The art of letting the art speak.
[Warning: This is talking about Astonishing X-Men. #4 specifically, but it will also be discussing moments later in the run. You have been warned.]
Brian K. Vaughn wrote an introduction for the first OHC of Astonishing X-Men. He states that your first X-book is “a drug”, not a comic. One that you find in your youth, shows you outcasts that find a place in the world and do some good. One that’s never as good as that first hit.
Joss Whedon, John Cassaday, Laura Martin and Chris Elliopoulos created my first hit and while BKV was lucky enough to have Astonishing remind him of his first hit, I’m still waiting for another Marvel book that compares to their phenomenal 25-issue run.
It’s feels weird writing about this run, because everyone knows it, it’s part of the modern X-trinity (along with Morrison’s New X-Men and Remender’s Uncanny X-Force). There are moments that should instantly spring to mind [we’ll be talking about what I think is the biggest in the book today]. The homages to Claremont’s run sprinkled throughout, the red page when the Sentinel attacks, when Emma tries to break Scott’s psyche in a way that gives off Restless from Buffy vibes, “Astonished, Ms Pryde”, the final monologue of the run and basically everything with Kitty and Colossus.
Many of these are powerful for Joss’ dialogue, but they’d just be words on a page if not for Cassaday whose work here and in Planetary proved him to be one of the truly great dynamic artists of the modern age. What’s most impressive about his art is how his chooses his angles of framing, but always keep them clean.
In Planetary, Ellis utilised a decompressed style of writing that allotted enough time to the action beats so Cassaday could gradually push in or pull out to find the focus of the scene all the while showing off his expert blocking and choreography with grand fights and there’s no shortage of beats like that present in AXM.
I mean there’s a giant bullet, a Sentinel and a room of terrorists that need to be taken down with precision to minimise casualties. But Joss is a man who loves his back and forth banter, so Cassaday takes this opportunity to let his camera go anywhere.
Screw the shot/reverse shot and minimal coverage approach that’s the go to in any form of media, here Cassaday steals Baz Luhrmann’s camera and lets it weave through the players in the scene, creating a dolly shot that can arc, pitch, crane, reverse and push in. And today we’re going to look at his finest moment.
X-Books are already Context Heavy, So I should probably Set the Scene
Cyclops decides the X-Men need to be superheroes again. There’s a cure that can apparently make mutants normal. Kavita Rao made it. She works for BeneTech. Beast goes to see her. Gets a sample. When he tests it, there’s a DNA match, Cyclops assumes he’s talking about Jean Grey. They infiltrate BeneTech, Kitty breaks off from the team and heads further down. The rest of the team finds a body, it’s not Jean. Meanwhile Kitty touches down on solid ground as seen below.
[Thanks to Mathieu Dubé for providing screenshots of the pages]
This is a sequence that had X-fans elated when the issue came out and for good reason. Colossus had died a few years prior when the Legacy virus was a thing. And now he got a triumphant return. But like I said, AXM was my first X-book, I’d never seen him die previously, I didn’t know how he and Kitty were linked and then I saw the third and fourth pages and got everything.
So it conveys everything in a pair of pages that when Joss saw it, he decided that they didn’t need the words, they were perfect as is. You can notice how Kitty’s monologue is consistent until that point and then it’s minimal dialogue from there. Those first two pages slowly drop out how many words are in each panel then it’s silent. Then, Kling! An X-Fan can guess what that means. The third page shows Kitty and Colossus, right behind her. They share a brief look before he looks (and runs) straight through her as she stands in place. She touches her heart, the flame has been re-lit. It juxtaposes the fight with Kitty processing the moment. On pages 5 and 6 Colossus is the focus, Kitty’s trained on him and we are as well. Time seems to slow for the couple – Colossus throws a goon in the third panel on the left page and it finds its mark in the second panel on the right. All the while, Kitty’s calling for him to stop. When she tells him “You’ll kill them”, he sheds his metal skin and becomes human. To him, it looks like he can finally stop fighting. He’s died and now gets to live in peace with Kitty. To her, this sequence started with her looking down into the unknown, something that wasn’t on the map. The sequence ends in the same way, one new unknown.
Now taking a look at Cassaday’s framing; those first two pages consist of mainly close-ups on Kitty making her our focus. When there are other elements in the frame like in Panel 6 with the guards, she’s still on the closest plane to us. A nice touch is that when the soldiers spot her on Page 2, that panel is practically on the same level as Page 1’s sixth panel so we can tell it’s the same group of guards. Then you get the big splash page of Kitty and Colossus, followed by that look on Page 4. Kitty’s still closer to us, but Colossus occupies just as much, or even more of the frame which establishes him as a major element of the scene in an instant. Page 4 then pulls them apart when Colossus rushes out of the fixed frame to take on the guards. The final half of the scene then gradually overcomes them being pulled apart. There’s a lot of close-ups that isolate them from each other, on Page 5 when Kitty is rushing over, she’s now the one furthest away in the frame, at the end of Page 6 they finally occupy the same space, but the camera is pulled back which we then expect will push back in as they finally reunite and that starts to happen. The first panel pushes in closer, but doesn’t show them both, the second panel is looking up at Kitty which lets us know despite the display of Colossus’ strength over the previous couple of pages, she’s in control. Then the camera pulls out again when he seems broken and surrounds them with darkness. It establishes that this isn’t the happy reunion you were hoping it was – there’s still a lot of distance to overcome.
Words could state this outright be it dialogue or Annie Hall style subtitles that reveal our real feelings, but sometimes they’re not needed. Sure, a picture is worth 1000 words, but a look can say everything when we don’t know the words to say what we want to say.
Thanks for reading.
PS. Apologies for this being short, I’m ill and rushing about to move back to [REDACTED] for uni and I’m living in a house this year, not campus accommodation so there’s work to be done, and then I’ve got a big piece planned so I want some lead time on that. Anyways, next week – Darwyn Cooke. Auteurs. Stories. I promise that’s more in-depth than this was. Then the week after, the big piece. Hopefully.
Link to the issue on Comixology, the rest of the run is available on there in single issue and trade form. The run is also on Marvel Unlimited. If you want to read it physically then it’s available in 4 regular sized trades, two ultimate collections, two oversized hardcovers or the omnibus. The latter two formats are out of print, but you may be lucky enough to stumble across a copy.