Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Halftime Show, Part 2

X-Man '96 (1996) by Terry Kavanagh, Alan Davis, Mark Farmer, and Robin Riggs

It would be wrong to assert that there weren't any crossovers in the early 90s. There were plenty. But for a good five years at Marvel, there weren't any of the massive line-wide crossovers that readers became accustomed to in the late 80s. In 1988 and 89, respectively, Marvel launched two humungous crossovers - Inferno and Acts of Vengeance - that impacted almost every title published by the company. (Inferno had fewer crossovers, as I recall - the Punisher, the Silver Surfer and the West Coast Avengers sat that one out, but they were all in the house [sort of, in the Surfer's case] for Acts of Vengeance.) Inferno, because it originated in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, and because it represented the culmination of a decade's worth of loose plotlines in the three main X-books, was very popular. Acts, while a better crossover than most probably remember, suffered sales-wise for its Avengers-centric focus, as well as the fact that the X-books were all three in the middle of long-term storylines that precluded heavy involvement in outside crossovers. Although the Avengers have been the dominant franchise for almost a decade (which is weird on the face of it for anyone who started reading comics before the advent of Nu-Marvel), any crossover built on the Avengers franchise in the late 80s without heavy participation from the best-selling X-Men titles was probably not going to perform beyond expectations.

When Acts was over the calendar ticked over to 1990 and for a while the crossovers became smaller and more focused. Operation: Galactic Storm, Maximum Carnage, and X-Cutioner's Song were all big crossovers by any standard, but they were also focused within a relatively small set of closely related titles. The Infinity franchise launched three crossovers - Gauntlet, War, and Crusade - but amazingly, Gauntlet didn't produce many tie-ins (mainly Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange and a handful of stragglers). War and Crusade did produce an excess of tie-ins, but almost exclusively among the company's lower-tier books - lots of Moon Knight, Alpha Flight, and Darkhawk, with no X-Men anywhere to be seen. There was all of one War tie-in produced by the Spider-Man office, and when Crusade rolled around Web of Spider-Man was already considered enough of a tertiary title to qualify for the (probably negligible) sales boost provided by participation in a second-string crossover. This was the beginning of the an of era of editorial separation: the X-Men titles sold better than anything else at Marvel, so they didn't need to participate in surplus crossovers with lower-selling books. Similarly, the Avengers and Spider-Man family of titles were left alone with their own considerable audiences. (This was a time when both Wonder Man and Quasar were able to support their own solo titles, to give you an idea of how fertile the sales environment was at the time.) The exception to this was 1993's Bloodties, an Avengers / X-Men story that was designed to celebrate the shared 30th anniversaries of both franchises, as well as serving as a direct sequel to Fatal Attractions. But that was a short crossover, only five issues long.

This worked well for as long as it did. But as the salad days of the early 90s faded into the rear-view mirror of the mid-90s, as the bubble began to burst and retailers started to (slowly at first, and then frighteningly fast) disappear from the landscape, crossovers lost some of their luster. This was problematic. As much as variant covers, retailer incentives, holograms, die-cuts, trading cards, and foil-stamping all did their part to sell (and oversell) comics in the early 90s, crossovers were still the most dependable method available for selling comic books, as they had been for decades previous and as they have remained in the decades since. There were no more dependable money-making devices throughout the rocky 90s than X-Men crossovers, and there was no bigger X-Men crossover than the Age of Apocalypse. Comics readers of a certain age will still remember the "shocking" news story in Wizard magazine in late 1994 that Marvel was canceling the X-Men books - a patently absurd assertion that nevertheless sent a ripple of alarm through a gullible fandom. The following month, Wizard announced the real reason the X-Men books were being "canceled" - the books were being shuffled over to an alternate universe for four months, the duration of the new crossover. Back in the day Wizard covered Marvel news with the same selfless attention to rigorous objectivity that Fox News uses to cover the Republican party, and the slow roll-out of info regarding the crossover did a fantastic job of building anticipation.

