Tuesday, May 1st, you’ll finally be able to get closer to Geek Icon Joss Whedon with an in depth look at the method behind his quippy madness, when Titan Books published Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion. The book takes a look at the storied career of the creator, including his work in movies, TV, and of course, comic books.
Lucky you, even though the book doesn’t come out until next week, we’ve got an entire chapter for you focusing on Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men. It’s a fascinating read that draws a line not just between the various great runs on Marvel’s Merry Mutants, but also with the events surrounding the book’s release in real life history.
Here’s the chapter, and we’ll be having a short pop quiz right afterwards, so pay attention class:
Tom Brokaw’s Coat: Joss Whedon, Astonishing X-Men and the Accessibility of History
By the time “Gone” hit newsstands, it would be four years after the initial publication of Issue One, the first chapter of Gifted. Published in Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1, “Gone” concludes the publication run of creative team Joss Whedon (as writer) and artist John Cassaday. But the cover dates of July 2004 until July 2008 belie the awkward truth about this fan-favorite title—that the title had been wracked by delays almost from the very start. Yet Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men would prove seminal for a number of reasons, only some of which involve the publication delays.
Spanning twenty-four issues (Gifted 1-6, Dangerous 7-12, Torn 13-18, and Unstoppable 19-24) and the single concluding chapter found in Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men, Whedon’s run reads like a finely-scripted, single-season television show. Coincident with President Bush’s second term in office, Whedon’s run also reads like an X-Men at the very end of history.
X-Mythology would change substantively around the time of the 2008 global financial crisis. By the winter of 2009, Ultimate X-Men would draw to a close during the events of Marvel’s “Ultimatum” storyline. Like Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate Avengers, Ultimate X-Men was meant to craft an easily accessible X-Title for new readers. Everything in the Ultimate publication line would be a way of navigating forty-plus years of publication history. Regular X-Titles (Uncanny X-Men, X-Men Legacy, X-Force, New Mutants) would see the X-Men construct an artificial island off the coast of San Francisco, in order to provide a safe harbor for mutants because of political machinations in the broader fictive Marvel Universe. Those days of mutant teenagers mastering their skills in opulent, genteel upstate New York seem halcyon almost immediately after Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men. Even the next writer on Astonishing, Warren Ellis, would craft a tale of the X-Men that saw them fitting into a new role in San Francisco.
Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men is something of a last gasp then, an X-Men at the very end of their own history. In just a few short months, the Upstate New York home would be a thing of the past. The long familiar scenes of the Blackbird jetting out from a secret launch bay beneath the basketball court, the X-Men training in the mythic Danger Room, and numerous others would simply fall away. And yet, here they are, the X-Men at the end of history, perfectly preserved in the four slim volumes: Gifted, Dangerous, Torn, and Unstoppable. In Whedon’s Astonishing we see the X-Men swashbuckle their way through regime change on an alien world, fight a pitched psychic battle against a post-mutant foe, encounter the first mutant AI, and contend against a corporation that licensed a “cure” for the mutant condition. Cassaday’s bright color palette and clear-line style speak of a certain kind of exuberance. Whedon and Cassaday’s Astonishing is a halcyon moment immediately, even before time passes and we can return to it years later.
It is strange to find then, rather than simply appearing at the end of their own history, Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men appear at the proper End of History, the End inaugurated by conservative thinker Francis Fukuyama. Or more precisely, that Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men mirrors an altogether different arc, a theoretical one. This arc in Fukuyama’s thinking begins in 1989 with his essay “The End of History” (further developed in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man) and ends in 2002 with Fukuyama’s nearly-unnoticed tract on bioethics, Our Posthuman Future. Over the course of the thirteen years, Fukuyama performs the kind of public escape that music journalist Greil Marcus credits Bob Dylan with completing in 1992—an escape from the shadow of his own notoriety.
Fukuyama’s claiming History as a teleological force, and his assertion that the Liberal Democracy was the endpoint of that teleology was singularly audacious in 1989. But more than that, the claim brought Fukuyama into the limelight in a way that propelled his career. For the briefest moment, Fukuyama was a Bob Dylan or a Richard Feynman or a Muhammad Ali—a superstar so powerful he brought not only himself but his entire field into the popular imagination.
