Entering the late ‘90s, the X-books don’t enjoy the lofty position they once held on top of the industry. The main titles are still selling, but many of the spinoffs are drifting further and further down the charts. The “Heroes Reborn” event brought a lot of attention to the non-mutant titles, and Marvel is able to maintain the momentum when it regains the characters with “Heroes Return.” A few years earlier, it was unthinkable that Captain America could outsell any of the X-books, but now it’s one of Marvel’s top-sellers and titles like X-Factor are dropping steadily. Personally, I’m reading much fewer of the books at this point, a combination of growing apathy and lackluster newsstand distribution.
Uncanny X-Men – The X-Men spend the first few months of the year fighting the Phalanx in space. It’s another storyline that relies heavily on Joe Madureira’s art to work, and the issues he doesn’t draw are a chore to read. We then enter the end of Scott Lobdell’s run as writer, as he begins a few story threads he never finishes. Maggott is introduced, scouring the globe for Magneto. The X-Men crash-land in a mystery location, one that’s changed from an alien landscape to Antarctica in-between issues because something was going on behind the scenes. Because the team still isn’t home, the characters aren’t in place to participate in the “Zero Tolerance” crossover (even though they were shown in the preview artwork, another sign of backstage confusion). In order to tie in with the crossover, Marrow stars for one issue, which also features Madureira’s excellent rendition of Spider-Man. After the token tie-in is out of the way, the focus returns to the marooned X-Men. Lobdell’s final issues have a few of Gambit’s former friends taking him captive under a mystery man’s orders. Lobdell suddenly disappears in-between issues, and Steven Seagle is now the regular writer. We learn that Gambit helped form the Marauders for Mr. Sinister years earlier, which is the dark secret he’s been keeping from the X-Men. The issue is clearly a rush job, and the ending has the X-Men abandoning Gambit to die in the Antarctic. Someone quickly realizes how blatantly out of character this is, so two quickie retcons are worked into the dialogue of the next few issues (Rogue was motivated by Gambit’s own self-loathing she absorbed by touching him, and the team actually did return to search for him but couldn’t find him). Steven Seagle begins his run, and has to produce two filler issues before Chris Bachalo arrives as artist. One of them is a memorable “day in the life” story about new X-Man Cecilia Reyes’ attempts at civilian life.
X-Men volume two – Scott Lobdell continues plotting both titles as Carlos Pacheco debuts as artist. The opening arc has some great visuals, but the story is a messy affair that has the Kingpin trying to sell an alleged cure for the Legacy Virus while Shang-Chi, of all people, teams up with the X-Men to stop him. Taken as a whole, the story doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny, which might be a result of another writer, Ben Raab, scripting over Lobdell’s plots. The title is then taken over by “Zero Tolerance,” which has this team of X-Men quickly taken captive by Bastion. Their thread is picked up in Wolverine, while this series moves the focus to Iceman and the formerly “closeted” mutant Cecilia Reyes. Reyes is a solid idea for a character, a normal person who wants no part of mutant conflicts and just wants to help people as a doctor. Her initial characterization makes her too whiney, but the basic idea is sound. Marrow joins their fight against Bastion’s Prime Sentinels, setting her up for her future role as an X-Man. After an embarrassingly anti-climatic conclusion (Iceman just talks Bastion into surrendering), Lobdell is suddenly gone from this book as well. Joe Kelly takes over as writer, as Marrow and Reyes are joined by Maggott as new members of the team. Kelly’s short story arcs and outstanding character work bring a lot of life back into the title.
X-Force – John Francis Moore takes over for Jeph Loeb, while Adam Pollina remains as artist. The stories gain some depth, as Moore develops the cast and delivers some well-crafted superhero stories. The “Zero Tolerance” crossover doesn’t even derail the book, as Moore just uses it as the setup for the action scenes for a couple of issues. This title lasted on my local newsstands for a few months longer than the rest of the X-spinoffs, but it was also gone by the end of 1997.
Wolverine – Larry Hama begins his final year on the title, and he’s soon joined by young artist Lenil Francis Yu. Yu’s hyper-detailed art suits the title’s new location, as Wolverine moves out of the X-Men’s mansion and into a New York neighborhood. Hama has an enjoyable series of issues that introduce a new supporting cast, but it’s not meant to be. After a few disappointing issues of “Zero Tolerance” (which have fairly obvious signs of editorial rewriting), Hama’s removed from the book. He’s replaced for a few issues by Warren Ellis, whose run has a germ of a good idea, but is needlessly padded.
The Events: Following the assassination of anti-mutant Presidential candidate Graydon Creed, Bastion rises to power within the government. He declares the X-Men outlaws and begins detaining mutants around the globe. After his defeat, Marrow, Maggott, and Cecilia Reyes join the X-Men. Gambit is forced out of the team after his past connection to Mr. Sinister is revealed, and Bishop is lost in space with Deathbird after the X-Men are separated in a wormhole.
The “What Were They Thinking?” Award: Marrow, the unrepentant killer from just two years earlier, joins the X-Men. This apparently was an editorial edict (which is odd, since Bob Harras apparently had issues with former villain Venom having his own series), and Scott Lobdell’s solution was to pair Marrow with an X-Man she didn’t meet during her initial appearances. The original plan was for Iceman, unaware of her past, to team up with Marrow, and then present her to the rest of the team. After that, I don’t know where Lobdell was going with this, but I imagine the X-Men would be forced to take her in to protect her from Bastion, because Lobdell’s planned status quo for the book had them running from Zero Tolerance indefinitely. In the published issues, the X-Men just grudgingly take her in, no one suggests turning her over to the authorities, and whether or not she ever killed anyone is contradicted by various dialogue exchanges.
What’s the Appeal? : Most of the titles still have strong artists, and the writing in the two main titles does improve when Seagle and Kelly take over.
Were the Critics Right? : Since I’m no longer following the entire line, I can only comment on the books I’ve personally read. Lobdell’s final issues are mostly a mess, and it’s obvious that there’s a lot of second-guessing of storylines after they’ve already begun. Mark Powers is now editing the main books, and extremely stilted exposition is suddenly appearing all over the pages (I’m sure editorial script changes weren’t anything new, but the sheer clunkiness of the text is now distracting). “Zero Tolerance” actually works when it’s just used to set up a few action scenes, but as a giant crossover, it’s a bomb. Steven Seagle and Joe Kelly do bring some excitement to the main titles, though, and at this point it seems like there’s a promising new start.