But the most important element in the crossover's success was the fact that it was, well, very popular. For evidence of this popularity, how many 18-year-old crossovers can you think of that are still spawning spin-offs today? How many people even remember the Phalanx Covenant or Blood Ties, and how many people can still cite the AoA chapter-and-verse? Inasmuch as we can gauge the objective "quality" of massive 54-part crossovers, the AoA was good - people liked it, they bought it, they talked about it, and the story has remained in print fairly consistently since its original publication - or, leastwise, as consistently as Marvel has kept anything in print.

The problem is that the AoA was, if anything, too popular. It was essentially the biggest story ever told in the history of the franchise, and not only that but the alternate reality setting allowed the creators the freedom to end storylines. One of the problems with the X-books in the early 90s is that, after Claremont left, it became very obvious very fast that the books were treading water. When Claremont inherited the X-Men in 1975, they were an almost-certain-to-be-canceled afterthought; when he left the books in 1991, the X-Men were the premiere franchise in comics. It only made sense that Marvel's approach to the franchise was deeply conservative - the post-91 status quo was basically a bunch of people living together in a mansion who lived in a constant state of low-level crisis where nothing actually happened.

To his credit, Claremont had done a very good job of keeping the book fresh under his tenure by upsetting the status quo every few years. As unpopular as the latter third of Claremont's run is, it's worth noting that during the late 80s Claremont was still doing his level best to keep the book fresh, and even if some of the ideas didn't quite hit with fandom - exiling Professor X to space, replacing him with Magneto, "killing" the team, splitting off some of its longest-running members, sending the survivors to Australia, destroying the team entirely and scattering the members to the four winds, devoting half a year (!) to the adventures of an X-Men team composed primarily of Forge and Banshee (!!!) - there was at least a consistent and commendable effort to keep the book from stagnating into the mere exercise of formulae. As the book became more and more popular and the temptation to produce more and more spin-offs became too powerful for Marvel to resist, Claremont fought a long rear-guard battle to keep the book from devolving into the kind of capital-F Franchise that the higher-ups at Marvel already assumed it was. Even at the time it was hard to avoid the realization that the X-Men post-Claremont almost immediately became a stultifying, predictable, positively staid brand name. For all of Claremont's problems, he had managed to maintain a cohesive, idiosyncratic brand identity that disappeared the moment he walked out the door. The occasional changes that swept through as a result of periodic crossovers in the early 90s - Cable "dying" and receiving a new origin every other week, Wolverine having his adamantium sucked out and temporarily leaving, Sabretooth "joining" the team - were incremental changes without even the illusion of permanence.

The strength of the AoA was that - in stark opposition to the mainline books - things could actually happen. Magneto could marry Rogue. Wolverine could marry Jean Grey. Cyclops - no one ever liked Cyclops, remember - could be the most despicable villain. Morph (the one from the cartoon!) could be a fan-favorite character, as could Blink, who first appeared and died during the aforementioned Phalanx Covenant. Mystique and Nightcrawler could finally confirm their family ties. The story had a legitimate ending - and what an ending! Magneto killed the villain right before nuclear bombs fell and North America was reduced to cinders by atomic fire. (Sorry to spoil a 17-year-old story.) Is it any wonder that when the X-books reverted back to their original 616-incarnations, there was more than a little feeling of disappointment with the resumption of the status quo?

The creators themselves appeared to have been blindsided by the story's success. The best evidence for this is the simple fact that, once the story was over and the creators realized just how popular it was, they were completely dumbfounded as to how they could possibly follow it. So they did the only thing they knew how - immediately following the AoA they began to seed hints for a new plotline involving the introduction of a new heretofore unseen ultra-powerful bad guy with amazing powers and shadowy motivations. When Uncanny X-Men returned following the crossover, the cover teased a mystery that wouldn't be answered for another year. The answer to the question of how to follow up the AoA was, as we all know, Onslaught, an attempt to improve upon the previous crossover by going even bigger, upping the stakes by expanding the storyline to encompass the entire Marvel Universe. The problem was that Onslaught was terrible, a bad character and an even worse event, an idea that Scott Lobdell admits to having made up on the fly because they needed something to run with after the AoA, even if they had no idea what that something was. Over the course of the months leading up to Onslaught the X-books could barely make up their minds as to what exactly Onslaught was, so is it any wonder that the final storyline was such a mess? Because the AoA was so popular and Onslaught remains so enduringly unpopular, people like to forget that the latter storyline was intended to serve as a direct sequel to the former. It's hard not to see why people like to forget that association.

