Monday, November 21, 2016

Comic Chronicles: The Age of Apocalypse Pt. 1 - The 80s

As a bit of a follow up to my previous X-Men: The Animated Series article, there were more threads I wanted to talk about in relation to the show, and it's similarities and differences with the comics, but decided for time and flow, to save some of that discussion for another day. I also wanted to cover my favorite X-Men comics era, the early-to-mid-90s, mostly written by one Scott Lobdell, who because of his work on those X-books, is arguably my favorite comic writer of all time. Several very strong stories arcs were written in that time period, many of which directly influenced the 90s cartoon that was happening basically parallel to it, before the comics (and the show) started gradually going downhill in the later 90s (in the comics' case, after Lobdell abruptly left). One of those stories, was a great, though very dark, self-contained alternate reality that took place over the course of about five months in 1995, called "The Age of Apocalypse".

Obviously,  by it's name, you can see that it is based around one of the best and most powerful X-Men villains of all time, "Big A" himself. What you see above, is what he looked like in one of his very first appearances, and while his visage would evolve somewhat over time, he ever remained the towering, threatening ancient force of evil. So this article is going to be kind of a bridge piece, if you will, as it is going to focus mostly on Apocalypse, and things related to him, both in the comics, and in the 90s animated series.

It all began with the Phoenix...kinda?

So, for a bit of history, in one of the most famous stories in X-Men (and comics) history, "The Phoenix Saga", which originally took place back in 1977, the X-Men had an adventure in space, fighting Sentinels, which upon their attempted re-entry of Earth, Marvel Girl (Jean Grey), had to use her powers to pilot the ship, because of dangerous radiation that could prove lethal to everyone else (who were inside of a shielded probe). Her telekinetic shields were not strong enough, however, and she herself was dying from the radiation, even a she tried to pilot the shuttle to a safe landing. Enter the enigmatic cosmic entity known as "The Phoenix Force", which, in short, is sort of an embodiment of Life itself. The Phoenix senses Jean's mind crying out for help, and it approached her at the last moment, offering to save her...for a price.

The Price of course, was, as readers were originally led to believe, the Phoenix taking possession of Jean's body, so that it could use her as an avatar of itself to fight the mad alien D'Ken, and heal the cosmic M'Kraan Crystal, before it could destroy the universe. The crystal was healed, but unlike in the 90s cartoon version of events, Jean did not plunge with the crystal into the sun, to her apparent death. Instead, she seemed to remain very much alive, and from 1977 through 1980, she stayed on (mostly) as an active member of the X-Men, now going by "Phoenix". Then in 1980, the arguably MORE infamous "Dark Phoenix Saga" sequel story arc took place, and much like the cartoon, the villainous Hellfire Club's Inner Circle, led by the efforts of The White Queen and Mastermind, influenced and corrupted Jean/Phoenix's mind, to the point that Phoenix became addicted to the thrill of committing evil acts. She became a threat on a cosmic scale, leading the alien Shi'ar to seek her destruction to, again, save the universe.

The End...?

...Or IS it?

So, in comic continuity, because they wanted to make a "shocking" splash, or whatever, the character of Jean Grey was dead for around 5 or so years. In the mean-time, long-time writer Chris Claremont, in his infinite wisdom, decided to have Scott Summers (Cyclops) leave the X-Men in grief over his lost love...only to not too long later meet a woman named Madelyn Pryor, who happened to look EXACTLY like Jean, yet no one, not even Wolverine, seems to notice. Claremont eventually goes so far as to have Cyclops lose in a battle of leadership of the X-Men with a POWERLESS Storm, so he decides to retire from superhero life and go have a family with Not-Jean (really, really strong writing).

Thankfully, a few years later, the Marvel powers that be intervened, in my opinion for the better, and decided to make one of the few MAJOR "ret-cons" (retroactive continuity) in comics history that was actually a good decision: they decided to bring Jean back. Of course the problem was, how to do that? It was decided, and then revealed in crossover issues of The Avengers and Fantastic Four, that the Phoenix Force didn't actually possess Jean Grey. Instead, it saved her life, wrapping her in a sort of cosmic cocoon, and left her at the bottom of a bay (why? who knows) to heal. In her stead, Phoenix took on Jean's form, even memories, and began to think it was actually Jean. So the "Jean" that went bad, and ultimately died, was actually the Phoenix Force itself. So the Avengers, in 1986, discover said cocoon, and take it to the brilliant mind of Reed Richards, of the Fantastic Four, to study. Out of the cocoon comes Jean, who thinks she's still piloting the shuttle, and....well, there you go.

