X-Men: X-Cutioners Song TPB by Fabian Nicieza
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I’m not a fan of crossovers. At the core, what is a giant comics crossover other than simply an attempt to get you to buy more comic books? If done right, I suppose, a crossover might also be a chance to bring different characters together and spin a story that spans a couple universes or intertwines a few storylines, but honestly—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crossover done well. (The Great Fables Crossover was certainly a disappointment, and I’m viewing Dark Cybertron as an unwelcome interruption in my favorite regularly-scheduled comic book.)
There’s so much that can go wrong. Crossovers often have the feeling of being written by a committee and then being put together on the page by a subcommittee, or an entire handful of subcommittees. And this is often I imagine exactly how it’s done. Because each comic title has its own writers and artists, usually with their own vision for the feel of the series and where the stories are going, the pacing and how they’re developed, and oftentimes slamming them together ends up just feeling like a train wreck. Now imagine trying to do that with something as huge and unwieldy as the various X-People Marvel lines, in their early-90s heyday. That’s pretty much exactly what you get with X-Cutioner’s Song.
There’s one reason I bought this volume: nostalgia. I picked it up at a Marvel-themed gift-shop at Universal Studios as a teenager because as a kid I had been on the ground-floor of the launch of Marvel’s second X-Men title. I think I still have issue #1 of that “mutant milestone” floating around somewhere. As a young reader though, I was the primary target of this, the first major crossover involving the title, which was engineered solely to get a kids like me to shell out money for not just the normal X-Men comics but also the Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, and X-Force. (They were doing the same thing with Spider-Man titles at the same time, calling it Maximum Carnage, and I remember a few of my friends scrambling to piece together the story through Amazing Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Men, and whatever other Spider-titles were running then.) Of course I couldn’t do this, and so there were always holes in the narrative. I wondered what had happened to my characters during their appearances in the other issues. And I had lost many of the issues I had managed to collect anyway, so I bought the volume.
I re-read it again this summer for the same reason: nostalgia. That’s really the only reason there is to pick up this particular collection. The train wreck analogy actually works quite well here. In fact, I think I may have stumbled onto the solution for the X-Men’s faltering transition to the big screen: get Michael Bay to make this into a movie. Everything is ready for him: the thin veneer of plot involving Cyclops and Jean Grey getting kidnapped, Xavier being nearly assassinated, no one knowing what’s going on, and a confrontation between Cable and his clone Stryfe. Pieces of information are dangled but never really resolved. (We learn pretty much nothing about the origins of Cable and Stryfe, though they dance around it the entire book.) The lurching narrative is liberally interspersed with wild melees in which X-Factor fights X-Force, X-Men fight X-Force, X-everyone fights various villains, and Cable and Stryfe fight each other. Apocalypse and Mr. Sinister make random, fairly inexplicable appearances and disappearances. Women (and men!) wear spandex. Cable, Wolverine, and Bishop hang out on a space station. Listing all these things actually makes it sound like more fun than it was.
I think part of the problem with the various X-Men titles is that there’s just so much backstory that at some point it gets nearly impossible to keep track of it all. I looked up the entries for Cable and Cyclops on Wikipedia after reading this, for example, to see if I could answer the questions that this volume did not. It was dizzying. There’s something very compelling to such a Byzantine history, but it also makes it largely inaccessible. It also makes something like X-Cutioner’s Song incredibly unsatisfying as a stand-alone piece. (Though at the end of the day, this is what comic book companies want, right? Because otherwise you might not buy the next issue.) This volume was especially maddening as it didn’t even tie up the crossover pieces that it developed. The story “began,” for instance, with the X-Force on the run because X-everyone-else though that the X-Force leader, Cable, had assassinated Xavier. X-Force, which consists of the younger, next generation of mutants, go head to head with some of their former mentors and trainers. This wrinkle was actually kind of compelling. There was also some good tension as the X-Force de facto leader, Cannonball, accompanied the X-Men to carry out missions while the rest of his team languished in captivity.
But you know what? The volume ended with absolutely no resolution on this score at all. Some of the heroes end up on the Moon to witness the final Cable/Stryfe confrontation, and then that’s it. We don’t even get a hint or an afterword or something explaining what happens to the kids in X-Force (or why Cable had abandoned them in the first place or what happens to them after he disappears). There’s a distinct impression that the compilers simply did not care enough to tell us. Another indication of this lack of care: a table of contents to help keep all the different issues in this volume straight and then the omission of page numbers from any page in the volume.
If there’s a bright spot in this volume (besides the nostalgia for trading comic books on the playground and creating our own X-characters during recess), it’s the art in the X-Factor issues. I don’t know who was drawing those issues and I don’t care enough to wade through all the names to find out, but it’s a marked departure from the generic (though not bad) comic book art throughout the rest of the book. I remember that as a kid though it drove me nuts. It was almost too noir, definitely not as realistic as the artwork in the other X-titles (using the term realistic, of course, very loosely). Looking back though, it seems the freshest and most original part of the book.
I wonder what happened to those characters after this chapter was complete. Because on the one hand that’s the appeal of long-running comic titles like these: you know the stories keep going on and on and on. On the other hand though, that’s the problem: the stories go on, but the characters never change, not really. Wolverine will always be the exact same person. Apocalypse will always come back. We’ll go through the same variations of the same stories over and over again, but—since (in some respects) I’m no longer twelve—I find I don’t have the patience to play.