Posted by: markfender | March 13, 2013

Age of Apocalypse

I decided to read some comics. And now you have to deal with that.

X-Men_Age_Of_Apocalypse_The_Complete_Epic_Vol_1_1For some godawful reason, I decided to read Age of Apocalypse, an X-Men event from 1995. It rates very highly on the comic scale amongst the sort of people who follow that sort of thing. One of my favorite conceits in fiction is the alternate-reality storyline. I like how they reframe characters, tweaking them into new forms that are still recognizable. Comics do this sort of story more than anything else. Since I’d already read House of M a few years ago, I went searching for another one of those stories and settled on this one. I regret that decision.

First of all, this was published in 1995. So, all the artists are doing their damnable best to look exactly like Rob Liefeld (down to an inability to draw feet). Chris Bachalo’s Generation Next art was really the only different style. In addition, the big two hadn’t quite made the leap to digital coloring yet. The colors are very flat. There’s very few gradients anywhere in the whole thing. Most of those that are present were accomplished with ink before color was added, making for some very dark shading. The cover of the collection (above), is what you expect from modern comics in terms of color. The inside of that book? Not as good. It’s nothing but bright yellows and blues everywhere, creating a lurid, flat blodge of color for every issue. The inking wasn’t spectacular, either. Again, Marvel hadn’t entered the modern world of Photoshop quite yet and so the inking is pretty inconsistent. You get a lot cleaner lines nowadays where you can actually see some artistic talent. Some of these issues look like they were inked by a magic marker. At first, you accuse Marvel of hiring a bad artist. But then, one issue later, that same artist is inked well and you can appreciate their art. The combination of color and art made this whole thing a chore to read. Modern comics are so much nicer. So thank God for Photoshop, is what I’m saying.

Second, the writing wasn’t grand either. Scott Lobdell’s work was…workmanlike. It often kept the story moving forward but wasn’t making any great strides in the medium. I usually like his stuff. He’s not going to be redefining my relationship with comics anytime soon, but he’s usually better than this. Fabien Nicieza was the other major scribe on this one and, frankly, he’s just bad. He’s written a lot of Deadpool in recent years and that’s generally accepted as good (or, at least, funny). But in this, he’s grating. He uses bad metaphors, cliched dialogue (cliched even for comics), and writes every character with such a broad brush that they might as well as just had “PERSONALITY TRAIT” pasted on their foreheads for all the subtlety they received. Warren Ellis’s X-Calibre was probably the best written. Even before I’d reached the splash page of the first issue he’d written and learned who was writing, I had already pegged his prose as rising above his peers. Jeph Loeb’s prose wasn’t too terrible either, but he was dragged down by writing for characters I hate. There are occasional flashes of good storytelling in the bookends to the series, so I’m going to attribute those to Mark Waid, since those were the only issues he touched outside of the usual suspects.

aoajubilee

I soooo agree, Jubilee. Also, what’s a “reel”?

So, the conceit for this whole thing was that Legion (a character I am not familiar with) went back in time to kill Magneto. Except he fucked up and killed Charles Xavier instead. That made everything happen differently, as you’d imagine. X-Men has always been a metaphor for racial politics so I imagine this is what would happen if Malcom X had not been assassinated but Martin Luther King Jr. had (I may have read into that too much). Somehow, that developed into a situation where Apocalypse was able to take over the United States and create his new world eugenic order. Magneto, founder of the X-Men, must overthrow Apocalypse’s reign and fix the past. Or something. It was kinda confusing after this point.

In fact, the whole thing is ridiculously confusing. I had to consult another webpage to figure out what stories to read and in what order. And there were other websites which disagreed with that order. In fact, the automagical “anticipate what you’re typing” thing on Google has “Age of Apocalypse reading order” as the third result, meaning it’s not just me who’s confused. Once the event gets going, it gets easier to follow, as you’re just reading six X-titles that are happening concurrently with each other. Except sometimes they’re not. Sometimes events in one happen that affect another one. But then, the following month, you’re reading a different one first to anticipate events in another. How the fuck do people ever keep this shit straight? Why would they want to? Every subculture creates their own language to keep outsiders out. Comics keep the outsiders out by just making their stories impossible to follow. And they wonder why they’re dying.

