Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Comic Chronicles: The Age of Apocalypse Pt. 2 - The 90s




So last time, I went into the original appearances of the X-Men villain Apocalypse, and the 80s comic in which he first appeared, X-Factor. I covered his rise with the Alliance of Evil, and later his Four Horsemen, of which he transformed Warren Worthington III, Angel, to become the Horsemen's leader, Death. His machinations failed, but he would return again in the late 80s, with nothing more than revenge on his mind. He kidnapped Cyclops' baby son, Nathan, and infected him with a techno-virus that would consume and kill him. In hindsight, not quite the brightest move, because Fate would see Cyclops sending his son into the far future to save his life, and that baby would eventually return as an aging man, Cable, whose sole mission was to destroy Apocalypse himself. All in all, old "blue" was a nice new villain in the 80s, certainly more compelling and entertaining, in my opinion, than the X-Men villain Mr. Sinister (but we'll get into him a bit later). But as the decades changed, and the early 90s came, the X-Men all reshuffled and their world kind of reset, from the more-often-than-not crazy bullshit of the 80s, to a more grounded, refocused superhero comic, with them (MOSTLY) dealing with terrestrial threats, and mutant/human issues, as in the original 60s comics.


The early-to-mid 90s Jean Grey.


To indulge myself in a brief side-tangent, I want to quickly discuss a 90s aspect of one of my favorite characters, that of Jean. Now, from the outset of the X-Men, her codename was "Marvel Girl", which while a bit cornball (no moreso than Superman, or Batman, or Wonder Woman), was very apropos for that Silver Age era. In the 70s reboot, after Jean had briefly left the X-Men, when she returned, just before the Phoenix Saga went down, they didn't refer to her as Marvel Girl quite as prominently. But when she "resurrected" in the mid 80s, and founded X-Factor with the original X-Men, she once again called herself Marvel Girl.

Fast forward to the new 90s era, and for no explicitly given reason, in the comics or outside of them, they suddenly dropped the Marvel Girl moniker. And she didn't upgrade, as Susan Storm once had, from Marvel Girl to Marvel Woman. Nor did they choose to rechristen her with a new, more "sophisticated" codename. Nope, instead, they literally just had her go as "Jean Grey". Which is absurd, for the simple fact that she was the ONLY X-Person to not have a codename, and the entire POINT of codenames and superhero personas, was to hide their true identities from the public, so that they could still have private lives (and also avoid trouble with the law).



The Late 90s Jean Grey-Summers.



Now, later in the 90s, after a somewhat sordid but solid storyline where post-marriage, Scott and Jean are ripped from this timeline and placed into the far future so that they could spend time raising young Nathan (Cable), which itself was a spillover from some very sordid business that had been happening in Excalibur, Jean FINALLY did get a new codename. In a move that was all at once awesome, but also almost facepalm worthy, Rachel Summers, their daughter from an alternate future, who went by the codename of "Phoenix", in part because she would literally come to be possessed by the Phoenix Force itself (because reasons), found herself flung to this far future, and was "stuck" there. So Jean, as a way of honoring her daughter-she-hadn't-had-yet, took the name "Phoenix" herself. As stated, on the one hand, it was awesome, because the name Phoenix, and the classic costume that goes with it, are awesome. But on the OTHER hand, Scott was reasonably upset/disturbed, because it reminded him of the actual Phoenix incident years prior, where he thought he had "lost" the woman of his dreams. Not to MENTION the fact, that by Jean going now actively going as "Phoenix", though she herself had never BEEN or been POSSESSED by the Phoenix Force, along with the animated series events, would only go on to reinforce the false fan-belief that Jean HAD been "The Phoenix" all along. And naturally, later in the 2000s, when far crappier writers would come along, they would go the full distance and act as if Jean HAD possessed the Phoenix Force, and went so far as to joke that she had "died and returned" many times, when in fact she hadn't.

Anywho, a very minor quibble, and besides the point of this article, but I just thought I would point out the absurdity, and flat out laziness, of allowing Jean to just be CALLED "Jean Grey" in the comics (and thus the 90s cartoon) for several years.



He'd like to have a friendly chat about survival of the fittest.


But getting back on track, as intimated last time, Apocalypse was certainly not gone for good after that climactic battle at the end of Louise Simonson's X-Factor run. Hardly, he would actually pop up prominently early in the 90s, in a 12 issue major crossover event of the various X-comics (minus Excalibur), called "The Xcutioner's Song". In a somewhat convoluted turn of events, it turns out young Cable in the future, had a clone that the people who raised him, Clan Askani (founded, it's later revealed, by Rachel Summers), had created. That clone was used by a withered and dying Apocalypse, in an attempt to transfer his essence (soul) into a young, powerful body. His plan failed, but that clone later came back in time, just as Cable had, under the guise of a new villain named "Stryfe".



X-Men Assemble!


