Monday, August 3, 2009

The Year in Review - 1995

Just like the previous year, the X-books seem almost invulnerable to any industry slowdown. The year begins with the “Age of Apocalypse” stunt, an outrageous event that cancels the entire line and presents a new series of titles that exist in a dark new reality. The new titles conveniently last four months, just enough time for the first issues to go on sale before the upcoming solicitations reveal that the whole affair is just a temporary event. Despite the initial howls of protests, most fans actually come around to the idea and the event becomes one of the few ‘90s stunts that’s viewed with some level of respect.

“Enter now, the Age of Apocalypse…”

Astonishing X-Men – Formerly Uncanny X-Men, Scott Lobdell and Joe Madureira explore the dystopian new world. Magneto leads a team of X-Men that includes Sabretooth and his protégé Blink against Apocalypse’s forces. Joe Madureira’s redesigns look great, and although the story is a little thin for four issues, it works out rather well.

Amazing X-Men – Formerly X-Men, Fabian Nicieza and Andy Kubert pit Magneto against Apocalypse and the X-Men against the Sentinels. It starts off strong, but begins to falter when it becomes obvious that the title doesn’t have a real goal to accomplish (and some awkward editorial rewrites creep in).

Gambit & the X-Ternals X-Force’s replacement series, which virtually ignores the cast of the regular series. Fabian Nicieza starts the series with Tony Daniel, but Salvador Larrocca has to pencil the final two issues after Daniel leaves for Spawn. Gambit and a few castoffs from other titles go on a mission to retrieve a piece of the M’Kraan Crystal. This series always feels unnecessary, even though it does establish an important plot point – the new reality exists because Xavier’s death indirectly prevented the X-Men from ever going into space and repairing the M’Kraan Crystal.

X-Man– Formerly Cable, Jeph Loeb and Steve Skroce bring us the adventures of X-Man, a teenager created in Sinister’s lab out of Cyclops and Jean Grey’s DNA. Most of the issues have just enough plot to get X-Man in place to blow something up. The title has to coast on the art to work, and Skroce does do an impressive job on the giant explosions and general mayhem.

Factor X– Formerly X-Factor, the series stars Cyclops, Havok, and Dark Beast, heroes in the original world who are now flunkies for Apocalypse. John Francis Moore and Steve Epting create a dark series (the setting is essentially a concentration camp) that’s one of the strongest of the AoA titles.

Weapon X – Formerly Wolverine, Larry Hama and Adam Kubert’s series about Logan and his lover Jean Grey. The free humans in Europe are planning a nuclear bombing of America to stop Apocalypse, which creates a rift between the duo. The character work is very strong and Kubert really excels on the action scenes.

X-Calibre – Formerly Excalibur, Warren Ellis and Ken Lashely tell the story of Nightcrawler’s search for Destiny in the Savage Land. It has its moments, but the storyline contributes little to the overall event.

X-Men ChroniclesX- Men Unlimited is transformed into a prequel series that’s supposed to fill in important backstory for the new world. Howard Mackie writes both issues, and neither one manages to really sell the importance of the events it’s portraying. The first issue, which has art by Terry Dodson and Klaus Janson, looks nice, though.

Generation Next – Formerly Generation X, this is a monumentally bleak series that has Colossus and Shadowcat as drill sergeants overseeing a group of teen mutants. The first issue oversells the premise by claiming that the team’s training sessions are actually lethal, and the story does stall in the middle, but the dramatic conclusion is nicely done. Scott Lobdell handles the characterizations well and Chris Bachalo does a great job of conveying the grimy new world.

Limited Series and One-Shots – The new world begins in X-Men Alpha, written by Scott Lobdell and Mark Waid and penciled by Roger Cruz. The one-shot is an adequate introduction to the AoA, offering brief glimpses of various cast members in their new roles. The creative team returns for X-Men Omega, which is a disappointing conclusion for the entire event. The story is crammed with climaxes from the various books that should’ve appeared in their respective titles, Cruz struggles with the large cast, and everything just feels like a rush job. X-Universe, written by Scott Lobdell and Terry Kavanagh and penciled by Carlos Pacheco, showcases the rest of the Marvel Universe in the AoA. The series expects you to buy into things like Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk and Matt Murdock developing a radar sense in the new world, which stretches credibility too far. It’s a pretty obvious cash grab that doesn’t even fit comfortably with the continuity of the rest of the storyline (it was overseen outside of the X-office).

