Age of Apocalypse: The Comic Inspiration

One of the early Marvel mega-crossover events, the Age of Apocalypse quickly became a fan favorite when it launched back in 1995. Following fast on the heels of the Legion Quest story line, some of Marvel’s top creative honchos at the time (Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza, Joe Madureira, and many more) teamed up to create an alternate timeline “What If?” plot that functionally took over all of the X-titles for four months in 1995. Wildly popular and highly creative at the time, the Age of Apocalypse set the bar for alternative universal creations in the Marvel universe, its influence on later events like House of M and Age of Ultron can clearly be seen. It is quite possibly the high-water mark of the 1990s comic bubble, whose fallout nearly crippled Marvel around the turn of the 21st Century. Just look at how many concurrent X-titles there were back in 1995 when Age of Apocalypse started, it’s pretty impressive.

Admittedly, my drive to read this event was inspired largely by the upcoming movie later this month that is set to feature Apocalypse heavily. However, Fox’s X-Men: Apocalypse seems to end its relationship with this series after its name. Unlikely the comic, the movie does not portend an alternate reality interpretation of the X-Men under global dominion of the evil Darwinist, Apocalypse. It seems to draw more from earlier appearances of Apocalypse in early X-Factor and X-Men titles, which introduce his aggressive “Survival of the Fittest” doctrine and his penchant for four horsemen to usher in a biblical Armageddon. These elements still hold in the Age of Apocalypse event, of course, but they are more the tenets of an oppressive regime already in place than the driving forces of an aspiring world conqueror, as the movie suggests.

Overview and primary review:

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X-Men: Alpha #1; Cover Artist: Joe Madureira; Source: Marvel.com

As I mentioned above, Apocalypse is an interesting character, since he is, first and foremost, an ideologue. This means that his principles, however skewed and evil, are still part of a larger ideological doctrine. He believes in the tenets he espouses and values more than simply power. The ideological nature of Apocalypse’s aspirations makes his ascension to power seem more possible, drawing on historical examples (e.g. Nazism) and common dystopian literary tropes (think 1984) to build his evil empire. It also helps to explain why some key “heroes” from the standard timeline had been corrupted into agents of Apocalypse in this story. Apocalypse’s reach was unrivaled, and he was able to use certain characters’ vulnerabilities to draw them onto the wrong side.

Over the course of the event, most prominent mutants from the primary Marvel continuity timeline were accounted for, though this event did also take the opportunity to create some new characters as well as drastically reinventing many of the existing ones. The creators tended to have a rather pessimistic view of the world in mind here, electing to harden most of their characters, even the heroes, to a morally ambiguous and overly violent state, seemingly to reflect the harsh realities these alternate universe counterparts would have grown up under. Notably, the X-Men show a surprising willingness to kill throughout the event (even the younger” X-Men-in-training” characters from the Generation Next title). Hope is rare, and violence is common, but the tone does still retain a bit of humor and wit when it can (largely thanks to a few notable characters like Iceman and Morph).

The resulting 40ish issue event was the most expansive “What If” storyline Marvel had ever released at the time, and has really only been surpassed by the Ultimate Universe since. It is a pretty impressive creative feat, and a pretty bold risk to take at the time, especially considering how vastly popular the X-titles were in the ’90s. I also applaud the creators’ willingness to take risks within their own stories, making some fan favorites evil or morally ambiguous, killing off key characters, or relegating others to largely insignificant roles. Though, you can also see that some of the most popular characters at the time (i.e. Gambit, Rogue) received disproportionately important roles to what they would have today. But, overall, I thought the event did a pretty impressive job of rounding out the world and exploring individuals’ justifications for acquiescing, resisting, or avoiding the harsh realities of Apocalypse’s rule. They also did a good job of showing varied progressions of characters as they struggled to find their final allegiances throughout the arcs of the story.

