The quality has been going back and forth on the two “X-Men” flagship titles. While I thought the first volume of “Gold” offered some welcome nostalgia to the ho-hum drama of “Blue,” things quickly reversed themselves. “Blue” found its groove in its subsequent two volumes while the nostalgic fun of “Gold” grew more rickety in its second before effectively faceplanting in its fourth. (Vol. 3 was the inter-title crossover “Mojo Worldwide” which was a draw because the story was so very “meh.”) This time around we have another proper volume of “Gold” while “Blue” crosses over with “Venom” for the “Poison-X” storyline.
If you’re thinking that having “Blue” sideline its main storylines to go hang out with Venom and hunt symbiotes in space for a couple issues doesn’t sound like the greatest of ideas, then you’re not that special. No, really, anyone could’ve seen that doing this wasn’t a very good idea. That’s even before you realize that this is most likely a follow-up to “Blue” writer Cullen Bunn’s “Venomverse” storyline than anything he’s done in this title. I don’t know if this crossover was his idea or something imposed on him by editorial, but it’s not his best work and certainly not something that makes me want to check out “Venomverse” or the follow-up “Venomized” set up here at the end of the volume.
So what’s “Poison-X” all about? The plot gets into motion when young Cyclops is talking to his dad, Corsair -- leader of the spacefaring Starjammers, and their call is interrupted when the Starjammers are attacked by some unknown symbiote-wearing assailants. Recognizing that they’re going to need Venom’s expertise on dealing with his kind, the time-stranded group of X-Men recruit the Lethal Protector himself after the expected round of misunderstanding-based fisticuffs. This leads them to a klyntar-smuggling ring which results in the X-Men getting venomized themselves, and eventually to a run-in with the natural enemy of Venom’s species, the poisons.
All of this is handled dutifully and competently, but with a distinct lack of inventiveness. There are no real twists or surprises to the plot and the new villains are utterly generic in their actions and dialogue. Bunn does what he can to give the X-Men some interesting character moments post-venomizaion, and they even manage to spout off a witty line or two from time to time. The overall experience still comes off as dreadfully dull to someone like me who isn’t all that interested in someone like Venom outside of his relation to Spider-Man. I can’t even say that the art from Edgars Delgado and Salazar, and Jacopo Camagi enlivens things all that much. They do what they can, but none of the artists seems to be particularly motivated to deliver some crazy symbiote-on-symbiote action. At least the artists of the mediocre “Venom Inc.,” Ryan Stegman and Gerardo Sandoval could manage that, and if I’m having to say good things about that crossover then take that as your cue to stay away from this one.
To say that “X-Men: Gold vol. 5 -- Cruel and Unusual” is better just by not being a needless crossover would be a little unfair to it. I mean, it’s also not the complete mess the previous volume was either. Now that the Gold team is back on Earth, they’ve got to deal with more grounded threats, like stopping Mesmero from getting revenge on the Heritage Foundation’s mutant-hating leader Lydia Nance after she hung him out to dry after the X-Men foiled her plan in the first volume. Unfortunately the X-Men don’t go into the fight against Mesmero with sufficient psychic protection and the aftermath sees Kitty, Prestige, Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler carted off to prison. This leaves the newly-returned Rogue and Iceman to form an interim team while they wait and see how the prison situation is going to play out. Though it seems like everything’s going to be all right at first, that quickly changes once the big bad from the previous storyline shows up.
Writer Marc Guggenheim has shown that he’s got a good handle on the cast and can balance such a large ensemble pretty well. It’s also nice to see him juggle multiple subplots in a given issue which adds a nice density to the proceedings. His problem is that he has yet to deliver a truly memorable (in a good way) story even with these things in his favor. The fight with Mesmero and his crew goes exactly as you’d expect it to, and while having Kitty play along with the law is a nice touch, it’s something that’s completely disregarded at the story’s climax. We’re meant to think that they’re breaking the law there for the greater good, but it’s hard to feel that way when they’re up against a threat as manufactured as the Scythian.
That’s right, the big, angry god from the Negative Zone, just climbed out of the black hole he was stuck in and marched over to the Marvel Universe’s Earth to settle the score with the X-Men. It’s clear that Guggenheim is going for a “more is more” big event climax, but it all falls flat. That’s mainly due to the fact that the Scythian has zero personality as an actual threat. It’s just a big plot device that roars and stomps on buildings. You can’t build something like that up into a major threat and expect the reader to care about it. All I can hope is that it’s gone for good after this storyline.
This volume does have decent art from its four different artists. Diego Bernard handles the first two issues and delivers some impressive detail and real superhero flair to the proceedings. The next two issues feature art from Thony Silas and, after his work on “Blue,” I continue to appreciate his clean, angular style. Paolo Siquieria and Jose Luis do what they can with the climactic fight against the Scythian and deliver some pretty decent work even though they’re working from a script that I have little emotional investment in.
So the win goes to “Gold” for this round, even if it does feel like it achieved that through simply not being terrible more than anything else. Next time, however, promises an actual competition between the two titles to see which one can deliver the better read. Bunn assembles an interim team on “Blue” to tackle the climax of the “Mothervine” subplot in that title, while Guggenheim and some special guests show us all the drama leading up to Kitty and Colossus’ wedding. If nothing else, I’m looking forward to reading volumes I’ll actually enjoy with few reservations in a couple months.