Age of Apocalypse
Warning: This entry is going to be disappointing since i'm covering a HUGE event in a single entry and without much detail.
After Legion Quest, every X-book was put on hiatus and replaced with a mini-series by (mostly) the same creative teams for a period of about four months (with some bookend one-shots that extended a bit beyond that period). The books show the in-universe consequences of Legion Quest, a world where Professor Xavier was killed early and thus never formed the X-Men, which (somehow) allowed Apocalypse to take over.
Some of the auxiliary materials get into some of the history (not enough, more on that below) but the main story begins in the (alternate equivalent) present day with Apocalypse firmly in power and having taken control of North America. His minions - occasionally led by a named mutant but mostly generic disposable goons (early on there are the Fedayeen; later there are the genetically-patchwork cloned Infinites) - are committing genocide in the United States.
Apocalypse had a tenuous truce with the human governments in the rest of the world (concentrated in Europe, really) but he's now ready to turn on them. Bishop - who has lived through all of these events since Legion killed Xavier - has now emerged, a bit of a raving lunatic. He tries to kill Magneto, but is instead captured by him.
As is usually the case with alternate reality storylines,i don't intend to cover this event in detail, since for the purposes of my project most of this ultimately never "happened". The event certainly did have an effect on the mainstream Marvel universe, however. For one thing, the "real" Bishop experiences everything here. Additionally, a number of other characters escape the Age of Apocalypse timeline.
It's worth noting that the Age of Apocalypse is kind of unique as far as alternate reality stories go. It's not simply an alternate future (e.g. Days of Futures Past) or alternate dimension (like Squadron Supreme or the upcoming Heroes Reborn "universe"). That's obvious. But it's also not a case of the real universe getting re-written (like the Kulan Gath storyline), which is how you might think about it at first. This is a case where someone time-traveled into the "real" MU's past and actually changed history. The story is resolved when the past is changed back to the "correct" version. Thus, except for those characters who escape/remember, nothing here actually "happens". This may be complicated a bit by later Marvel stories that return to these events (e.g. Blink and the Exiles) but that's how the universe is presented here. As noted in the Legion Quest review, this kind of thing was only possible to changes in Marvel's time-travel policy (both editorially and in-story). Which explains why it's the first time we're seeing something like this.
I didn't read the story in real-time but bought the gold-foil trades that came out soon afterwards. I was somewhat predisposed towards not liking the event due to a particular way it was talked about. I don't have sourcing for this - i remember it initially from Wizard magazine and also from reading comments from creators/editors on the internet/usenet - but the success of the event was attributed at least in part to the fact that the creators were free from the "constraints" of continuity. It's (unsurprisingly) my view that Marvel's continuity is its greatest strength and that anyone who feels "constrained" by it is missing the point. Also, a review of the last several years of X-books shows that creators were tying themselves in knots using their own over-complicated storylines and mostly unwanted characters (e.g. the X-Ternals); if they wanted to be removed from those constraints they could have simply stopped doing that. It doesn't seem like it was the case that they were prevented from telling stories they wanted to because of, say, things that Chris Claremont had done.
But despite coming in with that (admittedly weird, specific) gripe, the story was a lot of fun. Being "freed" from continuity meant that i could enjoy the story without caring about what the creators were getting "wrong". Which probably was exactly what was meant by those comments.
That said, my biggest complaint about the storyline is that we never really get into this world's "continuity"; for example, we never get more than a vague impression of how the AoA world ended up the way it did. Yes, Xavier is not around. But did the mere presence of Xavier and his (let's face it) underpowered original team of X-Men really prevent Apocalypse from making a move? In this storyline, Magneto has formed a team of X-Men in what seems like a similar timeframe to Xavier's in the original. Xavier and Magneto are pretty similar in terms of power levels. You could argue that Apocalypse is uniquely vulnerable to Xavier's mental powers, but that's never really said. It does seem like the issue is simply that, thanks to the fight that happens in Legion Quest, Apocalypse senses that the mutant age has come earlier than he was expecting and so he makes a move earlier, but that's not how the story or (especially) the marketing material presents it. It's definitely "a world without Xavier" not "a world where Apocalypse gets an early jump on things". What i wanted, i guess, was It's A Wonderful Life for Professor X, where we see exactly how events in this world unfolded due to Xavier's absence. I didn't need it to be the focus of the core books, obviously, but there were two X-Men Chronicles issues that show a little of the universe's pre-history, along with a few Tales From The Age of Apocalypse that came later (none of these were reprinted in the gold foil trades, FWIW). Those books would have benefited from doing something a little more continuity-minded (instead they are mostly nonsense fluff). It also could have just been part of the story bible that informed character dialogue and flashbacks in the core books.