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Source: Marvel.com

I did largely enjoy the Age of Apocalypse event for the creativity and scale I mentioned above. However, there were two primary critiques I have of the event as a whole before I delve into each series’ specifics. First, the artistic style of the nineties is just awful. Resorting back to the color palates of the sixties, characters’ costumes were bright and vibrant, but their bodies were so inhumanly disproportionate, that they ushered in the now-infamous critique of comic book physiques: the impossibly gargantuan musculature on men, whose muscles had muscles, contrasted by the Barbie-like, twig-waisted women. I am really not a fan of this art and often found it distracting during what was a pretty good story overall. If this story arc had been written and drawn in 2004 instead of 1995 by Alex Maleev, David Aja, or Michael Lark, this would be drastically better. But alas, the art will have to be tolerated in order to get to the meat of the story.

My second complaint is that the story was not particularly linear, making it hard to follow precisely. The staggered release of inter-related stories over the course of four months likely complicated matters, as certain elements may have depended more upon the release schedule of various issues rather than how  a plot development best fit into the story. The launch and closure of the event in Alpha and Omega, respectively served well to bookend the event, but I would have preferred a more linear “core” storyline, with the rest of the issues serving as tie-ins, like more modern Marvel events do: i.e. Civil War, Secret Invasion, etc. The unfortunate result of this somewhat disorganized structure was that the key plot developments were easily lost in the chaff of tie-in issues whose primary purpose was world-building. Nevertheless, it is possible to keep the story somewhat organized, and I recommend the very same reading order I used on my first read through, from the reliable and well-maintained ComicBookHerald. I have yet to try reading the story one miniseries at a time, but that seems like it could work, especially for those looking to reread the event.

Overall Event Rating: 7 of 1o

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Source: Marvel.com

Individual arcs:

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X:Men: Omega #1; Cover Artist: Roger Cruz; Source: Marvel.com

Alpha and Omega: These two issues provide the bookends of the Age of Apocalypse event. Both are strong and accomplish a lot by means of set up and conclusion, as the intervening bulk of the story is told across the remaining 9 titles. That does leave a lot of set up and clean up for these two, and they managed to accomplish the feat fairly well. From the outset in Alpha, the creators threw readers into the middle of the X-Men’s struggle against Apocalypse, deciding against laying out all of the background first. I think this was a great idea and it sent the message that the “how” of Apocalypse’s rise wasn’t as important as the struggle to end it was. The rise of Apocalypse and his evil regime was later fleshed out a bit more in subsequent Tales from the Age of Apocalypse and X-Chronicles titles, but these are not directly essential reading, and act more as supplements than core issues to the event. An odd thing about this event is how important the bookends are, but the intervening stories are a bit mixed. They do an important job of fleshing out the world under Apocalypse, but the action sequences are only tangentially related to the primary story arc. Most of them feed only a few details into the resolution of the final Omega issue.

At risk of spoiling the ending, I don’t want to talk too much about the Omega issue, but by the time it came around, the various pieces had started to fall into place across the other issues, and the finale did a pretty good job of wrapping it up. Though the ending is fairly abrupt, I can only imagine the fallout continued into the subsequent titles in early 1996, when normal continuity was restored. By Omega, the key pieces of Magneto’s plot and Apocalypse’s counter-efforts have all come to a head and the final battles and drama match the tone of the event, providing an appropriate end to this impressive excursion.

Rating: 8 of 1o

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Source: Marvel.com

Amazing X-Men: The two titles with “X-Men” in their name were, unsurprisingly, the two primary storylines that drove the event. The two titles each had roughly half of the X-Men team introduced in Alpha. The Amazing title followed Quicksilver’s team (Storm, Banshee, Dazzler, Exodus, and Iceman) as they sought to protect a group of humans who were to be airlifted from Apocalypse’s territory to the (relative) safety of Europe. Though I don’t like the nineties artistic style of muscles with muscles, I have to say that the visual re-imaginings of a lot of these characters were pretty cool: the costumes for Storm, Banshee, and Dazzler in particular. The whole world was portrayed in a much harsher light, and the moral ambiguity of being a hero and an underdog in a vicious and cut-throat world was well-articulated. This tie-in, written by Fabian Nicieza and penciled by Andy Kubert is one of the stronger arcs, and does a good job of characterizing each member of the team, even if the romantic tension between Quicksilver and Storm is a little forced. Rating: 7 of 10