As the Berlin Wall crumbled, piece by piece, Fukuyama cemented a new kind of conservative thinking: the theory that the Liberal Democracy that had been seen as nothing more than an experiment less than 100 years prior, had now come completely into its own. The “experiment” had succeeded beyond all measure. And in truth, other forms of governance could be deemed nothing more than stultified in their evolution towards Liberal Democracy. Fukuyama was perhaps one of the chief architects of that sense of American stewardship of geopolitics: the idea that being the sole superpower was a responsibility rather than a license.
Thirteen years on, Our Posthuman Future reads nothing like the bold assertions found in “The End of History.” At first glance we encounter a Fukuyama more reactive, a Fukuyama wizened by the years and leaning more to the defense of the ideal than an analysis of its superiority. The number one claim in Our Posthuman Future—that bioengineering represents a credible threat to the principles of a Liberal Democracy—scans more as alarmist than thought-through. Had Fukuyama simply grown older? But even a cursory reading of the entire book produces a different view entirely. The year 2002 sees a Fukuyama that is subtle, but every bit in the fighting form he was thirteen years prior. Our Posthuman Future is a deep and meditative analysis of the nature of the individual, the nature of the state, and the rights and liberties that accrue to both. And while Our Posthuman Future is an analysis that seemed science-fictional at the time, a decade later, it seems far less futuristic.
That is, of course, if anybody took the time to read Our Posthuman Future fully in 2012. Ten years on, the book seems somewhat anachronistic, despite its futurist orientation. It is an uncomfortable anachronism born perhaps out of a sense that ultimately, Fukuyama assumes the wrong kind of threat to our fundamental freedoms. If the book seems not to fit any longer, it is less a statement about its content, than a statement about society. Society has changed substantially over the past decade—just enough maybe to regard Our Posthuman Future as something of a vintage work. For one, Fukuyama assumes that our bioethical rights and freedoms will be worked out through a contestation between the market economy and legislative structures. And yet, in the wake of 2008’s financial collapse and 2011’s Occupy Wall Street movement, it becomes hard to think of the government and the market economy as disentangled from each other. Our Posthuman Future then is its own kind of halcyon moment. A quieter halcyon perhaps than Astonishing X-Men, but Fukuyama traces a very similar evolutionary arc.
At its heart, Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men reads like a proof-of-concept experiment. It is arguably the most clearly defined high concept since the iconic run of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne on Uncanny X-Men. In essence then, the X-Men must deal with the hatred and fear of homo sapiens in Gifted; tackle the ghosts of past actions while facing off against a singular foe in Dangerous; navigate a psychic attack by a rival mutant faction in Torn; and weigh a distant intergalactic threat in Unstoppable. Very carefully then, Whedon stacked the deck with the most iconic kinds of X-Men stories, the kinds of stories that have become genre in their own right. Substance of the story aside, the style of Gifted reads as an almost flawless modernization of the themes of the 1982 graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, and Torn like an updating of the micro-dramas in The Dark Phoenix Saga of 1980.
This conceptual mode of resemblance is not lost in Fukuyama over the course of the thirteen years. At its heart, Our Posthuman Future is every bit the complex wrestling with the seemingly antithetical notions of liberty as innate, and freedom as defended by the federal government. Behind the science-fiction elements and beyond the futurist debate, Our Posthuman Future is the same form of political treatise that Fukuyama mastered in 1989. But the science-fictional elements do provide an opportunity Fukuyama could barely have guessed at in 1989—the chance to produce a pop version of his own thinking.
Perhaps Whedon’s greatest strength in writing Astonishing X-Men is the ease with which he grasps and communicates the essential genre of the stories and settings themselves. No surprise really, since Whedon’s most recognizable television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is a masterclass in the use of genre. Characters in Buffy quickly find themselves propelled beyond the native teen-horror genre of the show and contending with musicals, silent films, and alien invasions from an alternate dimension. Within the confines of the X-Men, Whedon reasserts classic storytelling modes in a credible and accessible way. Unlike the Batman or Spider-Man comics of the day, the wealth of publication history isn’t needed for Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. You needn’t have been familiar with the heady times of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original Uncanny X-Men, when social analogy was the storytelling mode. It was clear that mutant rights activism was a comics-based meditation on the Civil Rights movement. The saintly Professor Xavier was clearly Dr. Martin Luther King, while the more aggressive Magneto was arguably Malcolm X.
