Thursday, July 2, 2015

Giant Size Review # 4: 90s X-Men ("Bishop's Crossing," "X-Cutioner's Song" and more)

I've gone on record before about how I'm not the biggest fan in the world of the writing during the Nicieza-Harras-Lobdell (NHL) era of the X-Men. While they had their flashes of brilliance, most of their work is far too wordy, is shallow (disguised as deep) and compromises a lot of the action on-page.

But there is still an undeniable charm about the X-Men in the early-to-mid-90s and a lot of it has to do with the art. It goes beyond Jim Lee too. Before he left, Whilce Portacio was producing staggering visuals in "Uncanny X-Men." And when both left? Brandon Peterson, Andy Kubert and John Romita Jr. stepped in and either held their own or rose above their predecessors (Romita having a legendary run before the Lee era, it should be noted.)

This combination created some interesting times for the title. I've already been through Lee's work and what was happening on his corner of the X-universe during the last days of Chris Claremont. I've also slammed some of the NHL combo's worst efforts. So it's time to fill in some gaps, including what was happening on "Uncanny" while Lee worked on "X-Men," a major story, what should have been a major crossover and what was - for sure - a milestone for two major characters.


There's a cool level of synergy to "Uncanny X-Men" in the new era. While Chris Claremont and Jim Lee worked on the newly-launched "X-Men," Claremont's "Dark Phoenix Saga" co-plotter John Byrne and Lee's studio-mate Whilce Portacio worked on the original book. It's a neat little tidbit that - unfortunately - didn't last long as Byrne dropped scripting duties and they were handed to the Mutant Man of the 90s, Scott Lobdell.

Early on, Lobdell's writing is a lot more tolerable as pages aren't filled with weak exposition. After all, it would be a shame to cover up Portacio's eye-popping art. That said, Whilce is having some problems early on. While his sense for distortion is a strength in the right place, twisting Storm's face to the point that she looks like Morlock-leader Callisto is unnecessary. Especially when Callisto herself shows up.

The star feature here, of course, is Bishop who debuts fairly weakly as a gun-toting killer/defender of the peace of the future who can't get over how his squadmates died. You know - exactly like Cable. The difference is he's a bit more of an optimist and is placed on the X-Men squad proper. Bishop would ultimately become more likable during this decade on a slow burn.

Now despite Bishop having a hand-picked villain in Trevor Fitzroy (who kills the Hellions and damn near takes out Emma Frost as well,) it should be noted that Bish does not dominate the narrative. Storm, Jean Grey, Iceman, Archangel and Colossus all get their moments almost as if the writers are doing their best to fight the "B-Team" label that would have been thrown at them at the time (Wolverine, Cyclops, Gambit, Beast, Rogue and newly-ninjafied Psylocke were on the other title at the time, of course.) Though, it should be noted that a couple of issues of "X-Men" with the Blue Team appear as well to fill gaps before the next major X-over. It also should be noted that those issues are weak compared to the rest of what is already a highly-skippable collection.

Rating: 6.5/10


The first major story of the post-Lee era does not suffer from a lack of ambition. The writing staff throws everything it can at the reader as Professor X is shot, Scott and Jean are abducted, the X-Men, X-Factor and X-Force get involved in a scuffle and a manhunt is on for Cable. On top of that, the rogue's gallery for "X-Cutioner's Song" features the three biggest X-villains of the 90s: Apocalypse, Sinister and - the man pulling the strings - Stryfe.

This is the first story from the NHL group that - to me - really works. The creative team takes advantage of the crossover to craft intriguing team-ups (Wolverine, Cable and Bishop for example,) address major issues of the past (including a couple of big ones from the "Original Five" era of X-Factor) and hammer home a sense of family among the Xavier clan. This has what many people consider Lobdell's best issue ever: and it takes place once all the dust is settled. If there was a strength to the X-Men in this decade, it was exploring relationships among the team.

