“Once I was witness to a unique wonderment. A span of time when champions of legend routinely risked their lives to battle the forces of evil and tyranny. An era in which the measure of a hero was gauged not by his power… but by his nobility. By the strength of his heart. It was an age unlike any other. And this is the story of its end.”
How do you end a Universe? It’s a question that I’ve been pondering since word first emerged of Marvel’s forthcoming reboot. While it’s still unclear whether it will be a merging of the Ultimate and 616 Universes or have ramifications beyond this, it seems inevitable that certain characters and concepts will be cast adrift on the tides of history. I’m not envious of the creators involved with the wrap up of this storyline; it must be a near impossible task to provide a send-off that acknowledges the rich history of these characters, keeping the characters and their relationships prominent instead of the business considerations that have prompted such an event. Such musings were at the forefront of my mind when I was digging through the long boxes this week, acquainting myself with some back issues. Then, I was hit with a moment of tremendous realisation. The respectful, end-of-an-era farewell to Marvel’s heroes had already been published, bringing their story to an end in a way that reinforced both their heroism and humanity. And where was this published? In the pages of a derided 90s crossover that deserves a reappraisal for maintaining a strong emotional core amidst its sound and fury. Onslaught – the 1996 crossover that saw Professor Xavier revealed as the X-Men’s greatest foe, setting in motion the chain of events that saw the Avengers, the FF and other classic Marvel characters leave the Marvel universe for over a year.
Your reaction to my above statement may vary from nods of approval to snorts of disbelief depending on when you started reading comics or, indeed, when you first encountered Onslaught. Perhaps you were reading the X-titles in the mid-90s, when every month brought forth another cryptic clue about the nature of this mysterious antagonist. Perhaps your first exposure was the Jeph Loeb/Rob Liefeld mini-series from 2006: Onslaught Reborn. Perhaps you were one of the few to read Onslaught Unleashed, which saw the downfall of the short-lived Young Allies team. Or, perhaps you first came across ‘Red Onslaught’ in the pages of Uncanny Avengers? As a character, Onslaught is often held up as a ridiculous example of 90s excess. Having recently re-read much of the original crossover, I’d have to disagree. While the character is subject to the villainous rants and ill-defined powers typical of his ilk, the interaction between characters and many of the larger themes explored within these titles make this a genuinely successful crossover.
While modern-day Marvel readers are used to their heroes engaging in universe spanning crossovers once or twice a year, it’s worth remembering how rare this was in the mid-1990s. While crossovers such as The Infinity Gauntlet did see a huge number of Marvel heroes unite, these were standalone miniseries which had little impact on the Marvel universe as a whole. While there were frequent crossovers among ongoing titles these tended to be kept within families, such as Fatal attractions and Age of Apocalypse in the X-Men books, and The Clone saga in the Spider titles. This symbolic divide between Marvel’s characters was increased in 1995 when, as part of the ongoing business interference with the publishing line, the line was divided into separate ‘families’, including the X-Men, Spider-man and Edge (including Daredevil, Dr Strange, Incredible Hulk, Ghost Rider and Punisher). For the most part, the characters from each ‘family’ group interacted with each other, with fraternisation between different families being minimised.
When Onslaught revealed himself to the X-Men and the nature of his interaction with the wider Marvel universe became clear, this changed. I strongly doubt whether the story in its original conception was intended to have such exposure outside the X-Universe. Indeed, many of the negative comments around the crossover centre around the vague nature of the ‘clues’ to Onslaught’s identity released in the months and years prior to his reveal, and the indecision of many creators about what the threat actually was, never mind who should be affected by it. Nevertheless, when the decision was taken to outsource the production of several titles to Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld (The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Captain America) the months of build up to Onslaught’s first appearance – directionless though they sometimes appeared – had the effect of identifying him as a real threat, a villain who could potentially threaten the wider Marvel Universe and serve the purpose of removing these heroes from the stage.
It’s difficult not to re-read the Onslaught saga through a haze of nostalgia, as a reminder of a Marvel Universe where heroes worked together, the X-Men truly were a family, and to obtain membership in the Avengers – even with many of their members clad in garish 90s outfits – was truly to have arrived in the upper echelons of heroism. In large part, this is the crossover’s strength. By building on what has gone before, numerous characters are placed in positions where they have a very personal emotional connection to the larger context.
The emotional toll on the X-Men due to their friend and mentor being linked to this threat is immense, yet what is intriguing is how the reactions and arguments differ from members’ treatment of Cyclops 15+ years later. Understandably, the X-Men are desperate to save Xavier from himself, and if they are too quick to ascribe all blame to the influence of Magneto then it is nevertheless a refreshing reminder of a time when Xavier could inspire, and was not linked to one unsavoury retcon after another.
When the crossover moves beyond the X-titles, there are a myriad of great moments. Spider-Man protecting Manhattan from Sentinels, Onslaught playing mind games with the Incredible Hulk, the heroic assemblage at Four Freedoms Plaza. Even ‘Joseph’, a seemingly de-aged and amnesiac Magneto that would achieve little of note before his death three years later, is afforded some good interaction with Xavier and Quicksilver, two characters that have more than a passing interest in establishing whether his claims of identity are true.
The crossover reaches its climax in Onslaught: Marvel Universe, a special edition that records the heroes’ final confrontation with Onslaught. You would be forgiven for thinking that such an issue might feature lots of mindless violence, and yes, there is a high quota of mayhem being dished out on both sides. But where this comic triumphs, both as an end to the Onslaught saga and as a farewell to many of Marvel’s iconic heroes, is that the characters and their actions are perfectly captured, small scenes frequently encapsulating the very essence of these characters.
Mark Waid, co-plotting and scripting, fills the issue with wonderful scenes. Professor Xavier risking his life to save Joseph, the Hulk changing the course of the battle by demonstrating just how strong he becomes when he gets mad, Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne facing the unknown together, Quicksilver and the Vision working together – every page has an appreciation and a recognition of the trials and tribulations that each of these characters went through in order to arrive at their potential final battle.
In the end, the heroes are apparently destroyed alongside Onslaught and the mutants are left to savour their pyrrhic victory. When I read this upon initial publication I was primarily a reader of the X-Men and Spider-Man books, and the gravity of the events depicted was lost on me. Re-reading it now, after 20 years of immersing myself in these characters, experiencing their triumphs and tragedies, sharing their hopes and their dreams; well, I have to admit that tears welled up in my eyes as I read the Watcher’s final words: “The champions of Earth are but mortal men. Their passing, however tragic, is inevitable. But their legacy will endure, so long as their memory is not forgotten.”
Beauty can be found in the strangest of places, and in the unlikely surroundings of a bloated 90s crossover Marvel’s heroes went out in the only way they could – giving their all to protect the earth and safeguard their loved ones. Without a thought for their personal safety, guided only by their knowledge of what had to be done, these heroes once again rose to the occasion and proved what every Marvel reader knows – we are fortunate to have had the chance to follow the adventures of these special characters, these heroes, these Marvels.