Monday, November 19, 2012

Halftime Show, Part 1

X-Man # -1 (July 1997) by Terry Kavanagh, Roger Cruz, Bud La Rosa, and Wellington Diaz

If you weren't around and reading mainstream comics in the mid-90s, it might be hard to understand now just how big a deal the Age of Apocalypse actually was. It wasn't just the biggest X-Men crossover of the era, it was possibly the biggest X-Men crossover ever, and by extension one of the biggest crossovers - full stop - of all time. It came in a year - 1995 - when the industry was already feeling the negative consequences of the excesses of the early 90s, but had not yet become quite so desolate as it would be following the Hero's World debacle and Marvel's bankruptcy. Stores were disappearing but people still didn't fully understand the extent of how poor the retail fundamentals behind the early 90s bubble actually were. The X-Men had long since weathered that storm and, after a brief period wherein Image comics had wrested some of the attention away from Marvel's flagship franchise, reasserted their unquestioned dominance as the number one commercial force in the industry. It was enough that anyone on the ground floor of the industry - that is, a regular Joe reading Wizard and buying their comics at the local comic shop (assuming your local comic shop hadn't already gone broke the year before) - could still convince themselves that all was well, and the industry was as hale and hearty as it had ever been.

Looks could be deceiving. The years immediately following the Image exodus may have seen the X-Men continue to maintain their industry dominance, but the books themselves floundered. It took them a long time to recover from losing Chris Claremont's guiding hand - without one single creative vision (and really, it was only obvious in hindsight just how much of Marvel's success in the 80s and early 90s was due to his specific and particular talents) the books lurched from story to story with little in the way of consistency or even a solid narrative thru-line. It didn't help that, in the years immediately preceding the split, the Image creators had birthed a plethora of purpose-less characters and plotlines, most of which were left completely hanging when the creators vacated in 1992. So the people left holding the bag - journeymen like Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza - were stuck telling years worth of stories for the purpose of cleaning up other people's messes. (By which I mean: Cable's origin, Stryfe, the Six Pack, Bishop, the X-Ternals, et al.)

Sean Howe's recent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story details the chain of events surrounding the Image founders' departure, and the picture that emerges with twenty years' (!!!) hindsight is, while not surprising, still sad: the Image founders left at the last possible moment before work actually began on 1992's big X-crossover, X-Cutioner's Song. That crossover set the tone for the first couple years' of post-Image X-Men books - needlessly convoluted, weighted down by dozens of superfluous characters at every turn, lacking anything even remotely resembling Claremont's deft hand at long-term characterization. Still, it was enough of a success to convince the industry that Marvel and the X-Men remained dominant commercial forces even after losing every marquee creator associated with the franchise. It didn't matter that the folks in charge were essentially making it up as they went along - the trains rolled on time, the characters remained popular, and for the most part the fans didn't seem to care that the books were terrible. (Not that the post-Claremont, pre-Image exodus books had been great shakes, either, but they at least had the virtue of being produced by the creators fans actually wanted to read.)

And so, after X-Cutioner's Song the X-Books settled into a predictable pattern of jumping from crossover to crossover. Readers got used to the fact that nothing important usually happened in non-crossover books, and the creators actually got to be pretty good at playing to these expectations. Both Uncanny and the adjectiveless X-Men book developed a pretty clever rhythm, where a big event was followed by a handful of issues devoted to smaller melodramatic character studies and less consequential plot points, all the while laying the groundwork by foreshadowing whatever the next crossover would be - X-Cutioner's Song into Fatal Attractions into Bloodties (a crossover with the main Avengers books designed to celebrate the 30th anniversaries of both franchises) into the Phalanx Covenant, with a brief stopover along the way for the wedding of Cyclops and Jean Grey. It was not, perhaps, the most graceful or subtle method of publishing comics, but it worked, and this business plan to a large degree dictates the way superhero comics are sold and published to this day.

The "problem" - and I am hopefully deploying these scare quotes in a sufficiently judicious manner - is that these crossovers just weren't big enough. Fatal Attractions was only six issues long, and while it featured a number of significant plot developments (Magneto's return, Colossus's defection, Wolverine losing his Adamantium), it was still - in publishing terms - a small crossover. The Phalanx Covenant was only nine issues long, and while it helped launch the highly anticipated (and inevitable) Generation X spin-off, it also featured the Phalanx - maybe not the least popular X-villains, but surely nowhere near anyone's top pick. All of which is to say - at some point, despite the fact that the books remained popular, someone somewhere took note of the fact that the line - by restricting itself to relatively restrained intra-line crossovers - was seriously underperforming. Add to this the fact that sales were dropping across the entire industry - due to the mass exodus of readers and mass extinction of retailers that followed in the wake of the early 90s implosion - and the ingredients were all assembled for what would soon become the perfect storm of mid-90s crossovers, the era-defining, immensely popular, critically acclaimed, industry-malaise-defying mega-juggernaut Age of Apocalypse.

I don't think it's possible to exaggerate just how important the Age of Apocalypse was to mid-90s Marvel. At a time when the industry was beginning to look very pallid indeed, the story represented a serious and sustained shot in the arm. But, even if we didn't know it at the time, the story would also be the era's high water mark. Not only would the success of the Age of Apocalypse lead directly to the subsequent overexpansion and commercial implosion of the X-Men franchise, but the attempt to capitalize on the success of the storyline would soon metastasize across the entire Marvel line. The Age of Apocalypse was Marvel's biggest hit in years, and the company soon sought to replicate that success across every other franchise. The results would be disastrous.

And of course, no character better exemplifies this era than our friend, Nate Grey, the titular X-Man himself.

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1 comment :

Cleofis said...

I've always felt Nicieza has never gotten the respect he deserved; he's written some really good stuff, has a consistently funny sense of humor, and an excellent sense of characterization and differentiation of character voice (all of which, in today's Geoff Johnsian climate, seems to be skills few writers possess).

Also, appropos Mr. Sinister in your page here, did you read Kieron Gillen's uncanny X-Mne by any chance? Probably the best X-book in years, and this despite being yoked in it's latter issues to the AvX shitfest AND the presence of Greg Land for one of its arcs. He basically single-handedly turned Sinister from boring, vaguely-defined cypher into an endlessly entertaining A-tier threat, and actually managed to elevate the AvX material to such a level it almost made you care about what was going on in the main series.