Sunday, February 12, 2017

X-MEN: OPERATION: ZERO TOLERANCE

Hardcover, 2012. Collects 1997's UNCANNY X-MEN #346, X-MEN #65 - 70, WOLVERINE #115 - 118, GENERATION X #26 - 31, X-FORCE #67 - 70, CABLE #45 - 47, and X-MAN #30

In its way, "Operation: Zero Tolerance" seems to have had just as many hiccups behind the scenes as did "Onslaught" a year earlier. We got a taste of this last time in our look at THE TRIAL OF GAMBIT, and I'll elaborate further below.

But first, the contents: This volume opens withe the standard recap page, bringing readers up to speed on the status of the X-teams circa 1997. From there we move into GENERATION X #26 and 27 by Scott Lobdell with artists Joe Bennett, Chris Bachalo, and Pop Mhan, followed by X-FORCE #67 from the well-regarded John Francis Moore/Adam Pollina run. A short recap and an excerpt from X-MEN 64 featuring Jubilee and the crossover's villain, Bastion, come next. Then it's back to GENERATION X for issue 28, again by Lobdell (writing his final issue of the series) and Bachalo. The X-Men join the fray in X-MEN #65, which features most of the team (minus those off in space as seen in THE TRIAL OF GAMBIT) captured by Bastion's forces. UNCANNY X-MEN 346, which we discussed last month as part of THE TRIAL OF GAMBIT, comes next, and then we get another recap leading into GENERATION X 29, where temporary guest-writer James Robinson joins Chris Bachalo.

Next, X-MEN 66 by Lobdell and Carlos Pacheco follows the adventures of Iceman and introduces Cecilia Reyes to the X-Men's world. Then we catch up with the captured X-Men in WOLVERINE 115 by Larry Hama and Leinil Francis Yu. X-FORCE returns for issue 68, which continues into CABLE 45 through 47 by James Robinson with art from Randy Green and Rob Haynes, before returning to X-FORCE for #69. WOLVERINE 116 continues the saga of the X-Men, while GENERATION X #30 and 31 feature Jubilee's escape and the long-teased secret of team members Monet and Penance revealed, as Chris Bachalo follows Scott Lobdell off the series they had created together two-and-a-half years earlier.


Iceman's adventures continue in X-MEN 67 and 68, and then the escaped X-Men meet up with Jubilee in WOLVERINE 117. Terry Kavanagh, with Roger Cruz and Cary Nord on art, brings us X-MAN #30 next, then Iceman comes face-to-face with Bastion in X-MEN 69 as the villain is beaten in Scott Lobdell's final issue as writer (we already saw him depart UNCANNY X-MEN in last month's coverage of THE TRIAL OF GAMBIT). The X-Men make their way home in WOLVERINE 118 as Larry Hama departs the series following more than eighty issues as regular writer. (A lot of longtime X-creators left during this crossover, huh?) X-Force takes off on a road trip in issue 70, and finally, the X-Men's lineup is revamped as the spacebound mutants return to Earth in X-MEN 70 by incoming writer Joe Kelly, closing out the volume.


Fourteen bonus pages follow, including an unused pencil page by Carlos Pacheco, several house ads, and an interview with Scott Lobdell from UNCANNY X-MEN #-1, which describes a storyline somewhat different from the OZT with which we wound up (more on that below). Last up are the original cover to the first OZT trade paperback along with its introduction from assistant editor Jason Liebig, as well as thumbnail-size versions of the covers of every issue reprinted in this volume, sans cover copy.


Once again, as with PHALANX COVENANT, we find that Wolverine apparently sells books even if he's not the most appropriate character to spotlight on the cover. The front of this volume's dustjacket features the cover to WOLVERINE #115, a kind of boring solo shot of the character, rather than something more thematically appropriate such as X-MEN #65. That would've been a great, dynamic cover for this collection, spotlighting a group of Bastion's Prime Sentinels ambushing the X-Men, but -- I'm assuming -- since Wolverine isn't pictured on that cover, it was passed over.

Reservations about the cover aside, however, this is a nice, quality volume as usual. It's not plagued with any reproduction issues that I can see, which is a welcome improvement over a couple of prior mid-nineties X-collections, where the computer colors of the time seemed to confound Marvel's restoration team to some extent. And, while in general I have no objection to giant hardcover "bricks", OPERATION: ZERO TOLERANCE weighs in at a very reasonable 640 pages, making a nice size to hold comfortably in almost any position.


