For the first round of collections from the current flagship titles of the “X-Men” line, the win went to “Gold.” It didn’t exactly do anything new with the characters or its storytelling, but it did serve them up in a pleasingly familiar way which served as a welcome dose of nostalgia. The first volume of “Blue,” on the other hand, came off as a blander take on the “All-New X-Men” roster. I was expecting these trends to continue for their second volumes. What I wound up getting was a much improved version of “Blue” and a “Gold” that was more boring than I had reason to expect.
“X-Men: Blue vol. 2 -- Toil and Trouble” kicks off by diving whole-hog into the “Secret Empire” crossover as the team raids an internment camp for mutants and humans who have spoken out against the regime. If you couldn’t stomach the liberties with reality that the event took -- you know, with the establishment of things like internment camps in the U.S. -- then this storyline probably isn’t going to do anything for you. Writer Cullen Bunn does deserve credit for fully embracing the setup he’s been given and he ultimately crafts a pretty engaging and action-packed storyline about these mutant teenagers fighting back against an oppressive regime. There are also some nice twists regarding the characters Magneto has enlisted to back up our heroes and the subplot involving Emma’s attempts to remake the younger Scott Summers in the image of the one she fell in love with works because it’s as disturbing as it is sad. Effective artwork from Cory Smith, with assists from Joey Vazquez and Thony Silas, help push this arc over the top as well.
The volume’s second arc gets back to a more recognizable version of reality for the Marvel Universe. So no one should raise an eyebrow at the fact that it involves a return appearance by the Goblin Queen as she manipulates young Hank McCoy into opening mystical doorways to bring her allies to this dimension. While I like the direction young Hank’s character has taken with his involvement in the mystic arts, there’s no denying that his partnership with the Goblin Queen is a dumb move on his part. It’s the weakest part of this arc, which gets off to a strong start with a stock-taking issue that features some strong character work as Bunn shows us how the cast is faring after recent events. The first volume had a real lack of personality among its cast and instances like this go a long way towards rectifying that.
As for the rest of the arc, it’s a lot of supernatural action as the team fares badly against the Goblin Queen’s assault, leaving two of its members to recruit assistance from an unlikely source. There’s also a subplot featuring Warren “Angel” Worthington and Jimmy “Uh… ‘Son of Ultimate Wolverine’ I guess” Hudson going back to investigate Miss Sinister’s operation from the previous volume and getting more than they bargained for. The main arc plays out in predictable yet satisfying fashion while the subplot sets up a potentially interesting conflict for the future. It’s solid work all around with nice art courtesy of Giovanni Valletta and Douglas Franchin and makes me feel a lot more confident about the future of this title with Bunn as a writer.
Is the subtitle of “X-Men: Gold vol. 2 -- Evil Empires” referring to Russia, the current U.S. administration, and the Negative Zone world that the alien Kologoth hails from in addition to “Secret Empire?” That’s probably the most interesting thing this volume of straightforward stories from writer Marc Guggenheim has to offer here. It starts off with a two-part pseudo tie-in to “Secret Empire” which does its best to ignore the crossover at hand as a new version of the X-Cutioner stalks the mansion. Some lively art from Ken Lashley perks things up a bit, but it’s still two issues of the X-Men punching well below their weight as their antagonist is just a regular, albeit very well-prepared, human with a grudge against mutants. It’s followed up by another Lashley-illustrated issue where Kitty Pryde goes to speak before the House of Representatives against a mutant deportation bill with Colossus in tow for moral support. Things get violent when the proceedings are interrupted by Whiplash of all people, yet it still manages to be the highlight of what is otherwise a fairly conventional issue in terms of politics.
The next two issue-art features decent work from Lan Medina as the team heads to Russia. Why? Well it turns out that Colossus and Magik have a black-sheep uncle who is part of a branch of the Russian mafia that specializes in the mystic arts. They’re using said arts to bring back one of the X-Men’s deadliest foes: Omega Red. I’m of the opinion that whatever reputation Omega Red has as a villian stems from the fact that he made his debut in one of the arcs of “X-Men” Jim Lee illustrated before he left Marvel. He comes off as a fairly generic threat to our heroes here and while he has more personality than the magic-wielding Russian goons, I’m intending this as the faintest praise possible. The rest of the arc is just characters yelling at each other over fisticuffs, gunfire, and magic blasts with some ho-hum family drama thrown in for kicks. It’s as entertaining as it sounds.
Finally we have a spotlight issue on Kologoth. Don’t remember him? He’s the alien member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants from the first arc of the series who has been lurking in the background ever since. It turns out he’s an outcast on his world who eventually found a place to belong in its fascist-looking opposition party only to wind up banished to Earth. Now he’s loose again and looking to return home. This is… fine, though not desperately interesting in and of itself. Luke Ross provides some serviceable art and the whole thing reads like a big prologue to the upcoming “Negative Zone War” arc. It feels a little awkward for it to be placed here because as the epilogue makes clear we’re headed for a big ‘ol crossover next time out.
“Mojo Worldwide” sees the return of the title villain who’s looking to boost the sagging ratings in his universe by taking on both teams of X-Men. Again. The impression is that there’s going to be a fair amount of self-parody to the experience at the expense of Marvel’s current nostalgia-fueled initiatives. While both “X-Men” series also trying to trade on nostalgia in their own way, “Blue” is at least mixing in some new stuff along with a fair amount of self-awareness regarding the old. “Gold,” at this point, feels like it’s more content to play the franchise’s greatest hits and that approach already feels like it might be running on fumes. “Mojo Worldwide” probably won’t provide any answers as to which series will be worth following in the long run, but I’m now more willing to bet on “Blue” than I was before I read these two volumes.