Age of Apocalypse Pt I
Travis Hedge Coke
The Age of Apocalypse is almost twenty years old. There’s a movie coming out with the name and some similarities. It’s a beautiful storyline, according to some, a beloved event. Others never got over their initial fear way back then, that it would be a permanent change in status quo and was mocking all that came before it. As usual, reality (that is to say, my take) is somewhere between the middle of those and slightly to the left of all of it. I’m not even sure the AoA is a storyline, or if it’s a setting, if it is a setting that’s thoroughly worked out, or if it’s an idea, a conceit.
The AoA started as a oneshot to enter us in (Alpha), one to get us out (Omega), and a series of four or two-issue miniseries that ran concurrent to one another in between. Way before Charles Xavier could form the famous X-Men, Charles’ schizophrenic and MPD son incidentally killed him after traveling back in time to rape is mother and murder Erik “One Day I’ll Be Genocidal!” Lensherr. With Xavier gone and a bunch of time-traveling powerhouses being witnessed, an ancient super-mutant called Apocalypse decided to get up from his nap of the ages a little early, and he then started a program of genocide, torture, slavery, and lulz that lasted, by the Alpha oneshot starts, ten years.
However, despite ten years of mass killing, rape camps, eugenics experiments, torture, and slavery, at least half of the four-issue minis are full of people who don’t seem bothered by anything but their own personal melodramas. Even in an alternate reality where the bulk of humans have been murdered and everyone else is being degraded daily, the X-Men are still almost entirely self-absorbed and concerned primarily with the sanctity of their own labyrinthine continuity. People are traumatized in X-Calibre or Factor X, but not in Amazing X-Men and Gambit and the X-Ternals. Generation Next was the heaviest of the minis, featuring slave camps, forced prostitution, and brutalized children more than any of the others, and yet it’s also the lightest, because everyone keeps making jokes and hardly anyone seems to react to the world surrounding them. For the most, these degraded post-Apocalypse X-Men are still tonally our X-Men of old, they just have more bolts or rags on some of the costumes.
Let’s take this step by step, shall we?
Age of Apocalypse: Alpha
A walking tour of the world, covering how Bishop, a mutant from our normative, expected X-Men reality met this reality’s X-Men, and how ten years of genocide that “shouldn’t have happened” has rendered him virtually mute and more than a little messed up. Various X-Men fight some guys, they pose a lot, everyone has studs in their costumes now, and Bishop convinces them the proper thing to do is wipe themselves out and reset reality to make it right by stealing from another galaxy.
I Like: The opening pages of Bishop scaling a mountain of corpses, then hugging a little girl. Robin, the Boy Wonder’s body amongst the dead. The twisty, non-euclidean architecture that’s seemingly en vogue.
I Dislike: Magneto has his hair in very loose braids. Storm is short and thin as a toothpick. The X-Men seem to do nothing but fight repetitive battles and worry about their overblown personal lives while Earth has fried around them.
I Don’t Understand: Why does Unus, the Untouchable, have such heavy armor on? He has a forcefield around him that is virtually impenetrable and he’s wearing heavier armor than anyone. Why? And, how is Magneto so young, if he’s never been de-aged by any means? Young and more ripped than ever for no particular reason.
Astonishing X-Men #1
Magneto, founder and leader of the X-Men, sends various agents on missions around the globe or offworld, while dealing with the fact his much younger wife (Rogue) still has a thing for a Louisiana thief who never learned to shave right (Gambit).
I Like: Morph is funny. Rogue has Motoko Kusanagi’s hair, from Ghost in the Shell, and most of the other anime/manga/videogame lifts are nicely handled.
I Dislike: Everyone is awful glib and la-di-da considering the world’s gone to hell. Storm is tiny and skinny and her heels keep changing shape (and will keep changing in every panel of every AoA comic). Some scenes are just too ham-handed.
I Don’t Understand: What’s the deal with Rex? Why do facial expressions rarely match dialogue or scene? Shouldn’t Sunfire being so horribly burned bother him a little? Even if he’s “used to it”?
A young woman (Switchback), a sadistic bounty hunter (Dani Moonstar), and an X-Man (Nightcrawler) take separate journeys towards the same destination, a sanctuary from the genocide of the world located in a warm, dinosaur-filled part of the Antarctic.
I Like: The comic has a strong thematic resonance. Religion and religious approaches dominate the story, from the overmuscled monk (Cain Marko) isolating himself from the world and paying a personal penance to the Ghost Dance-hosting John Proudstar and Angel fronting a club called Heaven. Apocalypse’s set up is given churchy overtones, with the Madri specifically called “clergy.” Magneto makes Charles Francis Xavier a saint among saints, and Mystique makes a mockery, a graven image of that blanket sanctifying.
I Dislike: The Indians, aside from John, all come off as breechclout-wearing, pan-cultural weirdies. The ceremony doesn’t really resemble what it’s meant to. That could add an extra level of “they’re getting it wrong, but passionately,” but I suspect it was just easier to draw something fitting a stereotype.
I Don’t Understand: Why is Mystique’s shapechanging shown as if it’s a digital artifacting, happening in lines of renewal on TV screens instead of something physiological?
Gambit and the X-Ternals #1
Gambit and his team of thieves and scoundrels are sent to space to retrieve a special crystal so most of their lives can be erased and reality righted. Mostly, though, they fight people that in the normal X-world, are their allies, because it’s ironic.
I Like: Sunspot’s redesign is fierce. Strong Guy has studs in his bald head and that’s cool.
I Dislike: Jubilee and Lila Cheney have permanent swayback and shove their butts at everything. Lila’s clothes explode off of her at one point for no particular reason, not even the reason of “this will be sexy.”
