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Friday, May 27, 2016

Panel Vision - X-Men: Age of Apocalypse

Edited by Robert Beach 

s I write this, X-Men: Apocalypse is set to underwhelm the world as the latest installment of the shockingly subpar X-Men franchise. While, simultaneously, CW’s excellent The Flash show has delved into the well of madness and disappointment that is time meddling and the Flashpoint event comic. Throw in the Captain America’s turn to Hydra and the ongoing launch of DC Rebirth and it all adds up to a swirling cocktail of public conversation towards retcons, reboots, time travel, event comics, the X-Men, and Apocalypse. My point is, there has never been a better time to dive into the well of madness that is X-Men: Age of Apocalypse

This is going to be a different post for me as Age of Apocalypse is such a massive comic and so full of stuff worth talking about I’m going to need to break it down into the individual elements before in coming close to actually discussing the quality of the comic. First things first, let’s talk about Apocalypse. Apocalypse is one of the stranger comic book villains as he’s very popular within the nerd fandom and is well known outside the already converted, Most folks have no idea what his deal actually is.  Even a lot of comic fans are pretty unmoored when it comes to Apocalypse’s origin or ethos, which makes a good amount of sense when you considered he was literally created to be cool first and make sense later.

Apocalypse’s origins go back to the X-Factor comic, a series that followed the original X-Men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Angel, and the Beast) after they graduated from the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters and took up fighting evil in their own right. At the time, author Louise Simonson had been setting up a major antagonist for the group for several issues with the plan for the archfiend behind it all to be Daredevil antagonist the Owl. For whatever reason, the Owl plan fell through, and Simonson was forced to come up with a replacement villain more or less on the fly. Together with artist Jackson Guice, they came up with Apocalypse, premiering in 1986’s X-Factor #6. 

The whole point of Apocalypse’s initial appearance was to look cool and be imposing, both of which he pulled off perfectly. He’s more or less the last iteration of the “hulking but clever” villain design that inspired fellow heavyweights like Thanos and Darkseid; however, even though Apocalypse’s design was outstanding, he didn’t really get any definition as a character till later. It was eventually decided Apocalypse was the first mutant ever born in Ancient Egypt as he was gifted with unimaginable, but also very hard to describe powers (his most consistent ability is the power to turn body parts into machines.) 

However, future writers took issue with the first mutant origin because the mutants were always supposed to be the result of the Atomic Age.  Rather than just shrug this off as a mistake, it was decided that Apocalypse’s latent mutation was triggered on purpose in Ancient Egypt by The Celestials, god-like beings that showed up as keepers of the Infinity Stones in Guardians of the Galaxy

The Celestials have always been one of the weirder, junkier parts of the Marvel universe. Things like the Celestials inexorably being tied to the Chariots of the Gods/Ancient Aliens theory (new and chic in the ‘70s instead of overexposed and problematic now). Previous stories had established the Celestials were drawn to Earth by the potential for mutation within our genome, so it was decided they chose Apocalypse to be an avatar of evolution. As such, the Celestials activated Apocalypse’s latent mutant abilities, greatly enhanced them, and then encased him in impenetrable armor before sending him forth upon the world with the sole edict that only the strongest shall survive. 

Armed with something close to an actual motivation and probably the best back-story one could hope for in a character that was invented in the 11th hour with the sole edict of “look cool,” Apocalypse became a major staple of the X-Men in the ‘80s. This was the time when the really good stories of the ‘70s were slowly translating into mainstream appeal prior to the explosion in popularity that was the ‘90s.  Apocalypse enjoyed a lot of popularity, mainly owing to his imposing design and how unique he was among the X-Men mythos. Most X-Men foes were some variation on the series core of “defending those who fear and hate us,” but Apocalypse stomped in from another genre altogether; this incredibly powerful godling who ruled the past and the future and seems more like a Thor bad guy than someone who’d fight the X-Men. 

He fits into that small section of interesting X-Men concepts like the Phalanx, Dark Phoenix, the Brood, and the Savage Land. Great stories because how much they break with the allegorical sci-fi nature of the franchise. That same concept extends to Age of Apocalypse’s other key element that needs explanation: alternate continuity. 

Comic books, especially superhero comic books, are naturally contingent on shocks and twists to remain interesting. It’s one of the key mechanics of serialized storytelling. This has manifested itself in a multitude of ways over the history of comics; most well known being the crazy “you’ve got to read this issue” type covers that populated so much of Silver Age comics. In more recent times, these shake-ups usually take the form of big, showy changes in continuity that last for a year or so before getting inverted. 

Stuff like Spider-Man’s black suit, the Superhuman Registration Act, Planet Hulk, or Captain America being revealed as a Hydra agent are all key examples of attention-grabbing twists. In all these cases, it’s understood the twist will ultimately be reversed unless it catches on with audiences and the story explores this idea than anything else. For example, when an Earthquake destroyed Gotham City and the government declared it no longer part of the US in Batman: No Man’s Land, no one expected Gotham to spend forever as a destroyed wasteland. It was just long enough to explore how Batman and his allies and enemies might operate in such a situation. 

