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X-Cutioner’s Song: Oh God, Just Take Me Now…

Marvel Comics endured arguably its most maddening period in the 1990s. 
Thanks to the speculator boom, shifting corporate management, and creative battles, the company sputtered after what had started as a profitable decade.  
By the end of the ’90s, Marvel Comics was in bankruptcy, fighting to survive, let alone become a multimedia juggernaut.
There isn’t one key factor or event that led to this, but a rash of reader-unfriendly stories helped to wear on Marvel’s sales.  Well, this was the ’90s, when Marvel embraced the direct market and pandered to its devoted fanbase with stories steeped in references to continuity, as well as heightened levels of sex and violence.
For the X-Men, this was worse than almost any other company franchise.  
Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson, who guided the X-Men and their satellite teams for seventeen years, were ousted, which led to storylines like the one I recently read for the first time, “X-Cutioner’s Song.”

Chris Claremont, of course, is well known to fans as the writer behind such iconic X-Men tales as The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past.  
Louise Simonson is an iconic creator in her own right, the creator of Power Pack who later enjoyed a long stint as writer on Superman: The Man of Steel.  During the ’80s, Simonson was Claremont’s editor on Uncanny X-Men, and the only person the notoriously controlling Claremont seemed to trust to write X-Factor, a spinoff book featuring the original five X-Men, as well as The New Mutants, about a new class of students at the Xavier School.

Towards the end of the ’80s, artists Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Rob Liefeld came to prominence on the X-books, and used their superstar status to dictate more creative control for themselves.  
The X-family of titles were under the stewardship of Bob Harras at the time, who sided with the artists.  Claremont and Simonson, who had begun to be de-emphasized by that point anyway, just scripting over plots from their artists, left the franchise in 1991, to be replaced by Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza.  Karma–not the New Mutant–struck after that.
The artists seceded from Marvel to launch their own company.
Harras scrambled to replace them, and Lobdell and Nicieza were left to plot the future of the franchise themselves.  They weren’t unfettered though; editorial and managerial interference became a fact of life in the mutants’ corner of the Marvel Universe, especially as huge annual crossovers came into vogue, forcing readers to buy multiple titles just to keep up with an increasingly labyrinthine narrative.
X-Cutioner’s Song was one such story.  
The purpose of the crossover was simple enough in theory: revealing the origin of the enigmatic mutant known as Cable.  Cable was a breakout character in the latter days of the New Mutants, whose creator, Liefeld, created the big guns and shoulder pads boom of the ’90s; Cable was huge, grim, and determined, and turned the junior class at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters into a proactive paramilitary strike team, titled X-Force.
Cable was a warrior from a possible dystopian future, who ventured back through time to avert what was his past, a time where Apocalypse and his other arch-foe Stryfe laid waste to Earth.  Apocalypse was an immortal X-Factor villain, while Stryfe came back in time and founded the Mutant Liberation Front terrorist organization.
Hints were dropped, however, that Cable and Stryfe were connected to the Summers family, especially when the villain was revealed to be Cable’s exact physical double.  X-Cutioner’s Song picked up here, with Cable on his own, seemingly resurfacing from underground to assassinate Charles Xavier at a free concert by mutant pop star Lila Cheney.  
The X-Men, along with X-Factor–by this point, a government-sanctioned mutant team led by Cyclops’ brother Havok–hunted down X-Force in the hopes of capturing Cable.  
Of course, Cable wasn’t the culprit, and while the mutant teams battled it out, he prepared to go after Stryfe.
It doesn’t sound too bad on paper, does it?  Well, it’s much more confusing when you read it.
As scripted by Lobdell and Nicieza, X-Cutioner’s Song was a tangle of characters, subplots, and unresolved character tension.  The soap opera that Claremont and Simonson fostered spun out of control.

Nowhere was this more evident than with the Summers family.

Indeed, Scott Summers and Jean Grey were of particular focus here, captured by Stryfe and forced to endure his deranged, yet passive-aggressive personal attacks.  For the most part, they remained in their own corner of the narrative until things tied together in the end.

Meanwhile, Wolverine and Bishop, the two X-Men aside from Cable who most defined the team’s ’90s attitude, found themselves teaming with the future soldier to locate Stryfe.

Yet this wasn’t the most unlikely alliance–the X-Men had to swallow their pride and good taste in order to accept help from the dreaded Apocalypse to save Xavier’s life.  The bullet that struck the professor didn’t immediately kill him, but infected him with a techno-organic virus that threatened to consume him.  Apocalpyse himself was in a weakened state, having revived too soon after his last confrontation with the original X-Factor, and subsequently abandoned by his Dark Riders in favor of the stronger Stryfe.

I’m not going to lie; this was an absolute slog to get through.

For the longest time, I’ve had a revulsion to ’90s X-Men storylines, and this is one of the worst examples.  Stilted, ham-fisted dialogue over indechiperable plotting with an annoying emphasis on the Summers family and their connection to everything.  Let’s not forget that dollop of ’90s attitude, embodied by the brash X-Force kids and the gritty, overly serious Cable and Bishop.

Claremont’s replacements took his formula and exploded it, complicated by the editorial mandates that confused everything further.

If there’s a sweet spot to X-Cutioner’s Song, it’s the artwork.

In the absence of the Image Comics founders, Harras compiled an impressive team of pencilers–Brandon Peterson on Uncanny X-Men, Andy Kubert (one of my favorite artists) on X-Men, Jae Lee on X-Factor, and Greg Capullo on X-Force.  I’m not usually one to focus on art over story, but the gorgeous work here takes a little of the sting out.  Of particular note is Lee’s art; his figures are often steeped in shadow, but when they aren’t, his linework is beautifully clean.

X-Cutioner’s Song was supposed to reveal Cable’s origin–that he was really Nathan Summers, Cyclops’ son whom he sent into the future as an infant in an effort to save his life.

But the X-braintrust muddied things further by implying that Cable was really a clone, and Stryfe the actual grown version of Nathan.  It also made things seemingly moot by killing both of them in a climactic battle on the moon (along with Apocalypse, who was mortally wounded by his Dark Riders and died a slow, lonely death–at the time).

Of course, death is never final in superhero comics, especially those prefaced with an X (a fact the characters even mentioned in the story).

Cable and Stryfe would return, and Cable would be confirmed as the real Nathan.  Stryfe, fortunately, has yet to resurface in a long time, although Apocalypse has returned to take his place as one of the most popular recurring X-Men villains.

A detailed recap would ultimately prove pointless–that’s T.J’s forte anyway, and I gave him the week off.

The exact sequence of events doesn’t really matter though.  All that matters is that the “illusion of change” was upheld, based on a phrase Stan Lee coined in the ’70s.  It meant that readers don’t really want lasting change, just enough to fool them into thinking things matter, only to return to the status quo later on.  X-Cutioner’s Song ends with everyone back to where they started from, pretty much.  Xavier is able to walk–and rollerblade–albeit briefly, X-Factor gets back to work for Uncle Sam, and X-Force, sans Cable, walk away from their old headmaster to face their destiny as adults.

And so on and so forth.

To quote the great Elizabeth Taylor, “I still say it stinks.”

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