Friday, July 29, 2011

Re-Reading the Age of Apocalypse: Legion Quest

While reading the latest Uncanny X-Force, the 2nd part in the 'Dark Angel Saga', I found myself confused about some of the characters still alive in this future version of the Age of Apocalypse version. As far as I can recall, the very poignant finale to that entire event saw Jean Grey killed from behind by the vindictive Alex Summers. Yet there she is, talking and telekinesis-ing and jumping Wolvie's bones. Wikipedia tells me it has something to do with Mr. Sinister, or possibly the Phoenix force, but it's unclear and I certainly don't remember when any extra issues came out.

So I decided to go to the source. After all there's a lot of reason for research these days. As already mentioned, we have X-Force travelling back to that world, seeking a cure for Warren's current transformation into Apocalypse himself. Nate Grey, X-Man, just joined the New Mutants team this week, his huge power downgraded after some copious amounts of torture at the hands of the always-disgusting, super evil Sugar Man (yet another Age of Apocalypse refugee.) Hell, alternate universes are all the rage yet again, with Age of X wrapping up recently, and Flashpoint changing absolutely everything in the DC universe as we speak.

I've only just begun my steady walk through the complete epic of Age of Apocalypse, but it's a rather fun time to revisit. Feel free to join me.

Like all X-events worth a banner, this one starts with a prologue. As I'm sure you all know, the Age of Apocalypse is a universe without Charles Xavier, where the X-Men are led by Magneto in a fight for survival against the Lord Apocalypse, who has taken over the world and established a barbaric tyranny that exists upon the simple Darwinian precept "survival of the fittest."

But how did we get there? Where in our shared history did the timeline diverge, where did the death of Xavier occur that would lead to such horrors? Because the Age of Apocalypse is a terrible place; nuclear wastelands, labor camps for humans, perverse genetic experiments, and Holocaust (that's an actual character, Apocalypse's son, no less. Not clear who the Mother is.)

Believe it or not, Xavier's damaged son David is the one responsible. David Haller is the son of Charles Xavier and Gabrielle Haller. His mother was a shell shocked young woman, rescued from a Nazi concentration camp where she was kept alive as a young girl to amuse the guards and be the subject of HYDRA experiments. When Charles came to the Israeli hospital where he befriends Magnus (this is all prior to any open mutants in the world, let alone super teams or villains) he heals the catatonic Gaby using his telepathic powers, and eventually they start a relationship. Naturally it's a bit of an unhealthy, patient-mutant-savior dynamic, and, like all of Charlie's female liaisons, it doesn't last. Xavier goes off to meet more mutants, get his legs crushed, and form a team of teenage superheroes, and Gaby finds out she's got a bun in the oven.

When David matures it turns out he is also a mutant, his powers triggered by a terrorist attack that only he survives. However, ostensibly as a result of the trauma, he suffers from acute schizophrenia, (or at least that's what they call it, it's probably more accurate to say multiple personality disorder--they're not voices, they're full-fledged, developed characters after all) and every single one of his alternate personalities has their own unique psionic ability. Hence the appropriate moniker, Legion. To put it bluntly, he's more powerful than his father, and easily one of the most powerful mutants on the planet.

After being possessed by the Shadow King during the Muir Island Saga, in which he killed Destiny and dealt some severe blows to Xavier's dream, he remained in a coma. Eventually Mystique comes looking for him, seeking revenge for the death of her, and I quote, "...friend." They really had a hard time calling them lesbian lovers in the 90s, but maybe it was less about homosexuality, and more about the fact that mystique is blue and god knows how old and Destiny is sweet but honestly a wrinkly white haired geriatric. Anyway her assassination attempt triggers some telepathic failsafe and Legion wakes up, the time in the coma having proved restful and restorative, as all his powers and personalities have united under the control of David Haller.

Now, whole and strong, he decides to fix the world and ensure that his father's dream of peaceful coexistence between man and mutant can come through. No one really knows what this means yet, but being X-Men they try and stop him. Mystique doesn't make a dent, and X-Factor is rather embarrassingly swatted aside.

