Monday, March 23, 2009

Way Back When--X-Men #53 (June, 1996)

Continuing our time-trip back to comics' days gone by, we find ourselves, curiously enough once again back at Marvel Comics and once again back in the year 1996.

Only the circumstances are a bit different. When we last passed this way, Marvel was busy fouling its own nest in a vain effort to figure out what the hell to do with every character they had that wasn't an X-Man, and more than a few that were.

The X-Men line, meanwhile, was having a pretty good time of it. 1995 had been pretty good to them, all things being equal. Their big crossover event--The Age of Apocalypse--had been fairly well-received, both critically and financially (having a baker's dozen comics to buy to get the whole thing certainly didn't hurt with that) and they were riding high--they were the most successful line at Marvel and the editors in charge of the books were some of the most conservative and hard-nodes there ever were. Many a writer knew what it was like to be roasted in the depths of the X-Editors slore, I can tell you.

And it is such a writer of today's curiosity, X-Men #53, written by Mark Waid, that brings us round to the point of today's remembrance, as it were. 1996 dawned, and two things were clear:

1) There was going to be a crossover among all the books in the summer.

2) No one was quite sure exactly what it'd be. Age of Apocalypse had been pretty ambitious--they'd canceled the X-books for four whole months and relaunched them as something else, after all--and it was going to be hard to top that for sheer chutzpah.

One writer in particular had the following idea (text borrowed from Paul O'Brien's terribly useful indexes at The X-Axis):

"Lobdell's big idea was that the X-Men hadn't had a real cosmic level threat to fight since Dark Phoenix over a decade before, so he created one."

It was a good enough idea--Dark Phoenix is one of the most fondly-remembered X-storylines, and something with that level of scope and tragedy would certainly create a memorable, affecting storyline, if all went according to plan.

Tragically, this was not to be. Partly because there was no plan, so far as I can tell. Dark Phoenix had been conceived by two people--one writer, one artist--on a book that was a cult success and had only just recently earned the sales to go monthly. This storyline was going to expand, covering not only all the x-books, but Avengers, Fantastic Four, and so many others. Dozens of writers and artists had their fingers in the pie and well, Marvel's interoffice communication was quite where it needed to be to carry this off.

The result was, well . . .I'll let the estimable Mr. O'Brien pick it back up:

"Onslaught is not the least coherent crossover Marvel ever published. That honour belongs to The Crossing, an Avengers story so impenetrable that it was later unceremoniously booted out of continuity by being explained away as a deliberate attempt by a villain to confuse everyone. The Crossing is unlikely ever to be beaten on this score. But Onslaught's pretty bad as well.

When Scott Lobdell created Onslaught, his concept was a simple one. The X-Men hadn't had a big cosmic-level villain since Dark Phoenix, and wouldn't it be nice if they had one? Well, yes, it would. And that's about the last stage at which Onslaught was a good idea.

The character lumbered gamely into print in a variety of oblique hints and subplots long, long before anybody had really worked out who he was or what he was trying to achieve. Larry Hama, then writing Wolverine, reported that he had been asked to use Onslaught - but the editors could not tell him anything about the character at all. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a load of impenetrable and irreconcilable hints which were never satisfactorily explained. This issue makes a feeble attempt to wave them aside by saying that everything we know about Onslaught was suspect because he was the source of information. That's not so much an explanation as a disguised admission of failure."

O'Brien puts it far more diplomatically than it deserves--the final result was a disaster of epic proportions, a muddled, inchoate mess that sadly sold very well. I should know--I bought most of them. Unfortunately, Marvel being Marvel, the wrong lesson was learned and 1997's crossover was even more poorly thought out than this one.

However, we're not here to spit on the corpse of a failed crossover--plenty of people have done that already and rightly so. Let's run the clock back to somewhere around the time this might have been carried off successfully. Let's run it back to June 1996's X-Men #53.

