The Five Best Apocalypse Stories

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In the 1980s, villains like Apocalypse, Mr. Sinister, and Venom led the charge for the new crop of baddies popping up to challenge the status quo.  These villains weren’t interested in noble pursuits or financial gain; there was a primeval essence they possessed that made them darker and more intimidating than the villains created during the 1960s.  Beyond that, all three of these villains in particular became iconic overnight.  Venom looked like a cooler Spider-Man, Mr. Sinister was like a Nazi Nosferatu, and Apocalypse was a disturbed robo-mutant god.  Within 10 years of their inception, however, these three villains fell by the wayside and now have become watered down versions of themselves.  Sinister stopped being cool once Marvel got rid of his flattop, Eddie Brock is no longer Venom, and Apocalypse has been retconned as a bitch-boy servant of the Celestials.  It makes absolutely no sense that this menacing and destructive force for mutant supremacy should only be a vassal for Jack Kirby’s worst idea ever, but somewhere along the line, someone at Marvel thought that was a good idea.  It was not a good idea.

Apocalypse, in particular, has withered the most over the past 20 years.  He cemented himself as a serious threat to the X-Men within the first two years of his original appearance by turning the lamest X-Men around, Angel, into the preeminent X-Men badass of the 1990s: Archangel.  The problem ,though, is that Apocalypse has pretty much coasted off that singular event.  After that, the worst thing he did was turn Nathan Summers into Cable.  Part of the problem is that we haven’t seen Apocalypse proper since 2006’s “Blood of Apocalypse” storyline (X-Men #182-187) which ended with him getting abducted by the Celestials.  In the interim, we’ve seen childhood clones of En Sabah Nur, alternate versions of Apocalypse, and (twice now) the resurgence of Archangel as the successor to Apocalypse.  In fact, Marvel is once again bringing back Archangel this April as the successor of Apocalypse’ Darwinistic ideology.  It’s clear that there’s an interest in reviving the character, so instead of beating around the bush with the likes of Genesis and Archangel and repeating storylines readers have already read, why not just bring back the character properly?

How often do we have to read about Genesis struggling to come to terms with his status as Apocalypse’s clone, and how many more times do we have to see the Archangel persona take over Warren Worthington?  Especially since Warren was originally mind-controlled by Apocalypse for only one issue.  In fact, he was Archangel for a good ten years without any mention of lingering psychological effects or alternate personalities created by the process of turning Angel into a horseman of Apocalypse.  The reality though is that all of these stories where Apocalypse should be the villain but isn’t only re-enforce the fact that Apocalypse has been watered down since his original inception.  Fans want to see Apocalypse proper, but have to put up with his whiny clone, or a rehash of the whole Angel/Archangel conflict (which has been resolved three times now).  But until that day comes, here’s a look back at five of the best storylines to feature Apocalypse.

 

Endgame (X-Factor 65-68)

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Although it was originally conceived as a way to get rid of Cyclops’ toddler son, Nathan, prior to X-Factor’s reunion with the X-Men, “Endgame” becomes a gut-wrenching tale of the cost of fighting Apocalypse.  In only their third direct confrontation with Apocalypse, the mutant demagogue launches his most personal offensive yet.  He targets his treacherous and sentient ship (which now serves as X-Factor’s base) for termination by infecting it with a virus.  He then kidnaps Nathan Summers sensing that the boy has the power to one day destroy him.  After waging a battle across the moon against X-Factor and the Inhumans, Apocalypse infects Nathan with the incurable techno-organic virus, which slowly turns the toddler into a mess of mechanical wires at the cost of his life.[1]  All the while, the mysterious Askani is on the trail of Nathan trying to save Nathan from his inevitable fate.

In the grand scheme of things, Apocalypse has only really done two dastardly things to the X-Men: 1) Turning Angel into the horsemen Death, and 2) Afflicting Nathan Summers with the T-O virus and setting him on the path to become Cable.  Everything else that he’s done is really just an offshoot of those two acts of villainy.  Half of the X-Men have been turned into horsemen, and Apocalypse has tried before to take over the body of Cyclops’ scion on more than one occasion.  “Endgame” showed readers that no one was safe from the wrath of Apocalypse, least of all an innocent toddler who would thus have his entire fate laid out for him by this madman.

