(This review reveals major plot points of X Of Swords.)
When Marvel announced X Of Swords, the first crossover event of the X-Men’s Krakoa era, it looked a lot like Soul Caliber with mutants. And it looked very cool: The X-Men have swords, and there are a bunch of new characters with swords, too! One of them is a giant alligator with four arms! But what the X-Office puts together is much less straightforward than a fighting competition, instead highlighting how well this group of writers and artists collaborate to fearlessly push this franchise in new directions. The broad strokes of the story are familiar—the forces of darkness threaten to overtake Earth, a group of champions assembles to fight them—but the execution constantly upends expectations. This helps the event grow momentum over the course of its 22 issues, leaving readers guessing as to how these moving parts are going to come together for the heroes’ inevitable victory.
And what a sweet victory it is. Writers Jonathan Hickman and Tini Howard unite all these threads for a triumphant grand finale in X Of Swords: Destruction #1 (Marvel), with artist Pepe Larraz and colorist Marte Gracia delivering some of the finest artwork in X-Men history. There are multiple panels here that could be blown up to poster size, and the gigantic scope of the action in this issue reads as a love letter to X-Men fans. The group shots are packed with detail that asks readers to pause and see how many characters they can identify, but none of that detail comes at the expense of dynamic action. One particularly gorgeous page is built around the Annihilation helm, placing sequential panels within the design of the object to emphasize its importance in driving the narrative.
The X-Men franchise spent the ’80s rapidly growing in popularity by constantly giving readers more with new characters and spin-off series like New Mutants, X-Factor, and Excalibur, and X Of Swords taps into that energy. The first year of the Krakoa era situated readers in an environment where everything old is new again, reviving figures from the past and uniting all the disparate factions of mutantdom. Now it’s time for more, and X Of Swords gives that to readers by introducing fresh faces and effectively developing their personalities. Apocalypse has been a breakout character of this new mutant age, and after being positioned as the toughest mutant in history, Apocalypse spends most of X Of Swords face-to-face with his greatest weakness: his long-lost family. Even Apocalypse is a slave to love, and the epic romance between him and his wife, Genesis, is the heart of this event.
X Of Swords isn’t perfect. The mythologizing of Arakko gets repetitive, especially when one of the issues (X-Men #14) reuses artwork from a previous chapter, pairing it with a new script showing a different perspective of the same events. There are going to be plenty of readers annoyed at the fight fake-outs, and you can’t blame them when that’s what the promotional materials promised. Saturnyne, the manipulative, omnipotent gamemaster of X Of Swords, isn’t an especially compelling villain, but Hickman and Howard ground her a bit through her obsession with Brian Braddock, the former Captain Britain. Even with all this power, she’s still pining for a guy she can’t have, and this final issue successfully uses Apocalypse and Genesis’ relationship to heighten Saturnyne’s tragic loneliness.
As a crossover, X Of Swords succeeded in letting individual series hold on to their unique voices while still telling a cohesive story. Not every chapter is essential for the main plot, but diversions like the Hellions two-parter still feel important because they use the event to plant major seeds for the future. There’s already a lot happening for mutants right now, and X Of Swords ends by establishing an entire new frontier to explore. The Krakoa experiment isn’t losing any steam, and the confidence and excitement of this crossover suggests that the best is still to come as seeds take root and the X-Men’s world continues to grow.