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X-Men: The Age of Apocalypse Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

The nineties represent a contentious time for fans of the X-Men franchise. The decade saw comic books explode into a huge market, with ridiculous sales and publicity, and the entire X-Men franchise rode that wave perfectly. Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s adjectiveless X-Men #1 remains the biggest-selling comic book of all time, after all, and the franchise quickly secured itself as Marvel’s premiere comic book franchise. On the other hand, the line had been thrown into disarray by the departure of long-term steward Chris Claremont and its era-defining artist Jim Lee. The family of titles had struggled to find a footing through some uneven crossovers and events like X-Cutioner’s Song and Fatal Attractions. However, I think the decade produced one gem that can be considered as a true classic, along with the best of Claremont’s tenure and the work of Grant Morrison. The Age of Apocalypse might seem an odd choice to identify as one of the highlights of the X-Men saga, but I think it deserves very serious consideration.

Apocalypse now…

Once again, Marvel deserves considerable praise for their decision to collect so much of the franchise in oversized hardcovers. The company has shown a wonderful commitment to releasing as much of the title as possible in the highest-quality formats. It’s great to have a chance to read these stories, even heavily flawed ones, in a format like this, and it allows those of us who are considerably younger than the franchise (like myself) to really get to grips with the decades-long history. So Marvel deserves credit for their approach.

Of course, The Age of Apocalypse Omnibus doesn’t quite collect the complete epic. It would be impossible to pull together all the comics associated with this mammoth crossover into one gigantic hardcover. As it stands, the book is pretty much the same size as the superb Walt Simonson Thor collection. Any larger would make it quite unwieldy. The editors of the collection have gone to great lengths to explain why the issues removed were deemed unnecessary, and they make a convincing case. Flicking through the collection from cover to cover, the book reads remarkably smoothly.

Xavier’s dream goes up in smoke…

Still, part of me hopes that we’ll get an Age of Apocalypse Companion omnibus sooner or later, collection the sequel, the missing issues, the lead-in and some other goodies as well. After all, the crossover is proving to be remarkably popular. It play a pivotal role in Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force and the company is even launching an Age of Apocalypse on-going series, so there’s definitely a great deal of interest. And, to be frank, quite rightly so. I think that Age of Apocalypse stands as the one truly classic X-Men story between Chris Claremont’s departure and Grant Morrison’s arrival.

Looking back at it, Age of Apocalypse was certainly ambitious. Indeed, the form of the story alone set it apart from most other big X-Men crossovers. Following a four-part Legion Quest story arc (collected here), the Marvel Universe would cease to exist. All the on-going X-Men books would cease to exist. Instead, they’d be replaced by “alternate” titles following similar individuals or teams in a radically different universe. X-Factor became Factor X. Wolverine became Weapon X. Cable became X-Man. And so on. During the event, each of these titles would offer a unique glimpse of this alternate universe, diverging from a focal point, following their own threads, and then tying back up at the end of it.

Give her some Lee-way here…

As always seems to happen when there’s a comic book about an alternate universe, you’re inevitably going to hear fanboy-ish criticisms that it “doesn’t count” because it’s only a “what-if” and isn’t really “in continuity.” Ignoring the fact that certain characters from the event (like Dark Beast or Blink or Sugar Man) have carried over and the event has heavily influenced events since, part of me just wonders why on Earth would that matter? As long as the story is entertaining and well-told, how does the fact that it doesn’t share direct continuity with some other comic books matter at all?

I do respect the crossover for actually daring to follow through on this sort of logic. After all, the heroes in this world are taking actions that will ensure that their world never exists in the first place. Magneto will go back to being a villain. Charles will never be born. All the darkness will disappear, but the lives of everybody living in this pocket universe will simply cease to exist. In most time travel stories, it is immediately accepted that the alternative “right” world is almost certainly “better”, but I give credit to the writers for broaching the idea within the narrative itself.

An X-universe…

“And you would sacrifice this world completely?” Kurt asks Magneto. “Even if it means giving up our lives and that of those we love?” In a way, I think that essential emotional component gives the story a sense of weight and pathos and even tragedy that very few X-Men stories have. Charles Xavier and his mutants fight to build a better world for their children. Magneto fights for a better world his son will never get a chance to see.

There is something inherently fascinating about seeing familiar archetypes filtered through a new lens, to play that conceptual “what if” game with familiar and iconic characters. There’s something fascinating about seeing writers warp characters, to see how they may have ended up had things gone a little bit different. Some change radically. The series suggests the affable Hank McCoy as a cold-blooded Dr. Mengele. It throws out the idea of Sabretooth as a hero (an anti-hero with “a lot to atone for”, filling Wolverine’s place on the team). It offers us Colossus and his “survivalist dogma.” His sister muses, “I haveta say I don’t remember my brother as being so… mean.”

