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‘Age of Apocalypse’: An Event Comic of Biblical Proportion

‘Age of Apocalypse’: An Event Comic of Biblical Proportion

Imagine a world where Hank McCoy is a sadistic geneticist, or where Cyclops is the right hand man of Mr. Sinister, or where Mystique is not nearly as neglectful of a mother, or where Magneto leads the X-Men.  This reality was presented in The Age of Apocalypse, the most ambitious and sprawling of any X-Over, where Charles Xavier is dead, Magneto is the planet’s last hope, and Apocalypse has reshaped half the world to suit his own hellish designs.  As far as crossovers and event comics go, The Age of Apocalypse is the summer blockbuster of all crossovers.  Whereas Onslaught was like The Matrix Reloaded, a complete and utter failure that did its best to murder a franchise, The Age of Apocalypse was akin to Jurassic Park, a mile-a-minute thrill ride laced with breathtaking visuals and an intriguing central concept.

Essentially a gargantuan “What If…”, the X-Over event of 1995 was centered around one basic idea –“What if Charles Xavier died before he formed the X-Men?”.  The short answer is that the world, and by extension the universe, would collapse into one gigantic pile of shit.  The simplest answer however, is that readers are treated to a front row seat as an entire world falls apart amidst genocide, nuclear war, and hopelessness…and what a spectacular view it is.

The alternate reality of The Age of Apocalypse was borne from the death of Charles Xavier, a death caused by his own son Legion.  Like a modern day Oedipus, Legion accidentally murders his father, and not so accidentally attempts to seduce his mother.[1]  Because of Xavier’s premature death, he never founded the X-Men, Apocalypse rose to power unimpeded, and Magneto was forced to gather a small band of mutants to oppose the mad mutant despot.

Legion Rex?


Although The Age of Apocalypse gets its kicks by adhering to the clichéd tropes of alternate reality stories, you know, the “see-different-versions-of-familiar-characters” cliché, it never relies on clichés as a crutch.  Readers don’t read this story just to see marginally different iterations of Wolverine or Cyclops; what makes The Age of Apocalypse so griping and chilling a tale is that in this reality the dream is already dead.  These X-Men are no longer fighting for a dream, at best they fight to wake up from a nightmare, while at worst, they fight to euthanize a world that’s beyond redemption.  Living by a kill or be killed mantra, Magneto’s X-Men include Sabretooth and Exodus, and consider Mystique to be a valuable ally.  Because of the bleakness and pungent despair of this world, very rarely have the stakes in an event comic ever been larger or more grandiose.

What separates The Age of Apocalypse from the similarly dystopian “Days of Future Past” is scope.  The latter is a sterling masterpiece because of its limited range; the only thing readers know is what they need to know, so every bit of detail not only further develops the bleak environment of 2013, but also proves to be vital to the overall narrative.  The imagery of Kitty Pryde walking past a cemetery filled with her fallen friends is an incredibly powerful storytelling mechanism that fully answers any questions readers would have about the fate of the X-Men.  “Days of Future Past” is a minimalist story that somehow manages to create an entirely new world within the span of two issues.

By contrast, The Age of Apocalypse is the EXACT opposite of Days of Future Past not only in premise but scope as well.  This is a world ruled by the mutant elite where humans are hunted downed and executed for being “weak”.  The only thing that mutants have to fear is not fitting Apocalypse’s incredibly stringent definition of “strong”.  And because the X-Men universe had grown exponentially in the 14 years between both storylines, the scope of The Age of Apocalypse had to be widened in order to give everyone their fair due.  Instead of one writer creating an entire universe in the span of two issues, AoA took about half a dozen writers over 40 issues to create.  No stone was left unturned and every character save for Psylocke made an appearance within the storyline.  Writers Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza, Warren Ellis and others, fleshed out Earth 295 in such an inclusive way to maximize the storytelling efficiency of this event.

The 1990s in all its tin-plated glory.


Now, just because AoA was written in 1995 doesn’t make it an overindulgent or “typical 90s comic”.  It’s a maximalist story for certain, but by no means does that make it excessive.  Onslaught was excessive, The Phalanx Covenant was excessive, Knightfall was excessive; The Age of Apocalypse was necessary.  There was no way that the story of an alternate world ruled Apocalypse could be told in any restrained for conventional way.  Simply put, if Days of Future Past is akin to The Terminator, then AoA is without question T2.

