Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Year in Review - 1996

The industry slump finally makes its presence felt within the X-titles, even though most of the books remain in the Top 20. The slick paper quality is downgraded back to newsprint, which hurts the production values and inadvertently gives the books a “cheaper” feel. The latest crossover event, “Onslaught,” is expanded outside of the X-titles and used to justify the relaunched Marvel titles assigned to Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld. It’s an outrageous stunt, not popular even within Marvel, but the reasoning is that Marvel has to do something drastic to draw attention to the non-X titles.

Uncanny X-Men – The year’s opening issues resolve the “Psylocke is near-death” plot, which has Wolverine and Archangel searching for a mystical cure. She’s healed, and develops vaguely defined “shadow teleportation” powers out of the deal. These issues on their own are kind of fun, largely thanks to Madueira’s art, but altering Psylocke yet again isn’t a good idea, and just tacks more nonsense on to a character that was already being dismissed as “too confusing”. After this arc, there are a few more one-issue stories, and then “Onslaught” begins. The specific issues of “Onslaught” in UXM are at least tolerable (the major problem with “Onslaught” is the overall execution), but the rest of the year is very weak. Archangel’s metal wings are replaced by his originals, for reasons that are never explained. Havok shows up as a villain, which ties into the X-Factor’s sheer stupidity at the time. Iceman’s dad, previously portrayed as a comically exaggerated bigot, suddenly starts speaking out for mutant rights and gets horribly beaten for it. This issue actually has its moments, but the arbitrary characterization change feels lazy. The end of the year has the team kidnapped into space, where they’ll stay for a really long time.

X-Men volume two – Scott Lobdell winds down his fill-in run, plotting X-Men #49, which tries to sell the ridiculous idea that the Dark Beast never even considered that he had a counterpart in this reality (and never saw him on television during his years as a celebrity member of the Avengers or when he was interviewed as a world-renowned scientist). The next issue is essentially an issue-long fight scene with Onslaught’s herald, Post. Andy Kubert has some great moments in the issue, and if you’re willing to forgive the fact that all of the Onslaught hints add up to nothing, it’s pretty entertaining. Then, Mark Waid tries to write the X-Men, but it only lasts a few issues. Waid’s run is too short to really judge, but he does do a credible job of building up Onslaught as a potentially good idea. If he had more of a voice in the crossover, and was involved in the stories that initially set up the mystery, I think things would’ve worked out a lot better. Scott Lobdell then returns to the title, writing a series of forgettable “downtime” issues, and then an atrocious two-parter with Storm and Candra.

X-Force – Jeph Loeb and Adam Pollina continue their run, which has them reinventing Boomer as “tough girl” Meltdown early in the year. Some of the character work isn’t bad, but the plots become increasingly erratic as the year goes on. The dangling X-Ternals subplot from early in the title’s run is “resolved” by showing that X-Ternals really can die, and just having a few lines of dialogue declare that Cannonball (who’s not even a cast member at this point) never was one in the first place. Soon, it’s time for “Onslaught.” The title really has nothing to do in the crossover, but it’s the book where the mansion is destroyed, which I guess has to happen every five years or so. After the crossover, Loeb’s final arc begins – the infamous “Origin of Shatterstar” storyline. Loeb, apparently annoyed at editorial rewrites, abandons the book as soon as it’s done. The story is such utter nonsense, the letters column has to apologize for it repeatedly.

Cable – The year opens with a crossover with X-Man, which of course involves a lot of explosions and double-page spreads. After the crossover is done, Cable spends a few issues fighting Onslaught’s flunkies, and then deals with his techno-organic virus going out of control. Loeb is able to use Cable somewhat effectively as a protagonist, but the actual stories he stars in are almost always unremarkable.

X-Factor – After X-Factor finishes the tedious Adversary storyline, Sabretooth joins the cast. Howard Mackie is joined by Jeff Matsuda as artist, which means the book that’s supposed to be heading in a new grim direction is illustrated by the cartooniest artist in comics. The team is now a “mutant militia,” secretly controlled by shadowy government forces that want to do very evil things that the story never gets around to explaining. Havok is brainwashed by the Dark Beast into becoming a villain, and even after the brainwashing wears off, decides that he just wants to be bad anyway. After this idiocy, the book tries to resolve the “Graydon Creed for President” storyline. Even after numerous issues detail Mystique’s desire to kill Creed, she suddenly shows up in this issue as his protector (her giant gun is just a “forcefield generator”). As X-Factor places her back in custody, Creed is killed by a mystery figure that the title never bothers to reveal (a separate miniseries years later finally resolves the mystery). Madrox returns from the dead, with an obvious explanation anyone could see coming. The final story arc of the year has Havok deciding to form a new Brotherhood team, apparently as his response to being manipulated by so many people over the years. He promptly recruits Dark Beast, the villain who brainwashed him just a few issues earlier, as one of the members. This is one of the titles that directly lead to the end of my X-completist days, and its sheer awfulness is still shocking to me.

