Judd Winick has spent so many years now as exclusively a DC talent focused primarily on characters like Batman and Green Arrow that it's kinda nuts to think that a decade ago (wow) he was across the street at Marvel writing, in a somewhat roundabout way, one of the least street level franchises of them all in the X-Men. Honestly, most of the Winick work I've been reading of late is his earlier moody/quirky cartoon stuff like Pedro and Me and Barry Ween, so it seems like a million years ago to me that he was penning the adventures of a reality-hopping team of mutants working their way through the pivotal moments in X-Men history.
But once upon a time, that's just what Judd Winick did when he launched Exiles, and it was excellent.
Exiles launched in 2001 right as I was getting back into comics and it was one of the first books I start picking up regularly. There was something magic about what Winick and artist Mike McKone were doing; it felt like a gateway to the imposing, towering mythology that was the X-Men but one that was easily accesible. I could relate to the characters because on some level they were like me: they had a cursory understanding of the worlds and situations they found themselves on or in (as did I as a lapsed fan), but they needed some clarification in order to fully function (again, ditto). While I wasn't at a place as a reader that I could really appreciate the heady stuff Grant Morrison and Joe Casey were doing over in the primary X-Men titles just then, Winick and McKone (plus frequent fill-in artist Jim Calafiore) served me up a monthly helping of mutant adventure that was easy to jump into and also of high quality.
While Winick's run on Exiles had its ups and downs (he lasted over 30 issues, albeit with a hiatus during which time Chuck Austen wrote an arc), I'd say a lot of the really good stuff came quite early on, with the first year being particularly excellent. There was a real energy and sense of fun as you could definitely tell Winick and his artistic collaborators were enjoying the freedom they had to delve into the X-Men Universe in a way few others did. However, when I pluck early issues of Exiles from the longboxes sitting back in my house in Newton, the one story I can read over and over is "A World Apart," which unfolded over the course of three issues from #8-#10.
The story starts with a cold open on Mimic in chains, fighting in some gladitorial arena as a raucus crowd cheers him on. Mimic wins his match and is escorted back to his cell where his teammate, Thunderbird, is being prepped to fight. In fitting with his optimistic tone at this point in the series, Mimic tries to give T-Bird a pep talk and gets a glare. We learn quickly that our heroes are captives of the Skrulls, who have conquered Earth, and that they've been prisoners for some time now.
Elsewhere, Blink and Morph have eluded the Skrull captors and are searching for mankind's last hope: Reed Richards. It's not spoiling much to say that they find him, but as is usually the case with Exiles, he's not what they (or we) expect.
The first half of the storyline focuses on this situation and Winick effectively and masterfully paints for us the picture of a fully-realized universe we've never seen before in the course of an issue and a half. He builds on character dynamics only hinted at in the series' half dozen prior issues, such as the somber romance between the flirtatious Nocturne and moody Thunderbird. He begins his dissection of Mimic, setting him on a lengthy journey that will force him to question everything he believes in and test him as never before. Along the way, we get some great fight scenes between the Exiles and other-dimensional versions of Marvel mainstays all decked out in exotic new costumes, something a design master like McKone excels at. McKone is also great at choreographing fight scenes on a cinematic scale, be it the "Gladiator" type brawls we start with or the "Braveheart" style war to come.
And that war comes because halfway into the story, Winick blows up everything he's been doing and brings Galactus to Earth. The Skrulls flee, the heroes are freed, and the Exiles are stuck with like a day to train the champions they've looked up to all their lives but who have been muddling along as slaves to fight a god.
It's fucking sweet.
You get to see pretty much every hero and villain in the Marvel Universe learning on the job as they try and fend off a hungry Galactus and his herald, Terrax the Tamer. It's the underdog story you could never really do in the Marvel U proper since the Fantastic Four and friends were all already pretty experienced when the Big G first showed up, and Winick works the beats perfectly; you'll cheer for the small victories and you'll cry (or at least frown) at the major sacrifice (and it's a big one). Mike McKone opens up like he's George Perez drawing Crisis On Infinite Earths and treats these three issues like the biggest event crossover ever. Actually, that was one of the cool things about those early days of Exiles: every storyline basically was a huge event crossover told in a few issues from a very specific point of view.
There's an epilogue/coda in issue #16 called "Nocturne and Evensong" that I don't want to spoil because this is a story you really should hunt down (and it's pretty readily available) and it really is one of the more beautiful little stories Judd Winick has ever written.
Though Exiles remains a fun vehicle to this day, given the core concept it was inevitable that it would eventually become a little bogged down by continuity and explanation, so there's a real fun and innocence to these early issues where it was just a bunch of confused mutants jumping through alternate worlds with no need to get bogged down in the details. Good stuff, check it out.
You can purchase A World Apart on its own or as part of the first Exiles Ultimate Collection.