I Don’t Understand: Why do Lila’s clothes explode off her? Why is everyone cool with this plan to erase the bulk of their lives, even though they don’t seem particularly sad, scared, or tired?
Generation Next #1
Colossus and Kitty Pryde have a school of hard (beat them senseless and mock them) knocks for rescued youths. They, and their charges, are directed by Magneto to go fetch Colossus’ little sister from a prison camp.
I Like: Bachalo’s facial expressions are killer.
I Dislike: Everyone’s angry, but the anger hides their compassion. Every. Single. Character.
I Don’t Understand: Why is the super strong Colossus wearing so much armor? Why is Kitty’s hair a different color? Does she dye it? Where does she get dye from? Why can’t she phase when she wants to?
Weapon X #1
Logan and Jean aid a massive rescue mission via flying robots, to get thousands of people out of America and to relative safety. They fight Havok, Beast cuts someone up with a saw, and the human resistance in Europe decide nuking everything might be the best recourse.
I Like: The art, the coloring, the writing, the designs, the pacing, dialogue... I love this comic. The air lift via Sentinels is huge and impressive. The fights and the talky bits all have a point to them and a passion.
I Dislike: That more of AoA is not as strong or focused as Weapon X or X-Calibre.
I Don’t Understand: Why is Havok worth rescuing, for Apocalypse? All he ever does is screw up.
Amazing X-Men #1
The X-Men who aren’t busy elsewhere fight some guys, to make sure they appear in a comic somewhere. After all, someone paid for these redesigns and they need to be shown off.
I Like: The reveal of Vanessa is so paced, so important-seeming, and then it’s just Vanessa.
I Dislike: Storm’s redesign and that her heels are shaped differently in every panel. The comic is virtually pointless, even as spectacle.
I Don’t Understand: How do Banshee’s arm-streamers help him fly? How does Dazzler heat a coffee carafe with light from conversational levels of sound?
Factor X #1
A few sets of siblings work as high-level enforcers for Mr. Sinister, regulating his service of breeding pens and eugenics experiments for angry master of the Earth, Apocalypse. One of them is having a secret relationship with a human.
I Like: Wolfsbane stuck as a wolf and treated as a pet. The messed up torture-experiments of Beast. Everyone’s casual racism and bigotry alongside self-loathing and self-justification. Epting’s body language when Scarlett and Havok kiss.
I Dislike: A lot seems like spinning wheels. It’s a very wordy, lots of things happening, but little of it seems to breathe or come alive as it could. Cyclops still being called that, but now because he’s got one good eye is... a little too much.
I Don’t Understand: How do Jeanne-Marie Beaubier’s breasts work?
A genetically engineered young man with supreme psychic powers escaped a prison camp and hooks up with some revolutionaries traveling as a circus.
I Like: That Toad’s a scholar. That Forge isn’t wearing a bunch of feathers and fringe. Domino is a badass. That the pages have big panels and the comic is decompressed functionally.
I Dislike: Everyone is talky, even the slow, dumb guy. And people talk in a sort of glib, knowing way. Also, the comic opens with a riff on a Terminator scene that’s just so direct it pulls me away and annoys me.
I Don’t Understand: Why does Apocalypse call Domino, “dear”? Just doesn’t seem in character.
We’ll pick this up with the second issues and some of the two-issue series’ first issues next time, but let’s look at what we’ve already got. This was a massive undertaking, at the time, suspending all ongoing X-Men related plots and casts, redesigning everyone both in style and dynamics and building a world that’s at least passably working for four months of adventure stories, featuring many different nations and regions, new political and religious systems, modified character histories, et cetera. Luckily, most X-stories of the era were seemingly only plotted two months or less in advance, so interrupting them didn’t stall many reveals in a franchise that would tease out any developments for years and years.
In the broad strokes, the world of AoA holds up. The various factions and power structures are thought out well enough, major political structures aren’t stepping on each other or inherently contradictory. Architectural and clothing styles agree, from title to title, comic to comic, with Joe Madureira seeming to have done a lot of heavy lifting on other folks’ titles.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the individual comics, only X-Calibre, Weapon X, and X-Man seem to have enough going on in their pages to be worthwhile on their own. Amazing X-Men and Astonishing both spend their first issues reestablishing things we could get from the other stories, instead of being about anything, even just their own characters. Paris, Dazzler, even to a large degree Rogue or Magneto are only there to be there, with no development and lots of repetition of limited characterization and no plot or thematic underpinnings to make up for it.
Nearly all the comics covered above are concerned with missions that boil down to “find a piece of the endgame for us.” Why would Gambit or Jubilee care about the M’kraan crystal of an alien empire? Are so many of Sinister’s strong arms siblings for a reason? How did Magneto and Bishop come up with this plan, in the first place? Not the broad goal, but the actual mechanics of the plan.
If Colossus and Kitty are such hardass teachers they come close to murdering their students to see if they’re fit enough to live another day, and Apocalypse is a survival of the fittest mass murdery nut, why have Colossus and Kitty fitted Chamber with a new chest to keep him from dying, and why is Apocalypse facilitating massive surgeries to save Havok’s life? The sad answer is, because those characters need to keep making appearances. We’re only one month in, and already it’s clear that very very few risks will be permitted, hardly any surprises are going to be in store for us. But there is massive bravado to the AoA comics. They’re showy, melodramatic, big comics. They are loud. And, the smartest of them gain energy from the simpler ones, playing emotion and tragedy against the same-same vibe of other supposedly post-apocalyptic comics in the same fugue.
Next time: Shiar Imperial Guard vs some teenage mutants. Dani carving up Dead Man Wade over and over for laughs. Sunfire yells stuff. Lorna Dane throws a car at Aurora. Kitty still has reddish-blonde hair. Plots are advanced. Characters do stuff. And, other things the more desperate fanboys thought would spit in the eye of established continuity forever.