Friday, September 25, 2020

X-Men X-Overs: The ten best of 'em (part 1)

Oy. I have at least three more posts' worth of hoi polloi Kant commentary to compose (after which I'll be able to honestly say to myself that I've "engaged" with the Critique of Pure Reason), but I've got to tell you: after that last one, I find myself suffering from acute proto-German Idealism fatigue. The cure: putting an inordinate amount of effort into writing something about pop-cultural feelgoods so I'll be desperate to think about Kant again. This is one of the benefits of a having a freeform blog—though perhaps in the drunk-man's-walk scatterplot of Beyond Easy's topics, the emergent rhythm is one of bingeing and purging.

So! Let's talk about X-Men comics for a while.

This week saw the release of the X of Swords: Creation one-shot, kicking off the first crossover story of the new and very much improved line of X-Men comics. Given the grand slam Jonathan Hickman hit with House of X/Powers of X and the generally high level of quality across the current line of X-books, I expect good things from this. (Drama! Schlock! Betrayal! Inspired retcons! Eldritch magic and weird science!)

Back in July, we observed the launch of a new volume of X-Factor with an overview of the best moments of the title's earlier volumes. Today, as X of Swords begins to unfold, we'll be looking at the ten best X-Men crossover events up until now.¹ What fun!

(Postscript: you can read about X of Swords here.)


Mentioned on the basis that there's probably an off-the-books but strictly enforced law against talking about the best X-Men events without including everyone's favorite grimdark alternate-timeline epic. However, Age of Apocalypse is disqualified from this list because an event is not the same as a crossover (though most every crossover is an event). You can read each miniseries comprising Age of Apocalypse by itself without ever missing anything because you went from Generation Next #2 to Generation Next #3 without reading Factor X #2 in between. For it to be a crossover, you need to follow the "what to read next" instructions at the end of each book in the story, or else risk getting lost and confused. It's an imprecise rule, and there are exceptions (particularly during those bullish periods where the editors assume readers are already buying every X-book that comes out), but it works well enough.

Books involved:
Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor

In brief: For months, the Shadow King has secretly consolidated his power on Muir Island. When the X-Men stop by to investigate Moira Mactaggert's odd behavior, he makes his move.

The long story: This short and sweet little crossover is the understated climax of Chris Claremont's legendary sixteen-year tenure as the X-books' head scribe. The first three issues of X-Men (not to be confused with Uncanny X-Men) were a victory lap; the Muir Island Saga is where Uncanny X-Men arrives at its (obviously temporary) resolution. Saving the pathos for his last Magneto story in X-Men #1-3, Claremont stages the Muir Island Saga as a fairly straightforward conflict of good against evil. Regrettably, if one happened to read the them in sequence, he might wonder why Claremont leaned so heavily on the "X-Men versus mind-controlled X-Men" device in has last two stories. In his defense, he was probably disgruntled and very tired. (So tired, apparently, that Fabian Nicieza steps in to write an issue and a half of Uncanny X-Men in addition to his New Mutants scripting duties.)² In the Muir Island Saga's defense, the Shadow King amplifying our heroes' negative emotions and goading them to brutalize each other reads much better than Magneto using genetic hocus-pocus to brainwash the Blue Team for a single issue.

If you'll forgive the cliche, a sense of coming full-circle pervades the Muir Island Saga. The Shadow King, one of Claremont's earliest original villains, was (in the lore) the first "evil mutant" Professor Xavier encountered in his career as an agent of change for Homo Superior, and has been waiting decades for a rematch. Whereas the perennial acrimony between the Professor and Magneto amounts to a heated political disagreement, the Shadow King's explicit goal is to aggravate hatred between social groups and watch the world go up in flames. Charles and Magnus are two sides of the same coin; Amahl, then, to stretch the metaphor, is a coin-head composed of antimatter. In such a climactic showdown between a partisan for hope and an overlord of malice, it is wholly appropriate—nay, necessary—for the anime-esque spectacle of the X-Men telepathically joining Xavier on the astral plane to help him eke out an impossible victory against an implacable and overwhelming foe. (This will probably be the only context in which I'll ever compare superhero comics and Shakespeare, but the secret to enjoying both is not to take them too seriously.)

