Is it a simply encapsulated indicator of everything everyone looks back and shakes their had at from the 90s?
Maybe. Every issue was polybagged with a trading card, and it used all the X-team books at the time (X-Force, X-Factor, X-Men, and Uncanny X-Men) for three months. It focused heavily on Cable and Stryfe (almost-but-not-quite getting to the bottom of both characters).
But it’s an interesting story, in retrospect: I got myself caught up on all of those books¹ in terms of immediately preceding issues so that I could have a clue what was going on going in. I’ve read all of X-Men up to that point (an easy feat: the cross-over starts for it with issue 14), and I’ve been reading Peter David’s original run on X-Factor, and some spotty, intermittent reading on Uncanny (all of this kind of coming together with the Muir Island Saga, too, and a variety of other cross-over bits and pieces immediately preceding this storyline.
In 1992, Cable is still one of the X-books’s mystery men (either blessed or cursed with them, starting with Wolverine and adding the two most “90s” of X-characters, good or bad–Cable and Gambit). His X-Force team (derived from the now-late New Mutants) is very “outlaw” and “antihero” in everyone else’s mind. With the apparent death of Magneto at the end of Claremont’s run (X-Men #2), the arch-nemesis gap is filled by a trio of baddies, who also represent a lot of the prevailing attitude at the time–Mr. Sinister, Stryfe, and Apocalypse. Of the three, Mr. Sinister and Apocalypse were most aged in the real world, having appeared in ’87 and ’86 respectively, at the hands of Claremont and Louise Simonson (also respectively). Stryfe, in costume alone, bore a lot of the excessive and peculiar design choices of the decade–clad in red-caped metallic armour, his helmet was a series of overlapping blades not entirely unlike the strange excess of wings Archangel bore at the time.
Each of the three led a small team (Stryfe: the Mutant Liberation Front, Apocalypse: the Dark Riders and his Horsemen, and Sinister: The Nasty Boys²), and had been meddling in mutant affairs for many of the recent issues (not long before, of course, Nathan Christopher Summers, son of Cyclops and Madeline Pryor, was sent to the future in an attempt to spare him the ravaging techno-organic virus Apocalypse infected him with, for instance).
The storyline opens with an assassination attempt on Professor Xavier, with the man responsible strongly resembling Cable. Now, Mystique was currently at the mansion, so that’s at least one explanation completely out. The mysterious and vigilante nature of Cable didn’t help matters much–so most of the teams accepted readily that this was really and truly Cable who was responsible. They rapidly learn, through Moira MacTaggart and Beast, that what seemed to be a simple firearm assassination attempt was actually the planting of another techno-organic virus.
What follows is an acceptably convoluted attempt to chase down the source of this–as well as the sudden abduction of Cyclops and Jean Grey–that leads them through all of the major villains, with each team refusing to stay planted firmly in their book. In essence, it’s a very real cross-over: it might say “X-Factor” on the cover, but you’re going to see lots of storylines that are just X-Men-based. Of course, in the background, Peter David tries valiantly to maintain the threads of the story he’s been running already in X-Factor via the “man-that’s-lucky” advantage of Jamie “Multiple Man” Madrox (who can be involved in both stories for obvious reasons).
I’ve not mentioned it much here, but my investment in Spider-Man meant that the major 90s cross-over I found myself most familiar with was Maximum Carnage. I had three issues (of…14!) and it was held out to be a major event. Years later, I read all 14 issues. Please don’t do this. It’s a really horrible, awful cross-over, where the same things happen over and over and/or drag on and on. I think Spiderfan.org reviewer Jose Gonzalez put it best in a review of the SNES game that cross-over inspired:
This is a perfect example of how a game is capable of transcending its source material and delivering a really fun experience, even if it did have the unfortunate side effect of telling thousands of kids everywhere that it’s OK to enjoy something with Carnage in it.
So, as much as I just kind of accepted where I was going here–I had some measure of “Oh well, I’ll have read it, at least,” involved in my decision to read every issue of the X-Cutioner’s Song story. It didn’t turn out that way, though–maybe having the multiple threads to follow (Wolverine and Bishop pursuing Cable independently, X-Force being stubborn and defiant, but eventually corralled, Sinister and Apocalypse and Stryfe all shuffling responsibility and threat and keeping everyone on their toes, the bizarre abduction and torture of Jean and Scott…
In the end, the worst criticism is certainly that it goes so much toward explaining Stryfe and/or Cable, and then gives up, pretending to murder both of them at the very end. The stakes are certainly high here, and there are clues all over the place, so the climax works for the story, but it’s kind of impotent in the grand scheme of things, in a sense.
It was all worth it to see David have X-Factor beat the snot out of Liefeldian X-Force, I must admit. The quote I titled this with was Wolfsbane commenting on her trouncing of Feral. Maybe it’s because she’s Scottish, or because PAD got to write her, or because she existed way before Feral, or because Feral’s 90s costume is a hot mess of ridiculous stupid, but that was the exact outcome I wanted. I seem to be alone in this, if my vague and random Googling of the issue is to be believed. But, like most of the battles in this (admittedly battle-heavy) book, it was scripted and depicted well-enough that it didn’t ever feel like a monotonous repetition or pre-determined outcome (lookin’ at you again, Maximum Carnage).
¹Except X-Force. Beyond cross-over issues, my interest in X-Force Volume 1 begins and ends with the Milligan/Allred stuff.
²Peter, the only explanation I will accept is a strange manifestation of Janet Jackson fandom.