The love affair between comic books and alternate realities is as as old as the medium itself. For decades, we've seen countless stories centered around well-established heroes being dropped into far-flung futures or adjacent universes, most of which are often less than perfect. While it's easy to write off a lot of these "what if" scenarios as lazy storytelling or the result of a writer running out of ideas, many of these possible past, present and future tales have permeated the collective consciousness of comics fans.
Creators still look to the dark version of Batman in the pages of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns for inspiration (for better or worse). Characters featured in alternate future timelines, like Old Man Logan and Rachel Summers, have become part of larger Marvel canon. Several Crisis events have bridged the fractured multiverses of DC Comics. But the dark horse, in terms of staying power, of the many possible worlds we've seen in comics is the 1995 crossover event Age of Apocalypse, which takes place in a reality where Professor Charles Xavier is killed and Magneto is left to lead the X-Men. And, yes, that goes about as well as you'd think.
Days of Past Future
During the storyline "Legion's Quest," David Haller traveled back in time intending to assassinate Magneto, but wound up killing his own father in the process, thus creating a time paradox that caused Legion to vanish and a new timeline to blossom. The fallout of Xavier's death would be explored in X-Men: Alpha #1, which was released in January of 1995. This one-shot introduced readers to alternate versions of their favorite mutants and the bold new world they inhabited. In this new timeline, Apocalypse conquered North America, mutants became the dominant species and countless humans were systematically eradicated. Think of "Age of Apocalypse" as being akin to the world seen in "Days of Future Past," but with the pendulum swung way off in the other direction.
After the release of X-Men: Alpha #1, all the X-titles changed their names and took place in this newly established timeline. Wolverine was retitled Weapon X. Uncanny X-Men and X-Men became Astonishing X-Men and Amazing X-Men, respectively, and so on. For four issues each, every book in the X-Men repertoire was focused on this dystopia, and fans seemed to love it for the most part.
The world reader's were shown was dark, dire and felt completely fresh, despite all the familiar faces. There was a feeling of morbid curiosity in seeing a version of the X-Men who had been shaped by the tragedy of losing their beacon of hope, then being besieged by a tyrant. Fans knew this was not going to be a permanent change, so despite how horrible things were for our heroes, there was always a sense of safety.
That kind of mental separation helped make Age of Apocalypse compelling, but no one could have predicted the lasting power it would have. With so many moving parts, a rewritten history, a whole new world to populate and characters to explore, the crossover was a bit of a gamble for Marvel. If Age of Apocalypse hadn't resonated with fans, it could have been a footnote in the annals of comics history. So, why did this experiment work so well?