Apocalypse is awakened from his regeneration chamber too early, having been greatly weakened from his last battle with X-Factor, and is on the verge of death as Stryfe tries to carry out revenge against him. In an unexpected turn, Apocalypse actually seeks refuge with the X-Men, in return for curing Charles Xavier of the techno-virus, that Stryfe had (naturally) infected him with. Not a great storyline, all around, and in fact it had originally been promoted by Marvel with the promise of revealing key facts about Cable's mysterious past. But ultimately, it didn't actually wind up revealing anything about Cable's past, no juicy secrets, nothing.

Not only that, but to add more confusion to the fire, sometime after this story arc was over, a non-mutant villain actually popped up CALLED the "X-Cutioner". He was a normal human who had managed to steal a bunch of advanced armor and weapons recovered over time by the government, and set about murdering mutants he felt were too villainous or dangerous to be left alive. He was an interesting villain, and not wholly evil, but still, in this story arc, it had been Stryfe who was the would-be "X-Cutioner", of Apocalypse to be precise. And this new character bearing a moniker resembling that previous story arc, was just kind of...perplexing.



The name's Sinister, Mr. Sinister.


Furthermore, Sinister was also part of this plotline, as he had made arrangements with Stryfe, working together for what was assumed to be mutual benefit. Sinister, using his metamorphic abilities to pose as Apocalypse, had been manipulating what was left of the Horsemen (now calling themselves "Dark Riders"), to his own ends. He had them kidnap Scott and Jean, so that Stryfe might take some kind of ill-conceived revenge on them as well, even though they had never met him. And in return, Stryfe gave Sinister a canister that supposedly contained the DNA history of the Summers and Grey bloodlines. In reality, when Sinister opened the container, it was "empty", and actually turned out to contain Stryfe's true "parting shot" to the world, the horrible Legacy Virus, which targets and kills mutants.

Now you would think, being a mad genius and all, that Sinister would be too smart to fall for a dumb trick like that. But to take that even further, you would also think that Sinister would be far happier to merely have Scott and Jean in his clutches to experiment on, instead of the false promise of their "DNA History". One could well argue, I suppose, that maybe he figured if he could just have their DNA without having to deal with trouble from the X-Men, that would be the smarter way to go. Truthfully, however, it was just a comic book plot-point, thrown in to...get Stryfe Scott and Jean? Even though he was an all-powerful villain who could have just grabbed them himself? Nevermind.



The All New, All Different...X-Men? 


The Dark Timeline X-Men. Thanks a LOT Biff!


SO, on to the main event, so to speak, the next major Apocalypse-involved storyline, was a massive, line-wide storyline that took place in it's own self-contained alternate reality, over the course of several months in 1995. That mega-event, of course, was known as "The Age of Apocalypse". And it is, I don't mind saying so myself, the BEST of the Apocalypse stories, at least in the comics.


The End of the Beginning of the End.


The basic rundown, which was illustrated in a crossover that directly preceded it, called "Legion Quest", is that Charles Xavier's son, David Haller, aka "Legion", a mutant who had multiple-personality disorder, each personality possessing a different very powerful psi-talent, had wound up in a coma as a result of the "Muir Island Saga" Shadow King storyline. He eventually came out of that coma, with his fractured psyche repaired, and all of that ridiculous power fully under his own control, which basically made him a god. However, still emotionally and mentally unstable, he decides that the only way for his father to ever achieve his dream of peace between mutants and normal humans, is for his old friend and arch-nemesis, Erik Magnus Lehnsherr, to die before he becomes Magneto. Using his uber-powers to actually travel back in time, in spite of a handful of X-Men's efforts, including Bishop, to stop him, he attacks a young Magneto. However, his father pushes Magnus out of the way, and Legion's lethal blast hits Xavier instead. Realizing his fatal mistake, Legion fades out of existence, having never been conceived, and with his dying words, Charles makes Magnus promise to work towards a better world.



Not your daddy's X-Men.

Someone, give Logan a hand.


With Charles Xavier never having lived long enough to even form the X-Men, the world is left quite ripe for the picking, so to speak, for one particular ancient, malevolent mutant overlord. Magneto, while he does eventually keep his promise to Xavier and founds a version of the X-Men, he ultimately fails in stopping Apocalypse from taking over North America, and the war between the humans of Eurasia and Apocalypse's forces in America, devastates much of the globe, leaving many nuclear "hot zones". In this setting, the various X-Comics were temporarily transformed: Uncanny and Regular X-Men becoming "Astonishing" and "Amazing" X-Men, Excalibur becoming "X-Calibre" (why not), Generation X becoming "Generation NeXt", Wolverine becoming "Weapon X", Cable becoming "X-Man", X-Factor becoming "Factor X" (because again why not), and X-Force becoming..."Gambit and the Xternals"? In spite of a few silly comic-title changes, bear with me, because the stories they tell are actually pretty good!