And, when everything goes back to normal, we return to…

Uncanny X-Men – Gene Nation, a group of radical Morlocks, is introduced. Their storyline is mainly memorable for the gross-out attempts at selling the group as a major threat, making Marvel’s later decision to make their leader a member of the X-Men even more puzzling. An entire issue is dedicated to introducing Joseph, who at this time is supposed to be a mysteriously de-aged Magneto. His storyline never really goes anywhere and the eventual resolution is a big disappointment. Speaking of which, Onslaught’s existence is teased for the first time. The Sabretooth storyline is resolved towards the end of the year. Predictably, Sabretooth proves he’s irredeemable, rips up Psylocke, and breaks out of the mansion. The Sabretooth story arc never really came together, although Lobdell does use him very effectively in UXM #326, which is one of the best issues of his run.

X-Men volume two – Fabian Nicieza closes out his run with some of his strongest issues. Holocaust, an escapee from the AoA, arrives in our world and promptly decimates the Acolytes. Cyclops and Phoenix are drawn into the carnage, which eventually leads to Cyclops getting stranded in the desert with the surviving Acolytes. The Acolytes actually start to display a bit of personality, and for the first time in ages, we finally get to see Cyclops as a confident, capable leader. This run of issues (most of them illustrated by the excellent Paul Smith) is a lot of fun and a welcome break from the leisurely pace we normally experience in the main titles. Unfortunately, Nicieza leaves before he can build on any of this momentum, and his final issue is just a retread of previous Gambit/Rogue angst sessions. After Nicieza exits (citing his displeasure with the "lack of creative satisfaction and perpetuation of mediocrity"), Scott Lobdell fills in for a few issues. The X-Babies show up for a two-parter whose only real appeal is Andy Kubert’s artwork. The next issue is another one of Lobdell’s downtime issues that has the team playing poker while the Dark Beast does nonsense in the background.

X-Force – Fabian Nicieza is removed from the book in favor of Jeph Loeb, who also arrives with new artist Adam Pollina. Nicieza’s final issue before the AoA event was a promising “new direction” story that had the team moving into New York City and interacting with normal people. Loeb instantly dismisses the idea and has the cast move into Xavier’s mansion, as Cable explains that he’s going to be training the team in how to develop their powers. The goal, apparently, is to turn the book into New Mutants again, which seems especially pointless now that Generation X already exists. Cannonball gets to grow up, though, as he’s promoted to the X-Men (where he promptly begins acting like an idiot). Loeb’s stories aren’t particularly bad or good, but Pollina’s inventive artwork adds some excitement to the title.

Cable – Jeph Loeb continues his run, and while he’s successful in adding a little depth to Cable, the stories are largely forgettable. Blaquesmith, Cable’s mentor from the future, debuts. This sets up a new direction that has Cable getting back in touch with his Askani upbringing. I can understand why Loeb wants to use the Askani philosophy to show the “softer” side of Cable, but almost anything involving the Askani is just dull. The final storyline of the year has Cable inside Genosha, where we learn that the Sugar Man, who escaped from the Age of Apocalypse twenty years ago, has been behind everything that’s ever happened on the island. It’s monumentally dumb.

X-Factor – The first issue after the AoA event is a confusing mess that has a reinvented team chasing Havok in Japan after his powers suddenly go out of control. Cast members have disappeared in-between issues while others have joined the team. Pushing Havok towards villainy and adding Alpha Flight’s Wild Child to the cast are attempts to mirror the AoA, which turns out to be a huge mistake. Mystique, who is forced by the government to join the team, opens the door for some interesting storylines, but the potential is quickly squandered. John Francis Moore only lasts a few issues before he’s replaced by Howard Mackie. Mackie revives Shard, a hologram of Bishop’s sister from his miniseries, and inexplicably has her join the team. The end of the year begins a half-hearted sequel to “Fall of the Mutants” that’s boring beyond words. Despite the shaky storylines, Steve Epting’s art remains consistently good.

Wolverine – This begins a run of issues that has Wolverine living like an animal outside the grounds of the X-Men’s mansion. It’s an editorially mandated idea that will eventually lead to Wolverine actually turning into some type of dog-creature in the next year. It’s shocking that anyone thought this was a good idea, but Larry Hama tries to make it work. Some of the individual issues aren’t bad, but it becomes obvious after a few months that virtually every issue consists of Wolverine growing more feral while his friends stand around in the background and worry about him.

