X-Man #21 (1996) by Terry Kavanagh, Roger Crux, and Bud LaRosa
The problem with Nate Grey is not that the character had no purpose. He did have a purpose. The problem was that his purpose was very narrow, and once that purpose was fulfilled the character was left with no place to go.
The Age of Apocalypse is now, even at twenty years' remove, recognized as one of the most popular storylines in Marvel history. How many nineteen-year-old crossovers are still spawning spin-offs? Its popularity marks a high point, if not in sales (which had peaked a couple years previous) then certainly in popularity. After years of grinding along more or less on the fumes left in the tank by the Image exodus, Marvel had a massive hit. It was massive enough to change the direction of the entire line overnight, giving some semblance of impetus to a company that was just beginning to feel the consequences of a series of disastrous business decisions. So it would be strictly false to assert that X-Man had no purpose: the purpose behind X-Man was to be another X-Men spin-off in an era when the franchise could safely support nine ongoing monthly titles. It fulfilled this remit admirably, and the fact that it lasted seventy-five issues on as little premise as it did is pretty astounding, and a testament to just how dominant a franchise the X-Men were during the Clinton years.
And, to be fair, despite the book's well-earned reputation for aimlessness, the book did initially have a reason to exist beside simply being another book with an "X" in the title. That reason was to serve as a bridge between the AoA and its immediate sequel Onslaught. People hate Onslaught, both the character and story, so it isn't often discussed in polite company that Onslaught was indeed the direct sequel to the still-popular AoA, but it certainly was. Not just in terms of the fact that it was an even bigger crossover intended to piggyback on the success of the AoA by launching the kind of multi-month line-wide crossover event that Marvel had shied away from since the late eighties. (Remember: every book was involved, not just a small family of titles or whichever bottom-feeders were free to crossover with the Infinity Crusade that month. This was everything.) It was a direct sequel to AoA because it was directly concerned with the consequences of the AoA, specifically the presence of Nate in the 616.
Only a few people in the Marvel Universe actually remembered the AoA - Nate (obviously), but also fellow refugees Dark Beast, Holocaust, and Sugar Man (remember him?), as well as Bishop. It was hard to ignore Nate's presence once he made it to the regular 616. Within just a few weeks of arriving, he fought Professor X, and this battle effected the Professor's powers in a drastic fashion, enabling him to manifest psychic constructs in the material world. (Yeah, this is pretty stupid, but it gets stupider.) This, coupled with the hidden consequences of mindwiping (ugh) Magneto during the Fatal Attractions crossover (double ugh), led to the creation of the being known as Onslaught, out of the worst impulses of both Xavier and Magneto made tangible through exposure to Nate's power (ugh ugh ugh). (Also: this became the canon origin of Onslaught despite the fact that Onslaught had already had at least enough power to knock the Juggernaut across the state of New Jersey weeks before Xavier ever met Nate Grey. So, uh, yeah. This is terrible.)
The problem with Onslaught (OK, not the only problem with the story or the character but a big problem nonetheless) was that the villain didn't have a consistent motivation. By which I mean: he had every motivation and modus operandi under the sun whenever the writers felt like changing their minds. One moment he's a Magneto-ish mutant supremacist, the next he's an Apocalypse-level genocidal madman - one minute he's a shadowy manipulator testing the strengths and weaknesses of his prey, the next he's just trying to annihilate the planet using brute force. The writers who peppered the line with shadowy cameos in the year leading up to Onslaught - going all the way back to the character's first cameo appearance in X-Men Prime - all seemed to be on different continents regarding the character's motivations, his backstory, even just the most simple question of who he was and how long he'd been alive. The real answer to this question, and an answer that has been corroborated by countless interviews, is that the people writing and editing the book honestly had no idea who Onslaught was when he first appeared. They knew after the AoA was over that they needed something new and big to work towards, so (I believe it was) Scott Lobdell who just threw out the name and ran with it.
Once the storyline proper actually got underway, Onslaught's first moves were to try and corral the most powerful telepaths in the world to, um, I don't know, some kind of vague power-leeching scheme to give Onslaught the power necessary to remake / conquer / destroy the world. So he went after Franklin Richards (which gave the Fantastic Four reason to be involved), Nate Grey (who had gone to the Avengers for help when he learned that Xavier was actually Onslaught, because he couldn't trust the X-Men), and Xavier himself (by this time, of course, Onslaught had crawled out of Xavier's brain and assumed independent existence. Of course.) The X-Men, meanwhile, had been knocked for a loop by the revelation that Xavier had actually been the "X-Traitor" that they had been looking for since Bishop had joined the team back in 1991/92.
