This is one of those times.
"Now let my ensuing explosion rock both heaven and hell . . .both yesterday and tomorrow."
Looked at more than 20 years later, X-Cutioner's Song is one of the more favourably remembered of the big X-Crossovers (Age of Apocalypse being the other) and is also, more or less, the first of a new generation of crossovers across the X-line.
Not that there hadn't been X-crossovers before--there had been since 1987 at least, every summer. But those were usually spearheaded by one writer or one lead writer and not necessarily shaped by editorial. X-Cutioner's Song is like them, only very different, because X-Cutioner's Song has the fingerprints of editorial all over it. This is unapologetically a comic planned by committee to run as efficiently as is humanly possible.
So far who cares,I hear you asking. Well X-Cutioner's Song is worth looking at because of it's place in history. Y'see, X-Cutioner's Song is the final recovery of a fumble Marvel had been suffering under since most of their star X-Men artists decamped to Image.
For those of you who came in late: About a year before this time, there'd been this big re-alignment of the X-Books, which coincided with Jim lee and Rob Liefeld et al being at their peak of popularity. They all got re-launched books with brand-spanking new variant covers that pumped up the sales numbers and while they were pretty much all shallow spectacle, they sold like golden hotcakes, and they could literally write their own ticket at Marvel.
Then they found out they could write another, bigger, ticket at Image, and them Marvel was left holding the bag with four titles, three of which didn't have big artists to draw (no pun intended) anymore, and since they'd been writing the books (*ahem* sorta . . .) as well, the books were now pretty well cut adrift.
Essentially, Marvel had been pantsed, especially as they'd just been thumping their chests about the big summer crossover that they had in the works called "Sins of the Father." No one knew what it was about, but given that they three biggest artists in comics were working on it, it was going to be huge.
Until of course, they weren't and it wasn't. Scrambling desperately for something to fill that block of time, they moved like lighting and so, X-Cutioner's Song was born, and quickly.
"Let their wills be forged in the stoking flames of Armageddon."
It was decided they'd use this forced course-correction as a way to wind up some rogue subplots banging around from the big line-wide shakeup last year, specifically a throwaway bit Rob Liefeld did in New Mutants #100 wherein it was revealed that under his ridiculous helmet, armoured bad guy Stryfe looked exactly like unarmoured good guy Cable. I doubt very much Liefeld had an explanation for it--it was just a cool way to button a series and hype people up for X-Force, but Marvel never met a continuity backwater it wouldn't strip-mine, so there it is. Cable, for his part, also had a few loose plot threads to tie up--namely, it had been heavily suggested he was Cyclops' son sent forward into the future to battle Apocalypse, because Cyclops is an awful, awful human being and fails miserably at the sort of thing you and I succeed at casually.
That was the plan. anyway.
Taking the field to make this twelve-issue (four issues per month for three months) were Scott Lobdell (who'd managed to be the last person standing after 4-5 people flaked out before him) and Brandon Peterson on Uncanny X-Men, Peter David and Jae Lee on X-Factor, and, side by side with Greg Capullo on X-Force and Andy Kubert on X-Men, and writing prose so purple it could have been a damn Prince album, Fabian Nicieza.
"I hold the shiny silver quarter. It catches the devil's light just so."
X-Cutioner's Song doesn't need to be 12 issues--it really doesn't. But it doesn't drag either, because there's usually a lot of frenetic action in every single issue so there's never really a moment when people are sitting around for a whole issue waiting for something to happen. This rather schizophrenic melange means that some things don't quite make a lot of sense, like the whole point of the story.
The plot is this: Stryfe. who looks like Cable, shoots Professor X, which then frames Cable and X-Force for the crime. Meanwhile, Apocalypse's flunkies kidnap Cyclops and Marvel Girl, but it's not Apocalypse, it's Mister Sinister (one notes with some amusement that X-Cutioner's Song could easily have been retitled "Three Villains With Unclear Motivations Do Stuff That Makes Little To No Sense For Twelve Issues.") After fighting each other for awhile, X-Force teams up with X-Factor and the X-Men and they fight the Mutant Liberation Front (the job guys of the X-Men universe for the past 2 years) Stryfe stuff baby food down Cyclops' throat and gets all emo with him and Marvel Girl, then suddenly decides to go beat the tar out of Apocalypse in a way that's supposed to explain everything but doesn't, Apocalypse cures Professor X, then everyone goes to the moon to fight Stryfe, and it all boils down to Cable punching Stryfe through a hole in space-time because even Cable was sick of Stryfe being emo.