In my opinion, THE best X-Men book of the 80s.

So, after Jean recovers her memories (or rather, the memories of Phoenix, from the time spent pretending to be Jean), the FF call up the only X-Man they seem to be able to get ahold of, one Scott Summers, and naturally, he comes running, because it's Jean. Mind you, it initially made him look like a real piece of shit, basically abandoning his wife Maddie and their baby son Nathan (who would grow up to be Cable). But again, thankfully, writers later further fixed the mess Claremont made of things, by explaining that Maddie Pryor was, in point of fact, a CLONE of Jean Grey, created by Mister Sinister, who had his eye on Scott and Jean for years. It was actually his long-gestating plan, to take the child of Scott and Jean, because their genetic templates were perfect to create a "super-mutant" of Sinister's control, but when Jean "died", he created Maddie instead, and used Sith Mind Tricks etc., to both have Scott fall for her, and have no one else notice she looked EXACTLY like Jean (you still with me?).

SO, the point is, you could argue that Jean being revealed to be alive, brought Scott out of whatever kind of spell Sinister/Maddie had him under, and he ran to her because she was his one true (IE real) love. Maddie eventually popped up again, insane and evil, as a weapon of Sinister called "The Goblin Queen", and after her tragic death, Scott and Jean spent a time raising little baby Nathan Summers as their child (since Jean technically WAS his biological mother). In the MEANTIME, Scott and Jean get ahold of the other three original X-Men, Beast, Angel, and Iceman, who had been off superheroing elsewhere for years themselves, and the original five X-Men decide to reunite as the BEST X-Men team (IMO) of the 80s, called "X-Factor".

X-Factor's first true villains, and Apocalypse's first minions.

Enter "Big A" himself!

So, sorry for the detour, but getting BACK to the subject of Apocalypse, ancient, mad, and villainous mutant overlord. In X-Factor's very early adventures together, they gradually run into a group of mutants who call themselves "The Alliance of Evil" (not very subtle, I know): Frenzy, Tower, Stinger, and Timeshadow. It is eventually revealed that their master, is a mysterious mutant known as Apocalypse, a madman obsessed with the idea of "survival of the fittest". As a bit of side lore, Apocalypse was created as THE villain for X-Factor, sort of like the X-Men's Magneto, but that was not always the case. Writer Bob Layton actually wrote the first five issues of X-Factor, and had a major hand in the movement to bring Jean back to life in the first place. The end of X-Factor #5 showed a shadowy silhouette of the AoE's mysterious boss, but he was not originally going to be Apocalypse! Layton and the Marvel editors actually had some far lesser villain in mind, such as perhaps Daredevil's old enemy "The Owl".

But thankfully, for whatever reasons, Bob left X-Factor, and a lovely lady who had long been in the business, and finally got her time to shine as co-creator of the Power Pack comic in 1984, Louise Simonson took over the book from Issue #6 onward. It was, for the most part, actually Simonson who created the character of Apocalypse, wanting a stronger, longer-lasting villain than someone like Owl, and it was largely she who created his backstory of being a mysterious, ancient mutant of unknown age, who wanted to weed out the weak from the strong. In essence, Louise Simonson was Apocalypse's mother! Unfortunately for X-Factor, their first brush with Apocalypse would hardly be their last, and they had no way of knowing just how much he would effect their lives in the times to come.

The Fallen Angel...

In the previous article, I touched upon the character of Warren Worthington III, aka "Archangel", and how he was one of my initial favorites from the cartoon, in spite of him only having cameo appearances. Well, as I would come to learn once I started reading the actual comics in my teens (and later going back and reading every major X-Men and X-related comic from 1963 through the 90s, as an adult), his original fall and transformation were quite different, and quite darker, than the cartoon portrayed. In fact, the poor guy got put through the ringer.