If only the action didn't continue to be a bit of a problem. It's made ridiculously obvious through the course of this story that Cable and Stryfe - whether one is a clone or not - are the son(s) of Cyclops. Through Nathan's Simpsons-esque ironic punishment ("You like donuts, eh?*") and the patented "Summers Family Forcefield" that appears during the climax, it is hammered home without relent. And yet, somehow, Scott, Jean, Scott's brother and the other X-Men can't figure it out. Stupid.

Still, it doesn't ruin what is a fun, moderately well-paced romp that has one hell of an ominous ending. "X-Cutioner's Song" is fondly remembered by many people, though there are definitely better X-Men stories out there with less reliance on throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, and with a lot less to pick apart.

Rating: 7.5/10

*Stryfe does not actually say that.


It's hard to believe in this Avengers-dominated society we live in today that the team was so irrelevant during Marvel's boom period in print. Everything post-Galactic Storm to Busiek's relaunch in the late 90's is either completely forgettable or memorably bad. "Bloodties" is arguably the only memorable Avengers story from that time that wasn't terrible, and that's because they were sharing the pages with the X-Men.

What's worth noting is the Avengers were being written by "X-Men" editor Bob Harras at the time, and it's highly likely that not as much effort was being put into Marvel's so-called "A" team as there was with the mutant corner. Hence "Bloodties" where the most important Avengers in the story are Quicksilver and Crystal... the former a member of X-Factor and the latter - his wife - pretty much a small blip in Avengers history.

"Bloodties" kinda bugs me because it represents a moment that - to me - sums up a lot of what was wrong with comics in the 1990s. The relatively-new-at-the-time Fabian Cortez is an underrated character. While he doesn't have a strong baseline mutant power beyond energy control, he's such a slimy, contriving, backstabbing bastard that you can't help but love to hate him. Unfortunately, he wasn't the anointed one at the time and so he's shoved off the pages in favour of the mulleted, discoloured, overpowered Exodus who is about as interesting as a brick. Comic books were obsessed at the time with introducing new characters who they would sell as being important to convince fans to buy debut issues during the spectator boom. And the company was going all-in with Exodus, using all the major tropes of the time from hairstyle (awful) to power-level (ridiculous) to character motivations (deliberately kept secret.)

The result is the removal of an interesting villain in favour of an uninteresting one. What's worse: Exodus was also meant as a replacement for Magneto in the villain food chain. Freaking MAGNETO.

Anyhow, the whole point of the story on the heroic end is to put over both Crystal and the Black Knight as characters. "Who," you ask? Well, that pretty much says everything, doesn't it?

Rating: 5/10


This may be the best of the collections I've reviewed here. Why? Because relatively little happens action-wise. There's a fairly good Annual with some fighting that deals with the mutant condition a bit. There's also an issue of Unlimited that ends with Sabretooth in the X-Men's custody.

The best stuff that happens here is on a small, personal scale. First, the introduction of Sabretooth to the mansion grounds is great. Every time he shows up even just to talk, it's a blast. He's a master of getting underneath everyone's skin.

And, of course, there's everything that has to do with Scott and Jean. The issue where Jean finally agrees to Scott's proposal from years past is excellent. Masterfully drawn by John Romita Jr. and written by Lobdell, the quick flash to the couple's early years may be the best look at their young courtship that I've seen. The X-Men playing pick-up football and sitting around a Thanksgiving table is also joyful. Lobdell really brought it when the team was doing everyday stuff.

Then there's the wedding itself which is one of my favourite single-issue stories of all time. It doesn't hang on sappiness and has some biting humour like the throwing of the bouquet and garter ("Guido would sulk for a week") and the off-panel involvement from the heart-wrenched Logan who steals the show without ever showing his face. It's also the closest thing you'll see to a happy ending in the X-Books.

As a bonus, there's a "What If?" issue written by Kurt Freakin' Busiek that explores what would have happened if Jean and Scott had fallen in love earlier, or if Jean had fallen for someone else. In one case, it would have resulted in universal annihilation. So, it's a good thing everything worked out like it did, even if it had to involve a weird space cocoon.

Rating: 8/10

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