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Jan 19

X of Swords

Posted on Tuesday, January 19, 2021 by Paul in reviews, x-axis

X of Swords: Creation #1
X of Swords: Stasis #1
X of Swords: Destruction #1
X-Factor vol 4 #4
Wolverine vol 7 #6-7
X-Force vol 6 #13-14
Marauders #13-15
Hellions #5-6
New Mutants vol 4 #13
Cable vol 4 #5-6
Excalibur vol 4 #13-15
X-Men vol 4 #13-15
by various creators

The first major crossover of the Krakoan era is an important point for the line. Not just because of the plot itself – much of the appeal of Jonathan Hickman’s run turns on a sense that there’s a bigger picture. Although his X-Men mostly tells short and self-contained stories, they depend on the sense of a wider context for their weight. And the aura of a grand plan was important to get buy-in for the radical change of direction represented by Krakoa in the first place.

But you can’t arrange pistols on the mantelpiece forever; there has to be some movement on the big picture from time to time. “X of Swords” needed to show some movement on that score.

And it does. The upshot of “X of Swords” leads to a number of plot points that are obviously significant. Apocalypse is gone. The rival mutant island of Arakko is back on Earth, and overshadows Krakoa in power – an angle that only works because the books took a year or so to play out the previous Krakoan status quo where the mutants suddenly had an upper hand on everyone. They still do in a sense, but the Arakkans complicate matters enormously so far as that’s concerned. And Cyclops makes his split with the Quiet Council to start re-forming the X-Men as a rival power base.

In the big picture, then, there’s quite a lot going on here that seems important. The same applies for Excalibur, which is the other key participating title. Removing Apocalypse and shunting Betsy into a new status quo is a pretty substantial deal for that book too.

But “X of Swords” is an old-school line-wide crossover. Marvel’s favoured approach to event comics, in recent years, has been a core miniseries that anchors the story, and a bunch of tie-in arcs that take place in the margins. Some of them are important to the plot, some are just busy work to keep characters occupied, and some are outright peripheral. That’s the established way of doing it.

Instead, “X of Swords” goes back to the 90s with a full-on “part X of 22” approach. And it runs across the entire line. And… 22 parts. That’s longer than Operation: Galactic Storm (which ran to 19). It’s more than 50% longer than Maximum Carnage. I can’t say the prospect of reading a 22-part story by committee filled me with enthusiasm.

It’s better in that respect than I’d expected, but it’s still hard to understand why some of these books are in the crossover at all – except perhaps because a decision has been taken to put the rest of the line on hold during “X of Swords”, and this way their creative teams have something to do. X-Men and Excalibur are core titles here. It has nothing to do with the ongoing storylines of Cable or Wolverine, but at least their tie-in issues focus on the title character. The two Hellions chapters are really a Hellions side tie-in, but for reasons I’ve already covered, they benefit from being billed as part of the crossover – and besides, they’re certainly Hellions issues.

But “X of Swords” also includes an issue of X-Factor which barely features X-Factor, two issues of X-Force that are actually bonus issues of Wolverine, and three issues of Marauders of which at least two are not in any meaningful sense issues of Marauders. They’re some of the more entertaining issues of the crossover, to be sure, but would I rather have just read Marauders getting on with its own plots? Absolutely. What’s the point of doing a crossover where the participating titles aren’t recognisable as themselves, after all? What actually makes it a crossover, beyond the title arbitrarily printed on the cover?

Twenty-two parts is… well, demanding. I normally re-read a storyline in its entirety before writing a review but my god, it’s 22 parts. Now, it’s 22 parts compressed into just ten weeks, so the pacing is fine from the time standpoint. But there’s a vast amount of stuff going on in here, much of which seems annoyingly pointless in hindsight.

The plot of “X of Swords” is, at its core, relatively straightforward. Apocalypse is trying to get back to Arakko. But Arakko has been conquered by the forces of Amenth, under the leadership of Annihilation (possessing Apocalypse’s long-lost wife Genesis). Their combined forces are marching through Otherworld to invade Earth. Saturnyne intervenes to channel the impending war into some magical tournament or other, which both sides are given little choice but to sign up to. Saturnyne seems to be trying to rig the tournament against the Krakoans, but ultimately they prevail, Genesis is freed, and Apocalypse goes off to Amenth to live with her. Somewhere in there, Saturnyne restores the Captain Britain Corps, but gets saddled with a version she didn’t particularly want.

How does that run to 22 issues? Because the first half of the crossover is mostly people running around collecting swords, and because Saturnyne’s contest turns out to be a series of completely random and arbitrary challenges, supposedly dictated by tarot cards, but by all appearances being rigged in a way that leaves the characters to stumble through them blindly and hope for the best.