Alternate Continuity stories emerge from this same idea, but it takes one further altering the entire world of a character in the blink of an eye exploring this new situation. They trace their origin back to the very strange Silver Age practice of “Imaginary Stories" (weird shake-ups with the caveat that the creators didn’t have to undo them by the end because they were imaginary.) Back in the ‘60s, if a creator wanted to explore “what if Superman died forever” or “what if Superman split into a red and blue version of himself forever,” they did it in an imaginary tale. 

Alternate Continuity stories follow that same thinking: epic change-ups that aren’t reversed; they only alter the entire universe as it’s understood, and they usually feature an in-universe reason for the change. A good example of this storytelling is Emperor Joker, in which the Joker gained ultimate power and remade the world in his own image.  The story featured a twisted revision of the JLA, Joker’s own team of super beings, and the explanation of the Joker gained such power by stealing it from Superman foe Mr. Mxyzptlk. The same goes for House of M (Scarlet Witch remade the world where mutants were the dominant species.)

Age of Apocalypse is the arguably the first, and certainly the most enduringly, popular story of this particular ilk. Premiering in 1995, the comic was more or less the last big hurrah for Marvel before their disastrous filing for bankruptcy in 1996. For context’s sake, this was during the production of the X-Men animated series's monster success (having started in 1992) as well as a big part of the X-Men’s overall explosion in popularity in the ‘90s. This particular phenomenon peaked in ’96 with the failed Generation X TV movie as the X-Men’s popularity tapered off till the first live-action film came out in 2000. For Age of Apocalypse, the comic explored an alternate version of history where Charles Xavier was killed by his psychotic, reality-warping son Legion. 

In the wake of Xavier’s death, Magneto took over his old friend’s mission and led the X-Men. While Magneto did his best to defend mutant-kind as Charles would’ve liked, there was one threat he and his X-Men were unable to defeat: Apocalypse. 5 years after Apocalypse’s appearance on Earth, the United States has become his wasteland kingdom with the world to follow. The fate of the world looked to the last remaining X-Men can find some way to stop him. 

This is the set-up altered continuity stories are made for as it affords the creators a massive collection of characters and concepts to explore and smash together in a story where the stakes can be as high as possible. What’s more, this set-up allows for a much darker strain of storytelling than the standard books. Stuff like JLA: Rock of Ages and Earth-2: World’s End take a similar track in that they use their alternate continuity status to tell a story of a world beyond the brink of saving. In X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, the story is split between a handful of perspectives as the event extended into the X-Men comics at the time. The main plot involves Magneto and his X-Men encountering the time-traveling mutant Bishop who is the only person aware that this is an alternate timeline for reasons that are never explained. 

As Magneto grapples with the realities of erasing this timeline, we also check in on Cyclops (here as a mutant commando of Apocalypse working under Mr. Sinister) whose allegiances are being tested. Meanwhile, Wolverine and Jean Grey, here as a couple, work with the remaining free human forces in Europe to prepare for the last strike against Apocalypse. We also check-in with the other X-Men in their own plots involving just about every X-Men member off on their own adventures: Colossus trying to rescue his sister from a labor prison, Gambit leading an X-team to steal some time-travel stuff, Nightcrawler getting caught up in a story about human refugees heading to a mythic sanctuary, Blink tooling around the Negative Zone, and Cable joining a traveling circus. 

That type of broad storytelling that draws on all sorts of elements from franchise myth and the shared-universe elements is a big part of the reason authors like to tell altered-continuity stories. It’s a shame Age of Apocalypse does such a terrible job of storytelling and use of mythos. I don’t like Age of Apocalypse; I think it’s pretty terrible (why two-thirds of this article explaining rather than reviewing the event). I’m aware there’s a lot of folks who really like this comic, but that has to be nostalgia. It's nowhere near as good as fans like to make it out to be. 

Firstly, the artwork is across the board terrible, some of the worst examples of distended ‘90s in human physiology since Heroes Reborn (Marvel’s OTHER ‘90s alternate continuity event with terrible artwork).  If the artwork was just terrible, I could live with that as a lot of ‘90s things can elicit genuine nostalgia for their unique brand of charm. I mean, Street Sharks is a terrible show, but it’s still pretty charming for how goofy and sincere it is along with how much it feels like the product of a more innocent time, Not Age of Apocalypse. Despite coming out in an era notorious for American prosperity and hegemony, Age of Apocalypse is one of the bleakest and most angrily hateful comics you will ever read. 

Actually, a lot of Age of Apocalypse’s plot points come off incredibly heartless in the light of certain modern tragedies and events. For instance, the Nightcrawler subplot about human refugees trying to reach Avalon, a hidden oasis safe from Apocalypse’s reach, is one of the darkest storylines you’ll ever read. Early on, the submarine Nightcrawler and fellow refugees are on is in trouble and can’t surface, threatening to suffocate everyone within.  