During the time of the stories, North America (and much of South America) are completely controlled by Apocalypse, with Manhattan becoming his seat of power. Many humans flee as refugees to Europe, which is the last stronghold for non-mutants, protected by their sentinels and nuclear weapons. But the humans who remain in America lead a hellish life, with Apocalypse's lieutenants leading "cullings" of these powerless, worthless dregs, or else caging many of them up in Sinister's evil labs, for experimentation, and to create Apocalypse's artificial "Infinite" army. Speaking of Sinister, he is one of the Four Horsemen in this reality, along with the mysterious armored Holocaust, Colossus' brother the mad Mikhail Rasputin, and the sadistic mutant known as Abyss.



Sinister, and his "sons", Cyclops and Havok.


If you hadn't yet noticed, a great many things beyond Magneto leading the X-Men, are different in this AoA reality. Gambit, for instance, isn't an X-Man, but rather, leads a merry band of thieves called the "X-Ternals" (which include Strong Guy, Sunspot, Jubilee, and former rock star Lila Cheney), who rob from Apocalypse and give to the oppressed masses...for a fee. Meanwhile, Colossus and his wife Shadowcat, lead a group of junior X-Men in training, as Magneto is too busy taking the fight to evil with the senior X-Men. Among those senior X-Men, is a "good" version of none other than Victor Creed, aka "Sabertooth", who somehow has his bloodlust under control, and while he started out serving Apocalypse, realizes the dude is nuts and joins the X-Men instead.

And as for his old nemesis, Wolverine? Well, you might have noticed in that pic above, that ol' "Weapon X" is missing a hand, and what's more, that Cyclops, pictured above, is also missing one eye. Well, it seems that Jean Grey, who at one point was one of Magneto's X-Men in training, was captured by Apocalypse's forces, and put into Sinister's slave pens. There she meets young Scott Summers, a "prelate" (high up dude) in Apocalyse's army, who along with his brother Alex, are the adopted "sons" of Sinister himself, a top Horseman of Apocalypse. Cyclops takes a liking to her, as even in this environment he is not truly evil, and is actually going to set her free, but then Wolverine comes to rescue her, and irrational as he can be, battles Cyclops. The battle was apparently epic, as it ultimately cost Scott an eye, but that same eye also literally blasted the adamantium-laced hand clean off of Logan's wrist. Logan escaped with Jean, and the two of them left the X-Men and basically became mercenaries (also fulfilling a lot of dumb fanboy fantasies about the two of them together).



"Dark Cyclops".


In the Age of Apocalypse reality, as detailed in my Cyclops article, it turns out that Sinister kept a very close eye on the orphaned Summers brothers, just as he had in the main reality, but with Apocalypse taking over America, he straight up takes the boys as his own "sons", raising them to be perfect soldiers for Apocalypse, though deep down he also has ulterior motives for wanting to keep them, and their precious DNA, close at hand. At one point in their past, it is revealed, their actual father Christopher Summers, aka "Corsair", returned to Earth, unfortunately infected by the Brood, but Sinister caught him in time, and kept him for years, in secret, trying to experiment on that Brood DNA. Corsair eventually escapes, and the Summers brothers wind up catching him, but he has just enough time to tell them that they are in fact HIS sons, and what he remembers of his past. He then succumbs to the Brood and transforms, causing Scott to tragically have to kill his own father.


Even in the darkest timeline, ever the hero.


These events and revelations, deeply affect both brothers. But while it merely causes more anger and angst in Alex, causing him to hate and resent his brother, it makes Scott question everything Sinister taught them, and question Apocalypse's rule as well. This eventually puts him at odds with Havok and his other former "friends", such as the Dark Beast, as he sets about rebelling and trying to free the slaves from his "father's" pens. He even eventually reunites with his soul-mate, Jean, who comes back to warn of impending nuclear attacks from Europe, and the two of them try to lead the humans to safety. But that's getting ahead of myself a bit.



Forge and Nate Grey, the "X-Man".

As it turns out, Sinister's real reason for keeping Jean Grey in the pens, was, as you may have guessed, because he has the same obsession with the Grey and Summers' bloodlines in the AoA reality as well. Unbeknownst to either of them, or to Apocalypse himself, Sinister uses both of their DNA to create a "child", whom he artificially grows to adulthood and names Nathaniel (or Nate), after himself (Nathaniel Essex). This "X-Man" was intended, just as Cable was in the main reality, to be his ultimate Mutant, but also a weapon to destroy Apocalypse. Sinister is twisted and evil, but he has no interest in ruling the world or killing off normal humans. He is obsessed with evolution and mutation, and he sees Apocalypse's mad dream of "Survival of the Fittest" to get in the way of his own aims.

Of course, Nate Grey escapes, surprisingly with the aid of his "father" (unbeknownst to either of them) Cyclops, and runs away. He eventually shacks up with this reality's Forge, and his own band of so-called "traveling performers", which is a cover for them as they too act like Robin Hood-esque freedom fighters in Apocalypse's dark America. He begins to teach Nate how to control his enormous powers, as Nate is basically what Cable could have been were he not constantly using his psi-powers to hold back the spread of the Techno-Virus. Forge and the others, which include Banshee's daughter Siryn (here called "Sonique"), and good versions of Mastermind, Toad and Sauron, also teach Nate what it means to be a hero. But it all falls to shit, because Sinister, in disguise, had gone looking for his lost creation, and infiltrates their little band, before attacking them and trying to regain control of Nate.



