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“All-New X-Men” #9 is the series’ first foray into “Apocalypse Wars,” the not-really-a-crossover event moving through all three core X-Men titles. While “Extraordinary X-Men” focuses on the future and “Uncanny X-Men” on the present day, “All-New X-Men” #9 goes to the distant past for what is probably the best issue from Dennis Hopeless, Mark Bagley and Andrew Hennessy to date.

The strength of this oversized issue actually lies in the first half of the story, where the team reunites with a lot of the X-Men’s other students for a party to celebrate Evan’s birthday on the remains of Utopia. Ignoring the logistics of this setup (leaving the protective zone of Limbo, no worries of Terrigan Mists and so on), it’s a good lead-in for not only a reminder of Evan’s past (raised in a virtual world based on small-town America), but an examination of what would happen if you discovered your entire childhood was a literal lie. Evan’s yearning for the life he never had but still remembers somewhat makes up for the lack of a role he’s had in the series up until this point. Hopeless writes Evan as an intriguing character, one who puts on the proverbial brave face even as he withers on the inside. Compared to Idie’s blatant struggle in Paris, this feels much more realistic and nuanced.

The second half of the book — where Evan and Hank are dropped into ancient Egypt — feels a little less engaging. When Evan puts on the mask from Doctor Strange after being explicitly told not to do so, it comes across as forced, and the scene that finds the duo endangered by the locals feels overly long. If anything, it makes me wish this issue hadn’t been oversized, with those extra pages trimmed out of that scene; the cliffhanger is the moment where the story picks up again, and I wish we’d gotten to it a bit faster.

Consistent from start to finish, Bagley and Hennessy continue to give us characters who move effortlessly across the page, in a wide variety of body types and overall looks. It’s the sequence in Kansas that really brings the issue home; after drawing so many characters with flashy looks and outfits, we get a lot of “normal” people who all look distinct. That said, my favorite piece of art here is the final page of that sequence, where Evan and Pickles stand beneath the towering image of the original Apocalypse at his most dangerous. Bagley and Hennessy make sure you can see the strong resemblance between the two, even as Evan looks innocent and lost while Apocalypse is the visual quintessence of a madman. It’s a good compare-and-contrast moment, and it makes the fear hovering in the back of Evan’s mind come to life in an effective way.

I’ve been hoping to see “All-New X-Men” up its game, and “All-New X-Men” #9 feels like a step in that direction. The rest of “Apocalypse Wars” is full of possibilities, and — with such a strong character portrait of Evan — it looks like Hopeless, Bagley and Hennessy are heading down the right path.