Wolverine – After Marvel spends months teasing the return of Wolverine’s adamantium in issue #100, the audience receives a major fake-out. Not only does Wolverine reject the adamantium the villain Genesis tries to bond to his bones, but the process (somehow) turns him into a feral animal. In a move that still stands out as one of the dumbest things ever done to the character, Wolverine devolves into a grunting, nose-less beast. Larry Hama openly opposes the idea, but tries to make the best of it. Wolverine #102 is actually a great issue, mainly because it tells a story that really has nothing to do with Wolverine’s new state. After that, Adam Kubert departs the title and the book never really recovers. After a few months, Wolverine’s original appearance reemerges, and he returns to Japan to fight more ninjas. Hama and new artist Anthony Winn aren’t a bad pair, but the book’s momentum is hurt by the editorial meddling and months of fill-ins.

Excalibur – Warren Ellis introduces the British Hellfire Club and merges the concept with his ongoing Black Air storyline. The pieces come together in issue #100, which is a terrific issue that also sees the return of Captain Britain. It’s followed by a few quiet issues that focus on the cast’s reaction to the Onslaught affair and Peter Wisdom’s relationship with Shadowcat. Warren Ellis’ final issue has Belasco tormenting the team with alternate versions of themselves. Carlos Pacheco only pencils a few issues of this run, even though he’s the designated regular artist, but the issues he does draw are great. The closing issues of the year are fill-ins that deal with questions about Douglock that had already been answered, but guest writers John Acrudi and Keith Giffen do a surprisingly good job.

X- Men Unlimited – The first X-Men Unlimited issue of the year actually isn’t filler, shockingly enough. Mark Waid writes the story of the Dark Beast kidnapping and replacing the X-Men’s Beast. It’s executed very well, and it’s unfortunate the plot eventually goes nowhere. The next issue also has some significance, as Rogue encounters Joseph, putting the characters in place for the “Onslaught” crossover. The story has its flaws, but Steve Epting’s does a fine job on the art. Issue #12 details what happened to Juggernaut after Onslaught trapped him inside the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak. John Francis Moore tells a fairly innocuous story about Juggernaut’s inability to ever change what he is. Following this issue, the title returns to quarterly inventory stories, making it an easy book for me to drop.

Generation X – After a few more bland issues, Chris Bachalo thankfully returns to the title. Scott Lobdell sidesteps the “Onslaught” storyline by having Emma Frost hide the team away for a few issues because she thinks something bad is coming. It’s a smart idea, and the resulting story is fun. Later, Skin and Chamber go on a road trip that has them running into Howard the Duck for a few issues. Meanwhile, Nightmare makes some cryptic comments to Emma Frost that never amount to anything. The remaining issues of the year are small, character-driven stories. They’re not terrible, but the pacing of this book is so leisurely it feels as if barely anything ever happens.

X-Man John Ostrander and Steve Skroce start the year as the title’s creative team, and by the end of the year we have Terry Kavanagh and Roger Cruz. Despite the change, the book essentially remains the same; X-Man wanders aimlessly, runs into a character within the X-canon, irrationally starts a fight, his powers explode, the end. Kavanagh moves the character to New York City with Threnody, which does at least move the book away from the formula for a few issues, but the quality is essentially the same.

Limited Series and One-Shots – This begins an era of an endless series of one-shots and miniseries. Between 1996 and 1997, we’re given Domino, Beast, Colossus, Imperial Guard, XSE, Gambit vol. 2, Magneto and more. I avoided most of these, but I have read Peter Milligan and Leonardo Manco’s Archangel one-shot, and the Peter Milligan/John Paul Leon Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix mini. Archangel reminds me of one of the better Classic X-Men back-ups, and Cyclops and Phoenix is executed very well, despite some annoying retcons. The “Heroes Reborn” deal with Jim Lee allows Marvel to publish a Team X/Team 7 crossover one-shot by Larry Hama and Steve Epting. It’s a decent action story with impressive art . There’s also the Road to Onslaught one-shot, which presents a much more credible plan for the crossover that unfortunately wasn’t followed in any of the actual comics. Onslaught: X-Men and Onslaught: Marvel Universe do the dirty work of revealing Xavier as Onslaught and "killing" most of the non-mutant heroes. Adam Kubert's art is a selling point, but there's only so much Mark Waid can do with the forced "event."

The Events: Professor Xavier (partially under the influence of Magneto’s consciousness) snaps and becomes Onslaught. We see the full message from Jean Grey that Bishop saw in the future, revealing Xavier/Onslaught as the X-traitor. After the non-mutant heroes sacrifice themselves to stop him, a powerless Xavier voluntarily places himself in custody. Wolverine regresses into an animal-like form. Sabretooth is forced to join X-Factor. Madrox returns. Joseph moves in with the X-Men. Archangel’s metal wings are replaced by his original feather wings.

