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Wednesday, December 9, 2020

X-amining X-Men (vol. 2) #53

"False Fronts"
June 1996

In a Nutshell
Onslaught reveals himself to Jean Grey

Writer: Mark Waid
Pencils: Andy Kubert
Inkers: Cam Smith & John Dell
Letterer: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colorist: Digital Chameleon
Editor: Bob Harras

Plot
Jean Grey is shopping in Salem Center. Entering a dressing room to try on a dress, she is pulled onto the Astral Plane by Onslaught. Meanwhile, an imprisoned Beast accidentally breaks the apparatus delivering him food & water, but in doing so, reveals a possible escape route. On the Astral Plane, Onslaught confronts Jean with the duplicity & hypocrisy of humans, showing her the thoughts of the clerks at the clothing store then taking her Graydon Creed's campaign headquarters. Jean is nonplussed, saying that she buoys herself up by being surrounded by honest friends. In Colorado, Juggernaut emerges from the shadows threatening Archangel & Psylocke. Frightened, he tries to tell them crucial information, but discovers his mind is blocked from speaking it. He proceeds to march off towards the X-Mansion, convinced only Xavier can help him. Back on the Astral Plane, Onslaught brings Jean to the mind of Xavier, revealing his one-time romantic love for Jean, a secret she never knew. Onslaught ponders the possible consequences of Xavier keeping his emotions locked away so tightly. In South Carolina, Joseph wanders into a county fair. Elsewhere, Onslaught asks Jean to join him. She refuses, attacking him and asking who he really is. He says that he is a god, then sends her crashing back into the dressing room, his final words echoing in her mind - "know my name" - as she looks in the mirror and sees the word "Onslaught" telepathically etched onto her forehead. 

Firsts and Other Notables
After proto-forms (like in Uncanny #333) and a shadowy cameo in X-Man #15, this issue represents the first full appearance of Onslaught in all his glory. 


Beast (the real one) makes an appearance in this issue, as he finds a possible means of escape from Dark Beast's cell (and it's revealed that he's been left with a hamster cage-like feeding device that has kept him weak but not, like, dying of thirst. 


Juggernaut also returns (from his brief sojourn in the Malibu universe) this issue, revealed to be the shadow being menacing Psylocke and Archangel in Uncanny #333. He proceeds to head directly to the X-Mansion when he tries to reveal Onslaught's identity but finds a mental block preventing him from doing so; his story continues in Uncanny #334 and next issue, as he becomes a prominent player in the reveal of Onslaught's identity. 


Similarly, during Onslaught & Jean's trip through Xavier's mind, the psychically-shielded Z'Nox chamber (the place where Xavier locked himself away after faking his death to prepare for the alien invasion back in the Silver Age) is referenced; it too will play a roll in the Onslaught reveal. 


This issue is mildly infamous for being one of the few modern issues to reference the very brief and quickly forgotten reveal in X-Men #3 that Professor X carries a torch for Jean Grey and feels that he cannot act on his feelings due to being paralyzed (and not, you know, her significantly-older teacher). It's the kind of nod only the continuity-minded Mark Waid (and maybe Kurt Busiek) would make, and while it's probably not for the best to dredge it back up (even Stan Lee quickly moved past it and never referenced it again), it is more or less as quickly ignored after this issue as in the first place. 


Joseph appears briefly in this issue, in a scene clearly set before X-Men Unlimited #11. It's possibly this is meant to be the scene that issue erroneously referenced as occurring in X-Nen #52, though the details here don't quite match the reference made in X-Men Unlimited #11. Also, the narrative caption refers to him as "Eric Magnus Lensherr", meaning the creative team is still treating Joseph as the actual de-aged Magneto at this point (and not the clone he'll eventually be retconned to be). 


A Work in Progress
This issue opens with a sequence showing the discrepancy between random people's thoughts & words, which is one of the points Onslaught tries to use to convince Jean about the terribleness of humanity. 


