I don’t remember how I first heard about what would become the Age of Apocalypse, but I remember being devastated.
I was a 13-year-old X-Men devotee in 1995, a time when the Internet was just having its formative yawns and certainly nothing like message boards or news sites for comics existed (that I knew of). We got the latest on what was going on with our books monthly via Wizard or Previews (if we wanted advance notification at all; a lot of times you just picked up your books off the shelf when they got there with no idea what to expect).
Whether it was the lead news story in Wizard (I distinctly remember the Adam Kubert art from Wolverine #75 of Jubilee waving goodbye) or some other way I can’t fathom, I learned there were rumors the entire X-Men line of comics (which at the time included Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Factor, Excalibur, Wolverine, Cable, Generation X and my beloved X-Force as well as X-Men Unlimited) would be discontinued. No explanation beyond that, just rumblings being heard that soon the X-Men were going bye bye.
Today, after having worked at Wizard for a few years myself (with a few guys who were there in 1995), I can pretty safely say they were in on what’s to come and were playing the game perfectly as far as generating buzz. Today the pragmatist in me would also realize there was no way Marvel would jettison a franchise making as much as the X-Men because it would be bad business. As barely a teenager, my reaction was merely panic with a hint of confusion that Generation X was getting cancelled after like three issues.
A few weeks later, I called the Mighty Marvel Hotline (or whatever the 900 number Marvel had back in the day was called) and got the full down low that the X-Men would be embarking on a new epic called the Age of Apocalypse, with ever book being replaced by a new one (Astonishing X-Men, Amazing X-Men, Factor X, X-Calibre, Weapon X, X-Man, Generation Next and Gambit & The Externals to correspond with my earlier list). Again, bare minimum details, as the plot was being held tight and there was no indication on duration. I was intrigued, but also still pretty terrified I was losing my X-Men.
Of course we only ended up “losing” the X-Men for a few months and got an all-time classic story—maybe the best alternate reality story ever—out of it in Age of Apocalypse, the epic tale of what would have happened had Charles Xavier been killed before founding the X-Men, in particular Apocalypse taking over North America and Magneto forming his own X-Men as the planet’s last hope.
What I liked best about Age of Apocalypse and what made it such a great What If? was that it was very much a butterfly effect story rather than one with a wholesale and easy change. It wasn’t just “everybody is a vampire” (though there have been good yarns in that vein as well), it was “if Professor X is dead, it affects Magneto like this, which affects Quicksilver like this, which affects Storm like this…” and on down the line until the writers and artist pulling the strings got to explore an entire universe of familiar characters and what they would become under different circumstances, all tracing back to one tipped domino. There was a meticulous logic amidst the big crazy action and 90’s art of AoA that I really dug.
Nearly 20 years later, we’re two issues into an Age of Apocalypse ongoing series, something I certainly never expected to see but thus far love. The story has progressed cataclysmically since 1995, with the bulk of the characters spotlighted in the original saga dead, others transformed into villains or civilians, and new players introduced to keep things moving. Writer David Lapham makes it feel like two decades have indeed passed in this world; we didn’t get to see them, but little by little we’re learning. Roberto De La Torre and Lee Loughridge are the perfect complement on art because their style is so gritty and distinct that you would never mistake this for the Marvel Universe you know.
Like the original AoA, it’s a story not about a character or even a team, but an entire world; it’s ambitious and it’s impressive.
Though the bulk of them are dead or missing in the current book, I decided to get amped by re-examining my five favorite Age of Apocalypse characters and what makes them so.
Alex Summers’ jealousy of his older brother, Cyclops, has vacillated between gag and non-defining character trait in the traditional X-Men mythos, but in the Age of Apocalypse, it has exploded into being all that drives him in a crazy family soap opera that gives Dynasty a run for its money. Everything bubbling beneath the surface of Marvel Universe Havok erupts over into a truly loathsome villain who would mow down anything and anybody to take his brother out of the picture. Both men are adopted sons of Sinister, but while that upbringing has taken a toll on Scott, he still has a core of good waiting to be mined; not the case with Havok, who knows only hate, loathing and rage. His anger doesn’t even seem to have a focus at the degree it has progressed to; he just wants to hurt people, particularly his brother. Did Professor X have that much of a calming influence on Alex? Is this what he becomes without the love of Polaris or friendship of the other X-Men? I enjoyed trying to unravel all this, but more just liked watching Havok be a heel.
