Or, "Random thoughts I had whilst reading X-Men #69 and #72 about the general direction of the X-Franchise from 1997-1999. SPOILER: Down a hole."
Everyone agrees, seemingly, that whatever their feelings about the state of X-Men comics post Chris Claremont, the Age of Apocalypse was a great summer event. And who could blame them? It was an inspired concept, done in the most gutsy way possible (canceling the books and re-launching them under their altered names really carried the spirit of it along) and it had a certain thematic unity that these summer crossover events--requiring as they did an entire legion of creative types to stay on the same page. In all senses of the word, it was a triumph.
And they were never able to do it again.
"Onslaught" came next year, and as previously mentioned it was the kernel of a good idea, which was then walked back, and then the whole thing got hijacked to do Heroes Reborn, and . . .yeah. It was a big awful mess, but on the plus side, it got rid of that imbecilic teenage Iron Man. Unfortunately it replaced it with Whilce Portacio's Iron Man and so it wasn't a perfect turnaround by any means.
But compared to 1997's installment: "Operation Zero Tolerance," it looks like a tightly plotted masterpiece. Oh lord, where do we begin? Shall we begin with the bewildering scheduling that essentially meant that one core book (Uncanny X-Men) pretty much sat the whole thing out, plot points that should have happened in the X-Men books get shunted over to Wolverine and . . .well, let me slow down.
X-Men #69 is the final chapter of "Operation Zero Tolerance," and a perfect distillation of everything that's wrong with this damn crossover. For it is a conclusion that mainly exists as a conclusion in the sense that this is the last time the OZT logo shows up on the cover, as most of the dangling plotlines won't get resolved until next issue.
But sure this will at least provide a climactic battle that will give us a sense of catharsis and so the follow-up story will seem more like a coda after the finale.
Not this comic, folks. What we get is one of the most bewildering, perfunctory, endings to anything ever, and I've read those issues of West Coast Avengers where the Scarlet Witch turns evil, acts all scary, and then in-between issues is all like "Hey guys! I was evil and then I remembered I'm not!" And then they all traveled through time and fought Oort the Living Comet.
So, here's what happens: Iceman leads the most ad hoc team of ad hoc X-men ever (mind, this is including that time when it was Forge, Banshee, Legion and . . .Sunder from the Morlocks?!?) and Sabra, who you will remember from Contest of Champions is Israel's national superhero and has all the powers of a porcupine with a jetpack.
Iceman spends the first page of this issue looking mournfully ahead in the distance as he ice-slides past a positively staggering amount of narrative captions. Accompanying him on his ice-slide are prospective X-Men Ceclia Reyes (who has the twin mutant powers of whining about being a mutant at a rate of 3.0 Claremonts on the Claremont Scale) and also a force field) and Marrow (who pulls out sharp stabby things from her back and is a lower-tier character in Marvel vs. Capcom 2) More on Marrow later.
Anyways, the main reason Iceman's angsting (beyond the fact that Iceman was Scott Lobdell's pet character) is because these four people are all he has for his final strike against Bastion, OZT's incredibly vaguely-defined villain who was supposed to be all mysterious and had a previous connection to the X-Men which was supposed to be this big secret but was something you could piece together fairly easily if you started reading X-Men books in 1988. Bastion is guarded by a whole lotta Prime Sentinels, which are Sentinels, but normal sized and function as sleeper agents.
Let's examine that for a moment: Iceman makes things cold, Cecelia has a force field, Marrow can stab people, and Sabra can shoot little darts at people. They're going to go fight a guy with a bunch of robot good that are presumably heavily armed and armored. All things being equal, if their ambition was to toilet paper Baston's house they'd be set, but anything else . . .man, I dunno.
I'm selling Sabra short. She actually is an agent of the Mossad, which makes her a badass. Her son was killed in a terrorist bombing and . . .y'know, I wonder, looking at this and Contest, I wonder if that's all American comics writers really knew about Israel: Terrorist bombings and the Mossad, full stop. I'm sure more goes on there, it must do--for instance, I bet it rains from time to time, not that we ever hear about that in comics. Contest, with all its heavy-handed stereotyping was published in 1982. This book was published in 1997. Please note how much has changed since these two points in time, won't you?
Anyways, they get to Bastion, fight a little, and talk a LOT. Sweet shit, for all Chris Claremont got shit for character speaking reams of dialogue in the split-second of throwing a punch, get a look at this. Iceman gently knock him around while relating his story of how caring for his father, who was beaten by mutant-hating mobs, the #1 killer of X-Men supporting characters behind pork chops and FEMA.
Then SHIELD shows up and tells Bastion to stand down, and Bastion does. He gets arrested. The end.
No, really, that's how it goes down. Does this seem somewhat hollow? It is. When you combine a hopelessly muddled crossover that has totally blown its schedule written by a writer who didn't want to be there and would quit the X-Books altogether over certain points in the new direction he wasn't crazy about, and add on a resolution that doesn't really solve anything, you end up with the story equivalent of what the kids call today "a big hot mess."
But with the crossover out of the way, the new direction takes hold. One of the baffling ironies about the new direction is that two points in this new direction are Lobdell's (he wanted to see the X-Men stripped of their cool house and Shi'Ar tech and other bits of infrastructure that had, in his regards, moved the X-Men away from what he thought they should be. Plus, Roy Thomas did it back in the Factor Three days, and how much could tastes have changed in 30 years?) and Joe Madureria, who wanted to add a character he'd come up with called Maggott to the team. You can read more about him at the link, but suffice it to say Maggott is probably the most poorly thought-out character in the history of the X-Men, and would be for the entire Marvel Universe, if Rage didn't exist. Maggott can kiss my ass, is all I'm saying.
