Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire marks a dark period in the X-Men’s history. Still reeling from the events of House of M and the ensuing decimation, mutantkind finds itself in a precarious spot bordering on extinction. This is where Ed Brubaker began his X-Men run and recontextualized the X-Men’s history in Deadly Genesis. Professor Xavier’s darkest secrets were revealed, shaking the foundation of the X-Men. As if mutantkind’s future was not uncertain enough, the man they had rallied behind for so long was not who they though he was. On top of this, the lost Summers brother Vulcan returned with a vendetta against Xavier and exacted his revenge before taking to the stars.
As the next phase in Brubaker’s time on Uncanny X-Men, he launches the team into space. Their goal? Track down Vulcan, who has become a loaded gun barreling towards the Shi’ar Empire. This arc directly follows the events of Deadly Genesis, which very much becomes required reading to know all the moving pieces at this time. What follows is a 12-part space opera adventure filled to the brim with lore, new concepts, and some standout art.
Our team this time around is not the typical X-Men roster. Professor X assembles a rag-tag team of Havok, Nightcrawler, Polaris, Warpath, Marvel Girl (Rachel Summers), and new the member Darwin. It’s a unique team that compiles a lot of characters that don’t always get time in the spotlight. This ends up keeping the team dynamics more engaging and fresh throughout the story as we get new character interactions.
The story here really leans into the X-Men’s soap opera roots for a blending of sci-fi action with romance and intrigue. New relationships bud on the battlefield and old flames are rekindled. In particular, Havok and Polaris are reunited and must work through where they are at with each other. Alongside them, Rachel begins a relationship with the mysterious Korvus through their unique ties to the Phoenix Force. These plot threads read a bit cheesy and convenient at times, but they stay true to the soap opera style X-Men fans have come to expect.
Perhaps the strongest character here is Vulcan himself. He’s a conflicted villain driven by rage over his past sufferings at the hands of Xavier and the Shi’ar. With his beyond Omega-level powers, he is a force to be reckoned with as he wrecks havoc across the galaxy. There are specific interlude issues throughout the volume that highlight his quest and internal struggles that give him further development and make him one of the most compelling portions of the arc.
While the narrative’s operatic tendencies make it a fun read, the overarching story itself falls short. Unfortunately, this is a case where the ideas are better than the actual execution. There are so many plot points that arise, but they don’t get the time they need to breathe before it’s over. The conclusion in the final two issues comes off as hurried considering how much time is devoted to setting up everything. But the ending does indicate this arc was not so much a culmination but the next phase in Brubakers space epic. Within this volume there’s a lot of unfulfilled potential that seems left reserved for future volumes.
There is also a large amount of X-Men lore that informs the narrative twists and turns. The Shi’ar Empire has always held a key place in the X-Men mythos, and now it comes to the forefront. The story does its best to give a rundown of who’s who, but at the same time it’s juggling 40 years of history and cannot adequately summarize it all. New readers will get the gist of what’s going on like Xavier’s annulled marriage to Empress Lillandra, but other things like D’Ken’s history and the M’Kraan crystal are taken at face value. It’s rewarding to familiar readers, but by the end new readers will come away with more questions than answers.
Billy Tan handles the bulk of art duties here, while Clayton Henry comes in every 4th issue or so for the Vulcan interludes. Both styles match well visually and don’t distract from each other, which is a plus. Tan’s artstyle is realistic and gritty, which lends itself nicely to the action beats. He also imbues the volume with a myriad of unique panels that take advantage of the weird perspectives of being in space. The coloring also lends itself well to the line artists. The colorists breathe life into the alien worlds and use popping colors to saturate the space battles.
The Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire is an X-Men story that tries new things. It plays with X-Men lore in a fun way for old fans while also taking them in new directions. It doesn’t always pay off, but one cannot fault it for trying something new. The space opera style very quickly lends itself to the characters and makes for a fun read along the way. The ending also leaves the X-Men in an interesting spot that newer readers could continue on from. There is something in this volume for everyone, even though it doesn’t always come together.
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