Having begun as a fun series of six mutant superheroes visiting alternate universes to rectify assorted problems, this second large Exiles compilation takes a serious dip down the quality curve. That’s because series creator Judd Winick doesn’t write everything, handing over the entire middle section to Chuck Austen.

Following Exiles over the slimmer paperback collections it’s easy enough to jump straight from Legacy to Fantastic Voyage, so avoiding Austen’s work on Unnatural Instincts, but here it’s a disappointing third of the page count. The difference between the two writers is chalk and cheese. Winick gives his plots some consideration, works out the wrinkles, and if he’s not always allocated the finest artist, that’s hardly his fault. Austen is teamed with a decent artist, Clayton Henry (sample art left), but his plots combine unlikely characterisation, distasteful incidents and inconsistencies. If someone’s established personality doesn’t fit, Austen just has them behave in a way that serves his story anyway. Time after time you’ll be ask why a person’s behaving in a certain way, and conclude it’s because the plot doesn’t work otherwise.

Winick’s work isn’t perfect, although comparison with Austen elevates it higher, but he consistently evolves interesting alternate world scenarios, his handling of the cast has a naturalistic subtlety, and when changing the team balance he gives some consideration to what will work well. He’s also good at throwing problems into what should be straightforward missions, supplying six stories with varied themes, all of them delivering thrills.

Over the course of the entire Exiles series Jim Calafiore draws considerably more pages than anyone else. He’s presumably an artist whose conscientious with deadlines, as his pages are rarely memorable, and his faces pinched, and often strange. His first story here, though, shows him at his best on a world where humans have been merged with an artificial intelligence, a hive mind that takes them over. As seen on the sample art, Calafiore’s human/machine hybrids are imposing and suitably scary. The other artists all work well. In his only contribution to the series Tom Mandrake’s brushwork on two animal characters is ideal. Kev Walker details a broken Earth overseen by a morally bankrupt character, and the delicacy and detail of Mizuki Sakakibara is also welcome. She’s also seen in Book 3.

Discounting Austen’s work still leaves almost three hundred pages of decent superhero action, and at the reduced prices at which Ultimate Collection 2 can now be found, it’s not a bad purchase.