Road To Onslaught
I'm doing something unorthodox for my project here, but the Onslaught crossover deserves it. This entry will serve as a summary/introduction to the crossover before i delve into the actual issues. I don't have ALL of the parts of the crossover (frankly i have more than i want), but the incoherence of the story is something that's been recognized by people who have analyzed the entire thing (namely Paul O'Brien of the sadly link-rotted X-Axis, which i will quote below). As the foundation for this entry, i am using an issue called X-Men: Road To Onslaught, a Saga-style book which came out after the crossover was over, and revealed what the plot was meant to be. I don't normally cover Saga books but i'm making an exception with this. It's a very useful compendium. With it, you have an idea of what was supposed to be going on, even if you don't have all the issues. Without it... well, you just have a mess.
Onslaught was a mess for two reasons. The first is that the main architect, Scott Lobdell, was flying by the seat of his pants when he started it. This has clearly been the case for all of his plotting - hence the similar mess with regards to the Legacy Virus and everything else - but whereas with a lot of stuff Lobdell just kept kicking the can down the road until he left the book, Onslaught actually had to conclude on his watch. This means that the early parts of the lead-up have no bearing on what eventually comes to pass. Compounding that, Marvel higher-ups, perhaps sensings on the lack of direction (but most likely not caring either way), seized on the event to launch Heroes Reborn. Well, "launch Heroes Reborn" is a very mild way of describing what was happening at Marvel at this point. To set the context, i'm going to quote from Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
The Avengers, Fantastic Four, Captain America, and Iron Man would now be created completely by the California studios of Jim Lee and Liefeld. The news that Marvel was removing control of its characters from its own staff and handing million-dollar contracts (plus profit sharing) to those who'd recently walked out on the company was, in the words of one editor, "catastrophic to morale".
Another line from the book:
We see writer-driven comics as an experiment that has failed," Bob Harras's assistant told one X-Men writer.
It's worth noting that the backdrop for all of this is a comic industry that was dying - books canceled, the line shrunk, longtime veterans like Herb Trimpe getting laid off. It was a state of affairs caused by the corporate dealings and takeovers that saw Jim Shooter getting pushed out long ago, but the most visible villains were the very guys who were now getting control of the Avengers and FF books. Which is why that "writer-driven comics as an experiment" line stings. We should really be mad at, like Ron Perelman, but seeing Marvel's (once-)core titles handed off to speculator-friendly artists like Rob Liefeld really sucked.
As for the build up, i'm going to quote Paul O'Brien a bit. O'Brien's X-Axis, once a fantastic index/analysis of all X-Men issues, is no longer around. Which is a real shame. I am hoping that he won't mind me rescuing a few quotes via the Wayback Machine.
The build-up for Onslaught began in Uncanny X-Men #322:
...Onslaught is introduced, at least insofar as the Juggernaut says he's been beaten up by him. At this stage in the plot, it appears that the creators didn't actually have any clue who or what Onslaught was. He was powerful to beat the Juggernaut - wasn't that enough to be getting on with? As we'll see, the incoherent mess that this plot degenerated into is an object lesson in the things that can go wrong when you write in this way.
O'Brien also has a summary review later:
As for the Road To Onslaught issue, after some basic history, it starts by making the case for the dark side of Professor Xavier. It cites Uncanny X-Men #106 (although not X-Men and the Micronauts) as an early example of Xavier's tendency to "suppress his anger and frustration". The Legacy Virus, the failure to redeem Sabretooth (something else that as far as a i can tell didn't happen with any real planning), and the death of the young mutant Dennis Hogan in X-Men Prime, are all cited as the recent things that have caused Xavier to crack again.
Then the issue lays out the plan very clearly (please ignore the fake editorial mark-ups which only focus on superficial things; they're just a gimmick, or maybe an attempt to convince us that an editor had actually supervised any of this, ha ha!):
This is very helpful! I never knew why Sentinels were involved in this story at all, or why Xavier had to become a big terrifying monster to achieve his goal. The idea is that he's trying to scare the public so that he can absorb their psychic energy, which are channeled to him via the Sentinels. It's very comic book super-villain-y, but within that logic, it makes sense! As for Gateway, it never even registered with me that he was involved in the story! He doesn't appear in either of the bookend issues, for example. Nor does anything about Landau, Luckman, and Lake. These are things you might want to actually put in your issues if you are doing a story about them.
