Credits: Scott Lobdell (writer), Pascual Ferry (penciler), Townsend/Hunter/Morales/Hunt (inkers), Team Bucce (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)
Summary: Cyclops responds to Senator Kelly’s request for a meeting at his home in Virginia. Kelly explains to him that a new international organization called Operation: Zero Tolerance has emerged with a dangerous agenda. Graydon Creed, who is spying from a van outside, gives the order to silence him. Senator Kelly’s living room explodes, as Cyclops covers his body. Meanwhile, Gambit and Phoenix infiltrate the Pentagon as Professor Xavier and the X-Men observe in the Blackbird. Disguised as military officers, they sneak into a meeting lead by Zero Tolerance’s founder, Bastion. Bastion gives a presentation on the activities of the mysterious Onslaught. He then identifies Gambit and Phoenix as mutants and pulls a gun on them. The duo runs from the armed guards, but the soldiers suddenly fall asleep after the X-Men escape Bastion. A mental image of Onslaught appears to Phoenix, telling her that this was a gift. Meanwhile, Archangel and Psylocke are sparring in the woods when a shadowy figure suddenly appears.
Production Note: Another issue with only nineteen pages.
Continuity Notes: Psylocke’s facial tattoo appears for the first time, even though the story doesn’t draw any attention to it.
Bastion makes his first real appearance. Phoenix claims that Bastion is a “psionic blank slate”. He’s also immune to her telekinetic powers. These are all clues towards his real identity, as it’s eventually revealed that he’s an amalgam of Nimrod and Master Mold.
Senator Kelly says that he first became aware of Zero Tolerance after he investigated the disappearance of scientists at a Sentinel research facility (which happened in X-Men #46). Later on, Bastion says that there were thirty-one scientists who mysteriously re-emerged with no memories of the six months they spent working on the project.
Some more hints linking Professor Xavier to Onslaught show up. Gambit wonders why the Professor knew nothing about all of the known Onslaught activity Bastion lists. Xavier himself is portrayed as snarky and secretive with the team in this issue. When Phoenix speaks to Onslaught at the story’s end, she recognizes him as the mental projection who appeared at the end of X-Men #50. Although it’s nice to have this confirmed, it makes his dialogue in X-Men #50 even more confusing. In that story, he wanted to know if the X-Men can “hold the last line of defense against the coming”, whatever that means.
Review: This is another issue that probably seems worse than it is in retrospect. Since most people don’t seem to have fond memories of either the Onslaught or Zero Tolerance storylines, an issue dedicated to setting up both of them isn’t going to be too fondly remembered. Judged on its own merits, this issue is at least successful in building up suspense for the future stories, and it offers a rare glimpse of the X-Men going undercover and actually doing something remotely proactive about a rising threat. The nineteen-page format does cheat the story of any action, as the opponents just fall asleep as the issue ends its page count, but the story still works pretty well without a fight scene. A lot of this has to do with Ferry’s impressive fill-in art, which has an obvious Madureria influence but still comes across as more than a swipe job. I remember being disappointed that Ferry didn’t do more work in the X-office, and it’s surprising to me now that he wasn’t assigned as a regular fill-in artist for Madureria and Kubert on the main books.
The story is mainly an attempt to build Bastion up as a legitimate threat, as Senator Kelly, the previous authority-figure threat to mutants, is supplanted by the new guy. This could’ve been a sad attempt at making a new villain seem more powerful at the expense of an established foe (i. e., Juggernaut getting punched hundreds of miles by Onslaught), but it feels more genuine here. Kelly’s paranoid response to Zero Tolerance is a little much, but Lobdell’s able to give him a legitimate defense of his previous actions that presents him in a sympathetic light. The idea that Senator Kelly is someone with a real concern about the destructive capacity of mutants, rather than a mindless bigot or a demagogue exploiting people’s fears, adds another layer to the mutant/human conflict. This was a direction Claremont seemed to be headed in towards the end of his run, and I’m glad Lobdell followed suit (although it’s odd that Senator Kelly received a more nuanced portrayal in the ‘90s than Magneto or Mystique did). The fact that Cyclops still treats Kelly with disdain is also a nice touch. The Gambit/Phoenix storyline feels truncated, but it does a decent enough job of just establishing who Bastion is. Referencing the extremely vague subplot scene about the kidnapped scientists working on a Sentinel project actually connects Kelly to Bastion in a fairly logical way, even if Onslaught’s role in the kidnapping remains unexplained. Pairing Gambit and Phoenix together isn’t a bad move, if only because they’ve been X-Men together for five years and have rarely had a scene together. We should’ve seen more of these pairings over the years.