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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

X-amining X-Universe #1

"X-Universe: Last Stand"
May 1995

In a Nutshell
Mikhail Rasputin arrives in London at the head of a peace mission.

Story: Scott Lobdell
Script: Terry Kavanagh
Penciler: Carlos Pacheco
Inker: Cam Smith
Lettering: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colorist: Kevin Somers
Color Separations: Electric Crayon
Editor: Marie Javins
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras

In the ravaged nation of Wakanda, Gwen Stacy fends off an attack by the Marauders, assisted by the timely arrival of Tony Stark & Clint Barton. Stark & Barton are delivering relief aid, but have also been sent by the Human High Council to fetch Dr. Don Blake. In London, pilots Ben Grimm & Susan Storm watch with suspicion the arrival of Mikhail Rasputin at the head of a peace convoy. Just as they return to their base to land, the base explodes, killing every pilot capable of dropping a bomb on Apocalypse. They suspect Mikhail, but as they explore the wreckage, they're attacked by a massive hulking monster. Escaping the creature, they encounter Dr. Bruce Banner amongst the rubble. Meanwhile, with the Human High Council in an emergency session, the ranking security officer, Victor Von Doom, formally greets Mikhail amidst wild cheers from a gathered crowd, just as Blake and his envoy arrive in London. In the interest of transparency, Mikhail invites them aboard his ship to show he has nothing to hide, and they enter, joined by Doom, Ben & Susan. Once inside, Mikhail reveals that he's using the mutant Empath to manipulate the emotions of the crowd outside, and that he's lured the gathered group, those most resistant to Empath's power, to their deaths.

Firsts and Other Notables
Though previously mentioned elsewhere, this is the first appearance of the "Age of Apocalypse" Mikhail Rasputin, the Fourth Horseman of Apocalypse (along with Holocaust, Abyss, & Sinister). He bears little resemblance, in appearance or powers, to the prime Mikhail, looking at times like he could be a member of the Phalanx.

This issue closes with two infographics. One is titled a "Human High Council Membership Roster" and it features information on characters who died before the events of this issue, including Black Panther & Peter Parker. In discussing the deaths of Mr. Fantastic & Human Torch, it also establishes that, instead of trying beat the Commies into space (thereby creating the Fantastic Four), Reed Richards tried to use his experimental spacecraft to evacuate a mass of humans from North America, only to die alongside Johnny in the process.

The second is a tactical map of Europe. Of note is the fact that much of France has been obliterated (and is now underwater), and that Muir Island may be the home of a Sentinel processing plant.

The cover of this issue is cardstock, with a gold foil-embossed logo.

Through the Looking Glass
Serving as it does as the introduction of the Age of Apocalypse of the Marvel Universe, a veritable plethora of AoA versions of characters debut here. First up is Gwen Stacy, who in this reality is a relief worker operating in the devastated country of Wakanda.

The Marauders, a name lifted from Mr. Sinister's group of mutant killers in the prime reality, are here comprised of the AoA versions of Green Goblin, Kingpin, Arcade and the Owl.

Tony Stark & Clint Barton work together as agents of the Human High Council, distributing relief supplies utilizing Stark's technology.

Don Blake is a doctor working with Gwen in Wakanda, who has a past with Tony Stark. Narrative captions allude to his connection with Thor.

The AoA Fantastic Four consists of the non-powered Ben Grimm & Susan Storm; Reed Richards & Johnny Storm are dead.

Both Hulk and Bruce Banner appear in this issue; it's unclear if Hulk is Banner or someone else, and if he is Banner, if the Hulk is the result of the same Gamma bomb explosion as in the prime reality, or something else.

An unarmored Victor Von Doom, bearing some slight facial scarring (presumably as a result of the same accident which prompted the prime Dr. Doom to end up in his iconic armor & mask, a process presumably interrupted by Apocalype's ascension), serves as the head of security for the Human High Council.

Finally, the AoA Empath appears as a captive of Mikhail, hooked up to a machine amplifying his power, allowing Mikahil to manipulate the emotions of the people around him.

A Work in Progress
The spider-like Stark cargo transport prompts a pang in Gwen.

Mikhail is referred to as the “forgotten” & “invisible” Horseman at different times.

Mikhail employs a group of enhanced humans, augmented with texhnology (including Matt Murdock).

The narration alternates between calling Mikhail a Horseman and a Prelate; the latter seems incorrect, as that is the rank below Horseman (Cyclops, for example, is a Prelate, but not a Horseman).

Austin's Analysis
X-Universe is an odd little two-issue series. The idea of a book that shows how the rest of the Marvel Universe was affected by the changed timeline of "Age of Apocalypse" is, in theory, a good one. The problem is that, on top of telling its own story, it has to cram all the world-building of "alternate Marvel Universe" into two issues (whereas the rest of the event has forty-ish issues to do the same for just the X-Men). The end result is a pair of issues crammed full of coincidences and winking nods to the prime reality, and while some are less egregious than others (Tony Stark, Don Blake & Clint Barton all working together fits in a sort of "the Avengers are destined to find each other" kind of way), it can get distracting, as it's easy to start running the math on the likelihood of characters like Gwen Stacy becoming a gun-toting relief worker in Wakanda who falls in with the "Avengers" or the Hell's Kitchen-born Matt Murdock becoming the Russian Mikhail Rasputin's righthand man, and feeling like the story is relying two much on coincidences to bring all these characters together. 