Excalibur – Warren Ellis integrates Peter Wisdom into the cast, pairs him with Shadowcat against a new race of aliens, and then tells a series of smaller stories while the Black Air plot builds in the background. Colossus joins the team, now that Marvel’s decided that making him a quasi-villain just wasn’t working. The stories move a little slowly, but are entertaining. The book doesn’t really have a regular artist, but most of the fill-ins are by Casey Jones, who does a nice job.

X- Men Unlimited – Because of the AoA event, only two issues ship this year. Howard Mackie does a non-offensive “mutant kid meets the X-Men” story, and Larry Hama kills some time with Bloodscream, the N’Garai, and Belasco. The book is obviously filler by this point and no one seems willing to do anything about it.

Generation X – Chris Bachalo goes on a hiatus shortly after the AoA ends, which leaves the title with a series of fill-ins. Lobdell is able to make the cast likable enough, but the stories they star in just aren’t very interesting.

X-Man Because the world needed another monthly X-title, X-Man escapes the Age of Apocalypse and begins its long, aimless run as a regular series. I can understand why the basic premise of the series, “moody teenager is the most powerful mutant on Earth,” might’ve interested someone enough to green-light a regular series, but it’s painfully obvious within a few issues that this title has no reason to exist. X-Man arrives on our world, is constantly tempted by villains who want his power, and predictably blows a lot of things up. Madelyne Pryor magically appears out of thin air and becomes a potential love interest, which is beyond disturbing since she’s a clone of his mother. Jeph Loeb departs after only a few issues and is replaced by John Ostrander, but the quality doesn’t really change.

Limited Series and One-ShotsX-Men Prime is the one-shot that reintroduces the original world after “Age of Apocalypse” ends. The main story has the X-Men unable to rescue a young mutant from an angry mob, and it works pretty well. The rest of the comic consists of dull teasers for upcoming storylines in the various spinoffs. Wolverine/Gambit: Victims is a Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale collaboration that mainly coasts on the artwork for four issues. Sabretooth Special (or In the Red Zone), by Fabian Nicieza and Gary Frank, has the original X-Men chasing Sabretooth after he escapes from the mansion. It’s competently handled, but concluding the long-running Sabretooth-as-prisoner storyline in a five-dollar prestige format comic feels like a cheat.

The Events: A new reality is created after Legion accidentally kills Professor Xavier in the past. Bishop, who maintained his memories of the original reality, travels back in time and sets things right. Somehow, Legion dies. Cannonball joins the X-Men, as Rogue briefly leaves. Avalon, the home of Magneto’s Acolytes, is destroyed. Joseph, who resembles a younger Magneto, lands in South America. Sabretooth escapes from custody and nearly kills Psylocke. Colossus joins Excalibur in an attempt to redeem himself. X-Man, Holocaust, Dark Beast, and Sugar Man escape from the Age of Apocalypse.

The “What Were They Thinking?” Award: I can understand why some of the Age of Apocalypse characters were brought into the main reality after the storyline was over. Keeping a few of the characters around creates the illusion that the event was more than just a “What If?” and gives the titles some new much-needed new villains to play with. It’s taken a step too far though when we learn that Sugar Man was behind the mutant slaves in Genosha and Dark Beast created the Morlocks (Marvel later backs off from this one, having him claim that he just experimented on them in the past). Of course, the biggest mistake with the transition from the AoA to the original reality is dragging X-Man along and giving him his own series.

What’s the Appeal? : The alternate reality story to end all alternate reality stories begins. The new world is insanely dark, most of the new character designs are cool, and everything is set back to normal before the novelty can really wear off. A few weeks pass before we’re allowed to see what’s happened in the original reality, allowing the writers a short gap to introduce a few more mysteries. Whispers of a new threat, one strong enough to knock out Juggernaut, tease a large event in the future.

Were the Critics Right? : The “Age of Apocalypse” crossover isn’t perfect, but the execution largely works and it leaves most of the audience wanting more. The rest of the year, however, consists of a lot of awkward storytelling and aimless plotting. Something finally happens with Sabretooth in the mansion, but it’s exactly what everyone thought would happen in the first place. Wolverine is suddenly acting like an animal, X-Factor has a new cast, Cable studies his old religion/philosophy, and X-Force moves in with the X-Men. None of this is really that interesting. Some of the titles, like Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, and X-Force have strong enough art to cover mediocre stories, but it’s hard to deny that a lot of this is boring. Nicieza’s later issues of X-Men work well, Ellis’ Excalibur is pretty consistent, and Wolverine manages a few decent issues before the new status quo drags it down. Those are the only real highlights I can find.