The opening shots of this story are really confusing. We’ve got Magneto and his X-Men hanging out. Wolverine is his usual self. But the very next story has him missing a hand. What happened? We only learn in flashbacks much later. Rogue and Magneto are making sexy at each other (because their age difference isn’t creepy or anything) but the very next issue has Gambit totally surprised at this development, unaware that there was anything between them. Of course, this isn’t helped by the fact that Magneto has just figured out how to MAGNETISM-STAR-TREK-TECHNO-BABBLE touch Rogue without her powers going off on him, even though they were kissing in the last issue. Then, they learn from Bishop (who came from the future – the correct future) that something is up with their reality. This sets off the whole thing with Magneto sending his various teams off to accomplish different tasks. They’ve got to gather a seer, a M’Kraan crystal, find Colossus’ sister, help some refugees, and drop a ring into a volcano. (Okay, maybe not that last one.) This lets him split the team into their individual books before getting everyone back together at the end for a final, climactic battle.

I realize comic book artists always draw women that bear no resemblance to reality, but WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?

I realize comic book artists always draw women that bear no resemblance to reality, but WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?

One of the things Marvel did that probably had more of an impact on their enjoyment of the story than the comic readers of the time are willing to admit was “cancel” all the X-Men titles. Then, they released totally new X-Men titles that replaced the normal ones with the ‘alt’ teams. This is actually kind of clever. One of the things I enjoy about those alt-reality stories is how they twist the characters into new interesting forms, while still keeping their essential personalities intact. Shame they barely did that. Rogue is still Rogue. Magneto is just Professor X who can walk. Banshee is apparently still on the team. Everyone was wearing those stupid head things to keep their faces from getting out that they were wearing in 90s comics…nothing much changed. The things that changed the most were the names of the comics. Woo hoo.

X-Calibre replaced Excalibur. It featured Nightcrawler and his mother Mystique searching out the mutant Destiny so that she can verify that Bishop’s vision is correct. To do that, Warren Ellis has them kill a lot of people, in sometimes graphic detail. Most of the characters in this one were fairly similar to their ‘real world’ analogues. Dead Man Wade replaced Deadpool. Acting as one of Apocalypse’s cronies, he was still crazy, but in a lost and despairing way. Juggernaut was a simple monk named Cain. This is one of the few times in the whole thing that any character was in any way different from their normal versions. I didn’t really care about this story. There’s a secret mutant paradise in the middle of Antartica, Nightcrawler kills a lot of people, and Mystique makes hilarious jokes about bullets. It sucked.

Gambit and the X-Ternals replaced X-Force. Gambit takes his ragtag team to capture a M’kraan crystal. This led them to teleporting into the middle of an intergalactic war. There were various alien races I was probably supposed to know about, some of which turned into crystal at some point. Gambit’s girlfriend, Lila, teleports everyone into space, shredding her clothes in the process. But, somehow, miraculously, the next issue has her fully dressed in an appropriately-themed X-outfit. They just sorta keep those around? I hate reading Gambit’s dialogue because of the terrible Cajun dialect. In fact, I pretty much hate all dialect writing, which makes me wonder how I was ever able to stomach Claremont’s ’80s “everyone’s from a different country” X-Men. There’s also a character named Strong Guy, which somehow doesn’t win for worst name in this whole event. This one was confusing because I don’t know who all these aliens are. Oh, also it sucked.

Wait, so what's the draft in this analogy?

Wait, so what’s the draft in this analogy?

aoacolossus

Okay, pirate Colossus is kinda’ cool.

Generation Next is the new team of young mutants, replacing Generation X. This book has all the gross mutants in it – Chamber, Husk, and Skin, to name a few. It’s a chance for Lobdell and Bachalo to get their horrorfreak on or something. I liked the art the most of this one, even if it did get dingier and dingier as the run continued. Colossus and his wife Shadowcat (who also bore Wolverine claws for some unexplained reason) have to break into a work camp to rescue Colossus’ sister Illyana. Of course, before we can do that, we have to have “training” for a whole issue. This means that everyone gets to use their powers on each other and the writer can explain all their nicknames and back stories. It’s a ridiculously common trope in comics but a useful one. It gets tedious, however, when EVERY OTHER TITLE ALSO DOES IT. Seriously, I think I read about five or six training issues across the entire event.

