Columnists Joe and Kevin take you through the experience of learning to read comic books. Each week they alternate as Joe (the teacher) explains why he picked a specific book, and Kevin (the student) gives his impressions.
When I began this project, my biggest fear was opening up a book and having absolutely no idea what was going on. Comic books were so intimidating to me to get into (for reasons I wrote about the first week), and the idea of picking up a story in the middle blew my mind. The stories would certainly rely on an entirely established canon and mythology, and the completist in me was certain I would miss crucial and obvious things by not having this background. Every page would be a new question— “Who’s that guy?” “What’s she doing?” “Wait, so is he good or bad?”
Now that I’m five books in, I’m finding that while there’s definitely some confusion, I honestly don’t mind. Sure, that completist itch is there, and that’s when I turn to Wikipedia and other resources to help fill in some of the backstory. But there’s a certain exhilaration in picking things up as I go, and I believe the nature of the medium is such that writers need to constantly catch up readers who might be new or have simply dropped off for a while.
And that presents a challenge for comic book writers: how do you tell a complete story, one that appeals to newbies and long-time readers alike, when there’s so much established story? The easy answer is that you can more or less disregard things at will; after all, Batman has been running since the 1940s and you don’t see him really aging. Comic books exist outside of time, constantly able to reset and retool as the years pass, trends and styles change, and new writers and artists take the helm.
When I read Knightfall last week, I found that while I was familiar with a lot of the characters, there were a few I had never seen before. And this is one of the things the writers of Knightfall do so well: they’re able to play with old characters to tell new stories, mixing unfamiliar players (Zsasz, Firefly) with series regulars (Joker, Riddler) to create a unique atmosphere that hadn’t been done before. How else can you tell a fresh story after 54 years?
The X-Men presents a slightly different challenge. In my cursory examination, I estimate there are roughly 6,000% more characters in The X-Men universe than in Batman’s, and simply keeping track of their names, powers, and allegiances is a full-time job. A few weeks ago I read Fatal Attractions, an X-Men story heavy on Holocaust symmetry and light on background explanations. Characters were clearly motivated by things I knew nothing about, and I learned pretty quickly to let certain things drop. (I still have no idea who Illyana was, and why her death was such a big deal.)
And yet all these characters, relationships, and storylines go right out the window with Age Of Apocalypse. In 1995 X-Men: Alpha appeared, kicking off a year-long alternate reality story about a world completely devastated by a villain called Apocalypse. Charles Xavier is dead, Magneto is the leader of The X-Men, humans are being exterminated. What set off this chain of events hardly matters; the main thing is seeing completely new versions of your favorite characters.
The very existence of Age Of Apocalypse underscores that essential nature of comic books—simply put, writers can do whatever the hell they want. It’s not that simple, of course; Marvel couldn’t suddenly decide Charles Xavier was evil this whole time and have him kill The X-Men, because that would go against everything that The X-Men stories are about. (And I’m sure there is a story, somewhere, where Xavier is evil and kills someone, but I obviously haven’t read it and I’m sure it’s non-canonical.) But it’s OK to play with relationships, chronology, life and death, and motivations for the sake of telling a great story. And Age Of Apocalypse is a great story.
Where Fatal Attractions—the only X-Men story I can use as a point of comparison—is an austere story of two men driven to extremes by ideology, Age Of Apocalypse is much more buoyant and freeform, despite the dire setting and genocidal circumstances. There are some moments of drama, particularly regarding the vision Magneto receives from Bishop (which informs him that this reality is not the correct one), but the very nature of “alternate reality” somewhat lowers the stakes.
What difference does it make, for example, that Magneto is saddened by the knowledge that his relationship with Rogue was never meant to be? We know Magneto the villain, the egotistical madman of Fatal Attractions. He’s not the leader of The X-Men, and obviously he’s not doing that great of a job of it, either. Alternate realities are fun places to visit, but you rarely want to live there.
Although Magneto as a villain pales in comparison to Apocalypse. Where Magneto’s actions are tempered by good intentions (and his personal history), Apocalypse is just a creature of destruction, determined to rule the world and eliminate the human race entirely. If there are any deeper motivations driving him, they’re never clearly spelled out here; Apocalypse is evil, just like all of his henchmen, and there’s something rather novel about that.
But the lightness of Age Of Apocalypse doesn’t mean the story isn’t really enjoyable. It’s a lot of fun seeing villains like Magneto and Sabretooth as part of The X-Men, while heroes like Havok and Beast (“Dark Beast”) are servants of Apocalypse. This “what if” scenario gives readers a chance to really think about what they love about the characters and The X-Men, and the new setting is just grim enough to keep people invested.
Age Of Apocalypse also serves to illustrate how circumstantial the Marvel universe really is. Without Xavier to pull central figures together and inform The X-Men’s purpose, seemingly anything can happen. Wolverine is more or less out of the picture, finally in a proper relationship with Jean Grey, giving him enough distance from Sabretooth to allow them both to grow in different directions. The writers can only accomplish this by simultaneously acknowledging the existing canon and transforming it to their will.
What I Liked:
- Apocalypse’s attempt to rule the world was made all the more creepy and believable by the additional dimension of divine right and religious implications. The monks who serve him were a scary touch, particularly when they’re about to sacrifice Bishop.
- On the one hand, I like that Marvel embraced the success of Age Of Apocalypse by eventually pulling in some of the characters (and versions of characters) introduced here, but part of me feels like that’s cheating. But then, everyone seems to cheat in comics, so what does it really matter?
What I Didn’t Like:
- Abyss was awful. I’m convinced Marvel was just poking fun at Image Comics here (Abyss is pretty damn similar to Violator in both appearance and shitty dialogue) but it’s hard to tell what they were really thinking here. Fortunately Quicksilver punched him into himself.
- Storm did pretty much everything, huh? Was there even a reason for anyone else to bother?
Odds & Ends:
- It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t read every comic related to the Age Of Apocalypse storyline. I pretty much just read X-Men: Alpha, The Amazing X-Men, The Astonishing X-Men, and X-Men: Omega. I didn’t read the Gambit, X-Calibre, or any of the other stories. I’m sure they do a great job of fleshing out the adventure and the universe we’re seeing, but I don’t think it was critical to my experience.
Although this piece is slightly shorter than previous ones, that should in no way be taken to mean I liked Age Of Apocalypse any less. I’m somewhat aware of the impact it had, and I wish I could have read this in the ’90s when Joe did, having my mind blown at the awesomeness. The book is still a lot of fun, but it’s hampered by the sinking feeling I’d appreciate it more if I had been reading all this time. And that, dear readers, is the second biggest fear I had going into this project.
Read along with Joe and Kevin!
Next up: Starman Vol. 1-3
You can also hear Joe and Kevin on their podcast.