Thursday, January 22, 2009

ONSLAUGHT: MARVEL UNIVERSE – October 1996

With Great Power…
Credits: Scott Lobdell & Mark Waid (plot), Mark Waid (script), Adam Kubert & Joe Bennett (pencilers), Dan Green w/Thibert, Townsend, Delperdang (inkers), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Steve Buccellato & Team Bucce! (colors)

Summary: The X-Men rescue Professor Xavier from Onslaught, as the Avengers and Fantastic Four arrive as backup. Onslaught uses Franklin Richards’ reality warping power to create a second sun in the atmosphere, which puts greater pressure on the heroes to finish the fight. Cable telepathically enters Joseph’s mind and uses his magnetism powers to temporarily remove the barriers Onslaught placed on Xavier’s telepathy. Phoenix, at the Hulk’s request, turns off the Bruce Banner portion of the Hulk’s brain, allowing him to attack Onslaught with no self-control. The Hulk destroys Onslaught’s armor, which creates a large explosion that somehow physically separates Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Onslaught reemerges as pure psionic energy, which can now spread out across the planet. Thor volunteers to contain Onslaught’s energy in his own body, but he’s not enough. Members of the Avengers and Fantastic Four unite and enter Onslaught’s energy field. Mr. Fantastic warns mutants not to join the other heroes, claiming that their genetic pattern could give Onslaught more strength. Iron Man forces Dr. Doom to join the rest of the heroes, while Bruce Banner leaves the unconscious Hulk behind and follows the others. Mr. Fantastic gives word to the X-Men to destroy the energy field when all of the heroes are gone, as the mental images of Xavier and Joseph rescue X-Man and Franklin Richards. Onslaught is destroyed, but Xavier predicts that mutants will be blamed for the damage.

I Love the ‘90s: Thing refers to Reed and Sue Richards as “Paul and Jaime”, a reference to ‘90s sitcom Mad about You.

“Huh?” Moment: While inside Onslaught, X-Man has a conversation with a floating word balloon that’s not attached to anyone. Later on, we see him speaking to Xavier and Joseph, who are colored with a special effect. I’m assuming that there was a production error that prevented the pair from showing up in the earlier scene.

Continuity Notes: Mr. Fantastic claims that the mutant Scarlet Witch can enter Onslaught because of her reality-warping hex power. Some fans complained about Falcon entering Onslaught, but as Kurt Busiek has often reminded fans, Falcon is not supposed to be a mutant, despite what a malfunctioning Sentinel once said. The heroes who enter Onslaught’s energy field go on to star in the “Heroes Reborn” titles. It’s later revealed that Franklin Richards created an alternate Earth when he came into contact with his mother as she passed through Onslaught. That world is represented by a blue ball, which suddenly appears next to Franklin after he’s rescued.

Which heroes actually entered Onslaught was never kept consistent, and the fact that Franklin’s world was populated by millions of people, and not just these specific characters, means that he could’ve recreated whomever he wanted to anyway. For the record, we see Human Torch, the Thing, Wasp, Giant Man, Falcon, Namor, Captain America, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, Crystal, Iron Man, Dr. Doom, Bruce Banner, Mr. Fantastic, and Invisible Woman enter on-panel.

Remember the psionic armor that was brought up in several tie-in issues? The plot element that was used to justify Excalibur and Iron Man’s inclusion in the crossover? Would it shock you if I told you it plays no role in the final installment at all?

Just to be thorough, here’s a list of the hints that preceded the revelation of Onslaught’s identity:

X-Men Prime – A shadowy figure attacks Mystique, declaring, “It begins”. Forge speculates that whoever did this didn’t want to kill Mystique, but make a statement. This was originally supposed to be Onslaught, but someone changed their mind and the mystery villain became the X-Factor character Hound. Even in the context of later X-Factor issues, Hound’s actions don’t make a lot of sense, either.

UXM #322 – Juggernaut lands in New Jersey, and claims he was punched in Canada by Onslaught. It’s later revealed that Onslaught attacked him because of Xavier’s resentment of his abusive stepbrother, which is fair enough. However, Onslaught isn’t supposed to have a corporeal form at this point; that happens after X-Man makes Xavier’s astral form physical in X-Man #10.

Cable #21 – A shadowy figures steals data on Cable from Blaquesmith. Moira MacTaggert learns that someone (possibly the same person who leaked her Legacy Virus infection to the media) has been stealing her files on Cable, also.

X-Men #44 – A powerful force is interfering with the psionic plane. This is later revealed to be X-Man, but the emergence of Onslaught could’ve also caused the disturbance. The X-Men’s Australian base has been used by another mystery figure, who is never revealed. I’m sure this was supposed to be another Onslaught hint, but it’s hard to say given the number of mysteries dominating the titles at this point.