I'll speak to the crossover's story in a moment, but first: "Operation: Zero Tolerance" features mostly great artwork all the way through. Carlos Pacheco on X-MEN is at his best here, while Leinil Yu, who didn't appeal to me all that much in 1997, has really aged well. Plus you have Joe Madureira on one chapter, which is never a bad thing. I have to admit that I never really got on board with Adam Pollina and I still don't find his work particularly attractive (not that it mattered at the time since I never really read X-FORCE in the first place) -- but it's certainly not awful. Joe Bennett does a decent fill-in for the first GENERATION X issue here, but Chris Bachalo quickly returns to the series and turns in the worst artwork of the crossover, and -- in my opinion -- of his career. While his layouts and page design are very creative and interesting, I just can't get past this bizarre phase where he felt that every character should look like a child regardless of their actual age. Jubilee looks prepubescent here, while Emma Frost appears to be about thirteen years old, and it's all really off-putting.


Okay, I have to admit -- and I already went over this once with the contemporaneous issues of UNCANNY X-MEN last month -- this was the point where the bloom began to escape the rose for me as a monthly X-reader. That's not to say I didn't continue to enjoy the X-Men for a few more years, but certainly this was the first X-crossover that just didn't float my boat in almost any meaningful way. Partly that's due to the fact that only one of the two core X-books participated in "Operation: Zero Tolerance". For some inexplicable reason, scheduling was fouled up to the point that UNCANNY X-MEN's spaceborne mutants remained separated from the action through the entire crossover, with only one single issue of the title participating -- and the only way it managed that was by devoting the issue to Spider-Man instead of the X-Men!


But, as noted to begin this piece, OZT's behind-the-scenes goings-on would most likely have resulted in an unsatisfying experience even with UNCANNY's participation. For one thing, this story wasn't conceived as a line-wide crossover. Go all the way back to the X-Men solicitations released prior to the previous year's "Onslaught" event, and you'll find that the original plan called for Bastion -- introduced just before "Onslaught" in a single ominous issue of UNCANNNY -- was supposed to attack the X-Men immediately following that event's conclusion. Scott Lobdell intended for the villain to hit the X-Men while they were weakened, to destroy their mansion headquarters, and to send them on the run, underground, for an indeterminate amount of time.

But it seems editorial got wind of the idea and decided to hold OZT in reserve for a year, building up Bastion across multiple series -- much as had been done previously with Onslaught -- before unleashing him on the X-Men. The idea to destroy the X-Mansion was scrapped as well; something I'm okay with in theory; I prefer the merry mutants residing in Westchester rather than anywhere else, even if the decision did neuter Bastion's threat somewhat. The end result of this was a scheduling snafu that ultimately kept half the X-Men and one of their core titles out of the crossover and put the X-series in a bit of a holding pattern -- the material between "Onslaught" and "Zero Tolerance" sometimes reads like filler -- for a year.


The thing is, not every big event needs to be a line-wide crossover. "Zero Tolerance" does not require Cable and X-Force or X-Man to be involved.* (Generation X I'll allow, since Lobdell wrote it and tied Jubilee into the main story pretty well.) This story would've worked just fine as Lobdell originally conceived it -- a smaller story specific to the X-Men themselves without all their ancillary teams thrown into the mix. Marvel would seem to have learned this lesson by the following year, as 1998 did not feature a line-wide X-crossover, instead simply giving us "The Hunt For Xavier", an event contained only within X-MEN and UNCANNY X-MEN.

Further, OZT ends with Bastion's defeat, something Lobdell had not intended for his originally conceived story. When Bastion attacked the X-Men and destroyed their home, he was to become a major player in the X-Men's world, dogging the mutants nonstop for quite some time; Lobdell has stated his intention to eventually make Bastion as large a presence in the X-mythos as Professor X and Magneto. His defeat here -- arrested by SHIELD rather than stopped by the X-Men, no less -- is a bit of a let-down in comparison with Lobdell's original plans.


I had followed credits and read letter columns for some time prior to these issues, so I was aware of the concept of creative teams and the fact that different writers handled the characters in different ways -- but this is very close to the point where, between "Onslaught", the flip-flopping of Peter Parker's origins in Spider-Man's "Clone Saga", and -- perhaps biggest of all -- the advent of the internet pulling a curtain away from those creators, that I really became fully conscious of the fact that there were a bunch of adult guys making all this stuff up as they went along -- and, while I continued to enjoy the X-Men with few reservations for about four more years after this point, a certain amount of innocence on my part was lost shortly after this run.