Beast, and Dark Beast.

The original villain Changeling, and AoA's Morph.

The original Sunfire, and his tortured AoA version.

The "neutral" Angel, Warren Worthington III.

The heroic Exodus.


As I've said, this Age of Apocalypse reality is crazy, and I could go on and on about the various difference and changes compared with the mainstream reality. For instance, Henry McCoy, The Beast, grew up working for Apocalypse and Sinister as a mad scientist and sadistic experimenter. He experimented on himself, but went further than his this reality, beefing up his physical traits, and mutating himself into the "Black Beast", or "Dark Beast", a nightmare vision for certain. Then there was Sunfire, a lone survivor of his city when Apocalypse attacked Japan, where he was then taken captive and experimented upon, before being rescued by the X-Men. Or the Angel, who is a "businessman" who runs a nightclub in Apocalypse's kingdom, and tries to play the neutral "Switzerland" bit, siding neither wholly with Apocalypse or the humans. And perhaps the most bizarre, along with Sabertooth that is, the fact that the mad mutant Exodus, a major villain in the main reality, was also a heroic member of Magneto's X-Men.


Always with the inappropriate humor.


But one of the major highlights in all these differences, was the AoA version of Morph. Originally a very obscure villain, and then even more obscure brief secret member of the X-Men known as Changeling, the character was resurrected under the name "Morph" for the 90s animated series. They used this character, with the same name, in the AoA reality, as the official wise-cracker of the X-Men. He is briefly shown a couple of times in his true form, but most of the time he prefers this purposefully comical, almost cartoon character form you see above. In the SUPER dark world of Age of Apocalypse, he is the beacon of ridiculous light, as he never fails to pull some tasteless gag or crack an ill-timed joke, and I loved him for it.
 


"The Big A", in all of his badassery.


I would, of course, be extremely remiss, if I didn't talk about the Big Man himself. Being King of Half the Planet or so, naturally, gives him a bit of a swelled head, and he doesn't really consider the X-Men, nor the European human forces and their Sentinels, to be much of a threat at all. This version of Apocalypse is all at once arrogant and complacent, but also strong as hell and triumphant. He offers some of his best "poetic" lines in this crossover "maxi-series", and he is, naturally, at his most evil. Already figuring he has Earth just about wrapped up, this Apocalypse gives zero fucks, to turn a phrase.

One of my personal favorites being when he is face to face with the twice-time-tossed Bishop (who had gotten trapped in the past trying to stop Legion, and survived into the AoA present). Bishop, completely over-matched, goes to grab his gun, and Apocalypse quips: "Reaching for your rifle? Only the WEAK need a crutch with which to fight!" 


The Final Battle.

So, to give a quick rundown of the plot, Magneto and his X-Men have been fighting a losing battle against the forces of Apocalypse for years. They are running out of energy, and out of time, and so with the time-lost Bishop falling into their laps, raving about how this world they live in is all wrong, they make a bid for one last, crazy set of missions to try and stop Apocalypse once and for all. Magneto sends Gambit and his thieves on a crazy mission literally half-way across the galaxy, to the Shi'ar Empire, to procure a mysterious object called the M'Kraan Crystal, which can possibly send Bishop back into the past to save Xavier. He sends his wife, Rogue, to fight the monster Holocaust and his forces, while he himself tries to lead some X-Men in getting refugees to safety. He sends the teenage "Generation Next", led by their teachers Colossus and Shadowcat, on a suicide mission to rescue Colossus' baby sister Illyana, whose teleportational powers can also assist in Bishop's mission. And Nightcrawler travels to the hidden Savage Land (called "Avalon"), to try and track down the mutant seer Destiny.


The great Sentinel Force.


All of this on the word of what they think might be a raving lunatic. But they have no other real hope, so on they fight. Meanwhile, mercenary Weapon X, Logan, and his "girl" Jean, go to Europe to take secret files from Sinister to the European Council, which will help them launch a last ditch attack on Apocalypse. Unfortunately, they're going to do so with their super-advanced Sentinels, and a barrage of nuclear bombs which won't just wipe out Apocalypse, but everyone in the New York area.

It all comes down to a messy conclusion, involving Apocalypse getting his hands on the M'Kraan, which is cracking and starting to shatter reality. The X-Man Nate Grey coming to fulfill his destiny whether he likes it or not, and try to destroy Apocalypse. And the rest of the X-Men trying to get Bishop to the crystal, so that he can go stop all of this from ever coming to pass.


The Epic Final Showdown between Magneto and Apocalypse.


The Age of Apocalypse comics end as dark and bleakly, in many ways, as they began. Many of the heroes are killed, or their fates left uncertain. Bishop gets into the Crystal, but it turns out a couple of villains followed him. Nate fails to get Apocalypse, but fights his "son" Holocaust, driving a shard of the crystal into his chest, sending them both careening into our world. And while Magneto fights and seemingly kills Apocalypse in the end, it seems a hollow victory. He stands with Rogue and their little son, Charles, as they watch the bombs fall on New York. The final panel shows the shockwave reaching them, and everything turns white.