X-Force #46 – A mystery man kidnaps Mimic behind the scenes. It’s confirmed that Onslaught did abduct him, but Mimic drops out of the storyline very quickly with no explanation.

X-Force #47 – Cable accuses Xavier of hiding information from X-Force regarding a mission, which he denies. This could work as an Onslaught hint, especially since their mission involved Mimic. However, it’s not portrayed as a shocking revelation, and nothing in the story infers that Xavier is lying.

Wolverine #93 – Two Landau, Luckman, and Lake agents send Juggernaut to another dimension because he “knows too much”. This was probably meant as a reference to Onslaught, yet L, L, & L end up playing no role in the storyline.

X-Men #46 – Onslaught kidnaps fifteen scientists working on a Sentinel project. Since Onslaught does use Sentinels later on, this at least makes sense. It’s important to Senator Kelly that a scientist named Evan Donner is missing, but this goes nowhere.

X-Men #48 – Xavier begins to shut his feelings off after Sabretooth nearly kills Psylocke. Xavier’s disappointment over failing to help Sabretooth is later used to help justify Onslaught’s creation (which doesn’t explain why Onslaught was active before this happened).

X-Men #49 – Onslaught kidnaps Chamber, for still unknown reasons.

X-Men #50 – The strongest indication that Xavier wasn’t originally supposed to be Onslaught. Onslaught uses Gateway to kidnap four X-Men so that he can observe them. How much more information on the X-Men could Xavier possibly have? Other nonsense from this issue includes Gateway trying to abduct Xavier for Onslaught, the implication that a strange landscape is the source of Onslaught’s power, and Onslaught’s claim that he’s preparing the X-Men for “the coming”.

X-Force #52 – Blob, whose powers have been enhanced by Onslaught, is sent to steal Nimrod technology. This is another Sentinel connection, although Nimrod is supposed to be a highly advanced Sentinel, and he never shows up in the storyline (although Nimrod prototypes do attack Cable a few months later when he revisits this base). Blob and Mimic are soon forgotten as the crossover begins.

UXM #331 – Archangel questions if Xavier would use his powers in unethical ways, which looks like a hint that the creators were at least considering him as an Onslaught candidate at this point. Cyclops revisits the location Gateway took the X-Men to in X-Men #50. He’s shocked that there’s no debris, and the landscape doesn’t match its previous appearance. Never explained.

Cable #31 – It’s inferred that Onslaught is the one who stole Blaquesmith’s data on Cable in Cable #21 (originally, a silhouette of the X-Cutioner was shown to be the culprit). Whatever information Onslaught wanted is never revealed, and Xavier/Onslaught would presumably have all of the information he needs on Cable already.

UXM #332 – Xavier threatens Zoe Culloden in order to get information on the missing Wolverine. The story hints that Xavier’s beginning to break from the strain of recent months, which works as a clue.

UXM #333 – The creators have now firmly cast Xavier as Onslaught, as he begins to act irritable and snarky around the X-Men, which sets up next month’s revelation. The story also claims that Onslaught abducted thirty-one scientists, which more than doubles the number listed in X-Men #46. This issue has a June 1996 cover date, which means that as recently as May’s Cable #31, actions were ascribed to Onslaught that make no sense given his true identity.

Review: For what it’s worth, I really liked this comic when I was sixteen. It seemed like a respectable goodbye to the heroes, and Adam Kubert’s rendition of the Marvel Universe was great. I was upset that Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld were going to be rewriting the histories of the FF and Avengers, so the fact that this issue already paved the way for an in-continuity explanation for the new reality was a welcome relief. Looking back, it seems like the entire issue is a series of in-continuity justifications for real world business decisions. “Jim Lee wants to use Hulk in Iron Man? Well, split him and Banner up so we can have him, too. At least we get to keep the mutant characters. Oh yeah, Scarlet Witch is a mutant, isn’t she? Okay, I’m sure we can get around this somehow. Hey, are we keeping Quicksilver or not? Spider-Man? We can just say he didn’t make it to Central Park in time. Same thing for Daredevil. No one missed him in Secret Wars, anyway.”