This comic also introduces the worst villain of all time – Sugar Man.

Seriously, what the fuck?

Seriously, what the fuck?

Besides looking ridiculous, he bears the name of Sugar Man. SUGAR MAN. He even has a tattoo with his name on it. Listen, I get that sometimes comics are burdened with legacy characters that have rather silly names. Have you ever considered how dumb a name “Bat Man” is? It’s pretty dumb, if you think about it. But, this thing wasn’t invented in the ’60s. It was invented in 1995. And given the name Sugar Man. I never want to read comics again.

So, Colossus rescues his sister, but gets his whole team killed in the process. I think I was supposed to feel bad about this, but it’s an alternate reality so…did they really die? I can’t summon up the energy to care. But I do know that Colossus is kind of a dick. And it has a thing called Sugar Man in it. It sucked.

Astonishing X-Men features some X-Men who used to be called Uncanny. Or something. I got a little confused about who was in which book. Since they also switch which book they’re in, it didn’t make it any easier to follow. Regardless, these mutants go to stop the cullings that Apocalypse is doing to all the pitiful humans. This involved punching things a lot. Sabertooth plays an awesome trick on Holocaust (a kind of cool-looking villain) by getting him to monologue while they fight, revealing his plans. Sabertooth then reveals that he had Wild Child with him the whole time and sends Wild Child back to the other X-Men to reveal Holocaust’s plans. This is an awesome plan, except that Sabertooth forgot one key thing – Wild Child can’t speak. Brilliant. This comic also had Blink in it, who is cool.

Blink would own at Portal.

Blink would own at Portal.

It turns out, though, that Holocaust escapes. And Sabertooth didn’t die. So this comic was pointless to the overall story. In fact, I’m pretty sure every single hero team ends up fighting Holocaust at one point or another. It got tedious. So, this sucked.

I realize comic book artists always draw men that bear no resemblance to reality, but WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?

Amazing X-Men featured an entirely different set of mutants who perform another useless mission that accomplishes nothing. Seriously, Magneto and Bishop get captured by Apocalypse, Rogue and Magneto’s son (it’s okay to throw up a little) Charles is kidnapped, and they fail to even defeat some annoying wise-cracking Horseman. Oh, and Banshee apparently hates himself and what he’s done in the past but that is never explained. Nor are those weird streamers he has on his shoulders ever explained. This comic replaced X-Men. Sucked.

X-Universe was another comic that showed up in this event. It was about how the other superheroes of Marvel dealt with Apocalypse owning everything. Apparently, the way they did this was by sucking. None of them were actually superheroes. Tony Stark was on life support, Peter Parker was dead, and the Fantastic Four never went into space. Only Bruce Banner seemed to maintain his powers, even if it did come through genetic mutation instead of gamma radiation. I liked the fact that Gwen Stacy was a freedom fighter in this and “Suzie” Storm and Ben Grimm were mercenaries. That was kind of amusing. And Victor Von Doom as a simpering eurotrash diplomat was funny as well. But nothing important to the overall event happened here – it was just a two-issue cash-in to show other superheroes not being superheroic.

aoawolverine

Wolverine’s hair is freaking amazing.

Weapon X replaced Wolverine. You saw that one coming, didn’t you? It’s nice to know that Apocalypse wreaking havoc across North America didn’t upset the Weapon X program any. This time, he’s absconded with his lady-love Jean Grey to Europe, where they are attempting to get the remaining human nations to help America out. Did I mention Wolverine was missing a hand? I don’t even get how that happens. Isn’t super-healing like his thing? Doesn’t he demonstrate that throughout this comic? Why can’t he grow his hand back? Anyway, Jean eventually leaves him and Wolverine goes to recruit a teleporter. He gets Gateway, who is pretty much the same character as he always was – except he’s wearing blue jeans. Truly, this world has gone topsy-turvy with the lack of Charles Xavier. They needed this teleporter so they could teleport a giant fleet into the US to bomb the living bejeezus out of Apocalypse. This, they accomplish, but, as you’d imagine, this has absolutely no effect on the overall war effort. Wolverine as a solo character sucks anyway, so it didn’t really surprise me that this also sucked.

aoawolverine2

Ooh, it’s got a twist.

aoacyclops

The gorgeous flowing locks of Cyclops.