In the X-Men Animated Series, Season 1 storyline "The Cure", Angel is depicted as a man who hides his wings, and is ashamed of them, and is funding research into what he thinks is a "cure for mutancy", because he wants to be normal. And while very well done in the cartoon, and compelling, it's also highly ironic, because in the comics, that couldn't have been further from the truth. Perhaps more than any single other X-Men character, Warren loved his wings, adored them even, and equally loved being a hero. He was a rich playboy, but he also cared about people, and actually took to the streets as a masked vigilante ("The Avenging Angel"), before Professor Xavier offered him a spot on the X-Men (in the 60s). In a world of super-powered characters, many of whom these days are like living gods, having wings and being able to fly might seem like nothing. But back in the 60s, a dude with wings who could fly was, I'm sure, pretty damn neat, and he was a fairly beloved superhero.

The Angel, in his early days.

Angel was, of course, one of the original five X-Men, as already stated: Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, Beast, and Angel. He had many incredible adventures with them as a teenager, and by his early 20s, the team had expanded to include a new "generation" of members, such as Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Wolverine. For whatever reasons (mainly poor writing), the original X-Men, against character, decided that the new X-Men could handle things, and they all left, save Cyclops. Angel and Iceman would go on to form a short-lived super-team called "The Champions", while Beast accidentally turned himself black and furry (eventually becoming the more familiar blue), and had a long stint with the Avengers. All three of them would ultimately wind up on the second team known as the "Defenders", and stayed with that team til it's final demise.

It was shortly after these events, by the mid-80s, that Jean was brought back, and they were contacted by Scott to come see her. They formed X-Factor together, and everything seemed right in the world again. Except Fate had other ideas. During one of the early major crossover events of the 80s, called "The Mutant Massacre", a team of murderers for hire, called "The Marauders", were sent (later revealed to be in the employ of Mister Sinister), to wipe out the underground mutant colony called "The Morlocks". X-Factor got involved, and being fool-hardy and brash, Angel got separated from the team, facing the Marauders known as Harpoon and Blockbuster alone. They beat him badly, and impaled his wings, basically nailing him up like Jesus on the cross, and left him to die. He survived, thanks to being saved by Thor, but his wings, sadly, did not.

Apocalypse Makes His Move...

Behind the scenes, Apocalypse was biding his time. He seemingly abandoned the Alliance of Evil after their original schemes failed, and instead, he next appears in the shadows, offering mutants seemingly beyond hope, what at first appears to be a "second chance at life". He appears, quite fortuitously, in the midst of the slaughter of the Morlocks, to offer the old woman known as "Plague", a mutant with the power to spread disease, a way out. He approaches the shy, withdrawn girl Autmn Rolfson, whose touch withers organic things such as plants, with promises of a better life. He offers the crippled ex-soldier Abraham Keiros, a mutant who can create explosive blasts, a change to walk, and thus live, again. The three of him become his Horsemen, Pestilence, Famine, and War, riding the skies atop mechanical monsters of his own creation. The price for his "salvation", as it would turn out, was becoming both completely transformed by, and subservient to Apocalypse's will. Of course, his set was incomplete, for in mythology, there were not three Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but four...

The Fourth Horseman, Death! 


When Warren injured his wings in those Morlock tunnels, they were damaged beyond repair. They started to wither and rot, and had to be amputated from his body, against his wishes, so that he might live. His life was technically saved, but not in his eyes.With the loss of his wings, he became incredibly depressed. He basically thought his life was over. Even though he was rich, famous, and handsome, with "everything most men could ever want", for him his wings, being able to fly, and being a hero, were everything.

Without them, he felt hollow, and so, in a shocking turn of events, he actually tried to kill himself, by rigging his own private plane to explode in the air. However, the mysterious villain Apocalypse, which X-Factor had already briefly encountered, saved his life by teleporting him from the blast at the last second, and made him an offer he couldn't refuse: he would give him wings again. Of course, Warren didn't know the price he would pay to be able to soar once more, but at the time, he also didn't care. He would give anything to, in his eyes, be "made whole again".

The Angel, transformed into Archangel.

The Four Horseman, in the cartoon.

The price, of course, was the same, either in the comics OR the cartoon: he was given new wings alright, deadly organic metal ones, razor sharp with the ability to throw poisoned dart "feathers" as projectiles. And with these new powers, he was also renamed Death, the first horsemen, and chosen to lead his other fellow, transformed mutants, Famine, War, and Pestilence. As the Four Horsemen, they were to serve and enforce Apocalypse's will. And what was his will? Easy. He only wanted to kill off MOST of humanity, with only the truly strong, and in his eyes "worthy" surviving.


Trying to Rise once more.