Incidentally, the Muir Island Saga's epilogue in the pages of X-Factor is Peter David's first issue writing that book. David's chapter is good enough in itself to have convinced me to include the Muir Island Saga on this list instead of throwing up my hands and admitting Avengers Vs. X-Men on the basis that it's at least more exciting than Age of X or Apocalypse: The Twelve. If that seems like a thin margin, well, it really is. Truth be told, it's hard putting together a top-ten list of X-Men crossovers when so many of them are underwhelming at best and really stinky at worst. The Muir Island Saga isn't required reading for anyone but the completionist, but it's tidier than a lot of the competition, it doesn't drag on longer than it needs to, and it has a lot going for it in the form of little moments—many of which are in David's chapter.

Most important development: The gathering on Muir Island ultimately leads to the redistribution of the various X-people into the Gold Team of Uncanny X-Men, the Blue Team of X-Men, and X-Factor of (uh) X-Factor. Irrespective of book-selling considerations, there wasn't much reason for the X-Men and X-Factor to be keeping each other at a distance anymore; their reintegration was overdue. Professor Xavier returns from outer space (long story) by editorial dictate; Claremont reportedly had to be strong-armed into making it happen. I tend to side with writers over editors in cases like these, and appreciate when a bold change to a serial's status quo is permitted to stick indefinitely—though in this instance, I believe the higher-ups made the right call. Crippling Xavier again because somebody thought he should be back in a wheelchair for X-Men #1? Not so much.

Favorite moments: Colonel Vazhin (billed as the USSR's answer to Nick Fury) quietly complaining about Russian cigarettes. Like I said, it's the little things.

Also, I dig Whilce Portacio's throwback to Bill Sienkiewicz's hallmark style during the moment when the Shadow King possesses David Haller. It's not the only time this happens, either—Leonard Kirk and Andrew Currie imitate Sienkiewicz when the "real" Legion finally appears in the third volume of New Mutants. (Other specific instances elude me, but they're out there.) It says a lot about an illustrator when a character who debuted under his pencils becomes visually synonymous with his aesthetic, even when drawn by somebody else, many years later.

Books involved:
Excalibur, Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine, X-Factor, X-Force, X-Men

In brief: Hey, Magneto's not dead! Everyone acts surprised when he comes back.

The long story: Odd: I expected this one would rank higher on the list. Unless my mother threw them out (and I wouldn't blame her), all six issues comprising Fatal Attractions are in a box or drawer in my old bedroom. I remember reading and rereading them all, in order, when I was in the third or fourth grade. Looking at them again today, I wish I could still see in them now what I saw back then. Don't get me wrong: Fatal Attractions is in the "must-read" category of nineties X-books. But, like a lot of stuff from that period of superhero comics, it has not improved with age. 

Around 1990–1, a clique of debut villains set about eliminating the old guard of X-Men antagonists. Among the casualties were the Reavers, the Hellions, Emma Frost, Sebastian Shaw, and Magneto himself. We won't get into the behind-the-scenes drama (or how easily what was happening on the pages lent itself to metaphors for the books' new pencillers annexing creative control from Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson), but the editors probably commended this cleaning house on the basis of a need to shake things up at the turn of the decade. Out with the old, in with the new, et cetera.

Then the artists who designed these upstart villains (see what I did there?), and presumably had something in mind for where their stories were supposed to go, all resigned from Marvel to found Image Comics. Maybe there was a grain of truth to editor Bob Harras' belief that Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, and Whilce Portacio were the X-books' most valuable assets: new antagonists Fabian Cortez, Shinobi Shaw, and Trevor Fitzroy ceased to be interesting after Lee and Portacio stopped drawing them. 

By 1993, the Upstarts plotline was on its way to nowhere, Stryfe's arc had attained its climax in the X-Cutioner's Song, and Peter David (X-Factor) and Alan Davis (Excalibur) had gone the way of Claremont and Simonson. Probably new X-scribes Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza had already recognized that killing off some of the X-Men's most established and reliable antagonists hadn't been such a great idea, especially when so many of their replacements left something to be desired. Over the next few years, the Upstarts' victims begin trickling back into continuity. Magneto is the first to return, and his arrival becomes the subject of Fatal Attractions. He's more powerful than ever now, and between cheating death and being deified by his followers, he's developed something of a god complex.