When Jean asks who Onslaught is, he responds "I am frustration!", a further hint towards his origins.


He also talks a lot of about how much Xavier has repressed his emotions. 


When Juggernaut reveals himself, Psylocke mentions reading his mind, despite the fact that he's wearing his helmet (and the fact that his helmet prevents his mind being read is a plot point in the next few issues).

Artistic Achievements
There's a couple iconic images in this issue (images that become representative of the upcoming crossover or used in ads), like the first full reveal of Onslaught. Another is the closing image of Jean with "Onslaught" seared into her head (it's not terribly clear from the plot summary, but this is also how Jean learns what Onslaught's name is, as he doesn't use it at all in the issue prior to that last panel). 


Towards the end of their encounter, Onslaught is shown grabbing a representation of Phoenix and crushing it in his fist, which is a neat way to visually establish the idea that Onslaught is on the same power level as Phoenix. 


Austin's Analysis
As we'll see, "Onslaught" is a largely plot-driven story (in that it quickly becomes a story about characters reacting to events and enacting various plans, fighting villains, etc.), but there is at its core an idea built first & foremost around characterization, and that idea is first laid out here. It's not entirely clear yet (though there are more than a few hints), but this issue is, effectively, a searing character study of Professor Xavier. Or, at least, one facet of Xavier's characterization (something that will be made more literal in the course of the larger story), his repressed rage & frustration at the failure to realize his "dream" in the face of mounting anti-mutant prejudice in general and specific losses amongst the X-Men. As presented here, with Onslaught trying to win over Jean to his side, Onslaught is raging id personified (a Reddit thread come to life, essentially), a character awash in anger who describes himself as being a manifestation of frustration. It's just not clear yet who's id Onslaught represents. 

It really is a well-constructed issue: even without knowing the twist and the truth of Onslaught's true identity, it effectively establishes just who Onslaught is, as a character, after months of teasing and build-up. Who don't know who Onslaught is, but after this issue, we have a pretty clear idea of who Onslaught is. It's probably the best-written issue of Mark Waid's short tenure, and Andy Kubert continues to step up his game as well, having fun depicting the surreal mindscapes through which Onslaught & Jean travel and adding energy to what is, essentially, Onslaught showing Jean some really personal home movies, combined with some of the story's most iconic shots, like Onslaught pulling Jean onto the Astral plane and revealing himself fully for the first time, or the closing image of Onslaught's name (mentally) seared onto Jean's forehead. Whether viewed as the beginning of "Onslaught" proper or the beginning of the end of the story's build-up, this issue makes clear what, exactly, drives the character at the center of it all, leaving readers as frightened as Jean by issue's end. 

Next Issue
Tomorrow, X-Force invades SHIELD in X-Force #55. Friday, Wolverine makes a friend in Wolverine #102. Next week, Generation X #16.

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17 comments:

  1. I remember the Marvel hype books stating that Onslaught would be the X-Men's new Galactus-level enemy for some time. That, of course, didn't pan out. I also thought that Onslaught actually burned his name on Jean's head, which would have been something. In a few months, after all that hype, Onslaught would just be a memory. Dark Beast keeping Beast alive was also suspect... Dark Beast had no issue killing all of Hank's childhood associates. Showing mercy made no sense to me.

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    1. Yeah, I have a quote from Lobdell I'll be running in a future post about how he wanted Onslaught to be the X-Men's Galactus-level threat, but that never really happened (also, the X-Men had a Galactus-level threat in Dark Phoenix so I'm not sure whatthe difference is).

      As for Dark Beast, I believe somewhere along the way it's stated that he kept Regular Beast alive in case he needed to plumb him for information about his life to keep up the ruse (which is of course the in-universe sop to the fact that he can't just kill the character outright due to genre & commercial concerns).