Remy Lebeau in the Age of Apocalypse is Gambit dialed up to 11. He seemed on his way to becoming the guy we’re familiar with as an X-Man with Magneto’s friendship and Rogue’s love, but when the two of them hooked up, it sent him down the path of the ne’er-do-well he was heading on in our would without the X-Men. When we meet up with the guy, he’s running a thieves crew that includes his girlfriend Lila Cheney, Sunspot, Strong Guy and Jubilee and has the capacity to pull off intergalactic heists. Still, what I dig about AoA Gambit most is that despite the slimy exterior, when Magneto comes to him for a favor, he gives him hell about it, but still agrees to do it because it’s the right thing. More than that, I enjoy that in this darkest time, Remy Lebeau has become motivated by love more than ever, be it his unrequited feelings for Rogue or the ones for Lila he gets the opportunity to prove at the expense of reality itself (oops). In the Age of Apocalypse, where everything has gone to crap, Gambit reacts by becoming even more of a romantic.
One of the big early shockers of Age of Apocalypse is that Sabretooth is a good guy. Again, though, it’s not as simple as just that because there is an explanation: Sabes started out as a Horseman of Apocalypse but couldn’t hack it so he got kicked to the curb and Magneto saved his life. The gist is that Victor Creed is still a homicidal jerk at his base, but the combination of there being a dude bigger and badder than him coupled with a good man actually believing in him is enough to bring him over to the side of angels (I tend to think it was more the former than the latter, since Professor X and others tried to give him a shot in the normal continuity; Sabretooth just needed to really get his ass kicked to scare him straight). Seeing him in the traditional Wolverine role as buddy to Wild Child, mentor to Blink, etc. was interesting and emphasized that this was a harsher world because here freaking Sabretooth was the gruff wise man/wacky uncle of the X-Men. The character obviously caught some love because he transitioned over into Exiles for years and even now is one of the few surviving original cast members in the AoA ongoing.
With his father as the world’s top good guy and an actual positive role model, Pietro Maximoff turns out pretty ok in the Age of Apocalypse, one of the few characters who seem much better off with Charles Xavier out of the picture. All of Quicksilver’s untapped leadership potential gets realized as he’s not desperate to either gain the approval of or rebel against his dad, but rather just enjoys working with him and believes in his vision of a better world. In the Marvel Universe, it often seems like Pietro is just meandering from one vendetta to the next with the occasional ill-fated romance or family blow-up to break up the journey, but in the Age of Apocalypse he’s laser-focused on being a hero, not to mention darn good at it. The arrogance and impatience can still be glimpsed in his weaker moments, but he shuts it down for the greater good. He’s also got a sweet romance with Storm, something you’d never ever predict in normal continuity, but that works here with two good-hearted, driven workaholics who have found their match. After years of reading about angsty Quicksilver, it was cool to see him as one of the few bright spots in this gloomy story.
I think it’s fair to say no Age of Apocalypse character has gotten more mileage than Blink. A Joe Madureira-redesigned version of the teenage teleporter who only made a handful of appearances in the mainstream reality before perishing against the Phalanx, Clarice Ferguson quickly emerged as a breakout AoA star. Partly this can be attributed to her being fairly new and thus captivating to an audience seeking just that, but I also think a lot had to do with taking the traditional X-Men trope of the spunky young girl who serves as unofficial team mascot ala Kitty Pryde or Jubilee and turning it on its ear. Held up against an old warhorse like Magneto or even a concerned mother hen like Rogue, not to mention the more aggressive versions of folks like Iceman, Storm or Banshee, Blink was indeed a bit more bubbly and optimistic, but she was still a teenager growing up essentially in hell, forced to learn survival when she should have been enjoying her best years. That Blink is fun enough that we can relate to her and maybe would want to have her as a buddy yet lethal enough to keep all her limbs and cut down Apocalypse’s goons with precision and confidence is a winning combo. Blink ended up anchoring Exiles for nearly 100 issues and proved so popular that the all-but-forgotten Marvel Universe version has even made a recent comeback.