Daddy’s boy…

The more things change, though, the more they stay the same. Cast in the role of the outlaw bad boy with long hair and a constant fiv-o’clock-shadow, Scott Summers is still Scott Summers. He’s still relentlessly by-the-book. “What in sin’s name do you think you’re doing?” he demands of Beast. “You were ordered to shut this lab down! The Kelly Pact that Apocalypse has brought before the humans specifically halts genetic experimentation! Our relationship with the humans is strained enough… without a twisted soul like you crippling negotiations of peace!”

Even in a different universe, Scott and his sibling Alex still argue. (“Will the Summers Brothers ever get along?” Sinister muses.) Scott still has those familiar abandonment issues. “Scott,” Sinister explains to him, “I have to go away…” Scott injects, “Sir, no! If it’s something I’ve done-!” Sinister cuts him off, “Not everything is about you, Scott.” Even here, Gambit still a soldier of fortune with his heart in the right place. “The sins of the past are forgotten – for now,”Quicksilver advises him, letting his know he’s still the familiar cheeky old rogue he always was.

The neXt Generation…

One of the better aspects of Age of Apocalypse is the fact that it allows the writers to play with characters they wouldn’t normally have access to. Characters play major roles here, despite being long dead in regular continuity. So there’s something almost exotic about seeing the writers handle old mutants like Sunfire or Blink or even Morph, as these veteran mutants are afforded a rare moment or two in the sun. All these are advantages that come from being free of continuity.

Still, I’d go further and argue that part of the success and the appeal of this gigantic inter-connected crossover is the relatively stand-alone nature of the story. As a kid, I was able to pick up one or two issues and understand what I needed, without a firm grounding in the history of the franchise. I had literally only watched a handful of X-Men: The Animated Series episodes, and was able to follow it perfectly. There was no need to worry about Wolverine or Gambit’s mysterious past, the complicated Summers family tree or the current status of Magneto as he rampaged up and down the sliding scale of anti-heroism.

And the Legion shall be few…

I just needed to be able to pick a bunch of the more recognisable X-Men out of a line-up and to recognise their character traits. For modern readers, even Bryan Singer’s X-Men films would provide you with what you need to know. Wolverine is a badass, Cyclops is by-the-book, Magneto is a villain with a tragic past who was once friends with Charles Xavier. Sure, there are any number of references to the convoluted history of the comic book franchise, but they’re generally subtle enough that they doesn’t intrude.The opening four-parter Legion Quest, is possibly the most continuity-heavy part of the book, but it’s still easy enough to follow.

Seen as the writers are essentially creating a new status quo, everything new readers need to know is explained. It also helps that there’s no need or obligation for them to leave this fictional world as they found it. While most writers are obligated to leave the pieces in relatively good condition for those who might follow them on an on-going title, there’s no such obligation here. The writers are free to pretty much do whatever they want, to alter and change and to destroy characters as they see fit. It feels refreshingly exciting, to know that not every character will make it to the end alive.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

The relatively simple premise and hook helps too. The story is a simple quest. In many ways, it feel like Lord of the Rings by way of Chris Claremont’s X-Men, a comparison that feels strangely apt given Sir Ian McKellen has played by Gandalf and Magneto and Claremont’s long-running fascination with mythology. (See, for example, his use of the Siege Perilous during his Uncanny X-Men run, or his Captain Britain work.) Here, Magneto even has long braided white hair, allowing him to fit more easily into the same role as Gandalf – the wily old wizard directing the quest that will have epic consequences for the world around him.

Magneto duly divides up his X-Men teams and dispatches each with their own individual goals and objectives, each playing into the larger goal of toppling Apocalypse and allowing them to prevent this dark future from ever coming to pass. It mirrors the way that Gandolf manages his own pieces on the chessboard, with Frodo and Aragorn and even Gandolf himself even working with different targets towards the same greater good. Larry Hama’s Weapon X even overtly acknowledges the influence, as Wolverine faces a “Balrog-Class Meta Cyborg.”

A Beast of a man…

Even Apocalypse himself, the villain of the piece, struggles to be one-dimensional. He tends to just hang around gloating and doing obscenely evil stuff for the sake of being the big bad guy. Surrounded by “hundreds of thousands” of human skulls, the dictator remarks, “I find the aroma… soothing.” In fairness, at least the villain is somewhat genre savvy. When Magneto suggests using a time traveling mutant to reset the timeline, Kitty quickly observes that Apocalypse had already thought of that possibility, “But Apocalypse had all chrono-varient mutants killed – specifically to prevent time travel.”