Beyond infecting Nathan with the incurable virus, he forces him down the path of becoming the anti-hero Cable, as the only hope for Nathan lies in Cyclops sending him into an unknown future with the enigmatic Askani.  Upon later readings, once it becomes clear that Cable is Nathan Summers, “Endgame” becomes all the more haunting as its Apocalypse who’s responsible for turning this sweet and innocent child into the grizzled and cynical eternal soldier known as Cable.  Apocalypse was responsible for taking Cyclops’ son away from him, robbing this child of his youth, and replacing Scott’s son with the militant Cable.  Apocalypse tore the Summer’s family apart and the decision Cyclops makes to save his son will leave readers teary-eyed as writer Chris Claremont perfectly captures Scott’s anguish and misery at sending his son some 2,000 years into the future in the name of uncertain hope.  This is what Apocalypse does, even when he’s defeated, our heroes enjoy a most pyrrhic victory.

 

 

X-Cutioner’s Song (Uncanny X-Men 294-296, X-Factor 85-87, X-Men 14-16, X-Force 16-18)

The best part of Apocalypse’s appearance in “X-Cutioner’s Song” is that he spends the entire duration of the story just dying.  Still reeling from the events of “Endgame”, En Sabah Nur is resting in a rejuvenating cocoon when he’s awoken and alerted to the events of the story.  Not yet fully healed, he too is trying to unravel the mysterious connection between Cable, Stryfe, Scott Summers and Jean Grey.  Prior to this point, the X-Men (and readers alike) have only ever witnessed a nigh omnipotent Apocalypse; to see Apocalypse struggling to stay alive, and forced to make an alliance with the X-Men sheds new light on this Darwinian despot.

The most telling thing revealed about Apocalypse is that he applies his own ideals of survival of the fittest to himself.  He references multiple times that he is no longer fit to survive and has absolutely no qualms about this, at various points even looking forward to death.  This is what makes his final confrontation with Archangel all the more powerful; he sees Warren as his greatest creation, a work of beauty and it is by his hand that Apocalypse wants to die.  He wants to die fighting as he believes that kind of death holds the most honor for a being like himself.  For someone as egotistical as Apocalypse, death may seem like something to be avoided, but for however evil he is, let it not ever be said that he is a hypocrite.

The best thing about Apocalypse in “X-Cutioner’s Song”, and possibly even about the story itself is Apocalypse’s vulnerability within the story.  He gets his ass kicked by Stryfe, his own Dark Riders, and even some of the X-Men get a few good shots in.  It even provides probably the only joke Apocalypse has ever mused as after his fight with the X-Men he says “Six X-Men in under sixty seconds…To think I felt I’d pass my prime several hundred years ago”.  This moment of levity, his decision to join forces with the X-Men, and his desperation to die gracefully all stem from the fact that he was no longer the invincible threat that he had been previously.  It’s said that you can tell much from a man based on his actions once he knows he’s dying, and in “X-Cutioner’s Song” a dying Apocalypse cracks jokes, show’s he’s a man of his word, and expresses anxieties that previously seemed beneath him.  Apocalypse is a great villain because he’s essentially a god, but in this story, this god was ultimately laid as low as he ever could be.

The Fall of the Mutants (X-Factor 24-26)

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This is the story that Apocalypse is most famous for, the story that gets adapted most whether it be in cartoons, movies, or video games.  Because of this storyline, Apocalypse will forever be intertwined with the fate of Warren Worthington as everything bad that’s ever happened to Angel can be traced back to Apocalypse.  Although he introduced his horsemen in a previous issue, this was the first time that all four horsemen, including Angel as Death, were present.  Despite his rather pedestrian initial appearance, it was “The Fall of the Mutants” that cemented Apocalypse as one of the X-Men’s most fearsome and sinister foes.

