The X-Men Universe is in something of a limbo state right now. Most of the regular books have either been finished off or are being tied up in the Extermination event, and with the announcement that Uncanny X-Men is making its grand return next month, we’re left with X-Men Black, a series of five weekly one-shots that each takes a look at a different villain, to fill the time. The choices as to who received their own spotlight will no doubt be relevant further down the line (as will, we’re told, the Apocalypse backup story running through the issues), but the choices are a little unusual, to say the least. Mojo? Really? Juggernaut has a decent fan base but still, he's also a strange choice for a one-shot.
At least the subject of this first issue is worthy in more ways than one. Magneto, the Master of Magnetism himself, is not only the X-Men’s greatest foe, but has recently slipped back into his old ways, embracing the label of "supervillain" by reforming his evil brotherhood and setting up shop on his old Asteroid M space fortress. Now would be a perfect time then to take a step back, to peer into his deepest thoughts and find out just what he thinks he’s playing at. Thanks to writer Chris Claremont, X-Men Black #1 is largely successful in that regard.
It seems strange to be somewhat surprised that Claremont has delivered a strong one-shot, after all, he’s one of the most seminal, influential creators to have worked on the X-Men throughout its long history. He (along with other creators like John Byrne, Len Wein, and Dave Cockrum) was responsible for dragging the franchise from reprints, obscurity, and cancellation into one of Marvel’s cornerstones filled with creativity, action and best-selling comics. He worked tirelessly for over 15 years on Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, Excalibur and more, and his influence is still felt and will be felt for decades to come.
Having said all of that, though, in recent years his output hasn’t been his strongest work. His deep understanding of the X-Men characters has never wavered, however, and X-Men Black: Magneto #1 may be his strongest book in recent memory. We see Magneto in a diner in the middle of nowhere, he meets a young waitress named Kate and gets into an altercation with some ignorant locals. All the while, a news report on the TV behind them tells of the Office of National Emergency establishing three detention centers across the country in which young mutants will be held for "processing."
One of the more fascinating aspects of the X-Men as a concept is its ability to be both timeless and intensely prescient, and Claremont rather elegantly captures that feeling here, with the actions of O.N.E being worryingly familiar to current affairs. While there’s not necessarily any new ground covered in this issue, particularly where Magneto’s character is concerned, the events of this early scene followed by Magneto’s attack on the O.N.E that makes up the back half of the story both serve to reinforce the decisions he’s made in recent issues, and in turn validate his actions to a certain degree. Despite him explicitly becoming a villain once again, Magneto is still deeply relatable and (for want of a better word) human, and who better to convey that than the writer that instilled that richly flawed personality within the character in the first place?
Dalibor Talajic’s art complements Claremont’s characterization by making Magneto look older, and even a little frail, in his depictions. It works in great contrast to the power that he emits, but is perhaps a little at odds with how the character has been portrayed in all other X-Men comics. Even the cover of this issue shows him as a musclebound male in his prime (despite the grey hair). There’s a particular narrative focus on Erik’s history in the concentration camps of World War II, though, so this depiction, while at odds with how he’s usually portrayed, adds a certain depth and weight to the proceedings. Despite how immense and imposing his legacy has been and continues to be, Talajic shows us a Magneto who’s advancing in years and giving us the impression that he is tired of being forced to fight once again for what he believes is right.
The backup story, written by Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler and with art by Geraldo Borges, Rachelle Rosenberg and Cory Petit, concerns another prominent X-villain, Apocalypse. Entitled “Degeneration,” this first chapter (continuing throughout the remaining four issues of X-Men Black) sees En Sabah Nur working hard to perfect a cloning technique to extend his already considerable lifespan. It’s a little wordy, and filled with the kind of rhetoric that just washes over you after a page or two, but an accident halfway through the story leads the character to an interesting dilemma that will no doubt provide the narrative thrust of the story’s following chapters.
X-Men Black: Magento #1 gives us two stories, and each have their merits. In the main story, Claremont and Talajic provide an interesting character focus that, while not necessarily breaking any new ground, reinforces Magneto’s situation and pushes him forward with a new objective and a potential new character or two. Meanwhile, Thompson, Nadler and Borges’ Apocalypse backup puts the villain back on the table in a fresh way that will be interesting to watch moving forward. We may be in a brief limbo with regards to the X-Men line, but X-Men Black has started in a strong way that shouldn’t be readily dismissed.