The payoff for the whole thing was supposed to have been this: Stryfe was Cyclops' son, sent to the future and raised by Apocalypse, who subsequently went renegade and rebelled against Apocalypse and came back in time because of reasons. Cable was his clone who also fought against Apocalypse like Stryfe but for different reasons, and came back in time to stop Stryfe, because of reasons the writers never really seemed to be all that good about staying clear on.
All would be revealed, they promised, and of course, they backpedaled on it. Cable couldn't be the clone. partly because having a franchise character be a clone would just be stupid and not the kind of thing Marvel would ever do, and mostly because Cable was getting his own book that fall.
Plus, the idea of Stryfe torturing his own mother and father (more or less) for a few issues might have been too dark for the early 90's That, and the fact that whoever Cyclops' son was, one of them was going to be a clone created from someone who born from Cyclops and another clone and at some point it just becomes this ridiculous Russian doll situation, doesn't it?
So yeah, by the end of all this, the actual payoff that was promised never comes--with things turned around, nothing Stryfe does makes any sense at all, and at best this only muddles Cable's origins to the point where he'd The Continuity Headache That Walks Like A Man, Cylcops looks like even more of an ineffectual asshole, and hey guys--there's Havok! So the whole ending, even with Stryfe's parting gift of Mutant AIDS (no, really--that's not a joke) the whole thing collapses five minutes after you close the book.
And in this way would set the tone for all the 90's crossovers to come--promising beginning, competent middle, bait and switch ending. Whether it be "Bloodties," "Age of Apocalypse," "Phalanx Covenant," "Onslaught," or "Operation: Zero Tolerance," one could be sure that the destination was never quite the one promised when you struck out on the trip.
"Let the final moves be made. Let time determine the righteousness of my path."
But I come not to bury X-Cutioner's Song, but to praise it. Despite it's muddled finish and air of general cacophany, it has tremendous energy and everyone does a great job with their parts. Brandon Peterson provides some slick page layouts full of crisp detail, Andy Kubert makes people look completely feral when fighting for their lives, Jae Lee does some interesting things with shadow and negative space in the X-Factor issues that give the rare quiet bits some moody introspection, and Greg Capullo's action scenes are so kinetic they flip the comic from portrait to landscape. It has the courage of it's "crazy action movie" convictions, and thus, I find it difficult to reject it our of hand.
The real winner for me, and (in my copy of the HC) the crown jewel is the gimmicks. When shipped to stores, every issue of X-Cutioner's Song came with a card featuring some of the main characters of the crossover (and stumblebums like the MLF and the Dark Riders) with text on the back that supposedly came from Stryfe, written in character (and, had this been published ten years after it was published, could have been excerpts from his Livejournal) and they are glorious. You may have noticed I've been using bits from them to transition topis in this essay.
I'm sure Fabian Nicieza (who I figure wrote all of these) meant that this supplementary material would help flesh out Stryfe's motivations a bit. It doesn't. It does, however, give him even more opportunities to be utterly drama-queeny:
"The final move. White king against black king. Yet here, nothing but grey reigns supreme.Shades of grey, of uncertainty, confusion, anger, love and hate.
Shades of me.
Shades of you.
Shades of them."
Stryfe? BIG Linkin Park fan, I'm guessing. He was from the future, y'know.
The cards even got their own comic. Stryfe's Strike File was published a little while after and for those of us who hadn't gotten enough goofy purple prose from the original cards got all that, plus a couple of teasers for plot developments to come, plus two characters (Holocaust and Threnody) who didn't debut for another two years and when they did, were completely different to how they were portrayed here.
It's pretty zany, and like X-Cutioner's Song, is an ideal slice of early 90's kitsch--a brief little moment of Peak Comics before the dark times came along and everyone spent the next fifteen years acting like this kind of stuff didn't happen and we were all very embarrassed when forced to admit it.
X-Cutioner's Song is an almost real-time account of the great post-Image course correction over at Marvel. rather than depend on "hot" artists to move books, they would instead, enter a state of permanent crossover, wherein if they weren't in the middle of a multi-part crossover, they were building to the next one post-haste. In short, sell the story, not the storytellers, and sell the story in multiple profitable bits and pieces to keep the money rolling in.
Naturally, being wiser after the event and far more mature and considerate of our audience, they don't do that sort of purely mercenary nonsense anymore.