The most daunting thing to a person interested in beginning to read any long-established comic is the sheer mass of back story facing them and the inevitable question, “where do I even start?”
I understand. I face that every time I start a new series (and I still am very much a beginner in comparison to some of the gurus of my acquaintance). My longtime favorite of all comic series is X-men. When it comes to beginning a reading relationship with the X-men, I am quite confident in this particular title for your “first date”. Astonishing X-men by the king of nerds himself, Joss Whedon is the series that sucked me in to the world of comics.
I had a small amount of x-men knowledge under my belt when I started reading, but truly not much. Under Whedon, this series was straight forward enough that I could enjoy it without a great amount of background knowledge. Better yet, it had enough hints to the back stories behind all of these oh-so totally cool characters that it inspired me to go do a little digging for myself. I found myself stalking the Marvel website for clues to the history of these superheros’ lives. I became a junkie of uncannyxmen.net (which is the place to go if you are an X-beginner). From there came a drive to expand – to explore other comics, other characters, other stories!
To put it simply, Astonishing X-men became my gateway-drug of comics and since then I’ve read the compiled graphic novels of Whedon’s run on this series about a thousand times. Right from the beginning Whedon draws his readers into the story with a scene of a little girl asleep in her bed – blood on her hands and a monster in her dreams. He then cuts the readers off from this small tease of the plot and brings them directly into the lives of his cast of characters: Kitty Pryde walks into the Xavier Institute for the first time in years, reminiscing about her most treasured memories. Wolverine launches a surprise attack on Cyclops – angry to find him in bed with Emma Frost so soon after his wife, Jean Grey, has died.
The issues progress and the reader watches as the characters use laugh-out-loud witty dialogue to cope with their usual bag of mutant prejudices, aliens wanting to destroy them, and constant team tensions. The biggest surprise to the x-men comes when Kitty Pryde finds her long-dead ex-boyfriend within the basement of laboratory, heinous tests being conducted upon him. Then they find out what those tests are being used for – a cure. This is the series that really developed the idea behind the question ‘what if we can make a person not different from everyone else.’ Should such a thing be a matter of choice? Should being mutant be a choice if scientists could offer a “cure” to make them like everyone else?
This series cannot be mentioned without also giving credit where it is due to the art. The best way to put it is that John Cassaday drew characters that were convincing. They didn’t look like unobtainable super-model gods. They looked like people who had deep feelings about things, and those feelings came out in their expressions and their body movements.
I won’t say too much more besides this: the end of Whedon’s run put my heart in a vice. I became extremely emotionally attached to some of these characters, and the end somehow left me satisfied yet ready to beg for more.