(I will admit that the first few pages of X-Men: Onslaught back in 1996 - the ones that actually revealed that Xavier had been the traitor for whom the team had been looking for four-plus years - were actually pretty thrilling. For anyone reading the books on a month-to-month basis during the nineties, any resolution of a long-running subplot was practically a Biblical revelation, and it's a sign of just how deep in the tank I was that at this point I actually, briefly, entertained the notion that Onslaught wouldn't be so completely terrible. That lasted probably the time it took me to actually finish X-Men: Onslaught, incidentally.)
So, not only was Nate one of the catalysts for Onslaught's creation - he gave physical form to impulses that had been active in Xavier's mind for some time - but his fantastic power was itself a MacGuffin that Onslaught devoted quite a bit of time and energy to capturing. Once Nate was captured, he fulfilled another role. Just a couple paragraphs back I mentioned Onslaught's magical shifting motivation - this is important, because at least some of this was actually intentional. At the very climax of the story, Onslaught confronts the captive Grey in order to sap his memories of the AoA, to see just what a mutant-created utopia would look like - so he can remake the world in that image. Once he scans Grey's memories, however, he sees that the consequences of mutant rule during the AoA were actually worse than human rule. He becomes enraged at this point and decides then and there to just destroy the entire human race. I have always though that, in a sea of shit, this was a nice plot twist (definitely a plot twist that belonged in a better story). It was something, at least.
But after that, Nate Grey's usefulness ceases to exist. He was a major plot point leading from the AoA to Onslaught. The villain was destroyed thanks to the (temporary and monumentally stupid) sacrifice of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. Everyone blamed mutants for this turn of events, and in fairness it all was kind of their fault. But even if the Marvel heroes went away and got drawn by Rob Liefeld for a few months, they came back drawn by George Perez and Alan Davis, and Mark Waid got to take a second stab at Captain America, so I guess that turned out OK. Oh yeah, we also got the Thunderbolts out of that, so again, not so bad.
Once this story was over, Nate didn't have a purpose. Before Onslaught, he was at least a major player in the X-universe: whenever he met someone for the first time, it was an event. After Onslaught, he knew everybody. He didn't want to join the X-Men, and except for a very brief period at the the of the decade (after "The Shattering", [ugh ugh ugh ugh]), he never did. He wandered off on his own and did a whole fat lot of nothing much. He palled around with Spider-Man a bunch - who remembers that Spider-Man was once supposedly his best friend? Unusual for the X-Books of the era, he always seemed to run into villains who were outside the usually cast of mutants - folks like the Abomination (during his hot "living in a sewer scarred by toxic waste" phase), the Purple Man (I want to say X-Man was actually the first place the Purple Man appeared following his "death" in Emperor Doom), Hybrid (from Rom), the Great Beasts (from Alpha Flight), the Crusader (from Thor, from a long time ago), and Mysterio. He had a couple more crossovers with Cable and Generation X. He just sort of drifted off the radar. He wasn't involved in Operation: Zero Tolerance except as a tangent, and aside from his brief aforementioned appearance in the god-awful Astonishing X-Men limited series, he really didn't do a lot worth talking about until it came time for him to be rebooted.
He was briefly rendered interesting by Warren Ellis and Steven Grant during part of the Hail Mary-pass that was the "Counter X" line, an initiative intended to reinvigorate a few of those hapless second-tier X-books that the market just wasn't willing to support anymore. Ellis & Grant's X-Man was, in all fairness, pretty good, bordering even on great in places. But it was basically a complete reboot - not necessarily erasing the previous 62 issues, but sure as hell doing everything they could to run as far away as possible. It was nice looking, too, with art by Ariel Olivetti (before he completely lost the plot), and even a last couple issues drawn by Alfredo Alcatena, if you can believe that. But it was too little, too late - even though the book was actually, legitimately good for the first time after five years of continuous publication, it just wasn't enough to keep it afloat. For years and years they had managed to publish the fictional equivalent of styrofoam between two covers, based solely on the brand recognition of a popular franchise - and of course, actually writing a good comic book was only the very last thing they decided to do before the book was canceled. Go figure.