X-Men comes with an illustrious history, but forty years of this history might prove a stumbling block. Remember when Wolverine had his adamantium skeleton ripped out by Magneto? Well if you don’t, how would this current story have any emotional context for you? Forty years later, the publication history was the primary cause of rendering the X-Men inaccessible to all but fans.
While the hyper-focus on publication history might be attributable to factors outside the realm of creativity (the mid-eighties saw the birth of direct marketing in the comics industry, and with that the rise of fandom), there can be no doubt that Whedon’s storylines buck that trend of writing exclusively for fans. The interesting conundrum is, was Astonishing X-Men targeted to fans so they could rediscover the “classic” X-Men, or was Astonishing aimed at bringing new fans into the fold?
Astonishing X-Men came at a critical time for Marvel. The company had just had amazing success with two X-Movies (2000’s X-Men and 2003’s X2: X-Men United, both helmed by Bryan Singer) and two Spider-Movies (2001’s Spider-Man and 2004’s Spider-Man 2, both directed by Sam Raimi). Recapitalizing on the success of X-Men in the comic books that birthed them seemed like the next peak to scale. But the reason deeper than revitalizing sales might go to the heart of the difficulty around corporate-sponsored creativity.
Singer’s X-Men had been a spectacular and wholly unexpected success. To find a superhero movie that hit in the popular imagination at the same level as X-Men, you’d have to go back to 1989, to Tim Burton’s Batman. But the movies themselves come from very different guiding principles. Burton’s Batman was garish, outlandish, theatrical. It emphasized the vast chasm of alienation most comic book heroes had to cross to reenter the popular imagination. Rather than attempt to naturalize the outlandishness of superheroes, Burton’s intuition was to embrace, to relish it even. Singer opted for a very different approach. Singer’s X-Men wouldn’t be out place in the everyday New England of the ordinary world. They would eat at the same delis on the Hudson, they would plan shopping trips to Chicago or Boston or Grand Rapids on the weekend.
With this X-Men-at-the-end-of-the-street came the jettisoning of the superheroics and more visibly, the disappearance of the superhero costumes. Xavier’s was a school, a private academy for mutants. And school meant school uniforms, black leather ones in Singer’s vision. What Singer really oversaw was a return to the original touchstones pioneered by Lee and Kirby—the “X-Men” was little more than a special emergency and rescue team, there to interdict when racial hatred threatened. Singer’s vision of the X-Men then, begun in the original X-Men of 2000, traces an evolutionary path from one crisis-point in the very concept of the team to the next. In X-Men, the appearance of Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants triggers a new kind of thinking. Maybe crowd dispersal and educating the public about mutants is not simply what the X-Men should be about. Maybe, the threat to mutant-human relations can come from radical, reactionary mutants as well. X-Men United illustrates the evolution of that idea by showing how a weak administration can have its hand forced into taking military action against mutants. The X-Men would have to wade into contestation with fringe elements within the government.
But if Singer adapted the original Lee-Kirby vision of the X-Men, writer Grant Morrison would simply explode it. Taking the helm of New X-Men in 2001, Morrison offered a singular, radically altered (unrecognizable, some have argued) vision of the X-Men. Keeping the school-uniform theme of Singer’s X-Men, Morrison would engineer even more radical changes. For one, the core theme of the X-Men defending a mutant minority was simply dismissed. In Morrison’s X-Men, humans became the endangered species, when their “extinction gene” activated. The traditional foes of Magneto—the Sentinels, Mister Sinister, Apocalypse—would all simply be written out (in fact, Magneto would ostensibly meet his death in just the third issue of Morrison’s run). Instead, the line-up of villains would include Cassandra Nova (the psychic, bodiless remains of Professor X’s twin whom he murdered in the womb), the U-Men (an international self-empowerment corporate empire bent on harvesting mutant DNA), and The Sublime (a micro-colony of sentient bacteria that had plotted universal domination for the past three billion years).
