Five years ago, I embarked on an epic series of columns in which I recounted the best X-Men stories from every decade. It took me more than a year to complete my intermittent examination. With the X-Men about to be reconfigured in the fall, it seemed like a good time to pick up where I left off. So here are my thoughts on the best X-Men stories of the past 4 years. It may seem like 4 years isn’t a large enough span for a list like this but with 3, 4 and sometimes 5 regular X-Men titles, there are plenty of stories to choose from. Plus, I grabbed a few of the better mini-series that were published during this time. So grab a bowl of popcorn, sit back and relax, and enjoy my list of the best X-Men stories from the summer of 2008 to the summer of 2012.
Manifest Destiny, Uncanny X-Men 500-503, 2008: I re-read this story earlier this summer and it was even better than I remembered. After the fall-out of Messiah Complex, the X-Men moved to San Francisco. They established a public headquarters in the Marin Headlands and a working relationship with the mayor’s office. I loved this new status quo. It was great to see the X-Men as public heroes who were respected and who enjoyed themselves. Of course it wouldn’t last, but it’s an era I wish had been allowed to flourish a little longer. Yet my favorable impression isn’t based merely on the new setting. I also appreciate the way Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker reintroduced the X-Men, blended the young and old characters into one title, balanced a large cast and built a new threat in Madelyne Pryor’s Hellfire Cult.
Magneto Testament, 2008: This mini-series is one of the best stories I’ve ever read- not only one of the best X-Men stories but one of the best stories period. Greg Pak and Carmine di Giandomenico examine Magneto’s early days growing up during the Nazi regime. He isn’t yet a super-villain. He barely realizes that he even has powers; he only knows that he has an unusual affinity for metal. In this story, Magneto is a young, Jewish boy named Max Eisenhardt who is trying to find his place in a difficult world. He’s torn between the views of his older relatives- one of whom wants to hide and the other who wants to fight. He experiences the first flush of love as he meets a young gypsy girl. But, above all, Max is a survivor, escaping to Poland, scrounging for food in the Jewish ghetto and subsisting in a concentration camp for several years.
Exogenetic, Astonishing X-Men 31-35, 2009: This is my favorite of the Warren Ellis stories on Astonishing X-Men, probably because he’s paired with the best artist in Phil Jimenez. Jimenez is great with the details, bringing precision to every panel. He also has a flair for the dramatic, as when he depicts the giant Sentinels. The combination draws you into the story, making both the emotion and action more real. The story also has a strong emotional core. Someone is grafting sentinel technology onto the corpses of mutants forcing the X-Men to fight their former students and face their former failures. It’s a particularly chilling moment for Emma Frost who, despite her hard edge, has a clear love for her students. There are also some great wide-screen action scenes such as Beast and Agent Brand piloting a crashing Blackbird. If anything, the story feels a little short at five issues as opposed to the now-standard six.
Second Coming, Uncanny X-Men 523-525, X-Men Legacy 235-237, New Mutants 12-14 and X-Force 26-28, 2010: I love big X-Men crossovers but I admit that they can sometimes be a little bloated. They have a tendency to get away from the creators, especially in the third act. But Second Coming is a strong story from start to finish. The villains, led by Bastion, have a very clear plan. They want to capture Hope and isolate the X-Men. They intentionally target teleporters like Magik and Nightcrawler. They force the X-Men back to their island home of Utopia and then cut them off from the rest of the world before embarking on a final assault. Second Coming combines a clear progression and a strong pace with near-constant action. It also gives us some powerful emotional scenes. The deaths of Nightcrawler and Cable are particularly well done. I may not like to see my favorite characters die but I can certainly appreciate a well-written death scene. I was also impressed with the way Second Coming laid the groundwork for later stories like Schism (Wolverine blames Cyclops for Nightcrawler’s death) and Avengers vs. X-Men (Captain America nominates Cyclops for a presidential medal which he accepts at first but later throws away).
Curse of the Mutants, X-Men 1-6, 2010: Though the fourth X-Men title was arguably superfluous when it was launched it 2010, it was inarguably very good. Horror novelist Victor Gischler took the reins of the X-Men and told a rip-roaring vampire story. Xarus, the son of Dracula and new leader of the united clans, approaches the X-Men with the idea of an alliance: vampires and mutants vs. humans. Cyclops isn’t ready to turn his back on humanity that completely and refuses the offer. Instead, he forges an unlikely alliance with Dracula in order to take Xarus down. Curse of the Mutants includes some great twists as alliances shift in surprising ways. It also shows Cyclops at his best, outmaneuvering his opponent and planning for all kinds of contingencies. The tie-ins with Storm & Gambit, the science team and everyone else in an anthology are good too.
The Five Lights, Uncanny X-Men 526-529, 2010: The Five Lights, which takes place immediately after Second Coming, is a journey of discovery. It’s a literal journey as Rogue and Hope fly around the globe looking for the newly emerging mutants, aka “the five lights.” It’s also a metaphorical journey, as Hope discovers more about herself and her place in this world apart from her relationship with Cable. Matt Fraction does a good job of introducing the new mutants. They have unique appearances and personalities despite their generic powers (flight, speed, heat & cold). Furthermore, their initial problems and activation scenes show that a mutant’s emergence can be as interesting as any origin story. It’s too bad that these characters faded blandly and badly into the background when they moved into their own title of Generation Hope.
That gets us halfway through this time period and halfway through this dozen. Come on back next time for some more X-Men goodness.