A real bummer ending, to be sure, but seeing as it was just a side reality, and everything more or less gets back to how it should be afterwards, at the time, as a fan, I found it to be a very compelling, mostly well-written, self-contained series, with it's own beginning, middle, and end, which for a comic story, let ALONE a big crossover event, is pretty damned rare. I personally consider the Age of Apocalypse to be one of, if not THE bet comics crossover events ever crafted. And I don't mind saying one of the prime architects of the entire deal, was my boy Scott Lobdell.




X-Men Animated Dark Timeline


So, before I finally close this out, I wanted to tie it back into the 90s Animated Series again, and one story arc in particular, titled "One Man's Worth". I noticed at the time that it aired, September 1995, that it had a LOT of little Easter Eggs that were direct references to the Age of Apocalypse comics. And while the timing seems a little hairy, given animation production, it does make sense, as the AoA comics started early in 1995, and were over by the summer. In "One Man's Worth", it follows a similar thread, where Sentinels from Bishop's animated timeline, have sent an assassin back in time, to kill a young Charles Xavier so he can never found the X-Men. Bishop and his sister Shard, are then tasked with going back in time to prevent it, but they fail, and wind up in a "dark timeline" that Xavier's death has caused.

Much like the AoA comic reality, many mutants have banded behind Magneto, including many X-Men, against the Sentinels and their armies. Bishop and Shard manage to recruit Wolverine and Storm, who in this reality are married, to go back in time again, to prevent Xavier's death, and keep that world from ever coming to be, even if it means Ororo and Logan would no longer be together.


AoA Sabertooth and Wildchild, with AoA Colossus in the background.

AoA Morph, briefly seen off to the side.

AoA Forge, more machine than man.

AoA Nightcrawler.

AoA Sentinels.
AoA Xavier Mansion Ruins, with AoA Angel in the background.


As you can see from the many pics above, there were many cool cameos. There were even brief battle cameos by a couple of Age of Apocalypse villains, fighting on the side of the mutants with Magneto, such as Sinister and Holocaust. Beast has a speaking cameo as well, and while he seems to be part cyborg, he is not the evil "Dark Beast" version of himself. There is also an odd cameo by the X-Men villain (and brief X-Man himself), Mimic, a mutant who copied the five original X-Men's powers, but I don't believe he was featured in the Age of Apocalypse comics.

I just always thought it was neat that whoever was in charge of the many clever "Easter Eggs" that feature in the X-Men Animated Series, that they managed to be so on the ball, having episodes with references to things that were happening that very same year in the comics. There were many other elements from the contemporary 90s X-Men comics that made it into the series too, such as the alien Phalanx, the Legacy Virus (simply called "The Plague" in the cartoon), Cable having come back in time to fight Apocalypse, Sinister and his Nasty Boys, Graydon Creed and his Friends of Humanity, etc. etc.



Last Hurrah?


As far as the comics are concerned, in the late 90s, Apocalypse did have one last major storyline that centered around him, but sadly, it happened after Scott Lobdell had left. The writers who were handling things by then, were okay, but hardly great. They had the seeds for what could have been an amazing story arc, called "The Twelve", in which the X-Men discover that there is an alleged prophecy, visions left behind by the deceased Destiny, claiming that a specific 12 mutants must come together to bring the ultimate downfall of Apocalypse, once and for all. And if you ask ME, the smart money would have been on having the storyline play it straight, and do just what it stated: BE the final showdown with Apocalypse.

I think they should have had this legendary "Twelve", which included the likes of Xavier, Nate Grey, Magneto, Polaris, Sunfire, Iceman, The Living Monolith, Cyclops, Phoenix, etc., and have them lead the charge in one final, desperate battle with the Big Guy. Have Apocalypse be about to achieve victory over the Earth, have him on the cusp of kicking off Cable's nightmare far future. And then have Cable and the X-Men manage to come together, and kick his ass right open, putting him down for good. Why not? Give the poor bastards a REAL, decisive victory for once. Give them something to really close out the millennium with, a feel good moment for the fanbase to enjoy, after SO much tragedy and hardship. That isn't to say more tragedy and hardship wouldn't come, but they deserved a real Win, not just continually putting out fires, at high cost.



What should have been the ultimate victory.


Instead, what the writers came up with, was the "twist", that the whole prophecy was concocted by Apocalypse himself, so that he could use the combined energies of the Twelve, to power an ancient Celestial machine, so that he could use it's great power to transfer his soul into the body of Nate Grey, giving him both youth and incredible psionic power. Enough to basically make him a god, who could rule over Earth and beyond. Now mind you, that DOES sound like something Apocalypse would do. But it's still not the satisfying, bad ass conclusion the story deserved, and the whole thing just kind of shit the bed at the end, leaving a bad taste in my mouth, as a fan.