The Age of Apocalypse wasn’t a typical crossover in any sense, and the innovative approach used to tell such an enveloping story is one of the reasons why AoA is such a mesmerizing read.  It wasn’t limited to a main mini-series besieged by a bunch of superfluous tie-ins; nor was it a typical X-Over where the story would bounce from title to title every week for nine or twelve weeks.  Unlike Days of Future Past, which miraculously constructed such a vivid and fully formed world within the span of two issues, AoA needed an entire franchise revamp in order to bring this dystopian timeline to life.

In order to create such an expansive and divergent world, Marvel replaced all of the X-titles (Eight at the time) with their AoA counterparts.[2]  That’s how dedicated Marvel was to telling this epic tale.  They were willing to put their breadwinning titles on hold for four months in order to commence this enormous undertaking of depicting a world already consumed by death and hopelessness.  The crazy thing though, is that it worked…to unprecedented degrees.  This format of (temporarily) replacing the mainstream titles with new, moderately different titles in order to flesh out a new status quo was later briefly used during “The Clone Saga” when Ben Reilly was revealed to be the real Peter Parker…although to much, much less critical acclaim.[3]

The Four Horsemen. Note: Sinister’s flat top never goes out of style…in any reality.


Instead of focusing solely on one conflict, or telling the story of one journey, AoA succeeds because it focuses on EVERYONE.  Each series focuses on a different team of characters pursuing their own paths that somehow intersect with the main plotline.  The basic goal of Magneto and his X-Men is to use the M’Kraan Crystal to go back in time and stop Legion from murdering his father, the inciting action that led to the creation of The Age of Apocalypse.[4]  From there, the event is split amongst the eight miniseries that replaced the mainstream X-books all tangentially adhered to furthering this purpose, until they all coalesced into the final issue of the event, X-Men OmegaGeneration Next involved Colossus, Shadowcat, and their teenage wards rescuing Illyana Rasputin, Gambit and the Externals revolved around Gambit’s quest to retrieve the M’Kraan Crystal, and Astonishing X-Men told the tale of Rogue’s team of X-Men trying to stop Apocalypse’s current culling campaign.  While these and the other sister titles that explored the AoA were all loosely interconnected to move the story forward, they could also be enjoyed on their own as a brief snapshot of this hellish world.  Seeing how the world of Apocalypse affected the growth of the teenagers in Generation Next is a totally different experience than the effect that Apocalypse had on his chosen elite, as told in Factor X.  Each miniseries portrayed the world of Apocalypse through a different perspective and explains how these characters learned to thrive in a world devastated by the whims of a madman.

As with all crossovers, some tie-ins fared better than others in both overall importance to the main storyline, and reader enjoyment.  Of the eight, four issue miniseries, easily the best of the crop was Generation Next, which followed a merciless Colossus and a cynical Shadowcat as they struggled to train the next batch of recruits.  This sect of Magneto’s followers are tasked with breaking into the highly fortified power plant, aptly named “The Core”, in order to rescue Colossus’s sister Illyana, as she is a key cog in Magneto’s plan to restore the timeline.  Artist Chris Bachalo’s scratchy and chaotic pencils are perfect for this miniseries, especially in later issues once the riots start.  Where Generation Next really shines is in depicting the slow disintegration of the team’s innocence.  Readers intimately feel the oppressive weight of Apocalypse’s shadow cast down on these youngsters, hardening them as they’re forced into a suicide run.  Despite their levity and naivety, the team has no choice but to abandon their youth and become as ruthless as their instructors.

More than any of its sister titles, Generation Next is a depressing title that truly depicts the cost of growing up under Apocalypse’s regime, further illustrating that innocence is often the price of survival and reinforcing the calamity and destitution of their world.  The most gut-wrenching moments of Age of Apocalypse are also found within the pages of Generation X as the team tries to maintain their innocence and morals while fighting against an endless horde seeking to rend both asunder.  Watching the team being overtaken and eviscerated by Apocalypse’s forces while Colossus simply wept from afar is an image that will remain will readers long after they finish the story.   Seeing the good guys ripped apart and overrun by an abyss of enemies perfectly captures the tone and gravity of this world, one where innocence and goodness are often the first casualties of war.

