For X-Men fans in the 1990s, nothing was cooler than the “Age of Apocalypse.” In the era when mutants were Marvel’s hottest heroes in comics and on TV, this 1995 storyline shattered the X-Men’s foundations and pushed the team in dramatic new directions. Even though superhero comics were at one of their lowest points, this X-Men saga was a smash hit that set a new standard for crossovers that spawned numerous imitators. As the story explored a timeline where Charles Xavier never formed the X-Men and the villain Apocalypse conquered the world, Magneto and his X-Men faced terrifying foes and impossible odds in one of the greatest X-Men stories ever.
Now CBR is taking a look back at the reasons why “Age of Apocalypse” was the best X-Men story ever. And to be fair, we’ll also be looking at one big reason it wasn’t the X-Men’s finest hour. From breakout characters to the ingenious concepts that shaped the series, this list will cover all of the things that made this crossover great. Whether you have foggy memories of the crossover’s alternate timeline or are just entering the “Age of Apocalypse,” this spoiler-heavy look will serve as a reminder of what the X-Men are like at their most epic.
16. THE DARKEST TIMELINE
Since Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic 1981 Uncanny X-Men story “Days of Future Past,” the future has looked pretty scary for the X-Men. From alternate timelines devastated by mutant-hunting robots to the equally dystopian worlds of time-travelers like Cable and Bishop, the X-Men always seem to have dangerous days ahead of them.
While these other stories teased these dark worlds, “Age of Apocalypse” lingered in one. In the story’s world, Charles Xavier perished before he formed the X-Men, and the immortal villain Apocalypse subsequently took over a world that didn’t have heroes yet. Instead of just using that set-up as a backdrop for generic action, “Age of Apocalypse” spent over 1,000 pages exploring every well-considered detail of this fallen world. While those other dark worlds seemed like fleeting possibilities, “Age of Apocalypse” gave readers an extended stay in the X-Men’s worst nightmare.
15. ROLE REVERSALS
By the 1990s, most of the X-Men and their enemies had settled into the roles that traditionally defined them. Characters like Cyclops and Beast were stalwart members of the X-Men and well-respected pillars of the mutant community, while villains like Magneto and Sabretooth were some of the X-Men’s worst enemies.
But in “Age of Apocalypse,” those old roles didn’t matter. Magneto founded the X-Men and married Rogue, while Sabretooth filled Wolverine’s role as the team’s resident tough guy. Meanwhile, Cyclops worked for the X-villain Mister Sinister, and Beast became a cruel mad scientist. A big part of the crossover’s appeal was seeing how familiar X-Men were twisted in unlikely ways. While every character didn’t play a dramatically different role, this added a layer of fun unpredictability to the story, where every page turn could reveal a bizarre new version of one of Marvel’s mutants.
14. LEGION MATTERED
Long before he starred in his own mind-bending TV show, Legion was Professor X’s troubled, ultra-powerful son. After he was created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz in 1985’s New Mutants #25, David Haller had a few run-ins with the X-Men’s training squad as he tried to repair his fractured mind. Even though villains like the Shadow King tried to control him, Haller was still a relatively minor player in the X-Men’s world.
In 1995, Legion was the key player in setting the stage for the Age of Apocalypse. In Fabian Nicieza, Adam Kubert and Ron Garney’s X-Men #41, Legion traveled into the past to take Magneto out before he became a villain. But that plan failed when Xavier sacrificed his life to save his friend. In his misguided attempt to help his dad, Legion inadvertently rewrote reality in a story that emphasized the danger of his unchecked powers.
13. APOCALYPSE GOT SCARY
Apocalypse was never a bad villain, but “Age of Apocalypse” cemented his status as one of Marvel’s most powerful bad guys. After he was introduced by Louise Simonson and Jackson Guice in 1986’s X-Factor #5, Apocalypse turned the X-Men’s Angel into the brutal Archangel and almost turned an infant Cable into a machine. While that’s not a bad resume, he was still the kind of villain who could be taken out by a particularly angry Cyclops.
In the world of the “Age of Apocalypse”, Apocalypse emerged from hiding shortly after Xavier’s early demise. After losing one battle to Magneto’s inexperienced young X-Men team, he took over the world and reshaped it with his ruthless “survival of the fittest” philosophy. This Apocalypse achieved the unthinkable and wiped out most of humanity before the “Age of Apocalypse” even began, which made him one of the scariest villains in the Marvel Universe.
Even though she had already vanished from the X-Men’s regular adventures, the purple-skinned teleporter Blink was one of the most visible X-Men in “Age of Apocalypse.” Clarice Ferguson was created by Scott Lobdell and Joe Madureira in 1994’s Uncanny X-Men #317. Just a month after her debut, Blink sacrificed her life to save Jubilee and some other young mutants before Blink left a lasting impression.