But, I've been writing for a good bit now, per usual, so I'll wrap this up. Apocalypse is, without doubt, one of the most interesting and most bad ass villains in all of comicdom. Interestingly enough, they would have a late 90s miniseries about his early life, called "Rise of Apocalypse", which illustrated that he was the world's first mutant, some 5000 or so years ago, and that he actually could have grown up to be mankind's savior. But because of tragic life events (of course), he was instead twisted to become the mad tyrant that he became. The X-Men animated series really ignited my love for the villain, bastard that he is, but the good moments he DID get in the comics, really drove that home. I love Magneto, he is a classic villain. But in many ways, Apocalypse is arguably my favorite comic super-villain of all time.

And regardless, he is without a doubt one of the most bad ass. Some supervillains are cowards, hiding behind minions and working from the shadows. But En Sabbah Nur? He crushes you under his heel, and tells you all about it while doing so. Eloquently, to boot. So celebrate the ultimate bad guy, and go watch some X-Men cartoons or read some comics with him in it! Until next time...




Friday, December 23, 2016

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus




It's that Yuletide time of year again. Previously, I have spoken a bit about Christmas memories, some of my favorite TV Specials, some of my favorite Christmas Movies, and of course, various adaptations of the amazing perennial classic A Christmas Carol. But one key, central figure to the entire Christmas mythos that I have not yet truly breached, is that of the most iconic character associated with the holiday: Santa Claus himself.

Yes, you read that right. It may well be that the modern incarnation of "Christmas", is based on the Christian myth of the birth of Jesus Christ, their messiah. Even the word itself, derives from "Christ-Mass", meaning a religious observation of the "miracle birth". But the fact remains, that not only is a vast portion of the world population (meaning billions) not Christian of any denomination, but even biblical scholars state that if Christ existed as a real person, based on historical evidence, he was very likely not born anywhere near December 25th at all. Thus, with the 20th Century rise of the more secular (and also sadly commercial) presentation of Christmas as a world-wide holiday, the popular figure of Santa Claus is in fact more iconic with the day, regardless of the etymology of the name.



A more classical image of Santa.



Of course, much like the modern Christmas holiday itself, the modern image of Santa Claus is, at least as far as historians and anthropologists are concerned, himself an amalgamation, a mish-mash of various elements drawn from many sources. The typical root association is with the historical figure of "Saint Nicholas", a Greek who lived in the 4th Century, who among other things, grew in infamy for his penchant of giving gifts and general generosity, especially towards children. The other, even older possible (or likely) influences, are mythical pagan, pre-Christian figures, such as Woden (the Germanic Odin), or the Welsh (Celtic) Gwyn ap Nudd, both associated with the Otherworld and the "Wild Hunt", the harvesting of souls ready to cross over. Odin rode a mighty steed with eight limbs, similar to Santa's "Eight Tiny Reindeer", and Gwyn ap Nudd was associated with spectral hounds, most specifically Dormach, who was said to have a "ruddy" (as in red) nose.

Christmas itself, of course, has more pagan roots than it does Christian, as it too is a mish-mash of various cultural traditions, including Norse/Germanic "Yule", with it's the tradition of the "Yule Log" which gave way to the modern Christmas Tree. It also draws from the Celtic celebration of the Winter Solstice, which of course involved feasts, stories, merriment, and gift-giving. The historical figure of Saint Nicholas of Myra, later became mish-mashed with the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas and the English "Father Christmas", both emblems of generosity and merriment, and both notorious gift-givers. If you want to get super obscure, there are other folkloric figures of a similar mold, many of which very NON-Santa-like, at least in appearance, such as the Italian "Befana", or "Christmas Witch", who like Santa would give well-behaved children gifts, and badly-behaved children coal, or sticks, etc.



A more modern depiction of "Kris Kringle".


Santa with his loving wife, "Mrs. Claus".



Regardless of the etymology, the figure of Santa Claus is one that is known and beloved throughout much of the world, especially in "The West". And while as documented in past articles, I grew up raised by a fairly strict (though very odd) Christian, in my later years I came to associate the holiday more with Santa than anything. And I have always loved the character, even as a child. Not merely because I thought he brought me presents, though that certainly helps. In one of her better moments, when I was about 9 years old, my grandmother even somehow arranged for me to be in bed, and then suddenly heard "sleigh bells", which of course I could swear were coming from outside, before I was allowed to leap up and go look.

I also loved the character because he was this warm, generous, friendly and compassionate figure. Santa was a guy who cares about everybody, regardless of ethnicity, or nationality, or religion. He's a figure of good will, and "being good to one another". And naturally, my love of him was helped along by the many various depictions in the media, on television, most especially in the form of Christmas specials. Several of those came from one company, the great production house of Rankin/Bass (the creators of my beloved 1977 The Hobbit animated feature), such as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "The Year Without Santa Claus", etc. But there was one special that always stood out to me, even though they only really played it on TV when it was new, in the 80s, above and beyond all the rest. And it is that special that I'm really here today to talk about, because to me, it tells the best "Santa Myth" there is.