In the cartoon Warren would eventually be snapped out of his brainwashing by Rogue, and would appear again later, obsessed with trying to destroy Apocalypse as penance, but he was forever changed, touched by Darkness itself. In the comics, this also proved to be true, though it was the apparent death of his best friend, Bobby Drake (Iceman), at his own hands, that brought him back, and turned him against Apocalypse's mad designs. Warren would spend some time away from the team, both lost and feeling like he no longer belongs, though even after he returns, as you can see above, he continues to wear the outfit Apocalypse gave him, and calls himself "Archangel". He would continue to struggle with his Horseman conditioning, and transformation, for years to come, into the 90s. 

They Always Come Back...

Sadly, the near destruction of Manhattan, and the transformation of Angel, were not the last that X-Factor would see of Apocalypse. They persevered as a team, and after losing their original home base, they actually, surprisingly, inherited Apocalypse's gigantic Celestial Ship, which they made their new mobile base of operations. As I said earlier, they also eventually got Scott (and technically Jean's) son Nathan back, and along with the young mutant wards they had taken in along the way, they had something of an oddball mutant family on their hands. The 80s X-Factor, in many ways, not only more resembled what the X-Men were originally supposed to be, as opposed to the dark, brooding, often very erratic Claremont-written X-Men of the 80s. But to me, they also somewhat resembled my OTHER favorite super-team, the Fantastic Four. Like the FF, they were more like a close-knit family, than merely team, as these people had been together since they were still technically kids.

It was really a great run, and perhaps like Scott Lobdell, I'll also someday have to write an article just about Louise Simonson herself. With the end of the 80s, also came the end of X-Factor, at least in it's original form. Their final major story arc, once again involved Apocalypse, and this time, he cut even deeper than before. This time, he was specifically out for revenge against X-Factor for continually getting in his way, but he also had deeper machinations. He came to learn that Sinister, who as it turns out he had a hand in "creating" back in the Victorian Era, wanted Scott and Jean's progeny, both so he could create a race of "super-mutants", but also so he could have a living weapon against his former master, Apocalypse. To keep little Nathan from ever being a threat to him, so he thinks, Apocalypse infects the child with a techo-organic virus that will consume his body and kill him. The only way for Cyclops to save his son, is to send him with a total stranger who shows up to help them, taking him away to a far-flung alternate future where they can hopefully save his life. That son would eventually show back up as the aged mutant mercenary, Cable, but that's a bit of another story...

The 90s X-Men

And the 90s X-Factor

Around late 1990, the X-titles all converged once more (well, at least X-Men and X-Factor), around a storyline dealing with Charles Xavier returning from space (after being gone for far too long), to face his old nemesis The Shadow King, who was conspiring to use or destroy his X-Men and take over the world, and such. At the conclusion of that semi-messy plot, while it sucked that the great Simonson X-Factor run was over (she actually departed after her final Apocalypse story), it did help give birth to what I consider to be the BEST X-Men era, of the early and mid 90s. Charles once again became crippled (long story), and he had 20-something mutants to deal with, from the X-Men, X-Factor, and Moira McTaggart's Muir Island group. A lot of decisions had to be made, and 1991 was a transformative year for the X-titles.

X-Factor, as featured in the 90s animated series.


 The UK group, Excalibur, featuring old X-Men Shadowcat and Nightcrawler, continued on, eventually working with Moira. Xavier's old "teen squad" from the 80s, The New Mutants, came under the leadership of the mutant Cable, and reformed themselves as a paramilitary outfit called X-Force. The X-Factor name continued on, with a completely different group, made up of former X-Men Havok (Scott's brother Alex) and Polaris, as well as Strong Guy, Multiple Man, Wolvesbane, and Quicksilver. The X-Men, meanwhile, reconvened in a re-re-rebuilt X-Mansion, Xavier's palatial estate, with a team around a dozen or so strong. The early 90s comic lineup included: Cyclops, Jean, Wolverine, Beast, Iceman, Archangel, Psylocke, Rogue, Gambit, Storm, Colossus, Jubilee, and eventually, the time lost Bishop. That is, again, the basic team, with a few exclusions, that the 90s animated series would be based around, with their look, their themes, etc.

So I'll draw this one to a close, for now. But as a last bit of teaser, I will share that, of course, Apocalypse was hardly done with this world, nor the X-Folks. In fact, he comes back in some rather big ways, including the eponymous "Age of Apocalypse" storyline I mentioned, which I will cover in the next exciting issue of...Retro Revelations!