Here was the high-flying and carefree Angel, who was then kidnapped by Apocalypse and turned into an angel of death, complete with metallic wings and mutated blue skin.  The interesting thing about Angel’s transfiguration though, was that Apocalypse didn’t brainwash him until after the transformation.  Warren willingly chose to join and serve Apocalypse.  Beyond his actual powers, “The Fall of the Mutants” showcases just how persuasive Apocalypse can be and how he can contort people to his side.  “The Fall of the Mutants” is the sole reason that Angel is moderately cool, and it’s also the story that made Apocalypse the awesome villain that he is, on par with classic villains such as Magneto and Shadow King.

The one drawback of “The Fall of the Mutants” is that because Apocalypse burst onto the scene so ostentatiously, he hasn’t really been able to do anything to top his transformation of Angel.  And likewise, subsequent writers have mined the whole Angel/Archangel dichotomy for all its worth.  Both characters continue to live through this one storyline with little to no progress otherwise.  It now seems like X-Men has at one time or another been a Horsemen of Apocalypse.  Angel has keeps going back and forth between being one of the following: cured of his Death persona and Archangel appearance, the cool Archangel of the 90s, or the psychotic Death (which originally lasted for two issues in X-Factor 24-25).  This story has become so iconic that it’s become the cornerstone for both characters, and winds up limiting where writers can go with these two characters.  Apocalypse will always have a who’s who list of horsemen, and Archangel will never go back to be the angelic mutant that he was once before.  Both of these characterizations may sound clichéd and derivative now, but back in 1987, these were status-quo altering paradigms for two eternally interlocking characters.

The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix (The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix 1-4)

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This four issue miniseries featuring the exquisite art of Gene Ha, serves as the direct continuation of the “Endgame” storyline in X-Factor 65-68.  Cyclops and Phoenix are whisked away 2,000 years into the future by a now aged Askani (revealed to be the time-displaced Rachel Summers) to raise Nathan Summers and topple the regime Apocalypse created.  There are three things in particular that make TAOCAP so intriguing: 1) This is a world that Apocalypse has already conquered, 2) Apocalypse has to transfer his immense essence into a new host every few years, and finally, 3) this is a story that emphasizes the crushing weight of the shadow that Apocalypse casts as opposed to the outright threat of Apocalypse.

As opposed to the chaotic and anarchistic Age of Apocalypse, the world presented in TAOCAP is more similar to the world of Jesus Christ.  The downtrodden poor are huddle together in citywide hovels, and are forced to excessive taxation and censuses.  In the meantime, the mutant aristocracy lives a life filled with Roman decadences where their every whim is made a reality.  This world truly feels like Apocalypse has succeeded in creating a ruling class made up of the strong mutant elite.  However, as he himself points out, this ruling class has flaws of its own, as does the entire society that he’s erected.

For a being as powerful as Apocalypse, readers initially assumed that his robotic body (you know, the one with the giant “A” belt buckle) was his actual body.  It never dawned on anyone that maybe En Sabah Nur is so powerful that he has to transfer his essence from host to host every few lifetimes.  This also makes his relationship with Strfye all the more interesting as unbeknownst to the boy, Apocalypse plans on making him his permanent host body.  As much as Apocalypse acts like a father to the boy, their relationship is much more akin to that of farmer and livestock, only caring for the boy because he plans to literally cultivate him later on.  What makes Apocalypse so terrifying in this universe is not only the fact that he still remains a threat 2,000 years later, or that he eventually emerges victorious, it’s that he can literally be anyone including wearing the body of an elderly woman.

What TAOCAP does perfectly, is present the effect that Apocalypse has on the Summer’s family, specifically addressing the cost of battling Apocalypse.  Readers really see how oppressive and far-reaching the effects of his actions are on this one family.  Scott and Jean aren’t X-Men in this story, but parents trying to raise their son in a world ruled by a man intent on their son’s death.  Apocalypse is the reason why they can never be a family, and he is the reason why Nathan Summers grows up to be Cable.  Apocalypse’s mere existence is responsible for the plight of the Summer’s family.  More than any devious plan or evil intent, that’s the most powerful anecdote about Apocalypse; he’s this force of indiscriminate destruction whose sole purpose is supremacy.  Writer Scott Lobdell perfectly illustrates the weight that the shadow of Apocalypse bears on one family struggling to stay together despite all odds.  Nathan’s conversation with his older sister in the last issue is a particularly gut-wrenching exchange that summarizes why Nathan will be doomed to become Cable and how because of Apocalypse he will never actually have a family around him.  Any X-Men fan owes it to themselves to read this comic, plain and simple.

