Despite what the title to this collection may imply, it wasn’t part of the Great Color Cull of “X-Men” titles from last year. “X-Men: Black” was the branding for a series of five one-shots which spotlighted various X-Men antagonists. Or villains, depending on your perspective. Whichever way you think of these individuals and their motivations, these one-shots were clearly intended to either refocus the direction of the character they were spotlighting or give them a new direction. Whether or not any of what this volume does with these characters will remain relevant as we head into the Jonathan Hickman era is a good question. Fortunately it’s easy enough to enjoy the majority of the issues collected here on their own terms.
Magneto: This comes to us from legendary “X-Men” writer Chris Claremont, the man responsible for turning Magneto from an outright villain into a character who (violently) opposes the team’s ideology. There’s some of that moral ambiguity here as the Master of Magnetism gets to know a normal waitress before finding out that the government has started rounding up mutant kids at a nearby facility. Naturally he heads off to do something about it, in a generally more diplomatic way than I’m used to seeing him do.
Magneto takes apart their defenses with ease, but then lots of talking ensues. That’s par for the course when it comes to a Claremont comic and while I’m all for the ideas that he puts up here nothing really new is being said here. The real problem I have is that his take on Magneto feels too warm and cuddly coming after I’ve enjoyed Cullen Bunn’s more ruthless version for the past few years. Dalibor Talajic’s art is fine but it doesn’t really elevate the just okay story being told here.
Mojo: We’ve got the best art in the volume here from Nick Bradshaw who was clearly meant to draw a character with a design as over-the-top as Mojo’s. Yes, he’s joined by Andre Lima Arajo at the end, but their styles actually work fine together. The story from Scott Aukerman is endearingly silly in that it has Mojo falling in love with a human girl and getting some advice from Glob Herman about how to handle it. What makes this setup “endearingly silly” in the execution is how Mojo’s traditional characterization isn’t toned down a bit at all. I never thought the character could work for the kind of story that emphasizes being yourself as one of its key messages but the writer pulls it off. Still, best not to think about whether or not any of this is going to stick regarding future Mojo stories…
Mystique: This was probably the most straightforward story in the collection as it recenters the title character as a mercenary who loves ruining lives as she goes about her day job. Mystique’s current assignment has her breaking into a Trask Industries facility to steal some Mothervine-related info, and maybe doing something about the mutant they’ve taken into their custody. Of course, Mystique only ever looks out for Mystique, so if she’s going to save you it’d be best to consider why. It’s something Seanan McGuire emphasizes in the character’s near-continuous internal monologue which is reasonably engaging as it gives us a window into how Mystique views what she does as an art. Toss in some slick art from Marco Failla and you’ve got a pretty solid mutant caper story here.
Juggernaut: Cain Marko wakes up outside the X-Mansion and goes inside to start beating up on a classic version of the team and encounters a little boy who claims to be him. If it wasn’t clear from the start that this was all taking place inside Juggernaut’s mind then the cutaway to the Temple of Cyttorak a few pages later will make it explicit. The exaggerated art from Shawn Crystal is the best thing about this issue which falters in how it tries to set up a conflict between the title character and his benefactor/master Cyttorak. Writer Robbie Thompson seems to have his eye on much longer-term plans for Juggernaut, even setting up a quest for him at the end of thissue, but it’s hard to take any of that seriously since it’s anyone’s guess whether or not they’ll be followed-up on outside of this issue.
Emma Frost: I can’t say that Emma’s recent turn back to villainy has been all that appealing, but writer Leah Williams actually does something noteworthy with that development here. Towards the end of “X-Men: Blue” the Hellfire Club was left in shambles thanks to tear it down. Sensing that the Club could be finished off once and for all, Emma asks the X-Men’s help to do just that. While they’re taking out the families which comprise the Club’s inner circle around the world, Emma will take on its head -- a recovering Sebastian Shaw.
Is Emma being entirely truthful here? Nope, but that’s part of her character’s charm. As is seeing the utter confidence with which she strides into the Club’s main office and causes all sorts of chaos amongst its members just because she can. Emma’s final showdown with Shaw is also satisfying in both seeing her eventual dominance over him and her assumption of a role that she is both deserving of and arguably should’ve inherited years ago. It all looks pretty stylish too thanks to the work of Chris Bachalo. If Emma has to be a villain now then Williams has found the right way to pull it off.
Apocalypse: This story of En Sabah Nur was actually a back-up presented in five parts across each of the preceding issues courtesy of co-writers Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler, and artist Geraldo Borges. It involves the title character experimenting on some unfortunate humans as he tries to find the perfect vessel for his magnificence only for something to go wrong. Now he’s devolving in a strange environment while everything around him evolves. Borges does a great job of selling the visual idea of a weakened Apocalypse and his alien surroundings. Thompson and Nadler also have a great handle on the character’s unblinking arrogance even in the face of failure. You could also argue that the story itself is a testament to his powers of self-delusion as well, given how it wraps up. How much you can buy into that will determine your overall enjoyment of the story.