In 1966, Marvel comics broke into the animation business via the Canadian studio Grantray-Lawrence and the series The Marvel Super Heroes, which offered short, crude, but reasonably faithful adaptations of early stories featuring The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Sub-Mariner, and Captain America. The animation wasn’t much—just a few moving lips and limbs added to otherwise still pictures—but many Marvel fans prefer Grantray-Lawrence’s cartoons to later, slicker attempts to animate the Marvel stable of heroes, because The Marvel Super Heroes shorts were based on the original art of legends like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, with Stan Lee-supervised edits of the original Marvel scripts. So while they look cruddy, they feel right.
The modern-day version of “motion comics” collected on the Astonishing X-Men: Gifted DVD isn’t all that different from the cost-saving technology of 1966. Marvel can afford to hire a more versatile cast of voice actors now, and computers allow for a little more three-dimensionality to mouth-movements and static backgrounds. But the results still come off stiff and weird (perhaps even stiffer and weirder, given how much more detailed the artwork is in modern comics than it was in the ’60s), and the cartoons still rise and fall on the quality of the source material. In the case of Astonishing X-Men: Gifted, the original six-issue arc began one of the best-loved X-Men runs of the ’00s, written with care and wit by Buffy The Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, and drawn by John Cassaday, an artist with a knack for realism and grandeur. It has a lot working in its favor from the get-go.
Gifted deals with the famed mutant superhero team as it attempts to get back to basics and improve its ever-tattered public image, at the same time that a shadowy scientific organization claims to have developed a cure for the mutant gene. Story-wise, the arc is a hodgepodge of standard X-Men plot-drivers: mutant-eradication, self-doubt, rebirth, and so on. And as a DVD-viewing experience, Gifted can be frustrating. Leaving aside the occasional distracting hitches in the limited-animation process, some elements of a comics page just don’t translate well to motion, like layouts that don’t follow the conventional visual grammar of movies and television, and thus look confusing when treated as “shots” in a mise-en-scene. The action-sequence dialogue that reads fine when juxtaposed with still images also comes out odd when spoken aloud by characters who are moving.
But as was the case with The Marvel Super Heroes, Gifted works because the story is strong. Cassaday’s rendering of iconic characters like Wolverine, Cyclops, Kitty Pryde, and Emma Frost is respectful of what’s gone before, but still appears properly lived-in. And few geek-friendly writers are as good at team dynamics as Whedon. Gifted’s story is fairly generic, but the character motivations and dialogue have an appealingly Whedon-esque flavor, even in motion-comics form. (Whedon’s use of Beast as his requisite Xander/Wash/Wesley/Topher type is a particularly nice touch.) If nothing else, this quasi-animated version of Astonishing X-Men proves that Whedon’s superhero writing can translate to a more dynamic medium. This bodes well for his Avengers movie, where presumably the actors will be able to move their own mouths.
Key features: Interviews with Marvel honcho Joe Quesada and famed superhero artist Neal Adams, who supervised Gifted’s motion-comics process.