Thursday, June 23, 2005

When great plans go right

X-Men: Age of Apocalypse

When something goes wrong, it's a good idea if you can understand what the authors were trying to do. For instance, many felt that the "Disassembled" storyline which took over Marvel last year was overblown, inconsistent and disappointing. Personally, I liked it, mostly. Many fear "House of M" or "Infinite Crisis" will turn out similarly.

Big crossovers are big revenue earners, and some see them purely as that - soulless money-making schemes with little or no artistic merit, distorting storylines and pointlessly chomping up months of comic books. I like to think that even in the worst crossovers, some attempt was being made to produce something valuable. To see what they might have been aiming at, read the "Age of Apocalypse".

AoA was a huge crossover "event" which swallowed up the summer of 1995. All the regular mutant books were suspended, and replaced by equivalents set in a dystopian future ruled by Apocalypse, who up to this point had a been a cardboard cut-out villain from X-Factor, but who emerged here as a monstrous tyrant, well on the way to conquering the world and annihilating homo sapiens. This alternative future had been set into motion by Legion, Charles Xavier's son, a high powered mutant who did not survive this story. AoA introduced a new hero, X-Man, whose series would survive AoA by several years, and included the usual range of one-off issues, alternative covers and other marketing blah. As AoA progressed, the various heroes who had survived attempted to defeat Apocalypse, whose minions included Hank McCoy gone very bad and vast numbers of copies of Jamie Madrox, the multiple man.

It was a great concept, carried out beautifully. Being an alternative world, regular heroes could be morally compromised or wiped out, and villains could be heroes. It was a dark, ugly world (typically 1990s in that respect) and getting darker.

In the end, the heroes won out, the alternative future ceased to be and things went back pretty much the way they were. My only fault with the series was the final issue, X-Men Prime, which set a jarringly miserable note on the return of the regular world. What should have been a celebration that things had been made better became a whinge about how horrible our world is. It made me want to subject the writers to a prolonged round of slaps.

But AoA was a triumph, and one of editorial power. The writers became mere scripters as a mega-plot unfolded across multiple titles. The editors, and in particular Bob Harras, who was in charge of the X-Men, have to be given a huge amount of credit for creating AoA. It was a clear demonstration of the standards which could be reached under this sort of editorial control.

I say this reluctantly, because in my opinion editors had, and probably have, far too much control over comics. Editorial vision always seems to be monumental - bigger, longer, more convoluted storylines. Subtlety and nuance get lost in a splatter of big ideas and violence.

Most of the comic books which I have enjoyed over the years have not been crossovers. AoA is the only crossover I have read which I could say was a classic. And after AoA, Marvel's editors were under pressure to reproduce what couldn't be reproduced. What we got was the Clone Saga, which resulted in long-lasting damage to Spider-Man, and Onslaught, which damaged pretty much everything else.

I have a natural tendency to think the best of the motives of comic book creators, but the return of the big crossovers is something which makes my heart sink. Joe Quesada has said that "Disassembled" and "House of M" are part of a bigger, mega-crossover which will finish in a year or two. And while I hope for something as impressive as AoA, I fear we will end up with Onslaught


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