“X of Swords” isn’t quite the next volume in Jonathan Hickman’s run. This volume collects the five “Giant-Size X-Men” one-shots which were released over the course of last year. Aside from their slightly expanded page count, these issues wouldn’t have felt out of place in the pages of the writer’s “X-Men.” This is because these five issues take the same anthology approach that series has been doing, while also giving us the expected amount of setup as well. Of course, “Giant-Size” does have excellent art, some interconnecting story threads between these issues, and some hints that this may be relevant to Hickman’s endgame. So however you want to classify this, it’s still a solid read.
We start off with an homage to Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s classic silent issue from their “New X-Men” run. Really -- they get a “Special Thanks to” in the Table of Contents. That’s because the “Jean Grey & Emma Frost” issue is largely a reprise of what went on in that story. Only instead of Professor X, the two psychic frenemies are diving into the mind of a comatose Storm.
The silent nature of the story means it’s much more of a showcase for the artist than the writer, and the artist in this case is Russell Dauterman. Giving an extra-length issue to the man who made most of Jane Foster’s tenure as “Thor” and “The War of the Realms” is absolutely a good thing. So we get to see an African Dreamtime with shapeshifting lions, an elephant with butterfly wings, and some weird techno-organic business at the end. It’s a good showcase for Dauterman, even if the story itself is a bit slight. It does, however, establish the one plot thread that will link a couple more of these issues.
Next is “Nightcrawler’s” showcase and it starts off by digging into a key part of the “X-Men” mythos that has been left by the wayside in the Krakoa Era. I’m talking about the Westchester Mansion, which has fallen into disrepair after everyone abandoned it for the island. As to why no one stayed around to keep it maintained, well… the story isn’t here to answer that question. Instead, Nightcrawler, Magik, Eye Boy, and Cypher are here to find out why the sensors at the mansion’s gate keep indicating that a mutant is trying to access them.
Alan Davis illustrates this issue, and he’s got a long history with the title character thanks to his association with the original “Excalibur” series. While it’s nice to see him drawing the Elf again, Davis is a very solid artist in general and it’s always nice to see him drawing something. He’s quite good here with balancing the mood of the issue, as the first half is very much a “Haunted Mansion” story before it effortlessly shifts into a sci-fi superhero slugfest. The wrap up at the end is quite tidy, and by that point it doesn’t feel like a Nightcrawler story anymore. In fact, the real star of this story is Cypher as it’s his negotiations that save the day, along with the (really obvious) secret that he’s hiding. Said secret is also important to the volume as a whole, as we’ll see in the final story.
“Magneto” sees the title character undertaking a favor for Emma Frost. She wants an island and the easiest one the Master of Magnetism can think of to get for her happens to be owned by someone for whom arrogance is a second nature. There’s a journey to the ocean depths, a kraken, and a test of wisdom at the end of the journey, all of which look great coming from Ramon Perez. He’s not asked to draw anything too crazy, but he does make what he’s given look consistently interesting. The main drawback to this story is that, of the ones in this volume, it feels like its main character mattered the least to it. You really could’ve slotted any number of other mutants into Magneto’s role here and things wouldn’t have changed too much. I still liked him in this role, but the tie-in issue of “Empyre” from “X-Men” that featured him was a better showcase for the character.
“Fantomex” catches us up with a character that has been missing in action since the start of Hickman’s run. I can only imagine this was the case because the writer wanted to use him in this story before he set him loose for everyone else to have a go at. He winds up adding a lot to the faux-Frenchman’s character as we not only get a bit of an origin story for him, but a reveal that he’s been visiting his old home, the accelerated evolutionary habitat known as The World, once every couple of decades for some very personal reasons.
I won’t spoil what those reasons are, but they also serve as an excuse for Fantomex to troll the likes of the Howling Commandos, the Hellfire Club, and (best of all) the Humongonauts as he tries to get back in over the years. We even get to see how “Assault on Weapon Plus” from Morrison’s run tied into this as well. That last bit is kind of impressive as it manages to turn a bit of that writer’s poetic weirdness into an affecting character beat.
It’s not quite as impressive as Rod Reis’ art, who arguably turns in the best work in this volume. Even if it’s not the best, it’s certainly the craziest as The World’s setting allows him to go as crazy as he wants. We get to see the likes of flying pink pterodactyls, hungry green creatures with tentacles and sharp teeth, childlike robots blown up to a gargantuan size. It’s all gloriously nuts in a way that’s distinct amongst the other great art on display in this volume.
Then we come to “Storm” and Dauterman returns to draw this issue. It looks good too, even if his version of The World isn’t as memorably demented as Reis’ was. As that sentence implies, this story picks up from Fantomex’s tale because this is actually the story of how Storm is saved from the techno-organic virus she was found to have been infected by at the end of the first story in this volume.
Now, you can probably guess what the big issue with this plot is. Thanks to the Krakoan Resurrection Protocols, Storm isn’t in any real danger because of this virus. The great effort everyone is expending to try and save Storm is essentially a lot of empty drama. Emma even says as much early on. Hickman tries to write his way around that via Storm’s internal monologue near the end of the issue. The short version is that Storm believes that life is worth living and not to be easily given up on. It’s a view that’s also compatible with her character, so I’m ultimately okay with accepting all this effort in the course of the story.
There are also some fun bits with Cypher and M, and Ned, the hapless A.I.M. scientist Fantomex bribed to get him into the world. Oh, and the epilogue at the end with Cypher, which has some sinister implications given how “House of X/Powers of X” indicated that mutants and artificial intelligence aren’t meant to co-exist together. It’s an intriguing note to end the volume on, which also winds up setting up more stuff for the series as a whole. So it’s par for the course in terms of Hickman’s “X-Men” run so far, though it also winds up being a great artistic showcase for Dauterman, Davis, Perez, and especially Reis.