Initially, all the "clues" about who and what Onslaught was (early on, the reader didn't know too much about Onslaught except he was almost certainly not the leader of the Combaticons) pointed in one main direction--he was the evil side of Professor Xavier, the founder of the X-men. Provocation after provocation and failure after failure had begun to wear on the X-men's saintly founder, creating anger that he struggled to repress for the good of all (considering Professor X was powerful enough to hear a stray thought on the other side of the globe at the time, the pressure for a telepath to keep his talents under control would certainly, one assumes, lead one toward a repressive personality) anger that, unfortunately, was coalescing into something big, something powerful, and something very dangerous.

That Onslaught looked so much like Magneto, his longtime friend/foe, wasn't surprising--often people project their internal flaws onto an external target as a way of putting them at some remove. The fact that Onslaught's first big "moment" in the X-Books was knocking Juggernaut (Xavier's asshole stepbrother) halfway across the continental US further buttresses the idea that Onslaught-as-evil-Xavier theory.

This issue, likewise, seems to reinforce that. Jean Grey is off minding her own business and trying on dresses when Onsalught yanks her into the astral plane and they proceed to talk to each other for the rest of the time. Jean continually asks who Onslaught is, and Onslaught answers her, but in such a way that Jean doesn't quite get it.

Onslaught doesn't seem to think much of humans or the X-men, but none of that bad noise seems to convince her to join him, so Onslaught decides to prove a point and generally squick her out by revealing something she Never Knew (but we did as readers, as it's a little-ignored--justly--continuity remnant.) The revelation is . . .well, why spoil the feeling o utter squick you'd get when you see it? Suffice it to say, it costs Charles Xavier a lot of respect points and generally freaks our favourite occasionally dead redhead right the hell out.

Nevertheless, even in offering Jean the chance t approach Phoenix-level power again, all he really does is piss Jean off, causing her to demand, once again to know who he is. Onslaught answers with a badass villain monologue and psychically burns his name into her forehead, because that's just how he rolls.

You want to sell your new villain for the summer, have him crush the Phoenix effect in his hand, declare himself a god, and leave Jean a hysterical wreck (she gets over it next issue, more or less) and there's your cliffhanger.

So. Seems like a servicable enough bit of setting up, dunnit? What went wrong?

Well, in the issue of Wolverine that came out next week, it ended up that Magneto had implanted some kind of soul-goblin in Xavier that ended up being the germ for Onslaught and, well, things got rather more silly from there . . .


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Oh my God, this was the issue where... ugh, and it was written by WAID?! You'd think he, of all people, would know better...

Kazekage said...

Well, if anyone was going to resurrect a one-off continuity point from the early days of X-Men and use it to squick everyone out . . .well geez, who but Waid? ;)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Sure, but why that one? I mean, am I wrong in ascribing some kind of basic sensibility to Waid where he actually knows what kind of continuity serves the story? Because, seriously, that whole scenario made my soul throw up. It was so wrong.

Kazekage said...

Well, in terms of Onslaught as he was originally conceived, it works fine, because he was Xavier's repressed dark side and well, boffing his student would be the kind of thing one would (hopefully) aggressively repress.

Probably doesn't justify the resultant squick, but I could understand why you would drag this up and not, say, Xavier's leg braces.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Still. Eww.

Kazekage said...

Yeah, it's pretty icky and came to nothing in the end, but it certainly makes Onsalught extra-nasty for reasons other than being a cheese beast in Marvel vs. Capcom, yes? :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Maybe, but in the cheapest way possible. Which, granted, was the norm for the '90s...

Kazekage said...

Yeah, but look at it this way--Had Onslaught taken place in the 2000s--and you know this and I know it--I have three words for you: Professor X's O-Face.

I am as skeeved out typing that as you are reading it.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Please excuse me. I need to gargle some mouthwash. And possibly industrial-strength bleach. :)

Kazekage said...

I apologize for that last little bit of dark poetry there. :)