Astonishing X-Men: Much like Amazing, this title features half of the active X-Men roster on a mission to prevent massive human casualties in the war-torn land of Apocalypse. Rogue is the main character, who leads her team (Sabretooth, Wildchild, Blink, Morph, and Sunfire) to the American Midwest to prevent a culling of non-mutants by one of Apocalypse’s horsemen. The characterization of Rogue in the AoA event is much different from her mainstream counterpart, and her role is largely defined as being Magneto’s wife, a role that seems an odd fit, especially in the ’90s when hers and Gambit’s relationship had been such a focal point. Written by Scott Lobdell and penciled by a young  Joe Madureira, Astonishing showed a much more empathetic side to Sabretooth, who had largely filled the role Wolverine does in regular continuity: a coarse, but lovable mentor-figure. Though I was only shmeh on the story’s mission, this arc does give a good sense of the level of depravity Apocalypse’s rule has come to and the willingness his underlings have to slaughter humans. Add in the interesting reimagining of Sunfire, and the comedic value of Morph, it makes for a solid entry into the AoA event. Rating: 7 of 10

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Source: Marvel.com

Factor X: This arc was somewhat hit and miss. I didn’t really like how evil and blood-thirsty writer John Francis Moore and penciler Steve Epting (before his awesome work on Captain America) made Havok. Havok is one of my favorite X-Men, and it was a bit of a bummer to see him as such a tool. I understand that the AoA event tried to show how different circumstances could have swung certain characters in different ways, and some of these (Cyclops, Angel, Cannonball, and even Beast) worked pretty well, but I didn’t like the stark contrast for Havok. Otherwise, this arc gives crucial insight into how Apocalypse’s regime functions from the top-down, highlighting the work of his Horsemen and the high-ranking Prelates that do his bidding. The exploration of Angel’s hovel in Manhattan also made for an interesting vestige of “non-aligned” characters. The grunge Cyclops and hokey Jean Grey stories were odd, and I don’t think this is one of the better-written entries. However, plot-wise, Factor X is very creative and gives crucial insights into Apocalypse’s reign and seeing the prison pits and Sinister’s plot from Cyclops’ (one-eyed) perspective was crucial to the progression of the overall AoA event. Rating: 6 of 10

Gambit and X-Ternals: I don’t know what series this one filled in for during the AoA event, but it seemed like an odd team grouping from the start. Gambit’s team, including Strong Guy, Jubilee, Sunspot, and Lila Cheney, was an odd mix and an even more bizarre choice for Magneto to send off into space. This group was charged with the most important element of Magneto’s plan to fix continuity: the M’kraan Crystal. Relying upon an underdeveloped Lila Cheney, who “didn’t know” she was a mutant to teleport across the galaxy and steal a shard of the M’kraan from the Shi’ar, who view it as a religious symbol. A tough enough task as is, but why does Magneto entrust it to Gambit and his band of vagabonds? I think it’s just because Gambit was a big fan favorite in 1995, so Fabian Nicieza wrote in an important story for him. The first half of this arc, penciled by Tony Daniel, was clunky and definitely not one of my favorites. However, the second half of the arc, which took place in the Morlock tunnels and developments in Strong Guy’s character actually finished up pretty well, which helps to bump its rating above a 5. Rating: 6 of 10

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Source: Marvel.com

Generation Next: Written by Scott Lobdell and penciled by Chris Bachalco, the Generation Next arc did some clever things over the course of its four-issue run. First, making Colossus and Kitty Pryde into brutally violent and unsympathetic characters is both upsetting and a good creative risk. These two have always been the innocent and hopeful members of the team, with Colossus’ intimidating size and strength juxtaposed against his inner softness. However, this young team of X-Men-in-training provides Colossus and Kitty with a dynamic cast of mutants to boss around. The team, comprised of Chamber, Husk, Mondo, Skin, and Vincente, was sent into a prison compound to rescure Illyana Rasputin, aka Magik. I have never really liked Magik, and I didn’t really understand her importance, even at the end of Omega. Though her character was oddly young, her existence served an important purpose in the portrayal of Colossus’ character development. The art was kind of odd, but it worked well for this borderline-espionage story arc. The first issue depicting the team’s training also wasn’t that great, but it really picked up after that. Though I doubt the strategic importance of this mission, the perils, resolution, and fallout of this arc were really well-developed and a genuine surprise. Rating: 8 of 10