So, in a way, OPERATION: ZERO TOLERANCE seems an appropriate point to conclude this retrospective of X-Men collected editions. In terms of creative continuity, it brings us up to Scott Lobdell's final X-issues, a milestone I've cited before as one of my major collected edition goals. In terms of nostalgia, it takes us to the point where I began to realize there was more to explore in Marvel beyond just Spider-Man and the X-Men. The "Heroes Return" series started up at the tail end of "Zero Tolerance" and I suddenly found myself branching out into things I'd never read before. At this point, as I've said elsewhere, I started to enjoy Marvel more on a line-wide basis than ever before. And, yes, I kept up with the X-Men as well, and I found things to enjoy in the subsequent runs of Joe Kelly, Steve Seagle, and Alan Davis -- but right here, with the final crossover of Scott Lobdell's run in the X-universe, is where I can close the book on the X-Men stories with which I grew up, and which, forever more, informed my belief in what the characters and their world should look like.

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* Interestingly, "Zero Tolerance" is the first X-event since 1992's "X-Cutioner's Song" to totally omit EXCALIBUR from the proceedings for whatever reason. X-FACTOR, meanwhile, is absent as well; its first omission from an X-crossover since they started doing them in 1986 with "Mutant Massacre"!

4 comments:

  1. I can't say I have too terribly fond memories of OZT.

    My first issue of Uncanny was #98, cover dated April 1976, which means I was quite the veteran of the books and had seen a ton of changes over the eleven years I'd been reading them. OZT was the point where I first asked myself "is this trip really necessary?" The books had been wrecked by the nonstop crossovers, and I was just plain tired of it. I'd already cast aside most of the secondary titles, and focused on Uncanny and X-Men, by the time OZT came along in its incoherent lack of glory, I was primed for a change.

    The Seagle/Kelly era, short as it was, did me in. There was one double sized issue at one point in the run that was completely unreadable; I had no idea what was going on and could care less. Editorial meddling had completely ruined the X-Men, and I jumped ship until Morrison showed up.

    You'd like to think a crossover this bad would have cured Marvel of doing them. Twenty years later-twenty years that have seen me largely abandon reading Marvel period-they're still at it.

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    1. I already didn't read the ancillary titles, except for GENERATION X, so there was nothing for me to drop by this point!

      I recall at the time not being a big fan of Seagle/Kelly, though I've gathered it has its fans and it might have turned out pretty good had it not been for editorial conflicts. Apparently Mark Powers was an even more intrusive editor than Bob Harras had been, frequently rewriting scripts and dictating stories even after directions were previously agreed upon.

      Interestingly, Marvel did abandon crossovers for a while, during the "continuity-lite" Quesada/Jemas era, but it was a few years after OZT when that change took place, and in the long run, it didn't really last for very long. I think they were back to crossovers, by way of "House of M", within just a couple years of stopping them.

      I have nothing against crossovers in general, and in fact as I've described over the past year-plus, I'm very soft on many of the X-events from the nineties. But most of those, under Bob Harras's guidance, were at least fairly well plotted and thought out. I just don't like mandated annual events. Let the crossovers occur organically or not at all.

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  2. // I just can't get past this bizarre phase where he felt that every character should look like a child //

    Yeesh! What the hell is going on there?

    When did Sentinels get malleable human facial expressions, let alone hair and fingernails? That isn’t necessarily a rhetorical question, as I’m not familiar with much X-Men stuff in this period. Nobody has to answer it, though; Google will serve.

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    1. I kind of wonder if Bachalo was trying to emulate Joe Madureira's style, which was all the rage at the time, and failing miserably -- but I'd like to give him enough credit as an artist to believe he knew what he was doing. Why he chose this direction is a totally different question, though. I liked him early on GENERATION X, but by this point, with his characters looking like they did, I was happy to see him leave.

      I know you said you'd Google it, but for posterity: Bastion's Sentinels were "Prime Sentinels", humans modified by nanotechnology to transform into mutant-hunting cyborgs at his command. Part of the concept of OZT was the fact that (dunh dunh DUHHH) anybody could be a Prime Sentinel! Some people didn't even know they'd been modified until the transformation happened!

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