Not only was the AoA one of the most popular X-Men storylines of all time, but for many readers it was also their last major X-Men storyline, at least until 2001. After Onslaught the books began a long downward slide, as the attempt to capitalize on the goodwill garnered by the AoA was squandered on rapidly diminishing returns. Readers fell away in droves as the industry contractions became a full-scale implosion. Marvel bought Heroes World in December of 1994, and by the summer of the following year that company had become Marvel's exclusive distributor. The AoA finished up only a few months before Marvel went exclusive with Heroes World in the third quarter of 1995, and based on the success of that storyline Marvel would have to have felt pretty confident going forward that their business would remain solid, as long as they could continue to produce mega-hits like the AoA. But rather than serving as a new baseline for future successes, the AoA was actually the era's high-water mark: although the crossovers kept coming, the sales kept dropping. Heroes World was completely unable to deal with the volume of product they needed to move every month as Marvel's exclusive distributor, and the fact that Marvel sales were growing steadily softer from 1995 on certainly didn't help preserve a business model that was obviously designed around ludicrous, unsustainable growth projections.

After the AoA, every Marvel line was remade in the image of the AoA in an attempt to keep revenue from flagging. Spider-Man's then-popular Clone Saga was elongated to absurd proportions - not only was there a superfluous crossover with chromium-covered "Alpha" and "Omega" bookend issues (Maximum Clonage, I shit you not), but they even "canceled" all the Spider-Man titles to replace them for two months with Scarlet Spider books. Marvel staffers have said that the success of the AoA was one of the main reasons why the Clone Saga lasted as long as it did. It's easy to forget - very easy to forget - that the Clone Saga was initially very popular. (To give you an idea: the Clone Saga began a full half-year before the AoA and ended two months after Onslaught.) But when things started to go sour, when the story was extended for no apparent reason other than the desire to keep sales at artificially inflated crossover levels, fan reaction became brutal. The Avengers line had their own AoA with The Crossing, which - you guessed it - was kicked off with a chromium-covered one-shot. Nick Fury was killed by the Punisher in the Double Edge crossover (and yes, if you guessed that this story had chromium-covered "Alpha" and "Omega" bookend issues, you'd be right), which I remember for the dubious honor that it was the cover feature of the first post-Marvel Heroes World distributor catalog.

The still somewhat popular 2099 line was demolished when editor Joey Cavalieri was fired during a round of budget cuts that accompanied the downturn one of many long-time staffers whose departure hurt Marvel. Ongoing storylines were suddenly changed to fit the line's new direction, with longtime writers such as Peter David and Warren Ellis quitting in protest. The 2099 line had already weathered their AoA, the surprisingly well-received 2099 AD crossover. (Shockingly, this crossover did not feature chromium-covered "Alpha" and "Omega" bookend issues - instead, there were chromium-covered "Apocalypse" and "Genesis" bookends.) But with budget cuts and creator mutinies, the line would be dead within another year.

Heroes World could only succeed for so long as Marvel comics still sold at peak early-90s levels, but that didn't happen despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that almost every title in their stable was taken over by constant, terrible, completely gratuitous crossovers designed explicitly in the mold of the AoA. When sales grew even softer, Marvel brought two of the Image founders (Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld) back into the fold to take control of four of the company's moribund core non-X titles (Avengers, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Captain America). The first issues of the "Heroes Reborn" titles were cover-dated November of 1996. Marvel declared bankruptcy in December of 1996.