Without any kind of defining pre-history, it's really not worth attempting to make sense of how which characters ended up where. Some thing seem like outright contradictions - for example, Absorbing Man (who in the regular MU was created by Loki to fight Thor) is working as one of Apocalypse's goons even though in AoA Donald Blake never became Thor. There are also questions about the external threats that the Earth would have faced; the coming of Galactus being the most obvious (but there are many others). I think we just have to accept that we're not supposed to be worried about the continuity.
As far as reading order for the individual issues goes, i'm not getting into it. The Marvel Chronology Project has done the work on a character-by-character basis, and nowadays you can get a perfectly fine synopsis of each series from Wikipedia. My only input is that when i first read the books, i did it in the trades that collected each series separately, and i found it a little disjointed because events in, say, Gambit and the X-Ternals were referenced in X-Calibre before i'd read the former. So i later bought all of the individual issues and put them in something approximating chronological order, only to find that this method was also a bit disjointed since you'd come to a cliffhanger only to switch to a completely unrelated story. So both orders have their downsides and neither is really wrong.
When thinking about this series from the perspective of my project, the only things that "matter" are the events that lead to this world being erased/fixed. That means the bookends plus two of the actual series. X-Men Alpha sets the stage by having Bishop tell Magneto that the world is "wrong".
In Gambit and the X-Ternals, an X-team goes to the Shi'ar universe in order to get a shard of the M'Kraan Crystal (a phrase that is funny to write when thinking about how this event was "freed" from the "constraints" of continuity), which is integral in restoring reality.
And in Generation Next, Illyana Rasputin is rescued from one of Apocalypse's slave pits since her time travel powers are also important for the restoration.
The slave pit is run by Sugar Man, a character that will survive beyond this event.
Colossus is the leader/teacher of the Generation Next kids, and he sacrifices all of them to save his sister.
Generation Next is also fun just for Chris Bachalo's very strange art, so if you are looking to do a streamlined read, it's good that this book is one of the essential ones.
Everything else is focused on things that ultimately don't matter since the world is erased: helping the remaining humans of North America flee to Europe, liberating Apocalypse's slave/breeding pits, fighting Apocalypse's horsemen/lieutenants, etc.. The goal in X-Calibre is to locate Destiny so she can confirm Bishop's story, which is a moot point to readers (which isn't to say the adventures along the way can't be fun). By the way, the name of the X-Calibre team/book is based on a dumb joke.
Destiny also helps with sending Bishop back in time in the end.
Bishop manages to stop Legion from killing his father, causing history to get re-written back to the way it was, with Xavier, Magneto, and Gabrielle Haller forgetting all that happened.
For what it's worth, Magneto manages to beat Apocalypse during the final fight.
The other thing that "matters" is that certain characters manage to escape the Age of Apocalypse as it's coming to an end. Sugar Man slips into the timestream.
The AoA version of the Beast also manages to get away, although Quicksilver interferes with the process.
Both "Dark Beast" and Sugar Man will arrive in the real/corrected reality, but at different points in the past instead of in the present day.
There are also two other new characters that cross over. One is Holocaust. He's the son of Apocalypse. And he's one of his Horseman. Prior to the start of the main story, he was called Nemesis, but he was wounded by Magneto and became Holocaust (this is detailed in one of the X-Chronicles). Holocaust had previously appeared in the Stryfe's Strike Files handbook, which doesn't really make sense.
The other character is X-Man, who is this universe's counterpart to Cable. Unlike Cable, he wasn't infected with the technovirus, so he never had to be sent to the future. So he's young, and powerful. He was raised by Forge.
During the final fight, X-Man impales Holocaust with the M'Kraan shard.
They will both arrive in the real world in the present day. In fact, X-Man's series will continue as an ongoing from this point out.
So that covers the plot as much as i intend to. A real world epilogue of sorts happens in X-Men Prime #1, but i'll cover that in a separate entry.