The Age of Apocalypse (Too Numerous to Mention)

Nothing else was going to supplant AoA as the greatest Apocalypse storyline ever.  This story is a four month long, 50+ issue spanning love letter detailing the entire universe of a world ruled by Apocalypse.  Much in the same way that Final Crisis implies that Darkseid is a cancer to the universe, AoA flat out states that Apocalypse ruling the world, causes the entire universe of Earth-295 to commit suicide.

The AoA is literally a Hell on Earth as there is no order and the only law is the law of survival.  Mutants and humans alike cower beneath the heel of an Apocalypse gone mad with power.  In his famous, almost Shakespearean “Four or four billion” speech in X-Men: Alpha, Apocalypse explains that it matters little to him who or how many die just so long as the strong remaining standing.  Unlike the Apocalypse of Earth-616, this universe’s Apocalypse is completely unrestrained with absolutely nothing to check his mad quest for power.  Lacking the experience and foresight of his 616 counterpart, the Apocalypse of Earth-295 is much wilder and fanatical in his approach to cull the weak from the strong.  Having gone unopposed, this En Sabah Nur has enslaved half the planet, with secret designs on the other half.  He doesn’t know defeat, adversity, or respect and therefore is much more chaotic and despotic than his counterpart of whom we’re more familiar.

The AoA presents a world where Apocalypse has won, and because things are so bleak and hopeless, the best that Magneto’s X-Men can do is wipe this universe from existence.  Because of the destruction wrought by Apocalypse, their world is beyond relief and repair; all they can do is euthanize an entire universe because of the insatiable appetite of one man.  It’s such a treat to read this story because anything goes.  For a number of characters like Colossus, Strong Guy, and even Magneto himself, Apocalypse has backed them all in a corner that they’re all forced to sell a part of their soul to him whether they know it or not.  Whereas TAOCAP presents a world that Apocalypse has already molded, the AoA introduces a world still being shaped by the hand of Apocalypse, and that’s why it’s so terrifying.  In the former story, readers never saw the steps it took to make Apocalypse’s dream a reality; in this story however, readers are shown the impossible devastation that Apocalypse has toiled in the name of his dogmatic code of survival of the fittest.

This world presented in Earth-295, isn’t the most extreme version of Apocalypse’s dream, it’s the exact world that Apocalypse wants to rule over.  He wants there to be perpetual war so that the strong may reveal themselves.  He wants mutually assured destruction so that the weak may be wiped off the planet.  The Age of Apocalypse is the world that Apocalypse envisions with himself as its ruler.  To him, a world where everyone lives in fear of not being the strong, a world where the strong pillage and oppress the weak is paradise.  On Earth-295, Apocalypse has already won.

*****

From the time of his creation, Apocalypse has been one of the X-Men’s most vicious and memorable foes.  Even in video games, cartoons, and hopefully the new movie, the terror and majesty of Apocalypse has always shone through.  This is a villain who is larger-than-life, and unlike Magneto, he has no soul.  He is driven by a singular belief to which he has dedicated his life towards, and will stop at nothing to see it through.  In a sense, Apocalypse is an extremist, a fanatical soldier willing to sacrifice billions, even himself in the name of his cause.

It’s just such a shame that Apocalypse hasn’t been seen in 10 years.  There’s a lot more to be done with a character who fancies himself a god; instead readers have to put up with whiny teenage clones, and manic depressive successors to his throne.  The worst thing that was ever done to Apocalypse was to involve the Celestials in his background; it makes him less formidable if he has to answer to a higher power and it adds a needless layer to his dogma of survival of the fittest.  His goals are simple enough, no need to complicate it with aliens.  Apocalypse has since been changed from a force of nature to a force for nature, a subtle change, but one that turns him from being a master of his own destiny to merely an errand boy of a greater source.  It takes away from the intrigue, regality, and grandeur of this larger-than-life villain.  At least, fans have these great stories to remind themselves of just how great of a villain Apocalypse could be.


 

[1] That does sound kinda stupid doesn’t it…especially for the X-Men


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