Sunday, January 25, 2015


A love letter to the X-Men of the mid-nineties.

A few weeks back, in my review of 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.

I would read Scott Lobdell's UNCANNY X-MEN occasionally as well, but only when it pertained to a crossover -- so I grabbed it for the lead-up to "Fatal Attractions" and its portion of that story, and eventually in 1994, I read its chapters of "The Phalanx Covenant". Those UNCANNY issues introduced me to the artwork of Joe Madureira, and because of him UNCANNY went onto my monthly reading list, finally, alongside X-MEN.

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.

At the same time, Nicieza's X-MEN brought us the destruction of Magneto's space station, Avalon, and eventually, in Nicieza's final issue, a tease as to the enigmatic Mr. Sinister's mysterious relationship with Gambit. Along the way, we were introduced to a sub-plot suggesting that someone had recently been using the X-Men's old Australian base for an unknown purpose.

Later in the year we received an annual from J.M. DeMatteis spotlighting -- again -- Mr. Sinister, which, to this day, remains my all-time favorite story featuring the character. We saw an end to the long-running "Sabretooth in the mansion" storyline as the psychopathic villain eviscerated Psylocke and was hunted down by the five original X-Men in his own one-shot comic (scripted by the recently departed Nicieza, back to bring an end to the plot he had started years before). A pair of two-issue mini-series appeared as well: one by Alan Davis, introducing the X-Men to his own creations, 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.

And, simmering beneath the surface of all of it was Onslaught. Who was he? What was he? The mystery deepened with assorted one-page sub-plot scenes, whetting readers' appetites for... something. Then, just before the big "Onslaught" reveal, Lobdell introduced the villain of next year's crossover, Bastion, the leader of a government anti-mutant task force called "Zero Tolerance", in the pages of UNCANNY.

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.

Of course, it all fell apart. The "Onslaught" event, while nicely illustrated, was a bit of a let-down after all the build-up and hype. As noted, Gene Nation never really went anywhere and their bloodthirsty leader, Marrow, was later retroactively glamorized and turned into an insecure teenager for Wolverine to mentor. The de-aged Magneto plot ran far too long and ended with a whimper. Sinister's connection with Gambit was not nearly as world-shaking as we had thought, and the return of Apocalypse took years to pan out into anything (and when it did, it was as much a let-down as "Onslaught" had been). And so on, and so forth.

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.


  1. I'm right there with you. I was about two years behind you (I was going from 8th grade to 9th in the summer of '94) but I was absolutely captivated by the build-up to Onslaught, from the moment Juggernaut landed and whispered "Onslaught" all the way up to the reveal of the X-Traitor (which felt like such a huge moment to me - I can still remember exactly where I was when I read it the first time).

    By the time the whole event ended, I was a little disappointed - once it was over, it was clear a lot of the teases I had so enjoyed (like all of X-MEN 50) were just kind of tossed out there, and I had read "Road to Onslaught", which contained a lot of cool ideas that never actually saw print (I think it was based on some kind of overview document the X-writers drafted, which of course was then changed in the execution).

    It was really the first time in my young comics reading life that, as much as I enjoyed the event, I started to wonder if maybe all this stuff wasn't mapped out in great detail before it ever saw print, which, as I've said before, was the delusion I'd labored under for many years.

    Later learning that Lobdell had Juggernaut say "Onslaught" with absolute zero idea who or what he was further irritated me (and still kinda does; as a writer, I just can't fathom working like that. Like, it's asking me to imagine a color that doesn't exist), but there's no denying that the moments I was reading those comics, the "goosebump factor", as you say, were some of the best ever, and I still recall that feeling when reading them, even if, objectively, I know the resolution to which they were leading weren't always the greatest.

    1. Funny, I recall where I was when I read many comics, but I don't remember my location when I read the "Onslaught" stuff. Which probably means I was just at home in my bedroom. It's mainly the stuff I read in unusual locations that I remember; for example I know I read the first chapters of "Phalanx Covenant" on a family vacation.

      I do, however, remember how much I loved seeing the full version of Jean's message, first glimpsed by Bishop years before, and how awesome I thought it was that Bishop saved all the X-Men from Onslaught (I was a huge Bishop fan). Though I was irritated that the book implied he had changed the future by doing so, since any Marvel fan knows that you can't alter a timeline; you can only create a new one.

      My most vivid ancillary memory attached to "Onslaught", though, was during lunch at school (which was almost out for the summer; hooray!), eating in the theater as I sometimes did (though I was not a "drama nerd" I knew some of them), and some guy was explaining (justifying) his interest in comics to a girl by telling her that UXM #335, which he'd just picked up at the comic shop down the street, was going to be worth big money someday. He asked me to validate his claim. I just smiled and nodded. I was more into comics than him, and I was well aware that the speculator bubble had long since burst. But I didn't want to c*ck block him (though I'm not sure how impressed the young lady was with the lucrative comic book speculation game).

    2. It's mainly the stuff I read in unusual locations that I remember

      Yeah, that's why I remember my first reading of "Onslaught - X-Men". It was on a bench at the Mall of America outside of the Rainforest Cafe as my family waited for a table.

      The mall back then had three stores that sold comic books (thanks, I'm sure, to the speculator market) so I'd always pick stuff up whenever we went, and I just couldn't wait to get home to read.

      But that's one of the reasons why I remember the details of where I read it; it was atypical and not just my bedroom.

      though I'm not sure how impressed the young lady was with the lucrative comic book speculation game

      Ha! If more young ladies were impressed by that stuff, I'd have been much more popular back in the day...

    3. Ha, when I was seventeen, my buddy, his girlfriend, her best friend (girl) and I, all in the same class though, went to a nearby bigger town for a shopping sort of trip. My buddy being a bit of a war buff, we went to a second-hand book store, which was the venue where pre-owned comic books moved back then. There I found and, coolness factor be damned, bought an issue of our local X-book, one of the last ones I was still missing (the one where Avalanche and Pyro almost kills Colossus).

      Somewhat unexpectedly, I had to spend the journey back home explaining the more recent X-history to the best friend girl, who, I learned then, had been a reader herself back in the day (her brother's books I think) and was seemingly genuinely keen on the matter.

      It was a bit awkward though when she would ask "Is A still alive?, is B?, is C?" and I would answer "... yes... um, yes... well she actually died!... but then got better..."

    4. I had a similar experience earlier in high school, explaining to someone who was a lapsed X-Men reader what was going on, who was dead, and who wasn't. Though to be honest, it was never as bad back then as people make it out to be. Jean had died one time and come back and then it turned out she was never dead; only in that cocoon. That was practically it, aside from the Outback team dying for all of one page during "Fall of the Mutants"!

      The Summers bloodline stuff was far more complicated than the X-Men's deaths and resurrections.