Eventually, Nightcrawler manages to raise the ship and save the refugees, though some were lost, which of course the book milks for all the depressing pathos it can. Seriously, this book throws around dead families like candy, and it’s honestly really disgusting. But still, Nightcrawler did save the bulk of the refugees, for they’re safe on their way to Avalon, which has been established to exist. And then the refugees are immediately drowned by a greedy captain who adds them to a massive island of corpses. 

That immediate "Bait and switch" is all over Age of Apocalypse. Characters are constantly robbed of victory or even heroism for exactly no reason. I could put together a top 20 list of the most grizzly and egregious moments of hopeless brutality in this comic, and I still wouldn’t be scratching the surface of how bad it is. Incidentally, that particular instance of cruelty gets a whole lot less forgivable in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, a fact only serving to highlight how empty and meaningless Age of Apocalypse’s cruelty actually is. 

Characters will make incredible heroic sacrifices only for them to be negated immediately, or they’ll simply be robbed of the chance to anything at all. For example, Juggernaut is in this comic as this incredibly jacked monk guarding Avalon. They don’t really explain how Juggernaut is super strong given he doesn’t have the mystic gem that gives him his power but whatever. He’s there; he’s superpowered; he’s a cool reimagining. So when Avalon is invaded by Apocalypse’s forces, it seems like he’s going to throw down. Instead, he’s so committed to pacifism he just collapses in impotent disappointment. It’s as if the audience is being punished for daring to expect fun or hope in any capacity from this comic. I’m not against dark storytelling, but this is darkness and cruelty without any point other than showing off just how cruel the authors can be. 

At the same time, it’s not like all the mythos shout outs are that well constructed either.  Some stuff is interesting like the Brood trying to secretly invade or the Starjammers showing up to help Gambit’s team in space. For the most part, they’re just weird and wasted. The Cable subplot is the best example of this. The traveling circus Cable is part of includes techno-powered X-Men Forge and Sauron, the pterodactyl man, because, assumedly, the writers were just throwing darts at a wall at this point. Additionally, Cable’s whole part in the story is weird. He’s treated like this really big deal, but in the end, he has no role in defeating Apocalypse. It's not as if Cable has a great track record with beating Apocalypse in other stories (Seriously, Cable’s one defining story point is that he sucks at beating Apocalypse.)

Additionally, that attitude of “this makes no in-universe sense, but we’re doing it anyway” is another massive problem that permeates the book.  For instance, Xavier’s death also seems to have undone the rise of any other heroes like Captain Marvel, the Fantastic Four, or Thor. It's never explained how or why that would work. The comic doubles down on this not making sense by having the Fantastic Four be a central aspect of part of the story, even though it’s later confirmed they never existed. It’s just lazy storytelling where the desire to make a dark and depressing story trumped the need to make one that made sense on any internal level. 

They don’t even really try to explain the stuff that would’ve happened differently in-universe with these changes like the much better comic Bullet Points. If the Fantastic Four never existed, then who defeated Galactus? If the Phoenix never possessed Jean Grey, then where is it?  Where are the Eternals? What happened to Wakanda? Atlantis? Or the Inhumans? It’s dismissive and mean-spirited with these folks getting just obliterated off panel. 

The book, a four-volume epic, is littered with that nonsense storytelling.  Character moments just happen for no real reason, complete misuse of mythos elements, constantly derailing any portrayals of hope or victory, and all of it bathed in just the most hideous and butt-ugly artwork. The length of the comic certainly doesn’t help compared to other (much better) long-form, altered-continuity series. 

Stuff like Age of X, another altered X-Men timeline, limited its reach to a single comic. But it told a much more interesting and self-contained story as a result. Meanwhile, House of M used its massive scope to explore parts of the world in stories that weren’t critical to the main plot, not so in Age of Apocalypse. If you want to understand what’s happening, you have to read all 4 volumes and all the X-Men comics that crossed into the series. It’s a massive undertaking. By the end of it, the sheer weight of shock value cruelty of the comic makes for a truly deadening experience.

Look, this article was more about priming people on who Apocalypse is, the nature of alternate continuity, and shake-ups in response to stuff like Captain America’s Hydra reveal. I didn’t expect to hate Age of Apocalypse as much as I do; we just got unlucky. All throughout this review, I name dropped infinitely better comics to check out if you are interested in stories that play around with the status quo in interesting and engaging ways, free from the constraints of continuity. 

Recommended alt-continuity stories: Emperor Joker, No Man’s Land, New Krypton, Age of X, House of M, Planet Hulk, JLA: Rock of Ages, or Earth-2: World’s End. Read them if you want to check out this kind of storytelling. As for X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, I recommend staying far, far, away. The only good thing to come out of that comic was the X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse video game. 
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