I remember the 1990’s as the decade of the hologram covers, big crossovers and events. The Death of Superman, Knightfall, Maximum Carnage, Age of Apocalypse; all of these were storylines that spanned many issues and… well, forced you to break the bank if you were a jobless teenager like me. Because the money was rarely ever on hand, I usually skipped these big events in favor of shorter storylines (Maximum Carnage being the exception, though I did miss one part). Such was the case with X-Men’s Age of Apocalypse, a saga that saw a world as it would have been if Charles Xavier, leader of the X-Men, had died before he could truly establish his team and philosophy of co-existence between humans and mutants.
It’s funny how alternate reality storylines usually are better than accepted canon. I guess the reason is that they allow comic book writers freedoms denied by the mainstream timelines; they can take established characters and go in entirely new directions with them. With Age of Apocalypse you get not only new versions of old characters, but a new setting, with a quite literally apocalyptic world where the United States is under the powerful mutant Apocalypse’s rule, and Europe is the main headquarters for the remaining human nations. With Xavier dead – killed while saving Magneto’s life – it is up to the Master of Magnetism to fulfil the Professor’s dream of peaceful co-existence, leading the X-Men’s fight against Apocalypse’s forces within the United States. Some other changes to the normal timeline include Magneto being married to Rogue, and with a child; Cyclops and Beast working for Apocalypse; Gambit leading his own band of rebel mutants, the X-Ternals; a new and very powerful mutant that has ties to Jean Grey and Scott Summers; and Warren Worthington, a.k.a. Angel, doing his best impersonation of “Rick Blaine” from Casablanca, running a nightclub called “Heaven” while officially remaining neutral in the conflict between the two mutant factions (unofficially, of course, he’s helping the good guys the way “Rick” did at his Café Américain).
Since this was a major event in comics, it had to be a crossover between several titles (cuz $$$), which in this particular case were specially created for it. Each title focused on a specific group of mutants: Factor X would focus on Cyclops and his own unit of mutants under Apocalypse’s rule; Gambit and the X-Ternals would focus on… well, them; The Astonishing X-Men followed Rogue, Sabretooth and a few others; Generation Next the young group of mutants under Colossus and Shadowcat; Weapon X the exploits of Wolverine and Jean Grey; X-Calibre was Nightcrawler’s turn to shine; Amazing X-Men followed Quicksilver and Storm’s group; X-Man would deal with Nate Grey, the powerful new mutant that’s a product of Jean Grey and Cyclops’ DNA. That’s eight main titles, not counting others that either started the storyline, ended it, or provided some spin-off stories.
As you can imagine, this can be a headache to follow. And it was.
I bought the entire saga on a special offer from the Comixology website. It was great that I saved a ton of money on it, but it had the downside of not providing a starting point. Yes, Comixology comics do tell you what’s next to read in a particular storyline at the end of each issue, but how do you figure out which issue is the very first one? Because of this I put off reading the saga for some months after I bought it, too lazy to search for that starting point. Once I did, I realised there wasn’t an definitive consensus as to where to begin, or even in what order to continue reading. In the end, I settled on X-Men Alpha (yet another title!) to start reading. For those of you that haven’t read this story and are interested in doing so, that’s the starting point I would suggest.
The sheer amount of titles themselves made following the story a bit hard as well. Once the X-Men were aware that their timeline wasn’t meant to be the timeline (thanks to Bishop showing up with memories of the correct timeline intact), Magneto sent different groups into different missions, thus launching most of the other X-titles. What confused me a little was the how and why Magneto came up with those missions. For example, he sent Gambit to retrieve a shard of the M’Kraan Crystal located in a very far star system. As I understood it, the point was to use the crystal to change the timeline… or something (a sniff of Wikipedia says it was to verify Bishop’s story, but Magneto was very willing to believe him even while the missions were underway). How did Magneto know to use this crystal, and where to find it? I guess it’s common knowledge amongst the mutants, but to a casual reader like me it felt like something coming out of left field. The crystal was supposed to be channeled through Illyana, Colossus’ sister, so that a gateway to the original timeline be opened and Xavier’s death stopped. This would logically seem like the main goal of the X-Men, the driving force of the plot; since you can’t actually beat Apocalypse and his forces, then undo everything he has done by stopping the incident that sparked it all. However, for this most crucial task he sends some of the weakest mutants in Gambit and his group, simply because they are thieves and the crystal must be stolen. Shouldn’t you commit your main forces to do this? Nothing else that happens – namely, the nuclear attack on the U.S. planned by the Human Council, and the cullings perpetrated by Apocalypse’s forces – will matter so long as you change the timeline. It just felt like a half-assed commitment for the one thing that would solve the problem and end the series.
But those are the 1990’s for you; juice up the sagas as much as possible, to get out as many issues as possible, and if you couldn’t afford it, too bad! By then there was so much background to so many comics – which they kept referencing for new plots – that it was really hard to follow anything. I remember just going with the flow and accepting things on faith, because those footnotes that told you the issue and series being referenced didn’t help squat if you hadn’t read that issue. This was a big reason why both Marvel and DC sort of reset their universes in the 2000’s, specially DC with their New 52 line; they had to get rid of some of that clutter. Marvel still keeps the old storylines as part of canon, but do not rely so heavily on them anymore so new readers can follow the action. Even so, there will always be new clutter, making this is an unsolvable problem.
But I digress.
Ultimately the Age of Apocalypse was a deserving success. It presented us with some of our favourite heroes in extreme situations, with a badass mutant finally getting his just due by conquering… well, not the world, but North America at least. (Was Canada under Apocalypse’s rule?) Anyway, at least a major force like Apocalypse got to have his long awaited reign for a little while, and the story was such a success the timeline wasn’t actually wiped out, but visited back years later. One of those times was for the 10th anniversary of the saga, with a six issue mini series simply titled Age of Apocalypse. In here, after the events that concluded the original storyline, we see Magneto and the X-Men are gaining the favor and trust of the human population by lying as to who actually saved North America from the Human Council’s nuclear strike (hint: it wasn’t Magneto). What did save them is alive and being brainwashed by Sinister – one of Apocalypse’s original Horsemen – into becoming a weapon for his own use. Most of this mini-series was actually very enjoyable, but I felt the ending was a bit meh for my taste. Still, it’s as worthy of your attention as the original saga.
Are you a Marvel fan? Then this is a must read. It’s not on the same level as sagas like Civil War or Planet Hulk (both of which I will tackle later on), but it’s a fun and nostalgic read, and a chance to see some unlikely alliances.