At this point in Whedon’s run, I’m willing to just give in and have some fun. Granted, he’s making it easier for me: it seems, at first, like some of structural similarities of the first three arcs - as I laid them out in this review many months ago - are no longer in play. But then, many of the elements of my cute little morphology are still haunting Astonishing X-Men. Looking at the story’s bare bones, not much has changed: something far more difficult to describe is happening in this latest arc, and this issue is a particularly wonderful example.
So what is Whedon doing differently here? He’s always been incredibly honest in laying out his ancestor texts for the reader in easy-to-read allusions: shades of early Claremont and especially the Dark Phoenix have been littered throughout, as well as Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men. I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already notice yourself, though – or anything that I hadn’t noted here before. But there’s a new element in the mix with these last few issues. Take the Beast’s bitter snarking at Agent Brand as their vehicles are disabled by a tactical “snowstrike” and they scurry for shelter: “You’re amoral, you’re abrasive, and right now you’re looking at me like I’m a taun-taun.” The reference - which you either understood immediately or eventually Googled out of sheer curiosity – is to the creature that Luke Skywalker slices open and crawls inside for warmth when he’s trapped on the ice-planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a tiny reference, (though certainly not a throwaway) but it opens the field immensely. I also think that we’d be right to suspect that the visuals of the Breakworld are meant to recall Dune, though I’m not familiar enough with the series to know if it goes beyond that. Regardless, Whedon isn’t just playing with just the X-Men sandbox anymore.
Though it’s much subtler, the Empire Strikes Back connection can also be read into the situation of the captive black SWORD agent that Overlord Kruun is torturing for information. We learn in this issue that he’s made a deal with one of the Breakworlders to give them Colossus in return for saving the Earth. And that this deal is no spur of the moment thing – it has, in fact, been in the works all along. (Though Agent Brand’s complicity is unclear. We don’t know if she planned it.) Sure, reimagining the scene in terms of Lando Calrissian betraying the Rebel Alliance doesn’t add anything to your experience as far as the plot’s concerned, but it makes the process of reading it a whole lot more fun.
Whedon extends his palette of literary references far deeper in time, too. The rebel Breakworlders explain to Colossus that they believe the prophecy – the one that says Colossus will destroy their world – might mean that he’ll destroy the order of the world, a sort of restructuring from which something better will emerge. Their interpretation recalls the Biblical origins of ‘apocalypse’, where ‘the end’ is only ever the end of life-as-we-know-it and not life, period. I’m probably wrong to also read this as a gentle chiding of typical comic book doomsday-prophecizing, where the apocalypse is always the end of everything in existence, but it certainly stands in stark contrast to the usual the-end-is-nigh super-hero stories where the fate of all existence hangs in the balance. Despite the chaos and death that necessarily accompanies it, apocalyptic literature has historically admitted that what follows a day of judgment is eventually better than what preceded it. It’s nice to see Whedon recall that.
Whedon isn’t doing anything particularly new - the clever appropriation of ideas and deepening of subtext through allusion is as old as writing itself – but he is getting more creative with where and from whom he steals those ideas. I’m reminded here of what Geoff Klock says about Matt Fraction’s Casanova: “Before anyone objects that Casanova is hardly new, drawing in everything in its gravity, Casanova FEELS new, which is all I am really asking for.” Whedon is still writing a love letter to Claremont and Morrison, but it no longer feels like that’s all he’s doing, or that it’s even the main thrust of Astonishing X-Men any longer.