As for the story itself, there are a few nice exchanges between the characters as they say goodbye, but the action scenes are disappointing. The heroes spend a lot of time ganging up on forcefields and bubbly energy patterns, but none of the characters are really able to use their powers in distinctive ways. Onslaught remains a generic “destroy everything” villain, who can do nonsense such as creating a new sun. This adds nothing to the story, and it seems like the heroes quickly forget about it as soon as it appears (I guess it’s supposed to be the source of the wind that constantly surrounds the characters, but it’s not clear). I assume the scene was used as foreshadowing, to show that Franklin’s powers can create planet-sized bodies. Marvel’s editors had already decided that Franklin would be the means of returning the characters to the Marvel Universe when “Heroes Reborn” was over, which was at least some level of future planning. Even so, in this issue it’s a strange plot development that goes nowhere.

As the conclusion to a storyline that had been building for over a year, this is undoubtedly a disappointment. Almost none of the clues leading up to the villain’s reveal match up, and characters who where supposed to be Onslaught’s faithful servants have disappeared by the time the event begins. At the very least, Mimic and Blob could’ve replaced the omnipresent Sentinels in any of the numerous tie-ins. The Punisher fighting the Blob could’ve been fun; instead we got an issue that barely used the Sentinels as the setup for an unrelated story.

There’s a sense of half-heartedness surrounding the entire event, which is the exact opposite feeling the Age of Apocalypse storyline evoked. AoA managed to create an entirely new world, keep a remarkable amount of consistency amongst the various titles, and actually have a point outside of shock value. Charles Xavier’s importance to the world was demonstrated by showing what would’ve happened without him, which is a legitimate premise for a long-term storyline involving a large cast of characters. Now, Xavier has been turned into a villain because of the events of an unrelated storyline published three years earlier. He becomes the most powerful threat the Marvel Universe has ever known, and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing over the course of a dozen titles. He’s never given a plan or a motive, until the very end of the storyline when he just decides to kill everybody. It doesn’t make anything resembling a statement about the character, and Onslaught never even becomes an interesting opponent for the heroes to fight. The initial tie-ins got some material out of the heroes’ response to the events, but after that the characters do nothing except fight Sentinels, chat with each other, and develop futile plans for stopping Onslaught. Like so many other crossovers, it just becomes a waste of time.

With Avengers, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Captain America licensed outside of Marvel’s offices for over a year, a new status quo was created within the Marvel Universe. Marvel could’ve pretended that the Lee/Liefeld books were still in the Marvel Universe and just ignored any continuity problems, but I suspect this was unthinkable at the time. An entire storyline had to be created to explain where the heroes have gone (one which unfortunately cannibalized an existing X-subplot and made it even more nonsensical), and the characters Marvel still controlled had to react to the loss. This did create an interesting new scenario, where more obscure heroes had to take the place of the missing icons, as mutant heroes where blamed for the heroes’ deaths. I seem to recall Marvel getting some mileage out of this, although it’s clearly a case of making the best of a bad situation.

“Heroes Reborn” became a commercial success, as much as that could be judged in the post-boom period of comics sells. Critics hated most of the titles, but the stunt was successful in renewing interest in characters that Marvel has been neglecting for years. The story that went around at the time was that losing so many of their characters embarrassed Marvel’s employees, and inspired them to try harder when the rights reverted to them in 1997. This lead to some of the X-artists being assigned to more traditional titles like Fantastic Four and Captain America, while Silver Age revivalists such as Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid were hired to do new stories that also brought the characters back to their roots. Rather than making the Avengers more like the X-Men, the goal now was to make readers realize what made the Avengers cool in the first place.

In some ways, the post-“Heroes Reborn” era began the X-line’s descent as the industry’s dominant commercial force. The biggest artists weren’t automatically assigned to the X-books, which sent a message to readers that Thor could be just as important to Marvel as X-Men. Soon, second-string titles like Daredevil were getting high-profile relaunches (as part of a deal with Joe Quesada’s Event Comics, which resembled the “Heroes Reborn” deal but didn’t place the characters in another reality) and rivaling the X-titles in sales. The success of Quesada’s relaunches (and, allegedly, anger over editorial’s inability to capitalize on the success of the first X-Men movie) allowed him to replace Bob Harras as Editor in Chief in 2000. Joe Quesada once said that he couldn’t keep the various X-characters and their spandex outfits straight, a sign that he didn’t hold the numerous mutant characters in the same esteem Bob Harras (who had been editing various X-titles since the ‘80s) did. The X-franchise still holds weight, or else Marvel wouldn’t be publishing so many spinoffs, but the commercial appeal has obviously dwindled under Quesada. The majority of the titles are now mid-level books that turn a profit and have a fanbase, but don’t set the sales charts on fire. It’s common to see low-selling X-books cancelled these days, which would’ve been unthinkable during most of the ‘90s. Without the commercial success of “Heroes Reborn”, and the Onslaught storyline that preceded it, it’s conceivable that the comics landscape would look very different today.


