Sunday, January 13, 2013

10 Reasons X-Cutioner's Song Still Rocks Pt. 1

I certainly read comics before the fall of 1992, but it was those four months when I was 10 that I daresay transformed mere hobby into passion. As I detailed in a post a couple years back—and have spoken on more than once since—my buddy Matt Corley and I would feverishly ride our bikes to the local collectibles store every Wednesday for 12 weeks to grab the latest chapter of the X-Cutioner’s Song crossover unfolding through Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, X-Men and X-Force, tear off the polybags, scan the Stryfe’s Strike (was it Stryke?) File card and get engrossed in the sprawling mutant saga that encapsulated everything I came to love about comics as a kid (and still do today).

Last year was the 20th anniversary of X-Cutioner’s Song, and a group of Marvel-employed superfans including myself, Ryan Penagos, Arune Singh, James Viscardi and Nick Lowe were hell-bent on celebrating with all the bells and whistles, but got caught up doing stuff like “our jobs” so the window came and went. I still dream that we’ll do a belated bit of ballyhoo sooner rather than later (Scott Porter said he’d do a podcast retrospective with us and the band Bloc Party agreed to help us write the X-Cutioner’s Song song)…but until then, I’m going to do a bit of my own commemorating with just a small sampling of reasons why this story was the pinnacle of my comic book childhood and remains my high watermark for tales of glorious action and awesome.

Started with a Bang
In the very first installment of X-Cutioner’s Song—which to this day is the only one I don’t own and had to borrow Matt’s Scott Lobdell-signed copy any time I wanted reread the story in its entirety—Professor X gets shot; by Cable no less! It wasn’t like villains hadn’t gone after Xavier before, it wasn’t like he hadn’t been badly injured (or even “killed”) before, but the nature of the attack was so brazen—in public at a Lila Cheney concert for peace—and apparently from one of the X-Men’s own (sort of). It immediately threw things into disarray, complicated by the fact that Cyclops and Jean Grey were simultaneously kidnapped by the Horsemen and thus the X-Men had to function without their “mind, heart and soul,” with the likes of Havok and Storm having to step up while being behind the eight ball from the get-go. I never really thought Xavier was going to bite it, but the tender bedside scenes with everybody from Beast to Psylocke were a nice touch to the thrill-a-minute action.

More than just Magneto
When X-Cutioner’s Song kicked off, the X-Men cartoon had only just begun, so as far as I knew, the X-Men only fought Magneto, Sabretooth and the Sentinels on a loop. From what I’ve since read, much of the genesis of this story spun out of Magneto being temporarily “dead” and the writers asking “what if every other major X-Men villain attacked at once?” Hence you get a crash course on the other big bads of the X-Universe, particularly Apocalypse and Mr. Sinister (in addition to Stryfe, of course, who gets his own entry in a bit). As a kid who only knew Apocalypse as a weird action figure and Sinister as a dude who looked like Colossus, I dug getting thrown in the deep end with them, their scheming, and their impressive shows of ambiguous mutant powers. It all came full circle so that when they did show up on the animated series I was jazzed to see characters I actually cared about brought to life.

X-Force is Awesome
I’d have to say my favorite single installment of the story remains part four, X-Force #16, which if I recall I actually read first, catching up on the first three chapters later. In that issue, the combined X-Men and X-Factor teams track down X-Force, who has been largely on the outside of the story to this point—save for a quick clash with X-Factor—hoping they will lead them to Cable, but instead a kick ass fight breaks out where Cannonball and company are wildly outmatched, but tenaciously keep swinging Rocky Balboa-style and make it a ballgame way longer than it should have been by all rights (I honestly thought Shatterstar was going to at least take out Wolverine). I had been a casual X-Force fan before this, but thought they were kind of lame just because they were basically Cable’s support staff; this is where they broke out and became all kinds of awesome on their own, setting up the run of comics I love where they broke away from their mentor altogether to the degree that when he came back had to basically ask them permission to rejoin the team (as a weird aside, Greg Capullo draws all the X-Force members in this issue covered in splotches of mud because they were in a swamp, but 10-year-old me thought it was some form of villain mind control and that’s why they were fighting the X-Men).

Cannon Fodder
Any big bad worth their salt has the prerequisite group of henchmen, but the ones featured in X-Cutioner’s Song—and most of 80’s/90’s X-Men lore—were a cut above the rest, with cool designs and crazy powers. You had Apocalypse’s Horsemen, at this point consisting of Caliban, Pestilence and War; the Dark Riders, who initially served Apocalypse but after Stryfe kicks his ass they swap loyalties because their whole thing is survival of the fittest; and finally, my personal favorites, the Mutant Liberation Front, Stryfe’s flunkies for the couple years previous who he totally throws under the bus here to get busted while he’s up on the moon. The MLF puts up a helluva fight though, with Strobe blinding Rogue and putting her out of action while Reaper nearly takes out Gambit and Quicksilver (one of the issues ended with the cliffhanger of him standing over them with his scythe and the next issue blurb literally read “Will Reaper kill Gambit and Quicksilver?” to which my 10-year-old self responded “Seriously? No.”); alas poor Kamikaze, who got accidentally decapitated when Archangel literally turned the wrong way with his wings extended (more on that later). This story was only missing Sinister’s Nasty Boys for 90’s X-Men henchmen perfection (I would say the Nasty Boys and MLF were the cut-off, as the new look Acolytes in Fatal Attractions and beyond were the quintessential “complex sounding power that is really just an energy blast” team of 90’s).

Who is Jae Lee?
I had no clue who Jae Lee was in 1992, aside from the fact that he drew nothing like Andy Kubert, Brandon Peterson or Greg Capullo (or Jim Lee or Rob Liefeld) and seemed grossly out of place as guest artist of X-Factor during X-Cutioner’s Song. At the time, I did not care for his work at all and was baffled as to how he got the gig. Of course over the years I’ve come to appreciate Jae Lee as one of the most unique and talented draftsmen in comics capable of work that’s transcendentally beautiful, but also looking back, his X-Cutioner’s Song work kind of kicked ass. The darkness, the use of shadow, the harsh angles—it ratchets up the tension and emotion to take a super hero action story to a very emotional place. His depictions of Xavier puking up techno-organic virus, Wolverine slashing Cable to pieces or Archangel brooding are masterpieces. Needless to say, I’d like to give kid me a good smacking sometimes.

To be continued…