In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been that much of a shock when Marvel’s most popular artists banned together and formed their own publishing imprint. Marvel’s new focus of art over story had created a new breed of superstar artists, and it really was a matter of time before they traded in on their star power and marketed their own creations. Since the majority of Image’s founders were working on the X-titles, this could’ve spelled disaster for the line. The books managed to survive, however, and remained competitive with Image for years. As the various Image titles began to disappear from the Top 10 listings, the X-line maintained its commercial appeal. Editor Bob Harras continued to find “hot” artists for the titles (and even after the later artists also left for Image, he found even more), and the storylines continued the trend of introducing mysteries and occasionally actually resolving them. As the Image titles began to debut, Marvel released “The X-Cutioner’s Song”, a twelve-part crossover that brought the X-teams together, teased the death of Professor Xavier, and promised to shed light on the past of the mysterious Cable.
Uncanny X-Men – John Byrne departs early in the year, leaving Scott Lobdell to take his place as scripter. Lobdell begins as a last minute fill-in, but is soon the full writer of the book, a position he’ll maintain for five years. Whilce Portaico remains the artist for the first half of the year, but only plots a few issues. After Jim Lee co-plots a few issues with Portacio, Lobdell is credited as the sole writer. The early issues of the year have the team discovering Colossus’ brother Mikhail while in a strange dimension. When they return home, they run into Bishop again, who is quickly inducted into the team. Within a few issues, Lobdell is handling the plots and turning in a series of nonsense stories. The soap opera elements return, as Forge suddenly decides that he wants to marry Storm, then leaves with Mystique when she doesn’t answer him fast enough. The next few issues have Callisto and Mikhail, both suddenly insane, committing group suicide with the Morlocks. The quality improves with “The X-Cutioner’s Song” as new artist Brandon Peterson debuts and Lobdell’s stories take a more coherent direction. The crossover’s epilogue issue, which has Xavier temporarily able to walk again, is a sign that Lobdell is at his best when doing small, character driven stories.
X-Men volume two – Before the Omega Red arc can finish, John Byrne also departs this title, and he’s replaced by Scott Lobdell again. Jim Lee remains as plotter and artist until he leaves during the summer. The “X-traitor” subplot is introduced, as Bishop meets Gambit and immediately identifies him as the X-Men’s murderer in the future. A crossover with Ghost Rider introduces the Assassins Guild and Thieves Guild, two regrettable portions of Gambit’s backstory. After an unremarkable two-parter with Mojo, Jim Lee departs the title. Fabian Nicieza takes over as writer, kills some time by hinting at a connection between Wolverine and Xavier’s father, and then it’s time for “X-Cutioner’s Song”. Andy Kubert replaces Jim Lee as artist, putting him in position to become one of Marvel’s new “name” talents.
X-Force – A flashback issue reveals that Cable is a time-traveler, just as Rob Liefeld reduces his role on the title. Mark Pacella draws a series of fill-ins as Liefeld remains as plotter and Nicieza scripts. It’s revealed that Cannonball is an immortal “High-Lord’, or External, and that Cable came back to this time in order to mentor him. This is forgotten very, very quickly, becoming one of the more infamous dropped storylines. After Liefeld leaves, Fabian Nicieza becomes the sole writer and another future fan favorite, Greg Capullo, becomes artist. “The X-Cutioner’s Song” pits X-Force against the other X-teams, after Stryfe shoots Professor Xavier and frames Cable. Stryfe repeatedly hints that he is Cyclops’ son, who was sent to the future years earlier (later on, we’ll learn that Cable is Cyclops’ son and Stryfe is his clone). This story never actually confirms anything though, making the conclusion mostly unsatisfying.
Cable – Cable stars in a two-issue miniseries by Fabian Nicieza and John Romita, Jr. The mini reveals why many of Cable’s friends from his mysterious past hate him, and begins the journey of making him a more sympathetic character. Romita’s bulky, testosterone-fueled art suits the story very well.