19 comments:

wwk5d said...

Actually, looking back, UXM #332 contains the strongest early hint that Onslaught was Prof X. In the mental hallucination Xavier set up for her, she tries to kill him, saying/hinting something about how she needed to, to prevent some great tragedy to come. Onslaught?

Your last paragraph is very interesting...interesting, it's when I stopped being an X-completist. It had been building up since the AoA ended, as I wasn't thrilled with the direction the X-universe was going to as a whole. Onslaught just drove it to the point where I was just becoming disappointed with the line overall, and dropped many titles like X-man and Cable.

rob said...

It was definitely the time that I really started branching into other Marvel books. The hype/creative teams around Heroes Return FF and Avengers got me to stick around, and I would have never thought of buying something like Thor a year earlier, but became a loyal reader when his book relaunched. I don't think I became wholly disappointed with the X-line until later, with the deflating Twelve storyline (coupled with Claremont's return in 2000).

In a way, it's a very good thing that Marvel refocused attention to making their flagship heroes' books a lot better, and it's been a priority pretty much since then. I personally kind of like the Defalco FF and Harras Avengers, but it's hard to ignore these characters had basically fallen into disrepair during the 90s.

But the new focus has really hurt the X-line in the past few years. Some of the decisions made for it have been really poor - M Day, villifying Xavier (although Carey is doing a good job with him), Xorn/Magneto revision - with little foresight for the future. And half-hearted solutions like Messiah Complex and moving to San Fran haven't done much to fix things. In a way I think they should have stuck with Grant Morrison's direction for the X-Men and mutants as a whole. He was the only writer in the past 10 yrs to try to forge a real direction for the X-books. The way they dismantled everything he did so quickly after he left is pathetic, but that's another issue entirely..

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Teebore said...

Same thing for Daredevil. No one missed him in Secret Wars, anyway.

Starting off the day with another laugh!

I agree-when this first came out and I was a teenager, I loved it...the sheer energy of it (and not just all the amorphous energy drawn on the page) drew me in, I loved the art, and thought it was a great sendoff for the non-X characters.

Despite being an X-completist, I had branched off into other titles by then, especially, the Avengers, so I had more than a passing interest in their "demise" too, which helped.

(Of course, Heroes Reborn was so wretched I only lasted a few issues into it before I jumped ship and waited for the books to return to normal).

Is this the end of your analysis? I sincerely hope not...maybe you can keep things going at least through Zero Tolerance(though I wouldn't complain if you just kept on going)?

Matt said...

Like others, I really enjoyed this issue at the time, too. I'm almost embarassed to say that I never noticed all the discrepancies in the Onslaught clues. There were so many of them that I tended to forget what was what. Plus, the only X-title I read regularly were X-Men, Uncanny, and Excalibur, so I missed a lot of those ancillary hints anyway.

Heroes Reborn actually got me to start reading Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers regularly for the first time in my life. Though by the end of the year, I was only still picking up FF. But I think more than the Heroes Reborn books, I remember Onslaught for launching the likes of Heroes for Hire, Deadpool, and one of my all-time favorites, Thunderbolts. Those, plus stories about Spider-Man and the X-Men reacting to the loss of Earth's great heroes (and trying to keep things together without them) were some great effects of this storyline.

And I did start reading FF, Avengers, Captain America, and Iron Man after Heroes Return, too. I think the late 90s are a highly-underrated creative period for Marvel. Bob Harras stepped back from many of the books (except the X-titles), and allowed the creators to tell their own stories, and Marvel benefitted line-wide from this. Plus, even the still-editorially-controlled X-titles had some great material coming out during the period when Alan Davis was involved!

wwk5d said...

So I guess we can say, Onslaught was bad for the X-line, but good for Marvel overall?

Jeff said...

Great review and analysis of the industry repercussion of the crossover. I reread this issue recently and it felt kind of like a soulless way of moving pieces around on a board to their desired location. The fight really makes no sense whatsoever. But the Heroes Return stuff that followed really was fantastic (I even liked Claremont's FF issues).

Aqualad said...

I liked Heroes Reborn. As a relatively new Marvel reader HR gave me a way to sample the old-school Marvel characters like Iron Man and Captain America without years of continuity and baggage. Now that I'm a seasoned comic reader I can recognize their awfulness, but back in 96, 97, I was really into those books.

G. Kendall said...

wwk5d: Zoe was willing to kill Xavier in order to keep LLL's secrets in UXM #332. She does say that there's something else going on that he can't understand, which might've been an Onslaught hint, or another one of the cryptic comments she was making about Wolverine's devolution in his own title.

