A love letter to the X-Men of the mid-nineties.
WOLVERINE AND GAMBIT: VICTIMS, I noted that "...VICTIMS takes me back to high school and the year between 'Age of Apocalypse' and 'Onslaught', one of my favorite points in X-Men history." This bold statement elicited a comment from reader wwk5d, who said: "Interesting. That is probably one of my least favorite points."
I get this a lot, and I've seen the sentiment expressed often from many quarters. But it's just not the case for me. And don't get me wrong; I'm certain nostalgia plays a huge role in my opinion here. So much so that I'm going to ask you to bear with me as a provide a little backstory to hopefully explain where I'm coming from when I describe my affection for this era.
Although I had dabbled in the X-Men dating back to the Claremont/Lee X-MEN 1-3, I didn't become a regular X-reader until age fourteen with 1993's X-MEN #20, the issue whose cover teased the dramatic return of someone wearing a billowing purple cape. It wasn't Magneto, as readers were meant to believe, but Psylocke's former body possessed of a different character's consciousness (it's a long, long, long, long story -- and, perhaps tellingly as it pertains to the rest of this post, I was positively enraptured at that time by the mystery of Psylocke and her "twin", Revanche). In any case, the bait-and-switch tactic worked beautifully on me and from that issue forward I continued to pick up Fabian Nicieza's X-MEN every month.
A few short months after "Phalanx", the X-Men's universe ended and the "Age of Apocalypse" happened. And when reality returned to normal a few months later, it was mid-1995*, Juggernaut had been knocked across the continent by something called "Onslaught", and the X-books were off and running into some of the most enthralling issues I had yet read.
I was sixteen in '95, between my sophomore and junior years of high school. Maybe I was an impressionable youth, maybe I just had bad taste; I don't know. I already described my interest in the Revanche storyline. Also, for what it's worth, Spider-Man's "Clone Saga" was underway at this same time, and I was straight-up addicted to the Spider-books, eagerly gobbling every issue of every title with rabid excitement and frequently rereading them as soon as I finished them as I thrilled to the labyrinthine twists and turns in the lives of both Peter Parker and his clone, the Scarlet Spider, Ben Reilly (or was it the other way around?).
I guess, in a way, it's a little something that might be called the "goosebump factor". I've been this way for as long as I can remember: if you can concoct a never-ending string of moments filled with dramatic revelations and out-of-left-field twists that give me chills when I read them, I'm completely addicted to your work, no matter what happens between those moments and no matter where we ultimately end up. The "Clone Saga" comics did this for me, and I had the same feeling from the X-books in 1995-96.
July's UNCANNY featured the Juggernaut incident, but also teased the debut of a new group of mutant terrorists called "Gene Nation". Lobdell's Gene Nation storyline culminated with the anniversary of GIANT-SIZE X-MEN #1, and a story reuniting Storm and Wolverine with the long-absent Colossus.
the Clan Destine, and another from John Ostrander, pitting the X-Men against their old alien foes, the Brood.
As all this went on in the various ancillary materials, the core books continued on their way, bringing us the unlikely "buddy" duos of Wolverine & Archangel and Gambit & Bishop, then welcomed new writer Mark Waid to X-MEN with a two-parter featuring -- once more, with feeling -- Mr. Sinister. Waid also shouldered the task of replacing Beast with his alternate universe counterpart, the devious Dark Beast, as an ongoing storyline. Earlier, in UNCANNY, Magneto landed on Earth following the Avalon incident, mysteriously de-aged a few decades, with no memory of his past life, while several months later the return of beloved X-foe Apocalypse was teased as well.
Now -- try to wipe everything you know about this era from your mind and re-read the five preceding paragraphs. Forget about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Pretend you're unaware that the Onslaught clues never added up and that Gene Nation petered out and that several of these plots didn't amount to a hill of beans. Look at the above in a vacuum and tell me, honestly, that this doesn't sound like some compelling stuff. Old villains, new villains, twists, turns, mysteries, all coming at you at a breakneck pace.
All in all, it was an amazing time to be reading the X-Men!
(Don't get me wrong -- there were certainly some duds in the mix. Terry Kavanagh contributed an annual. Lobdell made a few questionable choices when introducing Dark Beast and some of the other "Age of Apocalypse" characters into the main timeline. And yes, by the summer of '96 Wolverine had devolved into a noseless beast wearing a bandana mask. But even in a good run of issues, they can't all be winners.)
Beyond the stories, the X-books had the best visuals of any comics in the Marvel line. Art was handled by Andy Kubert on X-MEN and Joe Madureira on UNCANNY. But Joe Mad needed to be spelled often, so single-issue fill-ins, as well as annuals, limited series and one-shots, came from a small army of talented pencilers including Tom Grummett, Paul Smith, Bryan Hitch, Alan Davis, Terry Dodson, Gray Frank, and Roger Cruz (who hasn't aged as well as those others, but whose "Joe Mad Lite" impersonation I adored at the time). The comics' colors were the most advanced I had ever seen, and the letters came from Richard Starkings' Comicraft, the gold standard for computer comic book lettering. Month in and month out, the X-Men series set the quality bar for what a then-modern comic book should look like.
But, I think I've said before (if not here then on blog comments elsewhere) that sometimes, for me, the journey alone is worth the experience. It's that "goosebump factor" I mentioned above. Of course I love a good, solid conclusion. It's what we all want from any story. And I expect it from movies, novels, and, to some extent, TV shows. But, by the nature of comic books, as serialized fiction spanning decades, with multiple writers working on various characters across several series under the guidance of different editors, such a satisfying ending to a long-term story is harder to accomplish. Even the best-conceived, well thought-out sub-plots can fail to stick the landing due to all manner of behind-the-scenes problems.
Now, understand that I'm not letting Lobdell and company off the hook for their failure to deliver a satisfactory ending to "Onslaught" and the various other plots. Of course I would have loved to see all these developments pan out into exciting, completely fulfilling stories. But these guys weren't the first creators in comics to suffer this problem and they weren't the last, either. And if you can just find your way to that head-space where you forget how this stuff will turn out, and just take the issues one at a time as readers did when they were originally released, you'll find some strong entertainment in these stories.
Sometimes you have to take what you get as it comes, and just enjoy the parts more than the whole. And, for me at least, the "parts" that comprised the X-Men saga from the summer of 1995 to the summer of 1996 were exciting, intriguing, and all-around fun.
Related reading: Bob Harras: A (hopefully) fair and honest defense of one of the more polarizing editors in Marvel's long history
For those brave enough to accept my challenge and read these issues:
X-MEN: ROAD TO ONSLAUGHT volume 1 | volume 2 | volume 3
Above artwork credits (descending from top): (1) Joe Madureira, (2) Brandon Peterson,
(3) Madureira, (4) Terry Dodson, (5) Madureira, (6) & (7) Andy Kubert, (8) Adam Kubert.
* Come this summer, all this stuff will have happened twenty years ago, and I remember much of it like it was yesterday! I have never felt quite so depressingly old as I do right now.