Even though the Age of Apocalypse was full of destruction, that world’s version of Blink was still alive and played an active role in the X-Men. In Astonishing X-Men, Lobdell and Madureira revisited their creation and made readers care about a character that was already gone in the main Marvel Universe. This earned the fan-favorite character another chance at life after “Age of Apocalypse” ended. In 2001, this Blink starred in her own miniseries and Exiles, a long-running series about alternate-reality-hopping heroes.
11. IT WAS IMMERSIVE
Even though they were the biggest names in comics, every X-Men comic book series was canceled for a few months in 1995. During “Age of Apocalypse,” every X-Men comic book series was re-titled and renumbered for the event. For instance, Astonishing X-Men replaced Uncanny X-Men and Weapon X replaced Wolverine. While the idea has been replicated in other crossovers, it was a bold marketing move that made the story seem important.
After Legion’s actions destroyed reality, every regular X-Men comic book ended with its heroes transforming into crystal as the Age of Apocalypse began. In a time before spoilers, readers didn’t know if the X-Men were gone for good. That sense of immersion was heightened by maps that were in the back of early “Age of Apocalypse” comics. By showing where Apocalypse had power, these maps gave readers a look at what their homes might be like in Apocalypse’s world.
While Cable is usually one of Apocalypse’s fiercest rivals, the grizzled time-traveling telepath became the radically different X-Man in “Age of Apocalypse.” Created by Jeph Loeb and Steve Skroce in 1995’s X-Man #1, Nate Grey was genetically engineered by Mister Sinister using the DNA of Cyclops and Jean Grey. After rebelling against Sinister, the young Grey played a major role in the final battle against Apocalypse before being sent into the main Marvel Universe as the Age of Apocalypse ended.
Over the next several years, Grey continued to star in his own series as he found his place in an unfamiliar world. While Cable had to use his telekinetic powers to keep his Techno-Organic Virus at bay, Grey had trouble containing his vast psionic powers in his fondly-remembered series. After a brief-but-memorable run as a mutant shaman, the fan-favorite character has mostly been reduced to the occasional cameo.
9. NO ONE WAS SAFE
Almost none of “Age of Apocalypse” took place in the regular Marvel Universe, so anything could happen in that story’s twisted world. While the main Marvel Universe usually returns to a relatively familiar status quo, the Age of Apocalypse didn’t operate by those same rules. In the self-contained event, characters could perish or switch sides without having any long-term consequences.
In one particularly notable instance, Colossus, who’s usually one of the gentlest X-Men, abandoned a group of young mutants in 1995’s Generation Next #4. In that Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo story, Colossus, Shadowcat and several young X-Men were sent to rescue Colossus’ sister Illyana. Although they rescued her from the ghastly mad scientist Sugar Man, Colossus left most of the team for dead to ensure his sister’s safety. Before the crossover ended, Colossus accidentally crushed his wife, Shadowcat, before Gambit finished him off.
In 1967’s X-Men #35, by Roy Thomas and Werner Roth, the X-Men fought a shapeshifter named Changeling. After contracting terminal cancer, he reformed and briefly posed as Professor X before his early demise. Under the name Morph, a similar version of the character met an equally early end on the first episode of X-Men: The Animated Series. Even though he was never meant to last, Morph became a modest fan-favorite and made a few more appearances on the cartoon.
“Age of Apocalypse” brought a different, paler version of Morph into the X-Men’s comic book adventures. Primarily in Scott Lobdell and Joe Madureira’s Astonishing X-Men, Morph served as the X-Men’s resident joker. Even though this version of the character didn’t appear again after “Age of Apocalypse,” an almost identical version joined Blink in Exiles for a few years starting in 2001.
7. EVERYONE WAS IN IT
Like most of the X-Men comics from the 1990s, “Age of Apocalypse” went out of its way to feature as many characters as possible. Almost all of the major X-Men and X-villains made at least one appearance, but relatively minor characters like Sunfire and Wild Child got a chance to shine, too.
Even though the X-Men were the main focus of the crossover, several other Marvel heroes and villains appeared in some surprising roles. As detailed in Scott Lobdell, Terry Kavanagh, Carlos Pacheco and Terry Dodson’s X-Universe, characters like Tony Stark, Doctor Doom and Hawkeye all served the Human High Council, which governed the last remnants of humanity in Europe. Meanwhile, characters like Matt Murdock, Norman Osborn and the Hulk helped Apocalypse’s forces. Even Spider-Man’s late girlfriend Gwen Stacy, who’d been absent from the Marvel Universe for decades, got a chance to fight bad guys in the Age of Apocalypse.