The crossover paints the villain as a would-be Hitler, a genocidal mad man obsessed with the idea of “genetic superiority.” The Kelly Pact he signed with the humans seems more than a bit like Hitler’s Munich Agreement. He herds humans to death camps in trains. His son is named “Holocaust”, and another is called “Abyss”, perhaps reflecting the warped interpretation of Nietzsche that the Nazis subscribed to. Sunspot explicitly calls Apocalypse as “fuhrer.” One of Callisto’s pirate crew remarks of the dead bodies, “Picked up some nice rings. Wish we had time to go for their fillings.”It recalls stories about the concentration camps.

The Abyss stares back…

Nate thinks in terms familiar to survivors of that Holocaust, as Loeb’s X-Man narrates, “Nate’s only thought is ‘never again.'” When Wolverine appeals to Gateway to help in the human counter-assault, Logan uses the diary of a girl “whose never gonna turn seventeen!” It isn’t the most sophisticated approach to comic book writing, but it’s efficient. After all, we have relatively few issues in which to establish this status quo and the state of countless characters.

Indeed, the Nazi imagery pays off quite well during Magneto’s inevitable final confrontation with the monster. After all, it’s fitting that the enemy of Magneto’s X-Men would be a Nazi in all but name. “You preen and posture as if you were the first dictator to discover the concept,” Magneto challenges him, “and stake the world’s fate on its nonsense. As a child, I heard the very same babble from a Berlin house-painter… a madman who Aryan race tried to wipe out all it deemed ‘dirty’ or ‘impure.’ And do you remember who won the war he began?  The ‘weak’… who rose in righteous triumph… to overthrow the strong once and for all!”

Eric the Red…

Speaking of Claremont, I can’t help but feel that part of the reason Age of Apocalypse works so very well is because it so successfully embraces the different facets that Claremont brought to the franchise. After his departure, the franchise tried desperately to find its own voice, and it seemed like it was afraid to be seen to be offering a lame imitation of Claremont’s work. So Claremont’s most developed characters seemed to be shunted aside. Magneto was cast firmly as a villain rather than a tragic anti-hero, and then had his mind completely wiped by Professor Xavier. Wolverine had the adamantium ripped from his bones.

In contrast, Age of Apocalypse instead serves to encapsulate a lot of the wonderful ideas that Claremont brought to the franchise. Even in Legion Quest, the prelude to the event, Magneto is cast as a much better man than the cackling supervillain he had become. He is portrayed as reflective and genuinely tragic. “Why would I deny Charles a chance at happiness just because I refuse to dream of a better world?”

Proving his metal…

In the alternate universe created by the death of Charles Xavier, Magneto leads the X-Men. There’s a wonderful irony in the idea that their greatest foe could be their leader, but it’s also a plot point borrowed from Claremont. Claremont had skilfully developed Magneto by casting him as the replacement for Professor X around the time of the Mutant Massacre. There, as here, it was implied that Magneto was simply not a man cut out for the responsibilities and obligations of the role – he would try, but he seemed incapable of succeeding. In fact, the plot even borrows from Claremont’s later years, offering us a relationship between Magneto and Rogue, a coupling teased during one of Claremont’s last few issues set in the Savage Land.

Even beyond the characterisation of Magneto, there’s more than a hint of Claremont’s classic Days of Future Past to be found in the story. That collaboration with John Byrne saw a dystopian future created by the assassination of anti-mutant activist Senator Robert Kelly. Here, it’s an alternate present sparked by the attempted assassination of Magneto that creates the terrible alternate universe, as our heroes fight to undo the damage that was done. If the plot sounds more familiar as James Cameron’s Terminator, the team work in references to that as well. “Shut up if you want to live,” Yana warns Ace. There’s a more direct quotation on the opening page of X-Man #1, as Cyclops tells Cable, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Kissing at the end of the universe…

Part of the reason I suspect that Age of Apocalypse works so well is that it actually manages to encapsulate quite a lot of what makes the franchise work. While over a thousand pages might not seem especially brief, it does offer an effective microcosm of the X-Men plots, characters and conventions. The team are cast as underdogs and outcasts, fighting for those who hate and fear them. “They are mutants, born with abilities far beyond those of normal humans,” the narration tells us. “And yet, in this place when mutants have conquered – where they rule – these X-Men remain outcasts.”

Age of Apocalypse encapsulates a lot of the genres that the title has crossed over the decades, offering them in one gigantic package. There’s epic drama, interstellar conflict, soap opera angst, time travel and all those little strange ingredients that have given the book its unique flavour. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a single storyline that manages to capture, so elegantly, all the core attributes of the series.