I did want to talk a bit about some of the characters as they're depicted in the Age of Apocalypse. I think for the most part there is no point in trying to gleam insights from how the characters act in this world and what implications that may have for the real world. In some cases, there actually are strong insights. The best is the depiction of Cyclops and Havok. Cyclops falling under the wing of Mr. Sinister, in the absence of Professor X's guidance, rings true to me, showing that he's definitely the type that can be molded into a strong right-hand man. What's interesting is that he's ultimately redeemable (through his love for Jean Grey) whereas Havok is too warped by jealousy of his brother.
Other characters, like the Dark Beast...
...i think are just meant to be "enjoyed" in the moment. It's clearly pivoting off the fact that our Hank McCoy experimented on himself, but there's never been any indication that he could be so sadistic. So i think the idea is just that this world could twist anyone into being unrecognizablely evil, rather than suggesting that there is something of this in the real Beast.
There's a relationship between Sabretooth and Blink which is kind of like a Wolverine/Kitty or Wolverine/Jubilee thing, which i do think is a nice parallel. On the other hand, Wild Child being a mini-me of Sabretooth...
...feels more like meta-commentary on the character.
Juggernaut as a pacifist monk i guess could be a sign that in our world he was driven entirely by a hatred of his step-brother.
Angel runs a Casablanca style neutral speakeasy but ultimately leans towards the good guys, which feels right.
Sunfire in this universe is a tragic figure, but personally i still don't think he's very interesting.
It's worth noting that in this world, Polaris claims to be the daughter of Magneto, but it's said that a DNA test proves otherwise.
There are also a few characters that are here in a way that sort-of introduces their real world counterparts. One example is Mondo, who only just barely had appeared in Generation X so far but in this universe is a member of the team.
Another is Damask, who has replaced Dr. Strange (this is her betraying her partner, Deadpool's AoA counterpart, to join the good guys).
Her real world counterpart, Emma Steed, hadn't been introduced yet in Excalibur.
There are also a few mentions of a "Bastion", who was one of Apocalypse's Horsemen but who isn't seen in the series (and ofc will have an important real-world counterpart). One of the Horsement we do see is Abyss, who will also have a real-world counterpart.
Blink, who died shortly after her first appearance, was one of the most popular aspects of this event...
...and that will eventually result in bringing her back for the alternate-reality exploration series Exiles.
Another character who was dead in the real world but fun here is Morph (this world's Changeling) who is re-imagined as a Saturday morning cartoon character.
Finally, a brief word on Marvel's non-mutant characters. We run into a few during the core books - Carol Danvers in Weapon X and Walter Newell (Stingray) in a bit-part role as a ship's captain in X-Calibre, and i think that's Aunt May next to Magik in the slave pit. There's also a two part series called X-Universe that tries to show what the remaining surviving characters are up to, but it's a real disappointment, both for continuity minded folks and just as a story; it's really just not worth talking about.
From a character tagging perspective, the challenge is that none of this "happens" so no one should really be tagged except for Bishop. I'm also tagging X-Man and Holocaust since they travel from here to our reality in the present day. The same is not true for Sugar Man and Dark Beast, since they are sent to the past. It's possible that Blink and possibly some other characters from Exiles should be tagged, but i'll leave that for if/when i get there.
I'm forgoing the usual formatting for this post. In terms of my strange "Quality Rating" criteria, individual issues are very much a mixed bag. Despite a heroic effort to maintain consistency across the event, some books are definitely better than others based on the creative teams and plots they have to work with. Overall it's a solid super-hero story with a lot of fun stuff and also a fair amount of filler. It's say it's a solid B. In terms of Historical Significance, despite the entire event getting written out of existence, it's nevertheless very important. It's important at the meta level - it was a big, long, and unique event. And it introduces quite a few characters directly (X-Man, Sugar Man, Holocaust, Dark Beast, this version of Blink) and indirectly (as mentioned above, Emma Steed, Bastion, etc.). The reality itself, despite getting re-written, will live on via Exiles and Marvel's 2015 Secret Wars. So i'm ranking it as an 8.
(If you've found this post looking at the list of Flashback #-1 crossovers, it's because X-Man #-1 takes place in this universe, and i'm considering it part of this entry. Nothing much happens in the issue: Mr. Sinister takes baby X-Man out of his cryo-creche, is surprised by how powerful he is, and then puts him back.)
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