The Comic Column #145: Re-reading the Age of Apocalypse

x_men__age_of_apocalypseAfter years of not missing an issue, some time around 1997 I had an epiphany and stopped reading all X-books. The epiphany was that I didn’t like these books at all anymore, hadn’t in fact liked them for quite some time, but what I now call “Fan Inertia” kept me dolling out the money to follow at least half a dozen books for years after I had checked out. When I go back and look at the X-books from that era, their style and presentation, content 0r lack thereof, I wonder how I ever continued past the first year or two after Chris Claremont left. Remember Magneto becoming Joseph? Or Eric the Red? Even the at-first intriguing tension between Bishop and Gambit wore out its welcome after too long a build up and, frankly, a contrived and fairly anti climatic revelation*.

And then there was Onslaught. Terrible, just plain terrible…

At the time I ‘detoxed’ from my bad habit of buying books I didn’t like, I can remember going back through several years of almost every title with an X in the name and seeing them for what they were (to me at least): a bunch of weak plot threads really meant to do nothing but continually introduce new characters and perpetually threaten status quo that could then be easily re-established with nothing but a few uniforms having been changed. What I was only peripherally aware of at the time and never factored into the downfall of quality storytelling in the X-books until later was the fact that, by that point, there was a very popular kids cartoon and the first true influx of toys to go with it. I’m not saying the writers were under editorial edict to fan service the cartoon with the book, but this mainstream popularity was new to the X-books and the corporate elements at work within Marvel went after it for all it was worth. Spin-offs were definitely pushed as much as possible, and events or crossovers became very important tools to cross pollinate readers from and into other titles. This direction was not isolated to the X-books. Far from it. This was the new way that mainstream superhero books ran and that’s primarily what has led me to the opinion that the 90s were the worst era for superhero comics EVER. I’ve said here before, at the moment of that epiphany the only thing that kept me reading comics were books like Preacher, Stray Bullets and Sandman.

Flash forward to 2006 and I was about to move from my native Chicago and strike out west to Los Angeles. The move was daunting, especially when considering the amount of stuff I had accumulated over the years. Chief among my problematic collections were my comics. It was at this point I parted with a lot of stuff I’d had stored in long boxes at my parents’ house. All this X-stuff, spawn (except the stuff written by Moore, Morrison and Gaiman) and various Marvel detritus from over the years (The Infinity War). My good friend Shin at Tinley Park’s Amazing Fantasy Books and Comics was the one who bought a lot of my stuff for the store’s back issue bins. As he was going through my cullings he eventually came upon the full collection of the Age of Apocalypse saga, looked at me and said, “Don’t sell this.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Trust me. “

AOA2

It’d been ten years since I’d read that storyline and in my head it was simply lumped in with all the other post-Claremont X-Stuff. That said, I looked at those books for a while and decided to take my friend’s advice. Shin’s a very smart dude. He’s the one that broke me down and got me to read The Walking Dead and The Ultimates, despite my curmudgeonous insistence not to. I owe him BIG TIME for those. And I guess now I owe him for this too, because Apocalypse and his friends came with me out West.

Ever since Shin’s enigmatic prophecy I’ve wondered how a re-read of AOA would go. In the wake of my friend’s suggested genuflection I realized that, in concept at least, AOA was pretty awesome. But how would the execution fair? Over the last ten years I occasionally encounter these issues in the “All things X-Men” long box I have that houses Claremont, Morrison and a few other odds and ends. And each time I see those packets of AOA books I pick up an issue or two, leaf through them and wonder. The visual stylings are not always to my liking – I prefer the less “cartoony” versions of superhero characters and the 90s – AOA especially – really played up on that style, probably to coincide with the cartoon’s increasing popularity. This alone usually leads to me perpetually put off re-engagement with the series. But a few weeks ago, spurred by the fervor of a new friend I finally dug out the entire epic and staged them on top of the obelisk that is my reading queue. And despite a hectic schedule of late I’ve managed to make it a few issues in. What did I find?