Morrison’s X-Men was compelling, but it wasn’t the traditional X-Men. But Morrison’s run on X-Men would prove compelling for a much darker reason. Morrison’s run began with New X-Men #114 and would end with #154, the entire run spanning forty-one single issues and one Annual published in 2001. Issues ran from cover dates July 2001 (released two months earlier in May 2001) until May 2004 (released March 2004). But it would be the concluding chapter of E is for Extinction, Morrison’s opening story arc, that would prove horrifically prescient. In #116, Morrison would script the death of 16 million mutants at the hands of a rogue “wild” Sentinel, a city-sized robot built for killing mutants. Two months later, 9/11 would play out in the most terrifying proportions. Predating the attacks by just two months, Morrison’s New X-Men became a kind of exorcizing of the demons of 9/11 through popular culture. From Wolverine tracking terrorists across Afghanistan to building a memorial to attacks on Genosha, there always seemed to be a hidden tension in Morrison’s oeuvre. Could Morrison ever escape the shadow of his own prescience? Could New X-Men ever become that single story of multiple plotlines that Morrison himself arguably had hoped for prior to 9/11?
Almost none of that tension exists in Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, that similarly comments on the historical context of President Bush’s second term in office. In Astonishing we see an X-Men disillusioned at having been deceived by their leader, Professor X in Dangerous. We see an X-Men wrestling with inner demons in Torn. We see an X-Men grappling with regime change on a cosmic level in Unstoppable. And while there never is a direct correlation between not finding WMD’s, the torture at Abu Ghraib, and the toppling of Saddam and the Ba’ath Party, there is a direct confronting of the spirit of the era.
Again, this resemblance rather than direct depiction is the dominant creative mode opted for by Fukuyama in The End of History. The issues remain the core issues of conservative politics—restraint on federal government, personal liberty, self-regulation of a free market economy. And yet, none of those issues appear for themselves. Rather, they enter The End of History as themes, each as a halcyon moment of its very own. Against the backdrop of the narrative of a quiet and unrelenting victory of the Liberal Democracy, Fukuyama presents each of these conservative themes as something to yearn towards.
Perhaps there was an astuteness to this choice. It really is hard to forget that at one of the most momentous events in human memory, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Tom Brokaw wore a weathered green hunter’s coat for his broadcast on CBS Nightly News. As we watched our television sets, decades of human history began to unravel almost before our eyes. Maybe President Reagan was wrong, maybe the Cold War wouldn’t go Hot and end in a global conflagration. Just maybe, we could begin to plan for the future, for a future. And despite the indescribable moment we came face-to-face with right there at the business end of history, the thing that seems to ring most true is Brokaw’s coat. More than just a shield against the European night, Brokaw’s coat is something resoundingly human, the everyday in us all that we can easily recognize. Everybody has a coat he or she wears but would rather not be seen in. And Tom Brokaw wearing his at the tearing down of the Berlin Wall gave us a secret passport to access the immensity of the event unfolding before us.
Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men then really is an X-Men at the End of History. It is the script of popular culture run side-by-side with the white-knuckle ride of history. It is a secret reliance on constructing a deep and meaningful accessibility to momentous events. And, it is the resurrection of enduring genre and themes within the smaller context of a single story. If there is any one thing enduring at all about Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men (and there are many), it is reassertion of the deeper consequentiality of pop-culture: the idea that pop-culture is not simply the immediate or the easily-found, but the accessible core that lies at the heart of human experience. Like Tom Brokaw’s coat, pop-culture is an interpretative tool. But it would take a singular talent like Whedon’s to convey the profundity of the times in as ordinary a thing as a comic book about the X-Men.
Astonishing X-Men. 24 issues. Story by Joss Whedon. Pencils by John Cassaday. New York: Marvel, July 2004-March 2008. Print. Vol. 3, issues 1-24 of X-Men.
The Dark Phoenix Saga. Story by Chris Claremont. Pencils by John Byrne. New York: Marvel, 1980. Print. Vol. 1, issues 129-38 of Uncanny X-Men.
E is for Extinction. Story by Grant Morrison. Pencils by Frank Quitely. New York: Marvel, 2001. Print. Vol. 1, issues 114-116 of New X-Men.
Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men. Story by Joss Whedon. Pencils by John Cassaday. New York: Marvel, 2008. Print. Final chapter of Astonishing X-Men.
Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” The National Interest Summer 1989. Print.
—. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press, 1992. Print.
—. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002. Print.
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills. Story by Chris Claremont. Pencils by Brent Anderson. New York: Marvel, 1982. Print. Marvel Graphic Novel #5.