Not your typical Christmas story.


Based on the novel of the same name, by author L. Frank Baum, creator of the "Wizard of Oz" world and stories, originally published in 1902, the Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV Special aired on December 17th, 1985. What makes this tale so unique, and what makes it stick out the most to me as an adult, is that it comes off far more like a piece of classical mythology, or a fairy tale. I don't give a ton of "lip service" to it, because this is an entertainment blog, but in my teens and on into my adulthood, the spirituality that I "came into", that makes the most sense to me, without really getting into it too much, is most easily described as "Celtic Paganism". A belief in the reverence of Nature, the intertwining of the spirit and physical worlds, the idea of cyclical reincarnation, and the concept of the "Awen" or "Flowing Spirit" that creates and flows through all living things (kind of like Chi or The Force), etc.

So to me, this take on the Santa myth really strikes a lot of chords, while still remaining true the core essence of the figure, which is important. The story begins when The Great Ak, Lord of the Forests, an antlered entity who is probably derived from the Celtic deity Cernnunos, discovers an infant boy, abandoned near the edge of the mystical forest of Burzee, where mortal humans are generally not allowed to enter. Having compassion for the child, he decides to save him, and brings him before the Fairy Queen to decide what should be done. They initially decide to allow the lioness, Shiegra, to raise the boy, as she takes an instant, maternal liking to him, and she takes him away to her den to sleep.


The Forest Nymph, Necile.



But in the meanwhile, during a discussion on the nature of children, and how Immortal beings like fairies do not have children, one of the fairies named Necile, realizes that she would very much like to know what it would feel like to be a mother. So, giving in to her curiosity and desire, she sneaks away to the lion's den, and takes the baby with her, intent on raising him herself. Of course, when Shiegra the lioness wakes to find the baby gone, she is furious, and goes roaring through the forest after him. The matter comes before the Fairy Queen, who finds Necile with the child, and Ak, who comes to see what the commotion is about. And after Necile makes her case, that she could be a good mother and care for the boy, it is finally agreed that she will be allowed to raise him, with the help of Shiegra, who will be his protector.

Already not your typical Santa mythos, eh? To recap, baby Claus, as Necile names him, is raised in a magical forest by elves, fairies, a lioness and other wild animals, and a great Forest God. Not too shabby. As part of his education, young Claus is taught by the Sound Imp, Tingler, to speak a wide array of languages, including human, animal, fish, bird, and other more magical entities. This of course helps lay some foundation for why Santa as an adult can relate and communicate to people all over the world. He is taught a great many other things as he grows up by his magical forest friends, so that by the time he reaches his teens, he is incredibly well educated.



Young Claus flying around the world with the Great Ak.


When he is old enough, Ak decides to take Claus to different places in the world, to see the world of man, his own kind, which he thus far has not experienced. This is done so that he can better understand the world he will have to live in when he grows up, as adult mortals cannot stay in the Forest of Burzee. This trip winds up being an incredibly formative moment for Claus, as he is forever changed by what Ak calls "Man's Inhumanity to Man". He is shown war, strife, poverty, and even child abuse. He is horrified by it all, of course, but seeing children being mistreated, and even left homeless and ignored out in the street, seems to affect him the most. It is then that he decides that he wants to do good things, to help the children of the world.



Tingler, Claus, and Shiegra, heading out into the world.


When he finally reaches adulthood, as he can no longer stay in Burzee, he sets out into the human world, to make his own way. Tingler the imp is sent with him, as well as (in the TV special at least) his "second mom" Shiegra the lioness, to protect him. He eventually settles in the oddly named "Laughing Valley", and makes a house for himself there, with the help of fairy folk, of course. He makes a habit of doing things like reading to the local children, befriending and teaching them. He becomes a well regarded figure by most in the valley. One night, he helps a lost boy who is out in the snow, and upon seeing his black cat Blinky (who had been a housewarming gift from his "mother" Necile), the boy takes an instant liking to him, exclaiming how he'd love to have a kitty just like that. Claus, who had been whittling wood, decides to surprise the boy in the morning, by presenting to him a wooden facsimile of Blinky, which he calls a "toy". The boy is thrilled, and when other town's children see the toy, at first they want one too, though they eventually decide to share it.



Fully grown Claus finds his calling.



Seeing how happy the toys make the children, Claus feels he has finally found his calling, and with the help of Necile and other fairy folk, he sets to work making lots of toys for the local children of the valley. He makes so many that it's hard to carry them all without a sleigh, which they ask Peter Knook, the Master of all Animals, if they can borrow some reindeer to pull. He agrees, begrudgingly, but only for one night per year, which they agree should be Christmas Eve (as Fate would have it). However, there's a problem. In the interim, toys have been getting stolen by some rather nasty characters called the Awgwas, giant goblin/troll-like creatures, who dislike that Claus has been making the children happy, because it is their lot in life to influence human children into mischief and bad behavior.



You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.