After a little more background, Onslaught's goal is laid out:
A little earlier, the book says that "Xavier's Goals + Magneto's Methods = Onslaught" and i think we all picked up on that general idea, but Onslaught's actions in the issues don't really make sense just from that. The idea that Xavier wants to force humanity into a collective intelligence (a Uni-Mind!) is apparently what we should have been seeing in the issues. (Although the idea that it absolutely couldn't be done is partially belied by the resolution to the Z'Nox invasion in Uncanny X-Men #65; this something that could have been explored in an issue!)
The issue tries to brush its way past some of the build-up problems that O'Brien noted above:
NOTE: In its earlier manifestations, ONSLAUGHT manifested himself in terms of pure rage... as witnessed by his first open assault on Juggernaut in UNCANNY X-MEN #322. He has since matured and developed with each manifestation.
Basically, please ignore all of that. We didn't know what we were doing yet.
One thing that seems like planning is that we've had a lot of issues recently where Professor X has been angsty and doubting his efficacy. Hogan's death in X-Men Prime, an issue intended as the outline for the post-Age of Apocalypse direction for the X-books, is cited in the Road issue as the final straw for Xavier. It almost looks like a direct line from there to here. But on the other hand, angsty self-doubt is a staple of both the 90s generally and Lobdell's run specifically, and we even had Uncanny X-Men #309 where Xavier was dealing with these same kind of issues and confront them and (seem to) move on. But ignoring that, i think what we really have is what Mark Waid brought to the table (with Lobdell, Waid is credited with "Onslaught development" in Road). Waid is really good with continuity and i could see him going through various issues and picking out scenes that make the case (UX #309 is actually cited as proof that Magneto's persona was threatening to dominate Xavier's mind: "was this simply a dream... or was it, perhaps, the influence of another's presence within the recesses of Xavier's mind?"). And it is a really good case.
Indeed, at the 500 foot level, the Onslaught crossover is really great: "influenced by the evil side of Magneto, Xavier goes crazy, kills a bunch of heroes (which Franklin Richards secretly saves by hiding them in a pocket dimension)". So it's extra disappointing that the execution was so poor. And i still look back on this event with some degree of fondness as long as i don't try to actually read it.
All of this said, while the Road To Onslaught sheds some light on things and shows how it could have been a good story if it were actually planned along those lines ahead of time, it doesn't address the fact that it would have been derailed by Heroes Reborn anyway. In other words, even looking at the plan laid out in Road, it doesn't really explain why Marvel's non-mutant heroes would wind up in a pocket dimension.
Another, more practical note is that once we get into the crossover, there's virtually no way to know from just looking at the issues what order they are meant to be read in. They had a good idea, which was to label the core books with "Onslaught Phase" (either 1 or 2, i.e. books from the first half of the crossover are "Onslaught Phase 1") whereas the auxiliary filler nonsense that always comes with these crossovers are put into "Onslaught Impact" 1 & 2. The problem is that a lot of the story has direct continuations, so it's not like you can just read the "Onslaught Phase 1" books in any order. Also Phase issues sometimes continue directly in Impact issues or vice-versa. So basically the crossover should be read in a specific order (for the most part) but there's no way to tell from the covers, and no helpful checklist was given inside (we've strayed too far from the days of the Marvel Mutant Massacre Map).
I guess making any of this clear was a lot to ask of editors and writers who were carving their own tombstones.
A random thing: on Marvel's Bullpen Bulletin pages, they directed us to the internet for "up-to-the-minute" information about Onslaught. The URL was http://www.onslaught.com/ which is broken now even through the Wayback Machine. But it's the first time i've seen Marvel use the internet for promotion.
And a final housekeeping note: For my system to work, i have to have at least one character tagged for every entry. I've chosen to tag Professor X. Consider what we see in this "issue" to be his thoughts before it all begins, laying out a plan in his head before it all becomes corrupted by madness.
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