towards after all the coy remarks from earlier. And it perfectly matches what is described on the cover. So in that sense it isn't a deception. This shit does happen. Cyclops and Storm kiss. Take a moment to enjoy this scene because it's a rare moment for the X-men. Cyclops and Storm haven't been involved in this kind of emotional upheaval before and it's truly a sight to behold.
Then the hangover sets in. That kiss...well, there is a touch of deception after all. Because once Cyclops stops thinking with his penis, he realizes something is up. And as soon as he realizes it, the truth is revealed. This shit didn't actually happen in a literal sense. It was all in his head. That's right. It was just a telepathic dream, not unlike the role playing shit he did with Emma Frost during Grant Morrison's run. When he wakes up, he's in a glass tube and so is Emma Frost. She doesn't seem to bust his balls over him kissing Storm so I assume it's not a big deal. It really does sort of take away from the cover and the moment we just witnessed. Not only that, there are other familiar faces in nearby tubes, but they appear to be from alternate universes as is implied by a kid Nightcrawler and a Wolverine who looks like an 80s porn star. So not only was the kiss not real, it may be with a completely different Storm.
Now this is disappointing in a big way. It's one thing if Cyclops kisses 616 Storm. But when he just swaps spit with a Storm from another dimension, it loses all impact because it means that 616 Storm will be completely unaffected. The shitty marriage she has with Black Panther is still intact. Cyclops can basically use that excuse on Emma Frost and while I suspect she'll still punish him with candle wax and handcuffs, it really won't change anything. And that's what really brings down this issue. The drama that was promised by the cover, while not entirely deceptive, ends up having little meaning. It's like going to a rock concert and getting Justin Bieber. It's underwhelming and pretty damn frustrating.
While Cyclops is trapped, we get a glimpse of what appears to be either an alternate dimension or a remote area that's under the thumb of your typical corrupt tyrant. The tyrant looks suspiciously like Brad Pitt before he cut his hair and beside him is Storm. He doesn't go by a name. He just calls himself and Storm the savior of these people. Now usually the savior is just a matter for for a cult leader's penis, but not much else is given here. It ends the book on a confusing and disappointing note. For an issue that was so promising in the beginning, it's yet another instance of Astonishing being the third non-football playing Manning brother of the X-books.
Going back to my pet peeve from earlier, I'm left with mixed emotions here. On one hand the cover wasn't completely deceptive. Cyclops and Storm did kiss. However, it doesn't seem to have happened in the real world. It seemed to happen completely in Cyclops's head. And it's not even clear if this is the Storm from 616. It may be yet another alternate reality version, which would be okay if we didn't have that shit going on in other books like Uncanny X-Force. It's starting to feel like that baseball bat again. It's just a blow to the head to get the reader's attention. It worked, but what it delivered inside was only so-so at best. It's like going into an expensive whore house and only getting a hand job.
Aside from the cover, there was a decent story here. Greg Pak's style is very character focused, not unlike Mike Carey's. He actually takes the time to show Cyclops with a little emotion. He also puts together an interesting plot that has Cyclops and Storm teaming up on a mission that may or may not be just a figment of Cyclops's imagination. It twists perceptions in a way that keeps the reader guessing. However, at times it does too good a job of it because by the end it's downright confusing. At what point did all this happen in Cyclops's head? At what point did a Storm from another dimension show up and flirt with Cyclops? At what point did they end up in glass tubes awaiting anal probes? It's very confusing and while I assume that those answers will come in future issues, it just comes off as sloppy at the moment.
Now I like Greg Pak and I like his writing style for this issue. There's definitely some potential here. This is the first time I actually give half a shit about Astonishing and I look forward to seeing more. However, my enthusiasm is very tame even when I'm drunk. The premise is good, but it's just sloppy without knowing any additional details. It would have been nice if Pak squeezed a bit more in. It also would have been nice if the whole cover didn't come of as somewhat deceptive. But it's still the best Astonishing X-men comic to come along in quite some time. So for that I give it a 3 out of 5 with the potential to improve based on future issues. Astonishing X-men needs someone like Greg Pak to kick it in the ass. He's got a lot ahead of him, but he definitely has the tools to make it work. In the future I just wish he would keep the baseball bat in his closet and avoid relying on crazy covers. Nuff said!