Teebore: I'll continue at least until the Zero Tolerance issues.

Matt: I liked a lot of Marvel's late 90s material, too. It's too bad it didn't last long before everything became Jemas'ed.

jimmy conde said...

i still don't understand why people continue to hate on bill jemas and joe quesada... ultimate spider-man was good. dammit!!

Aqualad said...

Seriously. Quesada and Jemas were exactly what the company needed at the time. Compare any Howard Mackie issue of Spider-Man to JMS or Bendis in 2002 or any Lobdell X-Men to Morrison's New X-Men. Those two guys were a godsend.

The fact that they managed to piss off the entire Internet while saving the company made them that much cooler in my book.

rob said...

I used to dislike Jemas, but if I look at what was achieved during his years at Marvel versus what they have been doing since about 2005, I start to get nostalgic for the degree of experimentation and genuine excitement surrounding the books. Not everything worked, but I'm starting to realize what a great period it was, and it was exactly what was needed at the time. I'll take his changes over a never ending cycle of crossovers driven by Bendis, a directionless X-Men line, and a Marvel Universe driven by one person (again, Bendis).

Anonymous said...

I agree with Rob. Looking back, that era from 2000 to 2005 was probably one of Marvel's best. While I wish they didn't have all the titles be serious because "it's ART, people!", and it would've been nice if Jemas & Quesada kept a few fun old-school titles around, there was a lot of diveristy and buzz, and I liked that there were no company-wide crossovers. There was quite a bit I didn't care for (Tieri's Weapon X, JMS on Spider-man), but it beats the few years before it, and what we've gotten since.
Oh God, I can't believe I admitted I'm nostalgic for the Jemas years lol!

wwk5d said...

BTW, that last post was mine, but the name didn't register...also forgot to say, like Rob, I was initially not a fan of the Jemas era...

LurkerWithout said...

The only decent thing I can recall coming out of the finale to the Onslaught story-arc and the Heroes Reborn thing was the launch of Thunderbolts...

Matt said...

Sorry, I've gotta disagree with all the Jemas-love here! The man was a pompous a-hole, and some of his mandates were just ridiculous -- no more editor's notes, the complete disappearance of anything resembling continuity and cohesion in the Marvel Universe, and that hideous, horrendous lower-case lettering! The man was a menace, and I was relieved beyond description when he finally left! I will admit that things haven't improved much since then, but at least I feel like the Marvel Universe is interconnected again, and they stopped using that outrageous, despicable, ugly lower-case lettering (I'm sorry -- to a comic book reader's sensibilities, it just made it look like everyone in every comic had laryngitis!).

And Grant Morrision's New X-Men is hands-down one of my least-favorite runs on a comic ever. The only thing that keeps from being the absolute worst is the fact that several years ago, Mr. and Mrs. Austen gave birth to a bouncing baby boy named Chuck.

Teebore said...

Well, I guess I'm of two minds regarding the Jemas years.

I loved Morrison's X-Men, as well as JMS's Spidey and some of the other creative and different things they tried.

But, I also hated, hated HATED the death of editorial captions, letters pages and the disrespect shown to continuity (and I don't mean retconning things-I mean the basic disregard for consistency of character and a cavalier "who cares?" attitude when called on it).

And that whole U-Decide fiasco, when Peter David's brilliant Captain Marvel series got dicked around? Please.

So, I guess for me, the Jemas years were a mixed blessing, at best.

rob said...

I totally agree with some of the anti-Jemas sentiments (regardless of the online personality he created for himself, that's irrelevant). I detested the death of cohesion and continuity (I was gutted when the last bastion of this, Thunderbolts, was mutilated beyond recognition) and lower-case lettering was pretty bad, but it terms of trying new things and bringing new types of directions or creators to the books, I'll at least give him credit. Not everything worked, but looking back it was still an exciting time for Marvel. I'll take it over the never ending crossover-build up to next crossover-crossover-build up to next crossover, all essentially driven by one writer, that has just been going on endlessly since about 2005.

PeterCSM said...

I like M Day. Well, at least the fact that it cleared the decks quite a bit. And Quesada and Jemas started off strong but the continuity disrespect (especially in the Spider-Man books) is something I really dislike.

For me, Heroes Reborn was a good jumping off point. The Clone Saga over in the Spidey comics killed me on buying regular monthly titles but I stuck around for Age of Apocalypse. But all the X-Men crap after that lost me again and when I saw the Heroes Reborn books I stopped buying comics all-together until the middle of Marvel's Civil War (DC had lost me earlier with the Azrael and Zero Hour junk).
I'm still buying comics but a lot of them have faded again in the last couple of years.

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