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    2. It does seem weird that the X-Men would have two "Galactus-level enemies" who are members of the team. Like, I get that it makes for drama, but I feel like you can't really go that well too many times before it begins to make the heroes look like dopes for letting that person back onto the team. It's not like Galactus is really the repressed dark side of Ben Grimm or something...

      The Lobdell quote may say, but I'm curious as to whether that was his intent before or after it was decided that Xavier would be Onslaught. If it was something he was thinking early on when he had no idea who or what Onslaught was, then I guess I'm more okay with it, assuming he dropped the idea after Onslaught became Xavier.

      Anyway, I much prefer his intent that Bastion would become a major recurring adversary. Onslaught looks cool, but he's not something that needs to exist outside his event, while Bastion (in my opinion) had legs as a recurring antagonist, which unfortuately never happened since Lobdell left the series right after the character's first major storyline.

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  2. I don't remember a lot of the books from around this time, but this one is seared into my mind (so to speak). These next few issues and the Onslaught event itself were amazing to me at the time, but now it's mostly nostalgia that keeps them afloat. I always wondered if the pervert who gave Jean directions was supposed to be a nod to anyone IRL resemblance-wise.

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    1. Seems like it's someone specific, doesn't it?

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    2. Given the design (balding bearded red haired dude) and the stuff Matt says below about his "defenses" for grown men dating teenagers in his stuff, I get the suspicion that it's Byrne.

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  3. I've gotta say -- while the "Onslaught" event itself may have been ill-conceived, I do think Waid and Lobdell did a good job of selling Professor X in the role. And the fact that Xavier's dark side had made a couple prior appearances in decades past meant that something like this wasn't totally out of left field. I look forward to reading the event again. It's been probably 20 years since the last time I did, and I've come to view it with disdain in part because the internet has spent so long telling me I should. I remember not loving it at the time, but really, really, really liking certain bits and pieces. Curious what I'll think nowadays, and excited to find out.

    Regarding Xavier's torch for Jean: John Byrne, no stranger to writing stories about significantly older men hooking up with young women, has "defended" that bit from the Lee/Kirby issue by noting that Professor X was subtly and greatly aged over the decades. When X-MEN first started, he was intended to be in his twenties and prematurely bald (as evidenced by the fact that it was 1963 and his parents had worked on the nuclear bomb before he was born).

    Now, a 25-year-old lusting after a 16-year-old is really no better in my mind than a 50-year-old doing same, but just for context, there you have it.

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    1. ...while the "Onslaught" event itself may have been ill-conceived, I do think Waid and Lobdell did a good job of selling Professor X in the role. And the fact that Xavier's dark side had made a couple prior appearances in decades past meant that something like this wasn't totally out of left field.

      I agree, and there is a very specific moment/plot point which I believe allows the story to get away from the core idea of "Onslaught as a manifestation of Xavier's dark side" (which, in fairness, was probably inevitable given the way it got drafted into setting up "Heroes Reborn" and serving as the "last" hurrah for a bunch of Marvel stalwarts), and you'd better believe I've got a rant all lined up for it when we get there. :)

      Now, a 25-year-old lusting after a 16-year-old is really no better in my mind than a 50-year-old doing same, but just for context, there you have it.

      Yeah, I've encountered that "defense" from Byrne before, and while he might be technically correct (though I would argue that while there's nothing explicitly stating Xavier is old in the Silver Age, there's nothing explicitly stating he's NOT significantly older, either, while the whole baldhead, pipe, and professorial demeanor throughout the Silver Age does a lot to sell the idea he is, as the kids say, an Old), to your point, 25-on-16 isn't much better, and even if you allow that, there's still the icky fact that he's *her teacher* and explicitly *in a position of authority over her*, which are bad circumstances for a romantic relationship regardless of the ages involved.

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    2. Oh yes, he absolutely seems older to me in those issues for all the reasons you mentioned! Plus, Stan Lee has stated (though it was later on, and we all know how he liked to ret-con his own memory) that Yul Brynner was part of the influence on Xavier,and Brynner was in his forties by 1963 -- not elderly, and he did look younger than his age for most of his life, but still -- he wasn't exactly a youngster.