Initially Claus works around this new stumbling block, by delivering toys at night to keep them away from the Awgwas. He even has to improvise, getting into locked houses at night, by going down the chimney, leaving toys in stockings drying by the fire. Or in other places still, without fireplaces, he leaves toys hanging on nearby trees. But the monsters don't let up, and eventually steal too many of his toys. If Claus can't get the presents back from them in time, he'll miss his "one night a year" opportunity, and have to wait a whole year. And beyond that, with all the presents stolen, he and his fairy friends can't make enough toys in time to meet the deadline either.



Two of my least-liked critters: Snakes and Spiders.

The King of the Awgwas, who by the way can turn themselves invisible, even goes so far as to have Claus kidnapped, and taken to a cave guarded by monsters, so that he can't possibly deliver more presents. Ultimately, the Great Ak comes and tries to reason with the Awgwas, but they won't relent, so he is forced to declare war on them. Yes, war, in a "children's cartoon" (or book).



Necile is a bad ass! Don't mess with Mama!

So the denizens of the forest come, animals, fairies, imps, and the Ak, face off against an army of Awgwas, and Three Eyed Giants, and Goozle-Goblins, and Black Demons. The monsters are formidable, but they're not immortal, nor do they have the great power of the forest on their side. There is even a scene, shown above, where a great Asian styled Dragon tries to fry some of the fairies with fire, but Necile, presumably fighting for her "son", uses fairy magic to blow the fire right back in his face and burn him to a crisp. Pretty drastic for a story about Santa, eh?



The Great Council of Immortals


The monsters are no match for the forces of Burzee, and though Claus does not see the fighting himself, the Ak simply tells him later that "the Awgwas have perished". So he is now free to help the children of Laughing Valley, and indeed the world, as he pleases. He uses his one night with the reindeer to go all over the planet, delivering presents to children no matter where they live, and in time, this earns him the status of a Saint, and hence the title "Santa Claus". But with time, too, he grows old, and the Great Ak senses that his time is near. The special itself is actually framed by this plot point, as in the beginning we are shown Ak calling together the Council of the Immortals, and the story unfolds with Ak telling it, as a way of explaining to them why he believes Santa deserves to be gifted the "Mantle of Immortality".



The Commander of the Wind Demons


The Council themselves are a colorful and memorable lot, which include our friend the Fairy Queen, a batlike Commander of the Wind Demons,  the King of the Knooks, the Master of the Sound Imps, The Queen of the Water Spirits, The King of the Ryls, the Lord of Sleep Fays, the Grand Duke of Light Elves, and his princes Flash and Twilight. And of course, the Great Ak himself. He tries to convince them that the work Santa does is too important to allow him to die of old age, and that he should be given Immortality so that he can continue it indefinitely. At first, the other Immortals, especially that creepy Wind Demon guy, are quite skeptical that ANY mortal human deserves such an honor. But by the end of his tale, after hearing of Claus' character and all his many deeds, even the Wind Demon is convinced, and as Santa lies on his deathbed, telling Tingler and the others to decorate a Christmas Tree in memory of him, he is given the Mantle, and thus becomes immortal.



The Great Fairy Queen.


So there you have it. The synopsis of what is, to me, a pretty great origin story for good ol' "St. Nick". Seeing this as a kid really stuck with me, and when I was older, thinking back and trying to remember it, I remember being surprised that my grandmother would have let me sit and watch it at all. I guess she somehow didn't catch just how pagan the whole affair seemed, what with fairy folk and elves and gods and monsters, and Santa being given immortality. And, presumably, his magick powers he is often attributed with (such as being able to shoot back up chimneys in the blink of an eye). As a side note, this special is also significant, because it was also apparently the LAST major Rankin/Bass stop-motion special they would make, which is both cool, and sad.

To me, Santa has always been a character of mythical proportions. A wizard at the very least, or perhaps even a sort of divinity unto himself, like a kind of "God of Cheer and Giving" or something like that. Or perhaps he's just a nice guy who likes to do nice things, because he believes the world could use a bit more kindness. Either way, Santa Claus is a symbol, an emblem, of what Christmas-time, whether you're a Christian, or a pagan, or even an agnostic or atheist, is really supposed to be all about: fellowship with our fellow humans, being nicer and more caring to one another, acting civilized and trying to cause each other some joy, instead of so much suffocating misery.

To me, I think even in the context of this story, young Claus probably decided to focus on helping children, because perhaps he felt that adults were too set in their ways and hard to reach. That, perhaps, by reaching children, and showing them kindness and generosity, that they might grow up to extend the same to their own children, and their fellow man. Perhaps Santa believed, as I do, that it is really through children, and future generations, that we have any real prayer and hope, of building a better, brighter tomorrow. And that's the "Spirit of Christmas", after all, right?

"Peace On Earth, Good Will Towards Men".

 Certainly food for thought. And whether you, like me, even as an adult, like to believe in some form of Santa Claus, or you don't really celebrate the season at all, I hope that you all have a very Happy Holidays, and here's to us having, against all odds, a very good New Year!