Fatal Attractions is a transparent soft-soft-reboot event, conceived as a linewide course adjustment and disguised as a must-read spectacle. (Come for the collectible holographic covers, stay for the drama!) Each of 1993's ongoing X-titles (with the exception of Cable) contributes one chapter, in which its status quo is someways changed for the foreseeable future. Val Cooper alienates herself from X-Factor after a mission against Magneto's Acolytes, which will lead to Forge taking command. Cable returns to X-Force and more or less agrees to start playing by the rules. After his sister succumbs to the Legacy Virus, Colossus defects from the X-Men and joins the Acolytes. Magneto rips out the adamantium lacing Wolverine's bones. Xavier erases Magneto's mind (an event which Lobdell will handily retcon as moment zero for the Onslaught arc). Wolverine leaves the X-Men to figure his shit out. Excalibur, with its cast recently winnowed down to former X-Men, formally enters the X-books' editorial domain.

The arguments for reading Fatal Attractions are a pretty good X-Factor story (Lobdell), a satisfying issue of X-Force (Nicieza), a landmark issue of X-Men (Nicieza), and an excellent issue of Wolverine (Larry Hama). The chapter in Uncanny X-Men (Lobdell) is somewhat overwrought (though it does have its moments), while the mediocrity of Excalibur's showing (also Lobdell) really undercuts the book's nakedly desperate "hey we're actually an X-book now so please read us from here on out" sales pitch. But by early-nineties standards of mainstream superhero comic events, a ratio of four good chapters to two middling-to-poor ones ain't that bad.

Most important development: Fatal Attractions will forever be known as the story where Magneto rips out Wolverine's skeleton. (Well, the metal part of it, anyway.) I remember reading X-Men #25 when it came out and just staring at the page in utter disbelief. Imagine my shock and horror when I read the following chapter in Wolverine #75, where Wolverine doesn't magically reacquire his adamantium, gets humiliated during a Danger Room exercise, evidently loses his healing factor, and then leaves the X-Men rather than risk dragging the team down. This was some destabilizing shit to lay on a sensitive ten-year-old.

Of course, by the time Wolverine gets his adamantium back (it was probably inevitable), any practical distinction between unbreakable metal claws and naked bone claws will have pretty much been lost, and it will have turned out that his healing factor, for all intents and purposes, remains in overdrive after the metal is re-implanted—but that's another story. 

Favorite moment: This panel in X-Force #25.

Three observations:

One: I wonder if Nicieza's inimitable "bad guy" dialogue has anything to do with his being a non-native English speaker? Not that I'm criticizing him—actually, I've always had a fondness for the words he puts in his villains' mouths. But until rereading this issue, I assumed the idiosyncratic speech patterns and the epithets he gives Apocalypse and Stryfe were intended to be a consequence of those characters' associated origins. Seeing Magneto talking to Cable the way Stryfe talked to Cable, I'm no longer certain of that.

Two: "I am the overlord of the fatal attraction." Get it? Because his powers are magnetic. And know. And it's the crossover's title! (whatever i think it's cool)

Three: How often do we see Magneto just running up and decking somebody? Not often enough.

Books involved:
New Mutants, Power Pack, ThorUncanny X-Men, X-Factor

In short: The Marauders storm the Morlock tunnels and slaughter the community of underground-dwelling mutants wholesale. The X-Men and X-Factor intervene and come home limping.

The long story: The X-Men's very first crossover event probably doesn't qualify as one in terms of the rules we delineated above, but I'm comfortable with grandfathering in the Mutant Massacre. The books don't need to be read in order, though they all overlap: something that happens in an issue of X-Factor, for instance, has immediate repercussions in the pages of X-Men, since the events in both occur at the same time and more or less in the same place. The idea was Louise Simonson's: she felt Claremont's concept for a calamitous attack on the off-the-grid Morlock community was too big for one book to contain, so The New Mutants and X-Factor got involved. In addition to writing X-Factor, Simonson was also in charge of Power Pack, so that title joins the fray for an issue. Thor gets implicated too—not because the thunder god has any special relation to the X-Men, but because Simonson's husband Walter was writing his book.