Erik the Red…

Hell, even the introductory Legion Quest issues work remarkably well, offering an “ending” to the standard X-Men universe, with our familiar characters effectively watching the lights go out in the universe. There’s something fitting about the X-Men ending up “crystalized” in time, frozen in particular moments like frames in a movie or panels in a comic book. Wolverine spends the end of time locked in battle with Sabretooth. It couldn’t have ended any other way. Professor X remarks to his X-Men, “It is a gift called ‘closure’ and allows those who live on beyond you — to face the world without rage, anger, or sorrow.”

Speaking of Legion Quest, it’s worth remarking that the writers are on fairly top form. I’m fond of dismissing Scott Lobdell’s work on the franchise, but he does an exemplary job here as we jump back to an earlier time and get an opportunity to spend some time with a young Charles Xavier and a young Erik Lensherr. “Ha!” Charles mocks Erik. “You’re one bitter drunk, you know that?”There’s a sense that Charles is a more flawed human being here, more than the saint he has been cast as, the venerated elder.

Who watches the… you get the idea…

This is, after all, a young man who gets caught up in bar fights and comments on his own difficulty with medical ethics. “But ethical doctors don’t fall in love with their patients,” he suggests. I’ve always felt that Charles Xavier was the least developed and most interesting member of the X-Men ensemble, and Lobdell actually writes a solid younger version of Charles. Even in the alternate timeline books, Lobdell is in surprisingly solid form. In fact, all the writers are.

Sticking with the Legion Quest lead-in for a moment, it’s also worth mentioning the creepy Oedipal subtext they insert into Legion’s story. After all, this is a version of the character who travels back in time and sleeps with his own mother (possibly coercing her in the process). He then proceeds to accidentally murder a father who he seeks the approval of, and thus destroys the world. I’m quite impressed that the writers were able to work that in, if only because I can imagine editorial trying to tone done the Oedipal subtext to the arc.

The mutant who fell to Earth…

The collection features the best of the post-Claremont X-Men writers and artists. At least until Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Mike Allred and Peter Milligan came along. Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell are the main architects of the event, but they receive sterling support from writers Mark Waid and Warren Ellis among others. While Jeph Loeb isn’t at his best here, he’s far from his worst. All writers seem to revel at the opportunity to reinvent familiar characters and concepts wholesale.

The artwork is among the best the nineties had to offer, at least after Jim Lee left Marvel. There are several names that have become hugely respected in the years since. Tony Daniel is currently writing and illustrating Detective Comics, and he provided art for Gambit & The X-Ternals. Steve Epting, who worked with Ed Brubaker on Captain America and Jonathan Hickman on Fantastic Four, was assigned Factor X. Chris Bachalo is as brilliant as ever on Generation neXt, lending his distinctive style to the book. Andy and Adam Kubert handle two other books.

Rogue warrior…

As you can see from the screenshots, it looks rather brilliant, and I think it’s one of the best-looking nineties collections that Marvel have put out. The restoration is, as ever, impressive. The collected editions department can take another deserved bow. Personally, though, I do hope that they don’t take too long to release an Age of Apocalypse: Companion Omnibus, or at least an omnibus collection of Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force.

Age of Apocalypse is one hell of an accomplishment. I think it deserves to stand as a true X-Men classic, and this wonderful oversized collection pays fitting tribute to it.

4 Responses

  1. As a long term fan, AOA left me cold and still does. It just felt like a cold and calculated attempt to boost sales. It’s influence has had more recent benefits, the Dark Angel Saga in Uncanny X-Force being one of the best X-Men stories for years and the new AOA is promising, if a little grim and guaranteed to be cancelled by issue 25.

    • I’d disagree, respectfully. A relatively self-contained story modelled on the Lord of the Rings featuring an iconic cast is well worth a look. Haven’t heard anything about the quality of the recent on-going though (am pleased to hear you say it’s good, though), and am dying for an oversized hardcover of Uncanny X-Force.

  2. i read parts of this in my childhood, but picked up the omnibus when it was out.

    This is a great X-story to me, Legion’s Quest builts up amazingly, AoA has a great grim vibe to it, Morph is hilarious (one fo my favs in the story, along with Sabretooth) and a great positive note troughout the story.

    I love how the story develops, & i even find it rushes a bit towards the end (Omega should have had double pages ; more action art 🙂 ) .

    I also picked up the Compagnion Omnibus, wich is cool (especially the 2005 sequel drawn by Bachalo, again in great shape), but it’s not un-missable compared ot AoA.

    Great review for me, i’m waiting for the Onslaught Omnibus now, wich was also a great crossover for me , but AoA will allways remain special !

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