The “What Were They Thinking?” Award: I honestly can’t narrow it down to just one event. Should I choose the revelation that the Dark Beast never realized in twenty years that he had a counterpart in this reality (who just happened to be a celebrity)? Psylocke receiving new, vaguely defined powers? The dozens of hints leading up to Onslaught’s debut that don’t add up? Archangel’s wings changing form with absolutely no explanation? Revealing that the waitress Bishop recognized years earlier was actually Fatale, a shapeshifter who hadn’t been created at that point? Shatterstar’s muddled origin that expects us to believe that he’s been a comatose boy in a mental institution during all of his appearances? Havok suddenly deciding he wants to be a villain? Graydon Creed’s death scene, which has him turning into a pile of ashes? Wolverine turning into a dog? If I had to pick, I'd say Wolverine's transformation into a dog.

What’s the Appeal? : It’s hard to say at this point. I can look at the previous years and understand why the books remained so popular and why I was personally willing to stay a completist. But this is just ridiculous. The big Marvel event of the year comes from the X-books, so I guess there is the sense that important things are going on. Most of the artists are at least competent, although there does seem to be a rash of ugly fill-ins in quite a few of the titles. By now, I think the books are really just running on the momentum from the previous years.

Were the Critics Right? : I didn’t realize 1996 contained so many horrible ideas until I did a review of the entire line. Bad idea is followed by bad idea, titles languish without direction for months at a time, and long-running mysteries are just ignored, or resolved in ways that can’t be reconciled with the original stories. I remember Glenn Greenberg commenting somewhere that another Marvel employee (it might have even been Bob Harras) felt that the Superman titles never recovered after the death and resurrection of Superman storylines because they had nowhere else to go. Looking back, it seems as if the “Age of Apocalypse” storyline might’ve been the equivalent for the X-books.

“Age of Apocalypse” is the ultimate “What If?” because the creators have so many issues to explore the idea, it’s darker than any dystopian future we’ve ever seen, and it tops all of the previous “X-Men as underdogs” stories (if not in story quality, at least in establishing the opposition). After you’ve remade your entire line of titles for four months and sold this new reality, where do you go from there? I guess unveiling a new cosmic-level menace, and then making him Professor Xavier, can get people talking, but Marvel was in such a chaotic state behind-the-scenes (due to the bankruptcy) at the time, no one seemed equipped to pull the idea off. The final result is just a mess, and after the big storyline is through, most of the titles don’t seem to know how to go back to normal.


Matt said...

I've always had an itch to go back and re-read my X-Men books from this era, because as I've made plain, I really, really liked them at the time!

Your reviews have me thinking maybe they're best kept locked away in long boxes so my memories can remain untarnished...

wwk5d said...

This was the year I stopped being a completest, and began dropping many titles. So much crap. The bad stuff really outweighs the good stuff, and there are very good runs...though there are some good issues scattered here and there. And, bad fill-in artists aside, there was some good talent on the books. At various points you had the Kubert Brothers, Adam Pollina, Joe Madureira, Carlos Pacheo, Steve Skroce, Tom Grummet, and Chris Bachelo. So at the least the books were nice to look at. As for the rating, the quality of the books is so dire that the good stuff is ranked the the ok stuff, the crap is with the forgettable.

The Good and the OK:

* Excaliber. Warren Ellis finishes up the run nicely, and the fill-in creative team does a good job. Too bad the fill-in was just that. Def the sole bright spot of the line up.
* Uncanny X-men: The post Onslaught issue and the issue with Iceman's dad in the hospital. Both were actually really good, and it's a shame they were the exception.
* X-men: Mark Waid's first 3 issues. The 'Death Train' issue were good silly fun, and the issue with Jean and Onslaught was also very good.
* Wolverine. More 'ok' than 'good', but still better than much of what was being produced.
* Generation X. Same as Wolverine.

The Crap and the Forgettable:

* Anything that isn't listed above. The worst in terms of crap would be "X-factor". The most forgettable? I'd say X-man.

All in all, looking back, the early 90s were much better than the mid-90s. It's in 1995 that the franchise begins going off the rails, and in 1996 is when the poop really hit the fan.

PeterCSM said...

I'm really loving this blog. I found it while searching for info on the Onslaught cross-over since up to now I've held off on filling in my X-Men collection with those issues (well, those and Zero Tolerance and anything where Wolverine was a nose-less caveman). I originally stopped buying comics in mid '95 due to the boring Spider-Man clone saga issues and corresponding resentment/irritation(and limited allowance)at being forced to buy all the Spidey titles every month just to understand the story. The confusing stories and lack-luster creative teams of 1996 (they were lack-luster at best, horrible was more often the case-- Nicieza and Lobdell had a few good issues I suppose but Mackie and Kavangh?!) kept me away until late 2006. It wasn't just Marvel. Image books got stupider and stupider and DC had already confused me with Zero Hour back in '94. Plus Azrael as Batman had burnt me out on that character.
But like you said in your column, I hadn't really thought of it as being so awful at the time. I just assumed I had gotten burnt out on the Spidey stuff.
One good thing I can say about 1996 is at least it didn't have the Draco storyline in it!

Harry Sewalski said...

I find it somewhat ironic that in the early 90's, during Peter David's run, X-Factor was more or less the best X-Book, yet by this point it was easily one of the worst. Anyone who stuck on after David's run in the hope that another writer could match his quality would have been sorely disappointed.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...