Comic books with villainous protagonists are often a hard sell. Bad guys are fine as foils, but it’s uncomfortable being inside their heads, and we certainly don’t want to sympathize with them.
Then again, Superior Spider-Man was a great success, and we’re seeing a resurgence for Dr. Octopus now. Cullen Bunn’s X-Men Blue was as much about Magneto’s return to villainy as it was the O5 finding their way in our world. So maybe the time is right for X-Men Black, a series of one-shots featuring some of Marvel’s most dastardly, and some who have blurred the line, but might be ready to break bad again.
The volume kicks off with maybe the most anticipated issue, a Magneto story by Chris Claremont himself. As you might expect, there’s a decent amount of talking here and not a lot of action. The character moments make sense, and Magneto comes out both more hardened and more human at the end, but the action is … confusing. One scene makes us question when the issue takes place, and Dalibor Talajić’s art makes the fate of some characters uncertain. Dono Sánchez-Almara’s colors are bright without being so bright as to detract from the somber mood.
Following that is perhaps the best Mojo story ever written, by Comedy Bang! Bang! host Scott Aukerman, if you can believe it. There are some good verbal gags (that outdo the self-aware attempts from “Mojo Worldwide”), but the real novelty is seeing Mojo actually grow as a person (being?) from start to finish, rather than just existing as a one-dimensional foil. Nick Bradshaw’s art is similarly more mature, with harsher angles to his usually more cartoony style. The colors by Guru-eFX really bring out the folds in Mojo’s corpulent physique.
The Mystique story by Seanan McGuire and artist Marco Failla has some good ideas, but some poorly communicated execution. Raven Darkholme transitions motivations almost as quickly as she does bodies, maybe a little too quickly for Failla to keep up with and maintain continuity between panels. Jesus Aburtov’s colors put a good sheen, literally and figuratively, on the slippery mutant.
Robbie Thompson’s Juggernaut story feels like it’s more about Cyttorak, the other-dimensional god from whom Cain Marko draws his power. He’s not convinced Juggs is really giving his all at this engine of destruction thing, and it’s going to take a lot of punching to get him there. Shawn Crystal’s stylized art seems like a mismatch at first, until you see Cain smash through an M.C. Escher print, and colorist Rico Renzi uses enough different shades of red to keep things distinct.
Another standout issue in X-Men Black is the Emma Frost story, written by Leah Williams, who continues to prove that she plain “gets” these characters. The ending is a foregone conclusion from early on, but the journey there is full of great moments from multiple characters, and a truly disturbing look at Sebastian Shaw. Chris Bachalo returns to draw one of his favorite franchises, love him or hate him, and Antonio Fabela’s colors work a nice contrast between bright whites, reds, and grayscales.
The only real stinker in the bunch, one that doesn’t move its character forward in any discernible way, is the Apocalypse story that was originally broken up and run as back matter in the individual X-Men Black issues. That original presentation makes for a strange pace when bundled together, with a lot of unavoidable repetition. And it’s even more unclear when this story takes place than in the Magneto story. Geraldo Borges’ art has some nice flourishes, but it doesn’t always communicate what’s happening well, and Rachelle Rosenberg color choices for some of the backgrounds are surprising.
X-Men Black is a mostly good collection of villain-centric stories that gives the characters actual arcs and makes them feel three-dimensional. The tones and styles of the individual issues don’t really match, but that’s probably a plus, giving the reader a variety of experience and exposure to different creators. The Apocalypse story drags the whole thing down considerably, but if you can ignore that, it’s a nice bunch of evil insight that you don’t get very often.