The ’90s X-Men line is considered emblematic of the entire mainstream comic industry, in large part because they were some of the most popular books of the era. As time and sensibilities have moved on, there have been a lot of people going back to the ’90s to criticize them, digging into the flaws of the artist-first approach that Marvel was using, as well as the artists themselves. But a lot of these takes have cast the 1990s as wholly bad and irredeemable, which really isn’t the case. So were there actually good comics in the ’90s, or does nostalgia color all of those takes? As someone who didn’t start reading comics until 2016, I can safely say without any nostalgia that X-Cutioner’s Song is exactly what the proponents of ’90s comics claim they are – bombastic and fun and awe-inducing from beginning to end.
The story of the crossover is wild and kind of stupid, but it’s the best kind of stupid. It takes itself just seriously enough to feel legitimate, but also knows that it’s ridiculous, which makes it really fun to read. Seriously, there’s a point in the story where Stryfe force-feeds baby food to Cyclops, and it’s absurd. There’s a lot of high stakes drama involving Cable, Stryfe, Cyclops, X-Force, and basically everyone else in the story. All the different villain factions become hard to disambiguate at times, but they all have great designs and are fun to watch fight.
Speaking of the designs, the art in this volume — with one exception — is fantastic. ’90s art can be over-the-top and stylized in bad ways, but at its best it has a lot of personality and just radiates pure cool. This is definitely the case for the artists on the crossover — Brandon Peterson is the weakest of them, but even he’s solid in Uncanny X-Men. Andy Kubert in X-Men is really good, but the stars of the show are Jae Lee in X-Factor and Greg Capullo (yes, that one) in X-Force. Jae Lee’s hyperstylized art could feel out of place, but the issues he draws are gorgeous and pop in their own way that keeps them consistent with the book as a whole. Capullo, for my money, steals the show from beginning to end. He draws everyone and everything so well, with a dynamism and expression that many artists spend their entire careers unable to match. When he redesigns X-Force’s outfits in the final issue of the collection, he creates what is possibly the coolest-looking roster in all of X-Men.
The issues that aren’t a part of the X-Cutioner’s Song crossover vary in quality. There’s a New Warriors issue that ties into the events of X-Men going on at the time, and it’s alright but really nothing special; its most important feature is that it retcons the old concept of Nova Roma into something just as convoluted as it was before. There are also two issues of Cable: Blood and Metal by Fabian Nicieza drawn by John Romita Jr, featuring the exception to the fantastic art I mentioned prior. This miniseries is near impossible to read, as Romita’s art is just so frustratingly difficult to parse. He manages to make Stryfe, one of the coolest designs in all of comics, look silly and ugly. The storytelling is also not up to par — the frequent jumps back and forth in time become disorienting to follow through Romita’s art, and no matter how well Nicieza could write the miniseries, it was just not enough to make Blood and Metal enjoyable.
The last issue included in this trade is my personal favorite issue of the ’90s, and is up there for my favorite single issue of comics of all time. X-Force #19 by Fabian Nicieza and Greg Capullo is an absolute masterpiece. It wraps up so many character threads that have been running since the very first issue of New Mutants and cements Cannonball as the prodigal child of Xavier, Magneto, and Cable. It’s a fantastic issue on its own, but with all the weight of the events of X-Cutioner’s Song behind it, it feels like a proper step forward for a group of characters that are just very easy to love. This Epic Collection would be worth it for this issue alone — the rest of the collection is just a bonus.
For all the flak the ’90s get as an era for comics, X-Cutioner’s Song and this X-Force collection showcase exactly what made people fall in love with them, children and adults alike. There’s a lot to enjoy in this collection, and it’s worth it for pretty much anyone interested in this era of X-Men or comics.