X-Factor – Peter David writes a series of short arcs, as Larry Stroman begins to disappear from the title. An arc about the Mutant Liberation Front targeting a doctor who can detect mutant fetuses is neutered by editorial, but it still has nice character moments for Wolfsbane and Quicksilver. A group of Genoshan immigrants named the X-Patriots debut, setting up a storyline that’s supposed to send the team to Genosha. The team won’t actually travel to Genosha until next year (and Peter David ends up leaving before the storyline is finished), because the book is derailed by the “X-Cutioner’s Song” crossover. Cable, Wolverine, and Bishop suddenly headline the book for a few issues, while Jae Lee provides the art.
Wolverine – Following the revelation that many of his memories are false, Wolverine begins to devolve into the person he was before he joined the X-Men. Basically, he develops a nastier attitude and has an implied sexual encounter with Mystique. Hama doesn’t seem comfortable with the idea (I suspect it was an editorial “suggestion”), and just goes back to his standard personality after a few issues. During Silvestri’s final issues, Wolverine has another adventure in Japan that ends in the death of his long-ignored fiancée Mariko. Mark Texeira debuts as artist, as Wolverine is dragged into an adventure with agents from his black ops days. Another one of his former loves, Silver Fox, is killed (in a baffling scene poorly rendered by guest artist Mark Pacella). The tone of the series becomes remarkably dark, and Hama produces some of his strongest issues.
Excalibur – Alan Davis continues his run, giving the Phoenix Force an origin that’s subsequently ignored by everyone else. Numerous story threads are brought together for the fiftieth issue, highlighting Davis' skillful long-term plotting. Psylocke guest stars and the seldom-seen Jamie Braddock is the villain for a few issues. Unfortunately, there’s a decent amount of fill-ins this year, among them the “Excalibur II” story that brings back bad memories of what the series was before Davis’ return.
The Events: The Morlocks die. Again. (And are revived a few years later when we learn that Mikhail just transported them to another dimension.) Cable is revealed as a time-traveler from the future. Bishop joins the X-Men. Wolverine loses two girlfriends. We see the first indication that Apocalypse rules Cable’s future. Cable and Stryfe have an ambiguous death scene at the end of “The X-Cutioner’s Song”. Apocalypse also has an unconvincing death scene in the crossover.
The “What Were They Thinking?” Award: Jean Grey informs Archangel that he was always in command of his metal wings. The wings that were frequently out of control and ripping innocent people to shreds in the pages of X-Factor. Archangel doesn’t seem too concerned by the revelation, because he’s cheerfully taking his girlfriend out on a date the very next issue.
What’s the Appeal? : All of the characters (except for the cast of Excalibur, which still has little to do with the other titles) unite for a massive storyline that finally has the renegade X-Force confront the other X-teams. Wolverine, Gambit, Cable, and Bishop all have new information revealed about their pasts. The idea that Cable is the baby Cyclops sent to the future (or is at least his clone) was a popular fan theory in Wizard at the time, so readers can feel the satisfaction that their ideas are just as valid as the ones the creators are dreaming up. The art remains consistent, even after almost every artist leaves for Image. Some of the styles are dated, but the only run that doesn’t hold up at all is Mark Pacella’s X-Force, which is a blatant imitation of Rob Liefeld’s work.
Were the Critics Right? : Uncanny X-Men is still a mess, but participating in the crossover actually brings up the quality. Jim Lee’s final X-Men issues are fairly dull, and Fabian Nicieza’s early issues aren’t an improvement. X-Force becomes more of a train wreck than ever, as crazy revelations about Cannonball are thrown around while the team engages in a series of pointless fights. However, the quality does improve when Nicieza becomes the sole writer and Greg Capullo brings competent penciling to the title. X-Factor, Wolverine, and Excalibur are all enjoyable, if you’re willing to forgive the fill-ins. “The X-Cutioner’s Song” is able to bring the cast together and at least offer hints of resolutions to some ongoing mysteries. However, it drags on for too long and totally derails the continuing storylines in X-Factor. I’d say only half of the line is really working at this point.