Factor X replaced X Factor and was probably the most interesting title from an alt-reality sense. Everyone in this comic had an entirely different role than they did in normal continuity. Hank McCoy, for instance was an evil scientist performing lots of genetic experiments on people. They were so horrible that he was called The Beast. Cyclops and Havok were in charge of Apocalypse’s security. And Angel ran a nightclub called Heaven. That’s about all I remember. There was an escape attempt at least every issue, Alex and Scott bickered a lot, and it involved Cable at one point. Of course it sucked.

Speaking of Cable, this comic was replaced by X-Man. Because Cable is that goddamned important. I hate Cable. Always have. He’s got a ridiculous backstory that’s even more confusing than most backstories. He’s got telekinetic powers and teleportation, but he just shoots guns. Guns that shoot square bullets. And he has a lot of straps and things. So, when it turns out his backstory in Age of Apocalypse is pretty much the same and that he’s the most powerful mutant to ever go a-mutating, well, I fucking don’t care. Considering the whole comic run was just a setup for him to show up in the final battle, it really didn’t matter to anything else that was happening. So, amazingly, this sucked.

This is NOT Cable. I was confused as well.

This is NOT Cable. I was confused as well.

Finally, the event comes to a close in the chamber of Apocalypse. Everyone’s there and all the pieces are in place. X-Man (that is, Nathan Summers, Marty Sue of the ’90s) is destined to kill Apocalypse. So, of course, Magneto does. Bishop, Illyana, and Destiny must sacrifice their lives to correct the timestream. So, of course, Illyana lives. Colossus kills Shadowcat because he’s a dick and then Nightcrawler kills him because Nightcrawler hates dicks. There’s lots of punching. Somebody makes a Phoenix joke when Jean Grey dies. Bishop goes into the past and stops Legion from killing the wrong man. This is the first we’ve actually seen of Legion in this event, despite the fact that every first page of every issue reminded us of how this all happened. And then the sucking was over.

This was not good. I don’t know how you could think it was. The alternate reality was not interesting enough. Not enough characters were really different. Magneto never once, after learning that he was a terrible person in the real world, contemplated the fact that he was destroying his only chance to be a good person. I mean, if I find out that I’m a super villain in another reality, I might consider maybe not going there. Even if I eventually decided that the saving of countless human lives was worth it, I would at least have that internal conflict. But not this event. That would require decent writers who are interested in story and character motivation. Instead, they’re interested in creating Sugar Man.

aoaapoc2

Apocalypse – Fear of a Black Planet

I’m probably being harsh towards something that’s almost 2o-years old. But the recent rumblings from Marvel made me think that I should revisit this “groundbreaking” event that they’re revisiting (or going to revisit or already have? I can’t be bothered to care). I don’t know why I would think that. I don’t know why I subjected myself to this. Maybe because I can’t read a continuing series that never ends and so these sort of self-contained events are the only way I can dip into comics? Even if “self-contained” is a word comics don’t understand. Maybe because I bear a certain fondness for the X-Men, even if they’re one of the most problematic comic lines to keep straight. Maybe I just wanted to make myself really angry. Maybe the allure of an alternate reality comic overcame my normal objections to this kind of thing. Maybe I should have just read 1602 again. That’s a good comic.

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Responses

  1. Read Civil War next, get out of the Mutant basement (which i’m currently in), its not an alt universe (but i’m pretty sure its been completely forgot now).

    • Read Civil War when it came out. I didn’t care for the fact that Mark Millar didn’t understand an entire side of the core issue. It made for some shitty storytelling. Well, that and witnessing Joe Queasada’s naked hatred of Speedball.


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