The X-Men is a brilliant concept, yet one that is very easy to get wrong. Boiled down to its core concept though, and with the right combination of characters the X-Men arguably have a greater potential for good stories than any other group of comic book characters out there. For me Joss Whedon and John Cassady's debut arc on Astonishing X-Men is a superb example of this. Even in the absence of series mainstay professor Xavier, Whedon hits all the right notes for a classic X-Men story. Gifted is a tightly plotted, quick witted blend of high octane superheroics and thought provoking moral questions, inviting the reader to think as well as marvel at the action unfolding before them.
The arcs core concept, that of a cure for the mutant gene, is not exactly an innovative one but is dealt with in a sensitive and intelligent way by Whedon. By the end of the arc it becomes clear that this isn't even the focus of the arc, more a backdrop behind which the main bulk of the plot can take place. Ord is a good villain - again, not exactly innovative but a good deadpan foil for the rest of the characters.
Whedon chose his team very well, and they have a great dynamic. He also seems to have a great handle on all the characters. As well as appreciating past classics he shows a willingness to build on established characterisation - while Kitty Pryde has been shown as a mature young woman in previous stories it is great to see her being treated as a respected heroine here. Whedon's dialogue is also superb, smart, witty and never clichéd. Many cite Brian Michael Bendis as the man who revolutionised comic book dialogue - while I have the utmost respect for Bendis' work I think he has been trumped here.
John Cassady is a fantastic and often unappreciated artist. His work here is no exception. Wolverine looks ferocious, Beast looks larger than life and well...beastly - in short, all the characters look the way they should do. Cassady's action scenes are as kinetic as his conversations are heartfelt. Wonderful work, and it never looks rushed at all.
I don't like awarding things perfect scores on principle, but I really can't think of a way that this story would lose marks. Whedon clearly understands the characters and is a talented storyteller to boot. The plot may not be the most innovative, and the villains may not be that compelling but when a story is this gripping, exciting and thoughtful in equal measure I can live without those things. Spectacular work from all concerned.