Weapon X: A middling arc that focused much more on the nature of Jean and Logan’s “What if” relationship than on the state of the world during AoA. Written by Larry Hama and penciled by Adam Kubert, this arc tells the story of Logan (only called “Weapon X” and not “Wolverine” in the AoA timeline) pining after Jean and doing some weird side quest with the Human Resistance. The most important thing that happens is Jean’s eventual transition from this title to the Factor X story, where she is much more useful. It’s almost skip-able, and seemed like it was just an excuse to include Wolverine in this event somehow, even if he wasn’t a great fit. Rating: 5 of 10

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Source: Marvel.com

X-Calibre: One of the weaker tie-in titles, unfortunately, since it prominently featured one of my personal favorites: Nightcrawler. But this arc seemed to have the least amount happen over the course of four issues, as it pretty much just saw Nightcrawler go the the Savage Land (renamed Avalon in AoA) in search of Destiny (the character, not a general proclamation). Though it featured a strong start, with Juggernaut as a pacifist monk and Warpath running an underground refugee smuggler operation, the story just didn’t feel like it progressed. The portrayal of Mystique made her out to be weirdly callous and distant, and the assemblage of the X-Calibre team felt very forced. And the cheap death of Juggernaut from an aneurysm brought on be indecision was pretty pathetic. I love in-continuity Nightcrawler, he’s one of my all-time favorite characters, and I even like this harsh and sneaky AoA version when Rick Remender incorporated him into the wonderful Uncanny X-Men title, but this arc, written by the normally solid Warren Ellis and penciled by Ken Lashley, just seemed to fall short. The whole plot could have taken place in two issues, but felt unnecessarily stretched into four. Rating: 5 of 10

X-Man: Great! One of the best tie-ins. The story of Nate Summers/Grey/Askani-something-or-other (aka Cable) is one of the best alternate origins of the entire AoA event. The idea of Sinister breaking off from Apocalypse and developing Nate as a “secret weapon” to defeat him was pretty clever, and offered a viable alternative to the X-Men: Inferno storyline that provided Cable’s origin in regular continuity. I also very much enjoyed the idea of Forge as a team leader and mentor for Nate, plus using the guise of a traveling theater troupe to stage guerrilla attacks on infrastructural targets to resist Apocalypse was absolutely ingenious. The random cast of characters including Mastermind, Sauron, and Toad also brought an interesting and refreshing ensemble to the book. I very much enjoyed this four-issue arc and thought it did a lot of characterizing in a short period of time. Written by Jeph Loeb and penciled by Jeff Skroce, this mini-series is a great read. Rating: 8 of 10

X-Universe: Seemed like an unnecessary addition to this mutant-centric event. I guess it was fun to see Ben Grimm, Sue Storm, and Tony Stark working with the human resistance, but this 2-issue arc didn’t seem like it was all that important to the whole story. I would probably skip it next time around. Rating: 4 of 10

 

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Source: Marvel.com

Side Issues (Blink, Tales from…, etc.): None of these non-core issues are particularly essential, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. The Tales from the Age of Apocalypse and X-Chronicles titles in particular seemed to provide some fun background to the rise of the big baddie, himself, as well as providing motivation behind some key characters’ divergent developments from their primary, in-continuity selves. Notably, Magneto, Sabretooth, Wolverine, and the Summers brothers are explored in depth, with some important revelations for Quicksilver, Rogue, and Gambit, as well. I am not sure if the inclusion of these four oversized issues is enough for me to recommend the entire Dawn of… trade paperback, since most of the other content is even less essential. I didn’t really link the Blink solo series, but I guess it may be a lead in to the Exiles series, which I have not yet read. But either way, I hardly think a solo adventure for Blink in the AoA version of the Negative Zone would be considered core reading. I’d recommend skipping it entirely, since it just tells a weird story about her, Blastaar, and Annihilus. Shmeh. Collective Rating: 5 of 10

 

 

 

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