Of course, those kinds of coincidences are part & parcel of any alternate reality story, and the rest of the "Age of Apocalypse" titles are rife with them too. But, when parsed out over the course of the forty-some issues of those titles, there's more room to breathe between them, to allow the suspension of disbelief to take over. Whereas between this issue and the next, almost the entirety of the Marvel Universe gets re-imagined and smashed together in the course of 48 pages, leaving very little room for the story itself as nearly every other page, the reader is pulled out of that story to ponder the circumstances of the latest Marvel U character to pop up in the AoA. Ultimately, this leaves the series in an awkward position: the only way to tell its "the rest of the Marvel Universe in the Age of Apocalypse" is to pile one coincidence on top of another, to the point where the plethora of coincidences distract from the story being told.

Next Issue
Next week: Generation Next plunges deeper into the Core in Generation Next #3, and the shit hits the fan in X-Man #3.

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  1. This series wasn't part of the original announcements and seemed to be a late "We should do something about the other Marvel Universe characters". Given this was the Marvelution period, I'd guess there was maybe also a delay in getting the okay from other editorial offices. That would seem to account for it starting in month three, only being two issues and feeling pretty rushed as a result.

  2. I remember liking the art a lot. Carlos Pacheco was still a novel at the time, until I grew tired of him drawing covers that were all like, with people posing with their chins high up (similar effect occurred with Alex Ross).

    Regarding the story, I felt it was too depressing. None of the heroes were able to have powers? If Apocalypse started his very first attack even before what would Fantastic Four #1, how old were the X-Men during their first battle against him? 12? The timeline doesn’t make sense.

    Why would Odin be so cruel as not to allow Donald Blake to find his missing hammer (stick)? The idea was to make him humble, not to punish him by allowing all of Midgard become a nightmare. It would have been fun if Blake had found the hammer during this story.

    I think the idea behind Mikhail’s different look is to make him a counter-Colossus. Looks like his body is covered in techno-organic metal.

  3. I wasnt a huge fan of this 2 issue series. Not enough character development and too many characters. Why did they choose to shove Mikhail into this series? If he's "the Forgotten Horseman", why doesn't Apocalypse replace him with someone else? The series feels lazy to me. Its proven in the fact that Big Ben is the Human High Counsel's base in 'Weapon X', but in this issue Big Ben is shown as lying on the ground, demolished. Seems inconsistent and an error. Also, you missed the fact that Banner is missing his ear, which was shot off a page earlier when he was Hulk, proving they're one in the same. I wanted to like this series, but it feels like a squandered opportunity. Kavanaugh is one of the worst X-writers from the 90s, down there with Howard Mackie.


  4. I’m with you on theory vs. execution, Teebore.

    Licinio’s questions echo my own — and likely many others’. What happened re all the cosmic threats we know from the main timeline? How was the Kree-Skrull War resolved if it occurred? Did Galactus never decide to consume Earth, the Phoenix entity never bond with a human (or any) host, Thanos never lust for absolute power? Of course the M’Kraan Crystal situation is a consequence but the X-Men were hardly the only superheroes to venture to space and save all known existence or significant portions thereof. [Caveat: I’ve not read the second issue yet.]

    Perhaps instead of finding Earth (1) a pushover to conquer due to humanity’s general lack of advanced technology and/or (2) a threat because of the metahuman population and the interests that various entities have taken in it over the years — the polarities of reasoning often given in-universe for alien confrontation — otherworldly races have instead given it a wider berth under Apocalypse’s reign, but that certainly bears mentioning if this alternate history is to be at all fleshed out.

    Leaving the fates and exploits of other characters to readers’ imaginations might have been the better option — although that may well have led to fans (understandably) calling out the event as too insular.

    I agree that Banner is obviously the Hulk, given his matching clothes and wound, unless that’s an intentional misdirect.


  5. Carlos Pacheco didn’t know that Big Ben’s clocktower was the High Council’s headquarters when he drew it, but its appearance here should have been caught; it wouldn’t have been the only panel redrawn in the Bullpen.

    As he told Pedro Angosto in an interview for 2001’s Comicology Vol. II #3, “We had no time [to prepare for X-Universe] and there was terrible editorial chaos: I need some references of Weapon X — as the Wolverine title was rechristened for AOA — and they send me the Barry Windsor-Smith work for Marvel Comics Presents!”

    Per commentary on some art he sent along to accompany the interview:

    He’d originally drawn the pilot of Tony Stark’s vehicle, on Pg. 9 (in a panel Teebore used), as James Rhodes but he was asked to change the character to Bullseye — maybe as a counterpoint to Matt Murdock working for the other side — before the face was ultimately redrawn at Marvel to be Clint Barton. Meanwhile, without that knowledge, Pacheco drew Clint Barton into X-Universe #2; he’s sporting a goatee in homage to Oliver Queen.

    Don Blake’s bearded look was as much a nod to Walter Simonson’s own appearance as to that of Thor under his stewardship.

    The corpse with a smoldering skull in the second panel of Pg. 23, part of the double-page spread where the Hulk first appears, is meant to be Johnny Blaze just as one of those little alternate-universe ironies.


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