Marvel had published sequential crossover events before; the Mutant Massacre's unusual format was the result of Claremont and Simonson wanting to try something different. By the time X-Tinction Agenda was being planned, they (or the editors) had apparently decided it was better to structure it as linear chapters spread between books than as branching and converging pathways to be followed however the reader pleased.

Compared to later X-Men crossovers, the Mutant Massacre's plot is strikingly straightforward. A cadre of superpowered mercenaries appears in the Morlock tunnels. We've never seen them before. "We're the Marauders," they say, and commence murdering everyone they see. We don't know who sent them. We don't know their agenda; it rather looks like indiscriminate slaughter is the agenda. Separately, the X-Men and X-Factor (who are operating in secret because of their misgivings about the reformed Magneto taking over Xavier's school) enter the tunnels to stop the carnage. It does not go well for them.

At the time of the Mutant Massacre's publication, the X-books needed a new villain team. The remnants of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, under Mystique, had become government agents in exchange for a federal pardon. As Freedom Force, they could cause problems, but now they were on a leash. Apocalypse's Alliance of Evil was kind of a dud. The Hellions gave the New Mutants a few headaches, but they were just a bunch of kids. So now we get the Marauders, and they're awful—meaning, they're excellent heels. Even in their first appearance, their members are easily distinguished by their personalities and powers, and for whatever they lack in depth, they compensate with sheer vileness and frightful competence.

The Mutant Massacre suffers from too strong a start. When I was in the second grade, I read a friend's older brother's copy of Uncanny X-Men #211; I won't say I was traumatized, but it was a truly disturbing read for an eight-year-old. The fact that it got printed at all proves what a joke the Comics Code Authority really was: a depiction what happened at Columbine or Pulse is only marginally less horrific for its substituting mutants throwing energy harpoons and ninja stars for people with guns. Just because there aren't any crimson blood splatters doesn't mean it's a TV-Y7 affair. In retrospect, it's a little sick that eight-year-old me should have read Colossus murdering Riptide with such relish—but, well, there we were.

What happens afterward is a lot of meandering as everyone runs around underground for a few issues. The Marauders escape. The chapters in Power Pack (think of Anakin in The Phantom Menace) and Thor ("hark!") are tonally dissonant, to put it mildly. In the end, everyone staggers back home—and then we unexpectedly get the first big fight between Wolverine and Sabretooth. The Mutant Massacre sags in the middle, but its best moments are exemplary classic X-Men material.

Most important development: Angel loses the use of his wings, priming him to become Archangel. Shadowcat and Nightcrawler are benched after receiving crippling injuries, making them available for their eventual transfer to Excalibur. Psylocke joins the X-Men. But come on, none of this is as big a deal as Wolverine and Sabretooth appearing together in a comic book for the first time.

Favorite moments: The obnoxiously talented Alan Davis (who will draw and/or write Excalibur for several of the series' golden years) pencils the Massacre's final chapter, and knocks it out of the damn park. This page in particular—and the juxtaposition between Psylocke focusing her mind while Wolverine and Sabretooth tear each other apart—is gorgeous to behold.

#7: X-TINCTION AGENDA (1990–1)
Books involved: New Mutants, Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor

In brief: Having wormed his way into Genosha's government, the vicious cyborg Cameron Hodge enacts his vendetta against the X-Men.

The long story: Genosha has been a mass grave for so long that it's easy to forget its introduction into the Marvel Universe as a serviceable metaphor for South African apartheid: an island nation off the East African coast whose booming economy and first-world standard of living depended on the state secret of homegrown mutant slave labor. The X-Men's first visit to Genosha was a classic Claremont tale of the price of prosperity and of conflicting loyalties to nation and family. The second visit is...well, in a few of the Genoshan characters, we still see the tension between their dedication to the well-being of their country and their knowledge of the crimes against humanity on which it's built—but the grey areas tend towards monochrome when a slathering, genocidal head mounted on a gigantic spider-snake robot is calling the shots.

Our story begins with Cameron Hodge—the aforementioned slathering, genocidal head—cajoling the unhinged Genoshan president into renditioning the X-Men to stand trial for crimes committed during their first visit. Her special ops team captures Storm and most of the New Mutants before warping out, and the combined forces of the X-Men, X-Factor, and the remaining New Mutants mount a rescue mission. Genosha's president ignores her inner circle's warnings that kidnapping and imprisoning American nationals will backfire; Hodge has her convinced that an international show of strength is in her country's best interest. He's lying, of course: his only interest is getting the X-folks to Genosha so he can use the country's technological and military resources to kill them off. Then, of course, he'll stage a coup and use Genosha as his base of operations for eradicating Homo superior.