Well, let me tell you.

First, in order to really do this post any justice it is obvious to me that it will have to be a multi-parter. AOA was four solid months of new titles and I’m going to be slow going, so I’ll report back in when I make new insights. That said, to begin with here are my initial observations:

Overall I genuinely like the way most of the teams in AOA break down: Magneto as, essentially, Xavier’s stand-in is kind of an extrapolation of Erik Lehnsherr as we saw him in Uncanny X-Men circa the mid-80s. Following issue #200 of that title – penned by Chris Claremont of course – Magneto took over Xavier’s school and attempted to become a teacher and mentor to the students (His interactions with Kitty Pryde and Illyana Rasputin are some of my favorite). However, even with Charles gone off to space the former villain only took over his headmaster role and did not necessarily lead a “team” into battle. This has more to do with the structure of the X-Men at the time and Mr. Claremont’s personal philosophy on how the X-Men functioned – more a reactionary force than a ‘super team’.  In the world of AOA the role of headmaster had become moot; to be a reactionary force Magneto’s Astonishing X-Men had to operate in a more military-like fashion. After all, in AOA Apocalypse is ruler of the U.S., a major world force and very actively deploying his own militaristic forces to exterminate anyone operating contrary to his global goal of “Survival of the Fittest”. In this respect Apocalypse resembles DC’s mega-god Darkseid more than at any other time and AOA can even, in some ways, be felt as an influence on the Direct Competition’s Final Crisis which would come out 15+ years after it. All this is stuff about AOA I really dig.

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A lot of the re-imaginings of classic characters really work. Nightcrawler comes immediately to mind, as does, surprisingly for me, Sabretooth. I’ve never been a fan of turning bad guys to good simply because they are popular (remember Venom: Lethal Protector? Ugh… another pock mark on the comics-scape of the 1990s) but with the forced motivations of an alternate history timeline, Victor Creed’s role in the X-Men as essentially Wolverine’s stand-in really works, as does his bizarre relationship with Wild Childe, a character I never really gave a damn for in normal 616 continuity. And like I said, AOA Nightcrawler is another great example of a nice twist on an old favorite, and his subsequent appearance in Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force only bears this out. AOA Kurt is a bad ass in a way the original Nightcrawler never would have sacrificed his humanity to become. Not a problem in AOA, where Apocalypse and the circumstances of his rule killed a large part of that humanity for him.

That’s the good so far, but as I expected there’s some bad too. Primarily I’ll point to the fact that AOA is very uneven in tone and presentation and that’s a bit of a distraction to say the least. Thus far I was only able to make it through X-Men: Alpha and the first issue of The Astonishing X-Men and X-Man before I stalled on X-Men Chronicles, which is, simply put, terrible. The tone set up in the other books is completely bobbled in Chronicles, which I believe was meant to be a bit more of a pulp attempt to fill in the AOA backstory. Weapon-X, aka Wolverine’s introduction to the team in this issue is laughably executed with the kind of broad stroke dialogue that the editorially driven books of the 80s that didn’t have the advantage of having a visionary writing them suffered from (Claremont on Uncanny X-Men, Peter David on The Incredible Hulk and Frank Miller on Daredevil immediately spring to mind as creators who seemed to have escaped the worst of the “have the characters talk in catch phrases” edict of Jim Shooter’s era as Editor-in-Chief). This alone confirms that as enjoyable as this endeavor to re-read AOA is going to be, it’s also going to be frustrating as all hell at times.

But that’s what the hindsight of twenty years’ll do for ya, eh Bub?

…………………

* Gambit as the traitor that led the Marauders to the Morlock tunnels beneath New York? Really? Because the Marauders – complete with Sabretooth’s animalistic traits – would have needed someone to lead them to the homeless mutants that lived in what was essentially a public place. Riiiiight…

………………….

Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

One Response to The Comic Column #145: Re-reading the Age of Apocalypse
  1. Tommy Reply

    “Fan Inertia.” I’m totally stealing that.

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