When I started this column, a key goal that I had was to preserve the history of licensed novels. If you’re not a Star Wars or Star Trek book, both of which have dedicated publishers keeping them in print, you get one printing and you’re done. A lot of the books I’ve covered have been used copies or the occasional archive.org copy. Unless a book is currently in print, it is done for.
Except that’s finally changing. Dreamscape Media started releasing audiobook versions of the classic Marvel prose novels this fall. Titan Books has rescued the Planet of the Apes, Alien, and Predator novels over the years. Pocket and Dark Horse keep the Hellboy line going in ebook form while most Buffy novels are in ebook form. Graphic Audio gave the DC novelizations a place to thrive.
And finally, today, a book from the Marvel/BP/Boulevard run is back on shelves. X-Men: Mutant Empire by Christopher Golden, a three book trilogy, has been put back in print after twenty years in a gorgeous new omnibus edition by Titan Books, the first of three planned reprint collections with X-Men/Avengers: Gamma Quest and Spider-Man: The Venom Factor trilogy to come.
So I’d be excited just on principle to see this happen. But is this return of a comic book novel something to celebrate or proof that the things we loved in the past should stay there?
The plot of Mutant Empire is simple: Magneto takes over Manhattan after stealing a squadron of Sentinels and it’s up to the X-Men to stop him but the team is fractured with Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue and a few others in space fighting the Shi’ar while Wolverine, Beast, and Storm fight Magneto. It all builds to an epic battle as one might expect.
Mutant Empire was my first major exposure to the X-Men. I’d read a few books, watched the show here and there and read a comic or two. But this was my first deep dive and I immediately thought it was the gold standard. In the years since my initial read, I’ve read virtually every issue published during this era of the comics. I’ve come to know this material in and out. And between 1991’s Mutant Genesis and 2001’s E is For Extinction, this is the single best X-Men story published. Yes, better than Age of Apocalypse, Onslaught, LegionQuest, or any other story you want to name. This is that good.
Why? Well I’ll start with the very obvious answer. This is a clean story with nothing convoluting it. It’s Magneto vs the X-Men for New York. There’s lots of fighting with all the hallmarks of a good X-Men story. Juggernaut even shows up to help the X-Men before his period as at least an antihero. It’s a story where you get exactly what you’re sold.
That stands in sharp contrast to the comics of the time which were utter messes even at their best. I recently reread Fatal Attractions and it was such a confusing read because you were jumping from one ongoing story that got interrupted for another and it kept doing that.
It’s also just damned solid in how it’s executed and that’s all on the writer. Christopher Golden finally makes his debut in this column and it’s kind of ludicrous it took until now to do so because he’s probably the best licensed novel writer in the time I’ve read. A gifted horror novelist in his own right, Golden is adept at taking on the material he’s hired to write for and creating epics from it. I’m getting to his Buffy novels in time but expect the phrase “often better than the show” a lot.
Here, Golden delivers superb character beats. The canon characters are all recognizably themselves. Magneto and Xavier get a moment on the astral plane. There’s only one canon foreigner of any real note, a Major who finds himself siding with Magneto before turning back to the side of good, and he’s fantastic to follow. It’s a rare jewel on that front.
He also gives vital exposition. A comic can’t slow down to explain the history of the characters but Golden gets to explain everything for new readers while refreshing the old. It’s a nice thing to have.
And I keep going back to that action. This isn’t actually as blow things up good as you expect with at times an unexpectedly tense vibe. Magneto’s attempt at a new mutant paradise is legitimately intimidating. But when we get fights, they’re all you hope for. Anytime the Sentinels and Juggernaut are involved, you’re getting your money’s worth. Just straightforward action.
The book isn’t perfect. I was not as much of a fan of the space thread as the main plot. It’s not agony to read with the aforementioned strengths present. It’s simply taste. I’m not a big Starjammers fan and that’s fine. It’s still fine. Just a diversion I wasn’t high on.
It also has to be conceded that the book isn’t canon which makes plugging this in a bit awkward. It clashes with Fatal Attractions. You can’t ignore this and that definitely couldn’t occur in one timeline.
I’ll also note the Titan edition lacks both the incredible covers and the chapter art that showed a scene from each chapter. It’s a generic cover and the book is bare. Look these up.
I can accept all of these things because Mutant Empire is that damned good. Welcome back to print. Highly recommended to anyone seeking a great X-Men story.