A lot turns here on whether you find the tournament itself – and the bait-and-switch nature of the whole story – a bravura exercise in wrongfooting the audience, or just plain irritating. The story builds up what sounds like it’s going to be a series of sword fights, which admittedly feels like it would be deeply repetitive by the time you got to the fourth or fifth fight. And then it lurches into Alice in Wonderland.

You either find that charming or you don’t, and I don’t, really. Whimsicality isn’t really my thing at the best of times, but there are a lot of other reasons why this is just annoying. It devotes an inordinate amount of time to retrieving some macguffins that don’t appear to matter to the plot in the slightest, and looking back, it’s hard to see what the point was beyond time-killing. Yes, it sets up expectations to make the twist more effective, but it spends something like six issues on doing so, which is inordinate.

More to the point, it’s never really very clear what Saturnyne is hoping to achieve by manipulating the contest – well, it’s clear enough that she wants Brian back, but how exactly the contest plays into that agenda is completely obscure. And several issues of characters dutifully participating in random games is just boring. When the rules are completely arbitrary, there seems to be nothing the characters can do to influence the outcome, and none of them seems to have any plan to change that… and that goes on for several issues… well, what’s the interest?

Perhaps some of the problems with the Saturnyne plot are an overspill from Excalibur, which often has characters doing essentially random things that turn out after the fact to be the arbitrary ingredients of some magic spell or other. Excalibur has never been especially good at clarity, and the single biggest problem with “X of Swords” is that it’s so utterly obscure what the point of the contest is, and what Saturnyne is trying to achieve by holding it. And these are key plot points. They ought to be at least broadly clear.

I want to like “X of Swords” more than I do. I like a lot of the plot ideas that it sets up; I appreciate the ambition of trying to do something unexpected and to wrongfoot the audience. But it doesn’t really work and it’s far, far too long. It exhausted my patience long before the final issue.

Bring on the comments

  1. Rob says:

    Hear, hear!

    The Arakkii villains were also so incredibly bland. I never got a sense of why I should care about their goals. I never cared for Apocalypse’s struggle to reunite with his family — this is a guy who’s gone millennia without ever mentioning them, and who’s fathered other children he’s gleefully led to slaughter. Why should I believe he suddenly cares about these ones?

  2. Mikey says:

    It’s bad enough that Toni Howard is holding some of my favorite characters hostage in Excalibur, an incoherent book that frequently has to explain the plot on data pages because the actual panels fail to do so. But now we’ve had a 22 issue event that continues the Excalibur motto of “none of this makes any sense *because magic*, you see?”

    When the event was announced, I thought, “what could swords possibly have to do with the X-Men franchise” and the answer is “lol literally nothing.”

  3. Chris V says:

    I could have easily lived with a twenty-two issue time-killer, especially at its rate of release meaning it only took up two months of issues.
    I wasn’t reading most of the titles anymore, so it was pretty much something I could ignore and mostly followed through this site.

    I expected there would be some major events at the end of the crossover to carry through for future stories.
    I expected Mr. M was going to be found, at the very least.

    Otherwise, I thought all of this would be behind us afterward. Maybe Excalibur was going to end now that its story had been told (I didn’t really care, because I’m not reading that book).
    Then, maybe Hickman would get back to (what I assume as) the main arc of Moira’s plan.
    Instead, it seems this was setting up the major direction for “Reign of X”. Boring Arakko mutants. Hints that Amenth may feature in the future.

    I’ve dropped most of the line at this point. I’m sticking with X-Men for a few more months because I like the idea of using the Children of the Vault.
    X-Factor and Hellions are pretty enjoyable still. Maybe because they are the two new titles and haven’t ground down my patience as yet.
    New Mutants might be improving.
    If Hickman decided to get back to Moira or starts exploring what life is like on Krakoa or how Krakoa has changed human society, I’ll start following the titles again.

    This crossover ended up breaking my resolve. I thought “Dawn of X” was slow moving, but we would see some revelations about Moira eventually.
    “X of Swords” annoyed me, but I thought Hickman was just stretching out his timetable on the X-books and it was harmless fluff.
    No. Now we have the Arakko mutants, and that is too much for me.

  4. Uncanny X-Ben says:

    I pretty much agree.

    To be fair I didn’t read every issue of every book, but I’m not sure I buy that there was a years worth of set up of the mutants getting one over on the humans.

    It feels like we were juuuuust getting started with that idea before X of Swords.

    How much of that idea on screen did they really show? They took Sabertooth out of human court for murdering people on a mission.

    There were the scenes of Professor X/Magneto vaguely threatening diplomats.

    Everything else I can think of like dunking on Reed Richards really isn’t anything new.

  5. Kenny Norman says:

    I think this would have been better if they HAD stuck to the modern-day format of a core miniseries (ish) with tie-ins. Like the main story could be three issues of Excalibur, three issues of X-Men, and the three one-shots. Issues of Cable, Wolverine, Marauders, New Mutants, X-Force, X-Factor, and Hellions could have been just tie-ins. Because there certainly wasn’t enough substance to fill 22 whole issues in this crossover.