I expected X-Tinction Agenda would at least crack the top five, but after giving it a close reread after so many years—man. What a ridiculous mess. I mean that affectionately, of course. After all, this is a story about a prison riot in a country that uses people with superpowers as slave labor. It kicks off with children being abducted and teleported via modem (really!) overseas, where their jailer is the decapitated head of a former PR agent made immortal by a demonic contract, and at least one of the writers of this thing seems to earnestly want to wring a political drama out of it. It's chunky, it's pulpy, it's exceptionally dense in calories—excellent superhero schlock, in other words.

The janky plotting, however, is hard to overlook. Even by crossover standards, X-Tinction Agenda is sloppy. In one chapter, Wolverine is dying from his wounds and Cable is riddled with nailgun bolts. When we see them in the following issue, they're both fine. Hodge repeatedly nails people to the walls with his "shoulder spikes," but getting impaled through the scapula is evidently something that can be walked off after twenty pages. Wolfsbane's size is said to have increased as a result of her biological modification into a "mutate;" one artist depicts her as standing seven feet tall, while another draws her at her ordinary height.

Seeing the deranged Cameron Hodge in action makes it all worth it. He reminds me of Palpatine from the latter-day Star Wars movies: gleefully, grotesquely, sleazily over-the-top in his evilness. He is the monster mash. And he's one hell of an opponent: the X-Men pound on him and pound on him, chapter after chapter, and he savagely tanks on. Neither Mr. Sinister in Inferno nor Apocalypse in Endgame put up half the fight that Hodge does in X-Tinction Agenda.

Aside from their high-cholesterol entertainment value, these old crossovers are worth revisiting for glimpses into past moments of the X-books' ever-evolving status quo. In 1990, Magneto had gone his own way, Professor Xavier was still in outer space, and the X-Men and X-Factor weren't avoiding each other anymore. Storm was still stuck in a child's body (long story), Gambit was a recent addition and an unknown variable, and Psylocke's friends were still getting used to her trans-racial makeover. The New Mutants were on their way to becoming paramilitary renegades under Cable (also an unknown variable) and were living in the basement under the ruins of the blown-up X-Mansion, where pent-up aggression crackled between them and the returning X-Men. Good times.

X-Tinction Agenda is also a window into the months before the tension between the X-books' writers and artists came to a head, when Claremont and Simonson were still working with Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld. Reading X-Tinction Agenda, especially if you've recently flipped through comic books from the seventies and eighties, you'll get pretty clear idea of why Jim Lee was hailed as the Ziggy Stardust of superhero comics. Whatever veracity there is to reports/rumors of him acting like a diva back then, he undeniably raised the bar. He absolutely deserved the hype.

Looking at Jim Lee's art was the first time I paid enough attention to
Wolverine's wrist to wonder how he bends it when his claws are
retracted. Jim Lee draws Wolverine's wrist that well

And Rob Liefeld...well. You probably had to be there in order to understand why he was such a big deal. Or maybe not: I was there, I asked for X-Force back issues for Christmas, and now I'm as puzzled as anyone else.

seriously wtf is happening in this panel

Most important development: The death of Warlock. It's shocking to see a pillar of the New Mutants series and a fan-favorite get killed off, but I'm guessing it was done with X-Force in mind. The New Mutants were about to Go Nineties, and there wasn't much of a place on the roster for an adorable comic-relief alien. And by the reckoning of superhero comics, he stayed dead (or at least wasn't really himself) for a very long time.

Hmm. I'll give Liefeld this: he was pretty darned good at drawing Warlock. Of course, I might be biased because his take on the character was the first I saw and the one I fell in love with.

Favorite moments: Any given page where Cameron Hodge is being a repulsive asshole. Why did he want to get infected by Warlock's transmode virus and shapeshift himself to back to a human form in the first place? Did he not understand how much panache that would have cost him?

