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X-Over And Over Again ? Part 8: The Age Of Apocalypse

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1994's Phalanx Covenant was followed up by what remains the most narratively and logistically complicated X-over to date, the legendary Age Of Apocalypse. Spanning several months in 1995 and 1996, AoA and the storyarc that set it up, Legion Quest, took a new tactic in its approach. Rather than drawing all of the X-teams into a single plot like the overly busy Phalanx Covenant, AoA threw the entire franchise into an alternate reality, replacing the regular books with new titles, complete with individual plots that loosely tied together. This experiment opened many doors for storytelling possibilities, while closing others.

The storyline begins when Professor X's estranged son, Legion, travels back in time to murder Magneto before he becomes a threat, under the misguided belief that this will help his father realize his dreams of peaceful coexistence between mutants and humans. Several X-Men pursue Legion, but are too late to stop the younger Xavier from taking the blow meant for his friend, creating a temporal paradox by erasing Legion from existence before he was ever born.

In the new timeline that results, Magneto forms the X-Men in memory of Xavier, but is unable to stop Apocalypse from beginning his war on the genetically unfit, a decade earlier than in the “normal” Marvel Universe. By the time the war is over, Apocalypse and his forces control all of North America and have rendered much of the globe uninhabitable via nuclear attacks. The human resistance fights on from Europe and Africa, aided by Magneto and his allies within the continent-wide prison camp that Apocalypse has created.

For the four months of the crossover, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Force, X-Factor, Generation X, Excalibur, Wolverine and Cable were replaced by Astonishing X-Men, Amazing X-Men, Gambit & The X-Ternals, Factor X, Generation Next, X-Calibre, Weapon X and X-Man, respectively.

As might be expected, there are some radical changes made to characters and casts for the purpose of these stories. Magneto and Rogue are married and have a son, Charles. Cyclops and Havok are loyal servants of Apocalypse, while Wolverine and Jean Grey are lovers and resistance fighters. Cable does not even exist, replaced by Nate Grey, a being engineered by Sinister from the genetic material of Jean and Cyclops.

The most vital character in the Age of Apocalypse, however, may be Bishop. Partially shielded from the effects of the reality shift by his time-displaced nature, Bishop wanders the world for two decades, driven half-insane by holding two sets of memories. Bishop is able to convince Magneto that the very nature of their existence is a mistake, uniting the mutant forces in an effort to foment a final uprising against Apocalypse while trying to prevent Legion from killing Xavier. As the Human High Council launches a nuclear strike on Apocalypse's citadel, Bishop travels back in time and successfully stops Legion. Many of the characters featured in the AoA comics presumably die in the attack, and the rest are assumed to have been erased from existence.

Such a wide-ranging and popular crossover, however, could not simply vanish into limbo. Several characters manage to escape into the main Marvel continuity, including Nate Grey, Apocalypse's horseman Holocaust, the slaver Sugar Man and Hank McCoy's doppelganger, Dark Beast. Nate Grey starred in his own series, X-Man, for a few years before sacrificing himself to save mankind, while Holocaust remained an active threat until being recruited into the Exiles and dying at the hands of an evil Hyperion. Dark Beast and the Sugar Man are both still hovering on the peripheries of the Marvel Universe.

The AoA versions of Blink and Sabretooth are also eventually revealed to have escaped, joining the dimension-hopping Exiles. The tenth anniversary of the crossover in 2006 brought a one-shot and miniseries depicting events both before and after the original crossover, and the AoA universe was revealed to exist in some form in Exiles, although its status since House Of M is unknown.

Age Of Apocalypse seems at first blush a little too gimmicky to work, and in many ways it doesn't. Much of its merit is reliant on an intimate knowledge of previous X-Men history, depending on the shock value of seeing familiar characters in unfamiliar roles as a substitute for effective storytelling. At the same time, this shift away from mainstream continuity is also a strength, as plotting decisions could be made without much consideration for long-term impact on the franchise, allowing creators to shake off the constraints of working in corporate comics and do whatever they wanted with the characters. Of course, most of these changes were erased by the shift back to Earth-616, but the long-haired, evil Cyclops and a one-handed Logan were fun while they lasted.

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