Vincente after he just exploded out of someone chestburster style.


Other titles like Factor X, Astonishing X-men, and X-Calibre all do admirable jobs themselves in further detailing this horrid universe.  Characters like Nightcrawler, Havok, Beast, Sunfire, and especially Morph steal the show in their respective titles.  A title like Factor X, with no real importance towards the overall plot succeeds because it expands on the universe in a way that no other title does.

Where some titles flourish, other flounder almost as spectacularly.  Gambit and the Externals is almost a waste as it’s literally one gigantic Scooby-Doo chase across the universe.  X-Man is a 90s comic in all the wrong ways, and Weapon-X tries way too hard to sell the romance between Logan and Jean Grey to the point where it begins to detract from the overall story.  It’s almost as if Larry Hama so desperately wanted to sell their relationship that that became the top priority.  The titles that don’t quite stand on their own are ones that either feel like they’re treading water, wasting time waiting for the crossover to end, or feature characters that are too similar to their mainstream counterparts.

Not only is it always a trip to see alternate versions of fan favorites, but the new characters introduced in AoA hold their own alongside the iconic ones.  On top of their seamless interactions with pre-established characters, no ones such as Morph, Switchback, and Holocaust authenticate Earth-295.  In any universe Apocalypse is Apocalypse, but seeing a Mr. Sinister with (limited) scruples, a violently despondent Colossus, a self-assured Quicksilver, and a jaded Shadowcat all function extraordinarily well because of the fact that these versions of the characters are different enough from mainstream versions, but are still plausible iterations.  It’s totally believable to think that Colossus would sacrifice his entire team to save his sister, or for Havok to harbor a murderous resentment towards Cyclops.  Characters that remain identical to their mainstream counterparts, ones like Rogue, Wolverine, Gambit, and Storm inevitably take a backseat to characters who are radically different, or new, more intriguing ones in general.

The best and most charismatic addition to this universe is the insufferable Morph, an omnimorph with a knack or spouting out inanities in the heat of battle.  Similarly, Holocaust is just as monstrous as his name implies, Abyss is a nihilistic vacuum, and Blink (who existed for two issues in the mainstream universe) continues the tradition of formidable, young female members much more successfully than Jubilee ever did.  Throw in the duplicitous Mikhail Rasputin, the hideous Sugar Man, and tough-as-nails Switchback, and the necessity for such an expansive narrative becomes clear.  Enthralling new characters, intriguing alterations to pre-existing ones, and a totally radical, yet simplistic plot gave way to one of the most iconic storyline in all of comics.

The Age of Apocalypse is a 90s comic in the very best way imaginable.  It’s everything readers wanted in an alternate timeline based story without ever crossing over into the unforgivable realm of excess.  What sets AoA apart from any other event is the sheer scope of the story.  No other event has ever been structured like AoA was, and no other event needed has much breathing room for execution.  Whereas “Days of Future Past” is a story within a universe, The Age of Apocalypse is the story of a universe.  Within the roughly 40 or so issues that weave the tale of a world ruled by Apocalypse, such a tight and cohesive continuity is created, that often goes overlooked in both event comics and comics set in alternate realities.  On top of this, the ever-present sense of despair and deprivation permeates through every title associate with AoA to create a personal and intimate feeling between reader and literature not often found within event comics.  The Age of Apocalypse is an event like no other, and because of the ingenuity and creativity involved in its meticulous construction, it’s a story that can’t be missed.

[1] In a storyline that features a monster named Holocaust, children being murdered, and Bishop being vivisected by priests, easily the most disturbing scene is Legion using his powers to appear as his father just to have sex with his mother.

[2] Uncanny X-Men became Amazing X-Men, Wolverine became Weapon X, Excalibur became X-Calibre and so on and so forth.

[3] It’s ok to shudder at the thought of “The Clone Saga”.  It’s readily acknowledged by Marvel that those were dark days.

[4] All of this was depicted in the first issue of the event, X-Men Alpha.