#6: UTOPIA (2009)
Books involved:
Dark Avengers, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men Legacy

In brief: Scott Summers—AKA Cyclops. Optic force blasts. Has a plan. Norman Osborn—AKA Iron Patriot. Half Elon Musk and half J. Edgar Hoover stuffed in an Iron Man suit. Matthew Frichtman—AKA Matt Fraction. Uncanny X-Men scribe, 2008–2011. Writes cloyingly hip captions.

The long story: As mentioned above, every comic book crossover event is a peephole into the status quo during its time of publication. The 2009 crossover between Uncanny X-Men and Dark Avengers is a little different, since the X-Men were in the middle of a transitional period, and the Dark Reign event had turned all of the Avengers' books temporarily upside-down. 

The scene: in the wake of Tony Stark's missteps in handling the Secret Invasion crisis, SHIELD has been dismantled and replaced by HAMMER, with Norman Osborn (formerly the Green Goblin) as its director. After forming an alliance of mutual interests with a cabal of high-level outlaws and malefactors, he assembles a handpicked team of "dark" Avengers, who are mostly supervillains dressed up in familiar goodguy costumes. Bullseye becomes Hawkeye, the symbiote-bonded Scorpion becomes Spider-Man, Daken imitates Wolverine, Ares fills in for Thor, and so on.

Meanwhile: after the latest razing of the Xavier Institute (is this the fourth time? the fifth?), the worlds' remaining mutants (about two hundred retained an active X-gene after M-Day) flock to San Francisco, where the X-Men have set up a mutant hostel/community center/embassy in the Marin Headlands. Probably this has something to do with why Simon Trask (brother of the late Bolivar Trask) chooses San Fran as his destination when he marches his Humanity, Now! coalition south from Sacramento to demand legislation restricting mutant reproduction. (As far as comic-book allusions to real-world politics go, translating California's Proposition 8 into Trask's "Proposition X" is among the least subtle.) This being California, the demonstrators run into resistance not only from unhappy mutants, but from outraged West Coast liberals. Tempers flare. Riots ensue.

Osborn declares martial law and arrives with his Avengers to boost his credibility and subjugate the X-Men under the pretense of restoring order to the city. After staging a media spectacle to discredit Cyclops, he introduces Emma Frost (who joined his cabal behind Cyclops' back) and her new team of X-Men, to whom Professor Xavier himself (actually Mystique) gives his endorsement. Like Osborn's Avengers, Frost's "dark" X-Men are crazies and former criminals. And why not? Dark Reign was a pretty good gimmick, and it seems only fair that the X-books should get to have a little fun with it.

Angry bigots taking to the streets to demand solutions to "the mutant problem" are a familiar sight in X-Men comics, but the urban discord in Utopia's first act looks different. During the violent upsurge in anti-mutant sentiments that formed the background of X-Factor's first volume, the public protests tended to last only as long as the narrative needed them to; one gets the sense that the crowds waving around their NO MORE MUTANTS signs eventually got bored and went home. The Proposition X demonstrators and counter-demonstrators collide in the afternoon; by nightfall, San Francisco is a war zone. In addition to the mutant-haters throwing bottles and bricks at a kid with scales, we see pro-mutant activists picking fights with the cops and promiscuously throwing out the word "fascist," while X-people in favor of de-escalation grapple with X-people who want to pick fights and wreck shit. Actors on all sides of the scrimmage understand the importance of steering the media narrative towards conformity with their position: "the whole world is watching" is a refrain throughout Utopia.

Needless to say, rereading Utopia in the summer of 2020 was a discomfiting experience, and I mean that as praise. Author Matt Fraction doesn't get everything right, and he fudges and exaggerates details here and there—for example, the part where the leader of what we could call the "Human Lives Matter" bloc starts turning people into killer robots. Still, the episodes of civil unrest from the eighties and nineties books look like hollow caricatures compared to what we see in Utopia's first act. (And the rate we're going, maybe by 2021 the killer robots thing will seem prescient.)

What's Cyclops to do? Urge nonviolent resistance against Proposition X and condemn the mutants who struck back at the people throwing molotov cocktails at them? Take to the streets and mow down the riot police and haters with eye lasers? Nope. If Osborn's America has a problem with mutants, Cyclops reasons, the solution is to get mutants out of America. The X-Men's science team raises Asteroid M from the Pacific floor, Pixie and Magik teleport every mutant in San Francisco to its surface, and Cyclops publicly declares the artificial island's status as an independent homeland for Homo superior.