6. DARK BEAST
Out of all of the villains who originally debuted in “Age of Apocalypse,” Dark Beast has had the most impressive supervillain career since the story ended. Created by Scott Lobdell and Roger Cruz in 1995’s X-Men: Alpha #1, this twisted version of Hank McCoy paired his usual genius intellect and dry wit with the savage methods of a mad scientist. Through his experiments on mutants and humans, Dark Beast created armies of Infinite Soldiers and Madri for Apocalypse.
As the crossover ended, Dark Beast found a way to escape into the main Marvel Universe. For a few months in 1996, he even posed as the real McCoy and infiltrated the X-Men. Since revealing himself, Dark Beast has used his formidable intellect to battle the X-Men semi-regularly. While most residents from the Age of Apocalypse haven’t mattered in years, Dark Beast was seen as recently as the 2017 crossover Secret Empire.
5. BISHOP’S FINEST HOUR
Although the time-traveling Bishop was one of the definitive X-Men of the 1990s, he hasn’t always had a lot to do. After he was created by Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio in 1991’s Uncanny X-Men #282, the mutant policeman from the future chased a villain through time and struggled to adapt to the present before mostly fading into the background.
But in “Age of Apocalypse,” Bishop was the key player in restoring the Marvel Universe. Since he was already from a different timeline, Bishop remembered what went wrong to cause the Age of Apocalypse. Bishop convinced that world’s X-Men to destroy their own world to save a better one. And in 1995’s X-Men: Omega, by Scott Lobdell, Mark Waid and Roger Cruz, Bishop traveled back in time and saved reality by stopping Legion before he could hurt Xavier.
4. CREATIVE TEAMS
By 1995, Chris Claremont, Jim Lee and the other creators who made the X-Men a blockbuster success had left Marvel. With “Age of Apocalypse,” a new wave of X-Men creators created an epic that could stand alongside anything that had come before. Building on a suggestion from Marvel editor Bob Harras, writers Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza led an all-star team that included comics giants like Mark Waid and Warren Ellis.
On the illustrated side, “Age of Apocalypse” featured an equally impressive talent roster. While Adam and Andy Kubert continued their seminal X-Men runs, Joe Madureira and Roger Cruz gave the Age of Apocalypse a dynamic, fresh look with their cartoony, manga-influenced styles. Madureira’s striking redesign for Sunfire even became the character’s official look years later. On Generation Next, Chris Bachalo drew some of the best work of his career with hyper-detailed cartoony artwork that matched the world’s frantic energy.
3. IT STANDS ALONE
Even by superhero standards, the X-Men have a notoriously complex comic book history. Especially in the 1990s, any given X-Men story could feature a dozen characters and references to decades-old stories. Since “Age of Apocalypse” mostly takes place in a self-contained alternate universe, it plays by a different set of rules. To establish its new world, the story spells out everything that readers need to know in a fairly natural way. As a result, anyone with a basic knowledge of the X-Men from comics, cartoons or movies could pick “Age of Apocalypse” up and follow along reasonably well.
Depending on what you count, “Age of Apocalypse” is about 40 issues long. While that might seem daunting, it tells a coherent, expansive story that captures the excess and energy of X-Men in the 1990s, without getting dragged down by the team’s convoluted history.
2. SOLID SEQUELS
Since “Age of Apocalypse” was such a critical and commercial success, the story spawned a few sequels that lived up to its legacy. After a few solid one-off prequels, Scott Lobdell, Judd Winick and Trevor McCarthy’s Blink set the stage for Exiles by reintroducing Blink and the Age of Apocalypse in 2001.
After a fairly ill-received tenth anniversary story in 2005, the Age of Apocalypse rose again in the modern Uncanny X-Force classic, “The Dark Angel Saga.” In that outstanding 2011 story by Rick Remender, Mark Brooks, Jerome Opeña and others, Wolverine and his X-Force traveled to the Age of Apocalypse, where that world’s Logan had become a tyrant. While that story influenced the rest of Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, it was popular enough to spawn a short-lived spin-off series, 2012’s Age of Apocalypse, which followed a human resistance group.
1. WHY IT’S NOT THE BEST: IT’S NOT ABOUT THE X-MEN
“Age of Apocalypse” has a lot going for it. It’s a grand spectacle that’s overflowing with ideas and captures some of the best parts of 1990s’ X-Men comics. But it’s not about what the X-Men stand for. At their core, the X-Men are about fighting persecution, promoting understanding and protecting a world that hates and fears them. Those ideas have defined the X-Men’s best moments and informed the impossible decisions that the X-Men have had to make through the years.
With all of those life-or-death decisions and hard-won battles, all of the X-Men have evolved into emotionally rich characters. While those characters have kept readers engaged with the X-Men for decades, they’re replaced by dark, sometimes bizarre reflections of themselves in this story. “Age of Apocalypse” is a pure pleasure that’s essential reading, but it simply doesn’t capture the best parts of the uncanny X-Men.
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