  6. Jon R says:

    It would have been so much better if the battles and their weirdness had led to something. Saturnyne was obviously manipulating things, so okay, how was she setting these strange battles up to play the sides to get the result she wanted?

    Well, in the end apparently nothing aside from shattering Betsy, then holding the Gorgon vs 100 megamatch in her back pocket to even things up when the Krakoans got far behind. And I liked the concept of the latter! It made sense enough that the White Sword (IIRC) had so little care about who won that he was willing and maybe even amused to be used that way.

    But aside from that, there seemed to be no particular plan to the bouts. The Storm/Death bout just happened to place Death in a position to distract the vampirish realm? Cool, but it didn’t feel planned, it felt like it just kind of lucked out that way. It didn’t make Saturnyne look like a master chessmaster, it made her look like she had one ace up her sleeve and otherwise was winging it.

  7. Christopher McFeely says:

    Honestly, X of Swords being a 22-part “buy all the books” event was why I had to tap out of Hickman’s X-Men. I like Hickman, loved his Avengers run, and HOXPOX was tremendously exciting set up – but the revelation afterward that instead of a nice, tidy, Avengers-style “there are just going to be two overlapping books that he writes both of” approach, that the entire X-line was going to come back instead of taking the opportunity to slim it down was disheartening. Then, basically nothing happened for the first year of the actual Hickman-penned book I decided to read, then a 22-part crossover? Nope, sorry, outta here. Maybe I’ll check it out in trade when it’s all said and done and the big picture of what actually needs to be read to follow the story he’s telling is laid bare.

  8. ASV says:

    From the very birds-eye view there’s something to the idea of Moira’s plan running into an unexpected bump yet again, but this bump… who cares? Krakoa, per se, is extremely uninteresting to my view; Arrako is even less interesting. How did the X-Men line become the story of how a sentient island got split in half a bazillion years ago and separated across dimensions and then finally reunited to some strange purpose?

  9. Diana says:

    The thing is – and I’ll admit this might be giving Hickman more credit than he has historically earned – the unexpected bumps in Moira’s past plans at least made some kind of logical sense within the context of the lives she was living. Life 3 goes bad because she draws the attention of a mutant terrorist group. Life 5 goes bad because mutants going into seclusion doesn’t actually stop the world from hating them. Life 8 goes bad because she overlooks all the non-mutant heroes who step in to stop Magneto.

    This Arrako/Otherworld/Amenth nonsense doesn’t seem to stem from anything that happened differently in this timeline. I don’t know what Moira did or didn’t cause to make Saturnyne decide she actually wants Brian again, or make Apocalypse decide that actually, he misses his wife.

  10. Chris V says:

    The only explanation is that Apocalypse went to rescue his Original Horsemen earlier in life nine (the only reality which would have featured this particular scenario).
    It’s a huge stretch, because I’m unsure how a few more decades would turn the Horsemen against Apocalypse when he left then there for centuries.
    Unless I missed a detail about something that could have happened with Arakko/Amenth between Moira’s 20s (in life nine) and 50s (this life) that would have led the Horsemen to betray Apocalypse.

  11. Diana says:

    Which raises yet another problem: if the Horsemen were freed in life 9, then Moira already knew all about Amenth, Arakko and all that. Yet no one did anything with that foreknowledge, as opposed to how they got ahead of the ORCHIS threat?

  12. Chris V says:

    I know. If I were Xavier and Magneto, I would be pissed right now.

    “You didn’t think to mention this to me Moira? Really? This?”
    “Sorry, Charles. Slipped my mind. I have ten lives to remember.”
    “We can’t trust her, Charles.”

    I think bringing Arakko to Earth and reforming Okkara was part of Moira’s plan, but yeah, it seems like she would have given an in-depth plan with Amenth.

  13. […] Paul O’Brien reviews the messy tensions of Chris Claremont, Bill Sienkiewicz, et al’s Chris Claremont Anniversary Special #1, and the pointless demands of Marvel’s Mutant crossover epic X of Swords. […]

  14. neutrino says:

    Saturnyne had the vision of the future, so she was able arrange things to benefit herself as seen in the end. If you look at it closely, she’s actually helping Krakoa. The silly contests were her agreeing to Wolverine’s complaints about how the younger mutants shouldn’t be risking their lives without having any romance yet. So Cypher gets an eating contest and a dancing contest instead of a life and death sword battle. He even gets married.
    The points were irrelevant. It was always going to end up a battle royale. Look at what happened to the contestants. Krakoa lost Betsy and Gorgon. For Arakko, Summoner was killed, Redroot and Death were captured by Otherworld kingdoms, the White Sword was so impressed by Gorgon’s sacrifice that he skipped the end battle, War was maimed, and Bei defected. Arakko ended up losing half of their warriors.

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