Osborn isn't thrilled about Cyclops violating the rules of his game, and flies out with his villainous Avengers to take him down. With Ares and Sentry on his strike team, a repeat of the Waco incident seems likely—which is precisely Osborn's idea.

What made Dark Avengers such an unusual comic book during its brief run wasn't necessarily its "villains as the heroes" gimmick, but the character of the super-feats its protagonist employed as a means of reaching his goals. Yes, feats: before the drama and plot twists keep us reading a superhero serial, we're drawn in by the spectacle of larger-than-life characters doing impossible things. A decent comic book about Batman will dazzle the reader with the Dark Knight's brilliant detective work and tactical acumen, a book about the Flash entertains by illustrating clever uses of super-speed, and so on. Dark Avengers, which centers charismatic scumbag Norman Osborn, is about godlike levels of PR savvy in action. That he could persuade the word to trust him, in spite of his history as a lunatic who put on a goblin mask and lobbed pumpkin-shaped explosives at people, seems so ridiculous as to preclude suspension of disbelief. And yet, Osborn convincingly pulls it off. (Seriously, during his early heart-to-heart talks with the Sentry, he almost had me wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

In Scott Summers, Osborn meets his match. Cyclops' plan to take Osborn's heavy hitters out of play succeeds, but all that does is buy him enough time to execute his master stroke: maneuvering Obsorn into a position where a victory on the battlefield would lead to a crippling defeat in the arena of public opinion. Left with no option but to retreat, the Iron Patriot returns to the mainland and gives a press conference to take credit for driving the "mutant menace" from American soil and into self-imprisonment off the coast. Nicely played, Slim.

Most important development: See the crossover's title. X-Men fans informally call the period between 2009 and 2012 the "Utopia era."

Superhero comics are at their best when they foster the illusion that, despite being written by multiple people with divergent ideas and varying degrees of talent, and despite being subject to the whims of an editorial department whose job is to boost sales through whatever ploys and expedients they can imagine getting away with, the books' decades-long arcs are advancing according to some grand and necessary design. Take Cyclops's evolution from neurotic tightwad to revolutionary, for instance. The shift occurs so gradually and so logically as to lead one to suspect that his becoming a twenty-first-century Moses was laid out in a notebook passed down from Chris Claremont to each of his successors.³

The relocation to Utopia is much more abrupt than Cyclops' ascendancy, but in the economy of the X-books, it seems no less inevitable. Now that the franchise has moved into the Krakoa era, Fraction's Utopia may almost come across as a practice run for Jonathan Hickman's soft reboot—but I don't think that's fair to either writer. Let's think about what came after Utopia. There was a grossly contrived plotline about Wolverine leading a faction of X-Men back to the East Coast and rebuilding the Institute, so as to rehash the status quo from ten years earlier. Decimation was reversed by deus ex machina during Avengers Vs. X-Men. The time-displaced teenage versions of the original five X-Men arrived on the scene, and instead of going home after a couple of months, they became the de facto center of the X-Men line for six years. If Hickman's new Krakoan paradigm bears more than a superficial resemblance to the Utopia period, it's because the Utopia years were the last time the X-books were looking forward rather than backward.

Favorite moments: Mike Carey's side story in X-Men Legacy is a fun little romp. Rogue, Gambit, and Danger clash with Ares and Moonstone (dressed up as Ms. Marvel), while Trance's life hangs in the balance. It's always nice to see the kids from New X-Men: Academy X given something to do after their books were cancelled, and Trance was an underused character to begin with.

And I loved reading Scott and Emma's long-deferred heart-to-heart in the Dark X-Men: Confession one-shot. (Yes, I know it doesn't have Utopia event logo on its cover, but it's included the trade paperback. Leave me alone.) Am I surprised to learn it was written by Craig Kyle and Chris Yost? Not in the least.