Anyways, where Lobdell disagreed was with the addition of Marrow to the team (Madureria, who as Paul O'Brien once observed, treated getting out of bed as an option he could take or leave was already off the books having moved to Image to not do Battle Chasers, and probably wouldn't have cared one way or the other even if he wasn't leaving) because Marrow was an avowed terrorists who killed the living shit out of people and terrorists didn't belong in the X-Men.
And this is where I ask, as askingly as I can ask, "Mr. Lobdell, are you out of your damned mind?" Or, to be more succinct--Fucking Magneto, who is like the god damned Bell X-1 of mutant terrorists, who on numerous occasions killed people in cold blood on-panel, sank a nuclear submarine with all hands, and threatened the entire world with a ring of nuclear missiles, and he got to lead the damn X-Men for about twenty issues or so. Or Rogue, who was a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, who actually took down a superhero with something you could equate to psychic rape (mind you, they did try to finesse that Rogue had never straight up killed anyone, but is that at all plausible?) and did god knows what other damage before she went straight. Jesus, Claremont would have given his eye teeth for a character like her--it was his bread and butter for most of the 80's.
Or, and let me see if I can get this clear in my head. You can willfully screw with people's minds and unleash some freaky psychic entity that kills the Avengers and Fantastic Four; you can run out on your wife and child chasing your back from the dead girlfriend; you can blow up a freaking planet with millions of people and claim it wasn't you by virtue of a dodgy retcon; you can be a former assassin for the government; you can bang an underage girl; you can dress up in a leotard and legwarmers and claim you're a ninja to the laughter of many; you can be a former member of the Marauders who slaughtered tons of mutants; you can be a forever member of the freaking Brotherhood of EVIL FREAKING MUTANTS; You can even be a god damned former pickpocket . . .but Marrow cannot join the X-Men. She's done too much bad shit.
[Hey kids! Match up the moral lapses in the above paragraph with the corresponding X-Man. It's fun, and interactive. Plus, first one to get all of them will get a favourable mention in the next post here at the Prattle]
Never mind the whole idea of the X-Men being moral guardians is a bit dodgy by this point. Prep schools don't usually have strike teams and stealth jets, that's all I'm saying.
Anyways, this causes Lobdell to leave and X-Men gets Joe Kelly as writer, who is busy earning lots of goodwill over on Deadpool that he will spend the rest of his career squandering when he gets to DC and won't shut up about the god damned Elite. Kelly will give it his damndest to make a silk purse out of all this (and annoy me unceasingly with Maggott's Claremont-esque relentless South African slang, which is the thing that finally made me hate Maggott, actually--Lord, do I hate Maggott) and, until his plans are neutered and he eventually departs the series, he actually makes it work.
Meanwhile, over in Uncanny X-Men, Steven Seagle will write a lot of comics about birds, and Chris Bachalo does a mighty good job of making it . . .well, borderline readable on a good day.
But back to Kelly. X-Men #72 is one of those moments where it actually works, because it straight-up addresses the Marrow problem, but not in the expected way of "we will harp on Marrow until she believes in Xavier's dream and joins the X-Cult with all her heart." In fact, the overall conflict is a bit more nuanced than that. It's not a minor classic or anything, but it's that brief moment where this whole "new direction" had a glimmer of possibility.
It's basically one long fight between Wolverine and Marrow, wherein Wolverine's goal is to beat the wiseass out of her--up to this point Marrow has quite enjoying being the shit-stirrer among this X-team and relishes her role as the ugly outsider amongst all the pop-sexy mutants.
To make a long story short, Wolverine finally beats her down and tells her she can stay, but she'll be playing the role of buck private to his drill sergeant (we've seen Wolvie be all alpha-male like this so many time it's a cliche in itself) and after beating her to the floor and taunting her mercilessly about what a failure she is, he reaches out to help her, and you're like "Oh, well, I guess Marrow's turning over a new leaf."
And then she stabs him in the throat.
This naturally causes Wolverine to go utterly apeshit and try to straight-up kill her bony ass, and all the X-Men get involved and Cannonball (who is just about to the point where the whole "he finally joined the X-Men but seemed to get a partial lobotomy off-panel" is wearing off) nails everyone assembled to the wall by saying "uhm, how stupid is it that the best way to sell Marrow on Xavier's dream of integration, peace and tolerance is by having Wolverine kick the shit out of her?"
No one really has an answer, and by this time, Marrow's not there to hear it anyways, having run back to the sewer for a sad little coda that lets you know that she really does want to belong, both with the X-Men and with humanity in general, but hasn't the first clue how to accomplish that.
I'm not saying this redeems the whole Kelly run (which has a slightly inflated relationship in retrospect, but . . .really, guys. It was better than what preceded it and way better than what followed it, but it wasn't really good. Kelly thought bringing back the N'Garai was a good idea, for God's sake and I can't imagine one can be that mistaken about anything) but it did point the way forward and suggest some interesting directions that hadn't been tried for awhile.
Couldn't have that. Kelly and Seagle quit the books and basically script the books on the directions of the editorial office, which culminates in one of my favourite bad stories of all time--The battle with the Cerebro X-Men. I am saving that for its own entry, because it was such a gloriously dumb pair of books and I read them now and laugh and laugh . . .and I would totally bring them back in a hot second if Marvel ever let me anywhere near the X-Men, which all the reason in the world to ensure it never happens.
Nevertheless, I hope you've enjoyed this little peek at one of the most muddled moments in the X-Franchise's history. If ever you needed proof of just what a road paved with good intentions but leading to hell all the same looks like, well . . .I actually have a few more of these to get through, heh heh.