I learned a big lesson 20 years ago. I’m talking about as a comic book reader, not as a person — and I don’t mean that as a slight to season one of “Friends,” which taught me that adults can keep monkeys as pets (but not legally). I learned a very important lesson back in the early days of 1995 thanks to the “Age of Apocalypse” crossover, and it’s one that I come back to regularly.
I learned that permanent changes in comics ain’t permanent, emotional energy is wasted on blind fan-rage and that comic book spoilers are inherently inevitable.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of “Age of Apocalypse,” perhaps the last unimpeachable X-Men crossover — and definitely the most fondly remembered Marvel event of the ’90s. When it comes to the “Age of Apocalypse,” it’s all been said, right? It was a staggeringly imaginative, often chaotic, sprawling event with an immersive feeling unlike anything else I can think of at the time. After the inadvertent murder of Professor Xavier in the past before he founded the X-Men, Magneto took over the role of mutant mentor and Apocalypse awoke early from his millennia-long nap and asserted his dominance. Cyclops was a bad guy, Exodus was a good guy, Wolverine had one hand, Jean Grey had short hair, Blink was alive, America was a wasteland and the Beast had metallic pants that late ’90s Scott Weiland would have killed for. It was a pretty great event that I think rightfully deserves all the praise it gets.
And it almost made me quit reading comics.
Let me frame my hyperbolic reaction by saying that I was just shy of 11 when “Age of Apocalypse” upended my world. I had been reading comics for two solid years and the “X-Men” animated series was still appointment viewing even if everyone else in the 5th grade had moved on to the hot new thing: not talking to me. But I had the X-Men! And I had Pizza Hut tie-in comics! And I had an Adam-X the X-Treme action figure with dual axe-throwing action! Friendships came and went, but I could always hang out with Nightcrawler and Cannonball. One-sided friendship with corporate-owned fictional characters was something I could count on to get me through my approaching middle school years, I was sure of it.
And then I bought an X-Men comic in December 1994. That month’s X-Facts (a one-page newsletter published in X-comics that featured a checklist of mutant comics, announcements and previews) had the world-stopping headline X-Men — Suspended?! and an explanatory paragraph stating that “the current X-titles will cease to exist!” The rundown of new titles (“Astonishing X-Men,” “Generation Next,” “Gambit and the X-Ternals,” etc.) followed, as well as a sneak peek at Joe Madureira’s cover for “X-Men Alpha” #1.
This one page might be the most devastating comic book page I’ve ever read. No joke, I can still visualize reading that page: I was in Rivergate Mall just outside Nashville, it was around Christmas and my poor parents had to hear all about it on the car ride home. As far as I knew, the X-Men were finished. I had no idea this was coming because the Internet was nowhere near widespread. All I knew was what was on that one page, and that one page told me the X-Men as I knew them were through.
Okay, now that I look back on it, it does use the word “suspended” and not “canceled.” There may be a sense of vague finality throughout the text on that page, but the headline itself gives it away right there; the change wasn’t permanent. But fifth-grade me didn’t know that! He couldn’t grasp the nuance between “suspended” and “canceled” — he just knew “suspended” was a bad thing that could happen to you at school!
For the first time in my brief comic-book-buyin’ life, I was enraged. They were taking away my best friends and replacing them with a bunch of studded collar wearing, ponytail having weirdos! In the hours after being stopped cold in my Nikes by that misinterpreted headline, I drafted my first rage-filled, pro-continuity, anti-change screed. I wish I still had that letter I wrote to the X-editors. I know I tried my hardest to plead the X-Men’s case to editors that I now know had no intention of permanently undoing thirty years of history and wild success.
I read the draft to my parents, who — I have no idea. I imagine they were just impressed that their ten-year-old son knew how to write down his thoughts coherently into a letter? I folded it up, stuffed it in an envelope, slapped a stamp on it and angrily shoved it into our mailbox — forgetting to write “okay to print” and thus cutting off my message’s chance at reaching the masses. Still, I coped by deciding that if this dystopian reboot was permanent, I would continue writing the adventures of the X-Men. If Marvel wasn’t going to do it, then I could keep it going on loose pages of notebook paper.
At some point in the early part of “Age of Apocalypse,” which I was of course making my parents buy me every issue of, I visited a comic shop and learned the truth. I mostly bought comics from grocery stores, bookstores and Walmarts; trips to comic shops were few and far between, reserved in the first few years of my fandom to only once or twice a month. But on this one trip to Hendersonville’s Box Seat Cards and Comics, one of the workers heard me grousing about the event and told me that it wasn’t permanent. Let there be light — my X-Men were coming back. I can’t confirm that I made this purchase on this revelatory comic book store trip, but I do know that by three months into 1995, I had a big poster of Joe Mad’s “X-Men Alpha” cover on my bedroom wall. All that rage had given way to pure enjoyment.
This was the first time I learned that even if things seem permanent in comics, they aren’t. It’s the first time I learned that that’s not a bad thing either; the real important lesson I learned was to never again become enraged over something that I thought would last forever. I realized that “forever” is a long time when it comes to comics, a medium wherein characters and stories stretch on for decades. I gained a levelheadedness that’s mostly allowed me to keep my emotions in check when big changes happen, and it also lets me actually enjoy these diversions from the norm.
Like, “Age of Apocalypse” was initially catastrophic for me; it was the seeming end of a major constant in my life. By the end of it, though, I learned to appreciate the story itself and not be livid that Colossus and Kitty Pryde were suddenly major jerks. This is a lesson that I think every superhero fan has to learn at one point, although the amount of rage we see online when Marvel or DC makes a change makes me wonder. Every time Spider-Man has died in the past ten years has caused major meltdowns, and the same goes for everyone from Captain America to the Human Torch. I can’t justify people losing their minds over those changes; unless you’re a fan of pre-“Crisis” DC, the status quo you jam on will probably come back, so chill and enjoy the story while it’s unfolding.
While Marvel’s big 2015 event, “Secret Wars,” was obviously a callback to the original ’80s event, it actually bears a striking resemblance to “Age of Apocalypse.” In today’s age, where information leaks are delivered to millions via retweets and preview catalogs are now dissected by the masses and not just browsed through by comic shop owners, pulling off a ruse on the level of that X-Facts installment is impossible. But Marvel still tried. They held a press conference and remained cagey about the word “reboot,” insisting that Battleworld represented the real Marvel Universe. They weren’t wrong, as it has represented the real Marvel U for the past few months. I knew there was no way it would be a real reboot or represent a sweeping permanent change; I’ve been through this before. Then, thanks to the cycle of previews, we all learned that Battleworld was a temporary world before “Secret Wars” even reached its halfway mark. That’s the big difference I see between now and then; if I hadn’t made that trip to a comic shop, I could have made it through all of “AoA” without knowing an end was imminent.
Shake-ups have been part of the superhero status quo since the genre rose to prominence. Because of the never-ending nature of superhero comics, status quo changes mean something totally different than they do in other finite, serialized fiction; if a character dies on a TV show, odds are they’re gone forever since the show itself will most likely be gone in five years. That’s not true in comics; they’re a different beast, one where characters have runs that are seven times longer than “Cheers.” Twenty years ago, “Age of Apocalypse” taught me how to stop freaking out and how to love comics for what they are. Without learning these lessons, I may have tapped out of comics a long time ago.
Brett White is a writer and comedian living in New York City. He made videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).
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