I stopped reading X-Men comics around the time of the Onslaught arc. In retrospect, that was a good decision—though it did mean I missed Grant Morrison's resuscitation of the line in New X-Men. Hearing from a friend that Jean Grey was dead (again) and Cyclops was partnered with Emma Frost, I was gobsmacked. "That's so stupid," I must have said, and was probably certain that Jean wouldn't be nearly so long in coming back as last time, because Scott/Emma ("Scemma?" "Scottma?" "Frostclops?") was too dumb to last. Scott had been through too much with Jean, fended off too many rivals for her affections, and screamed JEEEEAN too many times in the animated series not to be with Jean Grey for as long as there was ink left in the world to keep printing X-Men comics. And Emma Frost? As in, the White Queen? Former supervillain, cold-hearted martinet, and stuck-up bitch? Nuh-uh.

After catching up on over a decade's worth of X-Men comics some years later, I had to eat my words. Scott and Emma's unlikely relationship is another case of the illusion of a grand design making comic book serials such a pleasure to read as the years pass. Scott and Jean met and fell in love when they were teenagers—and, well, try to imagine what life would be like if you dated your high school boy/girlfriend for ten years and then got married to them. By the time you reached your thirties, you'd be totally different people than you were when you shared your first awkward slow dance in the school gymnasium. Maybe you'd come to the conclusion that each of you grew into somebody with whom the other is no longer compatible.

Since this is all happening within an X-Men comic, the process involves Scott coming down with a case of the long-term grumps after getting mind-melded with Apocalypse and Jean losing a bit of her humanity when the Phoenix comes back a-knocking—but otherwise, Morrison's depiction of their marriage's breakdown was uncomfortably realistic. He left it to future writers to determine what exactly made Scott and Emma work (if they were going to work out), and what they gradually came up with was the pair's dynamic as a power couple: each of them sees and brings out the best in the other with a clarity that was absent in Scott and Jean's relationship. I was convinced Morrison and his successors knew what they were doing with Scott and Emma long before reading Utopia, but to my mind, the "Confession" chapter is where the brilliance of their partnership is finally and absolutely substantiated.⁵

Again: what fun! We'll look at numbers five through one tomorrow.

1. Even if I'm the only person who notices or cares, I'm compelled to state that I'm playing a bit fast and loose with style rules. Here's what I'm doing: crossover titles are not italicized— I don't know what the "academic" rules about the title of a publishing "event" might be, and I don't like using quote marks unless they're explicitly prescribed by standard formatting rules because, as you might have perceived when your eyes scanned the words "academic" and "event" a few lines above, they have the effect of a cognitive speed bump. X-Men, when referring to the name of an intellectual property with n number of books and ten times that many characters, is not italicized. The titles of particular books (say, Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants) are italicized. There: I've confessed my sins. Thank you.

2. This is as good time to mention that The Real Gentlemen of Leisure is a peerless source for classic X-Men information and commentary, takes a lot of responsibility for nudging me back towards the books a few years ago.

3. Crackpot theory: maybe Claremont confesses the notebook's existence by making Destiny's diary a plot point in X-Treme X-Men.* You know how some people believe Stanley Kubrick encoded a visual confession of his involvement in faking the moon landing into The Shining? Same deal.

* As long as I have your attention and I'm throwing out opinions about X-Men comics: I think Claremont's occasional returns to the books after his departure in 1991 are unfairly maligned. No, X-Treme X-Men isn't my favorite, but it's not Austen/Guggenheim/Rosenberg-tier awful either. Part of the problem was that he still writes comics the way he did in the seventies and eighties, and it tends to come across as anachronistic. There's also the Chinese Democracy factor: given his stature and legacy, there was never any possibility that a new X-Men comic written by Chris Claremont would satisfy expectations unless it could actually perform fellatio on readers' eyes. 

4. I only regret losing the opportunity to follow John Francis Moore's (of X-Men 2009 and Doom 2099 "fame") 1997–2000 run on X-Force. He's responsible for the period where the group says "fuck it, let's just drive somewhere until our book is about something again." At one point, they fight the Black Queen at Burning Man. It's really a whole lot of fun.

5. Just for the sake of indulging my pathological addiction to endnotes: as far as I can tell, Scott and Jean got back together for the Dawn of X relaunch for the same reason that Professor Xavier was dropped back into his wheelchair for X-Men #1. Despite their being the most talked-about examples of Krakoan sexual liberation, I'm still waiting to see an iota of chemistry between Scott and Jean on the page. 

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