The X-Men titles never recovered from the success of the Age of Apocalypse. Who remembers Operation: Zero Tolerance, the crossover that followed Onslaught and is infamous for featuring, as its climax, Iceman talking the villain out of wanting to kill mutants? Or how about when Joe Kelly and Steven T. Seagle were brought in as a team to revitalize the franchise? The Hunt for Xavier? The Twelve? Claremont's first, disastrous return? In 2000 the X-Men starred in their first feature film, the movie that (following Blade) jump-started the still-going-strong superhero movie trend and eventually led to the revitalization and eventual purchase of Marvel by Disney in 2008. The X-books had a brief renaissance in the early 2000s when Grant Morrison took over the adjective-less X-Men, turning it into New X-Men and symbolizing the change of regime represented by the new editorial reign of Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas, but never fully recuperated from the many years of terrible stories that followed the AoA and Onslaught. Just a few months after Morrison's last issue of New X-Men, Brian Michael Bendis began his run on The Avengers, a run that would see the Avengers almost completely supplant the X-Men as Marvel's premiere franchise.

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Robert Karol said...

Wait, that's a FARGate? That's like an Asylum-level Stargate knockoff!

Also, the 2099 line-wide crossover was based around the end of Ellis' PRESIDENT DOOM storyline, if I recall. Ellis' DOOM 2099 now reads like a rough draft of his big series in the oughts, weirdly enough.

Timothy O'Neil said...

It was based around the end of it, but it soon devolved as the line changed course dramatically to fit a new editorial mandate. Ellis quit the line very soon after the AD story finished and predicted the changes would kill the entire line - he was more or less right, even if it took a while for the long tail to completely die.

For so long as Ellis was in charge of DOOM 2099, the line remained good. When Ellis left, the line almost immediately became horrible across the board - which is a shame, because they were some of my favorite books at the time, even the pre-Ellis stuff.

Timothy O'Neil said...

I edited it a bit to reflect the timeline - it's been over fifteen years and I honestly did not remember the order those books came out. I thought Ellis had left earlier, but still, when he and PAD left their respective books all that was left was for the last person in the room to turn off the lights.

yrzhe said...

2099 did get a brief, absolutely dire crossover to close out the remaining series' cancellations, involving Atlanteans invading and most of the world sinking underwater, as depicted by a host of godawful fill-in creative teams because nearly everyone who'd been doing the books up until that point quit in protest to Cavalieri's firing.

moose n squirrel said...

There was some really strong work being done on the 2099 books - Ellis's Doom, obviously, which I rank as among his best stuff (seriously, go back and re-read it - like Robert says, it clearly has the seeds for a host of future Ellis projects like Authority and Transmet, but was still early enough in Ellis's career that he wasn't cynically phoning it in on his mainstream work). And even stuff like David's Spider-man 2099, which was surprisingly solid, and the only readable Spider-man comic of the era, given how the "real" Spider-man was lousy with clones.

I remember that the post-President Doom storyline was originally meant to jump the line ahead several years - to 2101, if I remember right - in a kind of LoSH-style two-year-gap. All of that was tossed out the window when Cavalieri was fired - then Ellis left, and everything went to shit, with that god-awful Atlantis stuff, and all the crap with Doom traveling back in time to look for crabs with Namor, and christ, how do I even remember this stuff?

Timothy O'Neil said...

OH GOD I remember the crabs . . . that was just unbelievably terrible, wasn't it? I remember at the time thinking that this was one of the worst things I'd ever read, and I wasn't even very picky back then.

But yeah - I've got whole sequences of Ellis' run committed to memory. It is also my favorite thing he has ever done, some beautiful work, some great art from Steve Pugh. Weird to think the run was only 14 issues long - plus a couple specials - it looms so large in my memory.

But I have rarely seen a series I loved go so quickly from fantastic to crap. They could not have killed the series more definitively if the had shot it in the head.