The character disappeared for the better part of a decade, before reappearing during Dark Reign as an antagonist for Norman Osborne's mercifully short-lived "Dark X-Men" team. He joined the New Mutants for a while, before their book got canceled. For all we know, I believe, he's still living in a walk-up in downtown San Francisco, waiting for someone with fond memories to use him again.
Can we really say that Nate is a worse character, that X-Man was a worse book than US-1? The Human Fly? Team America? NFL Superpro? Honestly, even though these were some pretty terrible books, the fact is that none of them stuck around for too long. US-1, Team America, and Superpro all lasted a year, The Human Fly somehow, miraculously, lasted a year and a half. I'm sure you can think of other similarly terrible books that came and went, or that came and lingered but then finally still ended up leaving. But the interesting thing about the postmortem on these types of books is that even if they were terrible attempts to cash in on (probably already passe) cultural trends - trucking, stuntmen (motorcycle team division), stuntmen (solo division), football (still a perennial) - well, that's what comics does. Mainstream comics have traditionally been a bottom-feeder medium. We take all the crap that pop culture vomits up and we're traditionally the last line in the long ecosystem before an idea is put out to pasture forever. And it's worth noting that even if Team America (sorry, the Thunderiders) or US-1 (sorry, US Ace) were misses, Shang Chi, Luke Cage, Rom, GI Joe and Tomb of Dracula - all attempts to chase a hot fad or fleeting toy line - were definite hits.
The difference is that all of those books, as terrible as they may have been, still had ostensible reasons to exist other than simply being twenty-pages of X-Men-affiliated color and squiggles. People liked Tomb of Dracula because Dracula is cool, they liked Shang Chi because kung-fu was awesome, and it's really only the luck of the draw that as unlikely a candidate for comic book immortality as Rom happened to be a more enduring concept than Team America. Stranger things can happen. (Bill Mantlo wrote both, as well as a large percentage of the licensed titles that came through the door during the period. I guess he was more excited by Dire Wraiths than stunt cyclists.) X-Man had at one point a reason to exist - he was a spin-off from a popular crossover, at a time when anything with an "X" on the cover was a guaranteed seller, and he was specifically designed to be a crucial element of what was destined to be, for better or worse, Marvel's biggest crossover for a decade. (You're thinking to yourself, that can't be true - but think about it for a minute, think about all the titles involved, over the course of all the months of buildup and then the story itself, and all the books that were launched directly out of the story. They didn't do anything as big for almost ten years, when they returned to line-wide crossovers with House of M.)
But after that? Nate had nothing to do. For forty issues, give or take, from the end of Onslaught up through "Counter-X," he basically just dicked around. He had fulfilled his purpose. He was a space on the racks that couldn't be taken by the umpteenth Night Force revival. I almost wonder if there may have been plans at one point to kill Nate during Onslaught - as in, if his book hadn't been that popular, if he was destined to end as a stakes-raising death at the hands of the major villain. Reading the book after Onslaught, it's hard not to come away with the distinct impression that the book was playing for time, trying desperately to find something, anything that could support a plot. It didn't even have the luxury of a simple high concept to keep it afloat - every month that passed was another month separating the book from the Age of Apocalypse, and without that connection it became harder and harder to explain what the character's concept even was. But then, despite everything, his book was popular, so he survived, but for no real reason other than because it sold well enough to justify its existence. Of course they wouldn't have canceled a popular book, but who really bought X-Man because they loved the character, and who bought it because it was another book with "X" in the title?
Who knows? At this remove, it's impossible to tell why these things linger. Ultimately, it's not as if X-Man is the first book to float without direction solely by virtue of it selling enough to keep it alive - isn't that all the books, if we're honest? But X-Man is such an egregious example for the precise reason that, after participating in a single massive crossover, it had no purpose but to keep alive a trademark and take up space on the rack. That's it. It existed because, for a time, it was more of a bother for X-fans to make the effort to take the book off their standing pull-list of "All X-Men titles and spin-offs", than to simply pay the $2 and continue receiving a book that was read, filed, and almost instantly forgotten. And then, at a certain point, it wasn't too much of a bother, and by then there were too few X-completists left standing after the shit deluge and mass attrition of the late-nineties, and that is when X-Man ceased to be.
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