This volume has a bit more going on in it than the previous ones. In the four issues collected here from the main series, the cast deals with the fallout of “Battle of the Atom,” and tangles with the Purifiers. Then, to pad things out, “X-Men: Gold” is also collected here. It’s a one-shot featuring work from some of the most well-known writers to work on the “X-Men” over the years and is very much a mixed bag. Fortunately the Bendis-written issues that precede it offer up some more consistent enjoyment.
In the wake of “Battle of the Atom,” Kitty Pryde and the rest of the time-displaced original X-Men decamped from the Jean Grey School to join up with Cyclops’ team. The opening issue here chronicles their efforts with integrating into the old and new mutants which are a part of that group. Jean locks horns with the Stepford Cukoos, Bobby tries pouring his heart out to Tempus, Hank tries to articulate his unease at how Magneto is a part of the team now. It’s all handled pretty well with Kitty and Illyana’s moment of almost-bonding being a highlight of the issue. This is also the only issue that’s illustrated by regular artist Stuart Immonen and, as usual, he makes quite an impression with his work. The new suit designs for the original X-Men are pretty sharp and the pages detailing identical scenes with and without Jean’s telepathy are cleverly rendered.
Next up is a three-part arc that pits the time-displaced team against the Purifiers -- religious zealots who believe that mutants are an abomination in the face of God. This particular group happens to be led by none other than the son of the Reverend William Stryker of “God Loves, Man Kills” fame. The two groups cross paths after the Purifiers come across X-23 in Florida and fighting naturally ensues.
I’ve only read a handful of stories featuring X-23, but I at least know she’s a female clone of Wolverine who has had a lot of difficulty figuring out what she wants to do with her life. I can only assume that it’s the “female clone of Wolverine” bit that has made Bendis want to pair her up with the younger Scott Summers. I’m not sure whether I should laugh or roll my eyes at the way the writer has found a way to ship Wolverine and Cyclops together. Even so, their relationship here is charmingly awkward -- best seen when Cyclops sees how distressed X-23 is, hesitates, and then reaches over and gives her a hug because it looked like she needed it.
The rest of the arc is standard-issue good mutants versus evil religious zealots battles. For what it’s worth, the action comes off pretty well, with most of it being capably rendered by Brandon Peterson. Mahmud Asrar handles the parts that are more oriented towards “talking heads” and his style is somewhat reminiscent of Immonen’s, though far less refined. I did like the moments where Jean mind-controls Stryker’s son to create a diversion and the bits involving the A.I.M. scientist were interesting as well. Probably the most notable thing about the arc is how Bendis uses the rantings of Stryker’s son to further his “time is broken” subplot in a way that makes you think that the fanatic may actually have a point.
Moving on to “X-Men: Gold,” the stated purpose of this one-shot was to celebrate the “X-Men’s” 50th anniversary last year. A noble effort, but the results leave something to be desired. Like the opening story written by Chris Claremont -- the man whose style has come to define the franchise -- and illustrated by Bob McLeod. It’s told from the perspective of Kitty Pryde, and features Wolverine, Cyclops, Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler and Rogue taking on a host of self-replicating Sentinels. If you’re familiar with Claremont’s style, then there’s definitely some nostalgic appeal to be had from reading his reliably overwrought prose and seeing the creative use of Kitty, Colossus, and Wolverine’s powers. Unfortunately, McLeod’s style feels cartoonish in a distracting way with Kitty and Rogue looking really old and off-model at times. Storm just looks frightening with the way that the artist draws her pupil-less eyes. As a nostalgia trip, the story mainly serves to remind you that its creators days are long behind them at this point.
The rest of the stories are shorter, five-page affairs. Stan Lee, Louise Simonson and Walt Simonson’s “The Sorrow Beneath the Sport” has the original team competing in the Danger Room for a date with Jean Grey. This has the opposite problem as the opening story as the story from Stan and Louise feels unimaginative and phoned-in, while Walt’s art is full of energy and captures the look of the characters quite well. Roy Thomas and Pat Oliffe give us an encounter between Banshee and Sunfire in Memphis that trades on the old two heroes fighting because of a misunderstanding trope. They work it out, of course, and bond a little in a tale that is as pleasant as it is predictable. We get a genuinely good story in “Options” by Len Wein and Jorge Molina which takes place during Wolverine’s first meeting with the X-Men. Being the hardened killer he is, Ol’ Canucklehead starts thinking about how he’d take out the other mutants in the room if it became necessary. While most of the team goes down pretty easy in his head, he does hit a stumbling block with one of them in particular. It’s a clever little twist that lets this amusingly morbid tale wrap up quite nicely.
Then you’ve got “Dreams Brighten” by Fabian Nicieza and Salvador Larroca. This one actually hit the right nostalgic notes for me, mainly because it trades on a comic I actually read back in the 90’s. We start out with Professor X and Magneto in a utopian world that they helped build together. The only problem is that Magneto’s mind is starting to unravel, and it isn’t until it’s almost gone that the realizes what’s going on. If you’ve never read the “Fatal Attractions” crossover, then the big reveal will probably leave you scratching your head than feeling impressed by what Nicieza and Larroca have managed to pull off here. As someone who has read it, I found that the story does a good job of selling the moment it’s based around as a tragedy that precipitated an even greater one. (Depending on how tragic you consider the “Onslaught” crossover, I guess.)
To be honest, reading “X-Men: Gold” made me appreciate the current state of the comics a bit more. Bendis may ramble on at times, and things may lack a certain momentum at the moment, but his writing reads a lot better than what we got in that special. Enough with the past -- let’s get on with the future and “The Trial of Jean Grey” in the next volume!