But then comes my favorite issue. Uncanny X-Men #320 in which the Gold Team, led by Storm, arrive in Israel at the summons of Gabrielle Haller, and step in to confront Legion though hopelessly outmatched. Often these 90s X-Men comics, especially when they're event related, got horribly verbose, the art felt sloppy and overdone, and the story ridiculous. This issue is a jewel that I loved even when I owned it completely out of sequence. Turns out it was written by both Mark Waid and Scott Lobdell, though I didn't give writers names a thought back then, and the fact that Waid was involved explains why I actually can quote lines verbatim from the issue.

For instance, it opens with Storm high above the desert, weather crackling around her intensely (beautiful art.) 

"The laws of nature do not bend this far."

"So she will break them."

I mean, come on. For a guy who loves Storm as much as I do, this issue is solid gold. Despite him laughing off the immensity of her power, she demands his attention in that eloquent, leadership way that she has, leading to an brief but emotional demonstration of how David can manipulate the time stream. We get a skillfully done flashback to how the X-Men Gold Team arrived in Israel and their conference with Gaby, and by replaying recent experiences Storm is the first, and really only character in the whole multiple-chapter-prologue to realize David's intentions:

To go back in time and kill Magneto before he can become the enemy of Charles and stop his Dream from coming reality.

Instinctively, whether she knows the dangers of abusing the timestream, or the bizarre yin and yang of Xavier and Magneto, or just refuses to let Legion meddle in things beyond his right, Storm orders Pyslocke to link to Bishop, who still has some of David's "chronal energy" absorbed, and the three of them along with Iceman get transported along with Legion into the past, leaving Jean Grey in the desert to inform the others. Seriously, it's like the perfect comic. Great narration, wonderful dialogue, beautiful art, tightly plotted. It should be a template for writers. So much fun.

The rest of the prologue is not as stellar. The X-Men who travelled back in time have lost their memories, though they know about their own powers and stick together as a team. The X-Men in the present day are warned by Lilandra and the Watchers that the fate of the universe hinges on the success or failure of their comrades fighting David in the past. They deduce that their memories might be an issue, and Cable and Jean strap into a machine and do some psionic techno thing, restoring Bishop and the other's memories. Then the present-day X-Men stand around, awaiting the wave of the M'kraan crystal that is slowly destroying the universe, and get sappy saying goodbye to each other. (Rogue and Remy kiss, Scott and Jean bond with Cable, Angel and Beast have a laugh, etc.)

In the past, however, Storm's team witness Legion's attack on the young Magneto, and their ensuing battle. At first they take care of the civilians, and then they attack Legion, risking their lives to stop him. There are some lovely scenes where young Charles Xavier reads their thoughts or learns of their powers, and becomes inspired by seeing the heroes that he in turn had inspired. It's definitely a paradox, but in a delightful, human, Doctor Who way.

Just when it seems Legion has been defeated, he drops them all in their tracks, and goes after Magneto. Of course, Charles, being the guy he is and seeing the heroism of the X-Men against all odds, throws himself in his son's path and is the one who dies instead of Magnus.

David can't exist if his father died in the past, so he disappears, along with the X-Men. Magneto cradles the dead body of his idealistic friend, and is changed forever, swearing to devote his life to Charles' dreams. And Apocalypse, monitoring the rise of homo superior, sees the moment as an opportunity to make his bid for global conquest (in our world, he does it 10 years later, when the X-Men are fully formed to stop him) and thus begins the Age of Apocalypse.

It IS really a rather ingenuous alternate universe idea, and more nuanced than I usually give it credit for, often considering it a world in which "the X-Men fail pretty much every time they try to accomplish something and a lot of them die horribly and no one is safe." Which is not to say that that's untrue.

As we go forward in this epic we'll see some of that brutality, some of that hopelessness, but we'll also see some exciting twists on characters, unexpected relationships, and the result of constant warfare on the mutants we love.

So stick around. And let me know your favorite parts of the Age of Apocalypse. (The sibling bad-guy teams? The unexpected couplings? The grim tone? The Human Council? Cyclops' hair?)

Happy Friday!!


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