      In addition to the fact you mentioned -- that Xavier was Jean's teacher -- when you add in Chris Claremont's later ret-con that he had known her since she was a little girl, the whole thing gets a billion times creepier.

      Obviously no one had spoken of that panel for many years by the time Claremont filled in the Jean/Charles backstory, but it probably should've been swept under the rug and never mentioned at all, ever again, rather than calling back to it one page after showing the adult professor smiling at elementary school Jean! The point of Onslaught's tour here was to show that Xavier was sometimes morally compromised, but not that he was a super-creepy sleazeball!

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  4. Really dislike the coloring by Digital Chameleon at this point. Not only did they give Magneto pink lipstick (!) but I'm thinking the digital coloring also scrapes away the finalized inks. A straight line of ink gets turned into dots, as if being colored over. Good examples here being the forehead wrinkles on the pedestrian giving directions to the dress shop, or the lines in Cyclops' brown jacket.

    This sort of thing kind of reminds me of bad HD releases of old movies where they apply far too much Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) and end up making people's faces look more like a wax doll.

    Anyway... a pet peeve of mine. Digital Chameleon was awesome for a while, like back in issues around Vol.2 #34 and so on.

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    1. I've railed before about my issues with the "deluxe" format, and while it did, for the most part, support some significant & important improvements to the production values, I feel like this is another thing that can be chalked up to that change, at least here when the newer, slicker paper was still relatively new (along with the very concept of computer coloring), leading to some wonky stuff in the early goings.

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    2. But wasn't the Deluxe line simply higher quality (glossy) paper and nothing more? I believe the coloring itself was exactly the same in both the Deluxe and standard (newsstand?) editions. Therefore the inks still are being scrubbed away at times from the Digital Chameleon color job... but perhaps it was just more noticeable on the glossy finish paper since it was that much more clear?

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  5. Not only are readers as frightened as Jean, when the reveal happens we're just as bamboozled as she is. It's a nice touch that, upon revisiting this after learning who Onslaught is, readers are able to look at some of the scenes and think "Well, DUH". Morrison does something similar with Xorn later.

    The Kubert art does more in two panels of "Jean pulling out the Phoenix and it does bugger all" to establish Onslaught's credibility than any of his later "Angry God" rant.

    Actually had to dig out my old X-Men Masterworks collection when my classmates didn't believe the infamous Issue #3 thought bubble happened. That was fun.

    Lastly, the dress Jean is set to try on is "Very Chichi". Scott Summers' and Goku's wives need not switch clothes for any reason. Especially don't dress Jean as a Chinese Princess around Logan.

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    1. I always forget that the final page of this issue is the reveal that this is Onslaught. Like, knowing that's who it is for the past 25 years, I never stop to consider that the readers would have just seen him as a mystery man until that moment.

      That said, didn't we know ahead of time that this was Onslaught? I feel like I was aware going into the issue that this was him. Was there some solicit or hype piece that advertised this issue as being his first appearance? Or am I just misremembering my own experience reading the issue, possibly conflating it with a later re-read?

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    2. Other than it's right there on the cover?

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    3. Originally posted meaning the reveal of who Onslaught WAS, not the character himself (hence the comparison of this with Morrison's X-Men once Xorn's identity is revealed) Interestingly, the house ads for Onslaught featured art from this issue. That image on the credits page is the go-to image for the character. Possibly why readers already knew that he looked like before this issue saw print?

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  6. This issue is the closest Onslaught comes to working. His motivations and actions make sense, he looks great and he's legitimately frightening. Everything goes off the rails quickly, but this issue promises a storyline that would have been really good. This is one of my favorite Andy Kubert issues, too. I feel at some point he started drawing Jean a little younger than he had originally and I think it works.

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