Matt said...

Strangely, I've never been a fan of the Age of Apocalypse. I think when it first came out, I resented that it was stealing four months of "real" X-Men stories to tell something that ultimately "didn't count" (despite bringing some of its characters over to the "real" universe when it was done).

On the other hand, I was totally into the main two X-Men titles after the AoA. X-Men Prime and the unconscious Juggernaut issue of Uncanny had me eagerly waiting to see what would happen next.

Looking back on it now, it's pretty ridiculous, but mid-1995 through late 1997 was the period when I was most into the X-Men. This also encompassed my sophomore through senior years of high school, so I'm sure a lot of it is nostalgia -- but at the time, I felt the X-books could do no wrong.

Of course, I was also tremendously enjoying the long-drawn-out Clone Saga in the Spider-Man titles at the same time, so I don't know what this says about my taste! I think I just liked the "mystery after mystery, revelation after revelation" nature of these stories. Even when many of these set-ups were never resolved (or resolved poorly), for whatever reason it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the ride itself.

Paul G. said...

Contra Matt, this is the tipping point, where the line dives off a cliff. I remember being a easily-impressed teenager feeling sorely disappointed by X-Men Prime after eating up every piece of AoA. The titles never really recovered their momentum after that, as I spent the rest of the year looking for good issues of certain titles to redeem my faith in the line. Then, after about a year, I quit buying the entire line at once. Given the plunge in sales figures, I wasn't alone in my assessment.

Jeff said...

Gotta agree with Paul G. here. Age of Apocalypse was a good start to the year, but the titles go straight off the cliff by the end of the year. Once Lobdell started writing adjectiveless it's quality nosedived. And nobody seems to have had an overarching plan. Maybe AoA sapped all their creative juices?

Peter said...

It's possible they did AoA exactly because they didn't have good creative juices going on: it's much easier to write a short-lived dark alternate reality where you can goof around with new costume designs and turning heroes into villains and villains into heroes, than it is to continue the stories of characters who had been around for decades. Which is what they quickly prove in the (non-)stories following AoA.

Readers didn't really leave any of these series in droves though, so Marvel guessed right in that the AOA would generate enough interest (coupled with the Onslaught teases) to keep them coasting for a while.

The rest of the MU was tanking pretty badly around this time, but the X-books were selling gangbusters for another year or two, I believe. Even after the bottom fell out, they were usually in the top 10 sales, so it was the line that hung on to the most sales, until the Ultimate universe came along and then of course the current Avengers franchise (who would ever have guessed that the Avengers written at their worst would outsell the X-Men? Nobody at Marvel back in the day, that's for sure!)

(and Matt, I liked the Clone Saga too because of the ride with the mysteries and revelations, I still find it more entertaining than most of the current BND stuff, although they generally do have much better writers/artists on ASM now than they did during the Clone Saga. Enough people must have liked it though, if they're bringing back all these elements from it in the coming months :)

Erik said...

Age of Apocalypse brought me into the X-books. As was said, the Superman titles were flagging after the Return, and I started looking around at Marvel books instead of just DC. I became an X-junkie until Morrison left.

AoA was a great experiment, and the introduction of an ongoing mystery (Onslaught) kept my coming back. I started by X-Man, picked up the occassional mini and wondered if when we'd see Magneto's return after the Fall of Avalon.

I liked Holocaust coming over with X-Man, but Dark Beast and Sugar Man were pretty weak, and I was glad when both were dropped as recurring characters.

wwk5d said...

AOA was stupid, but in a fun kind of way. This was the year the line as whole begins to suffer. Some decent issues here and there, but overall, for me, the quality drops big time. Very little good stuff.

The Good:

* Excaliber
* Nicieza's final X-men issues

The OK:

* Generation X
* Wolverine
* X-Force (initially, it's still readable, and the Pollina art helps a lot).

The Crap:

* Everything else, with X-factor the worst, hands down. Granted, there are some decent issues here and there in Uncanny and X-men, and the art is still good for many of the titles, and the production values help. In some cases, like X-factor, the art is the only redeeming factor (no pun intended).

Overall, this is the year for me where the crap outweighs the good stuff.

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