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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

X-amining The Road To Onslaught

"The Road to Onslaught
October 1996

In a Nutshell
An overview at the events leading up to "Onslaught" & a look at the story's original plot outline. 

Firsts and Other Notables
A special promotional one-shot released the same month as the end of "Onslaught", this issue combines reprints of specific panels to layout the important story points leading up to the start of the crossover (including some of Professor X's history and assorted plot beats from the "Road to Onslaught" stories) along with text pages summarizing the intended overall plot outline of the crossover's story. 

In doing so, the plot outline pages layout a vastly more coherent story than what was presented in the issues themselves, one in which Onslaught has specific goals and his actions are intended to help carry them out. Here, it's said that his overarching plan is to create a worldwide collective intelligence, thereby eliminating prejudice (and free will). To that end, in order to boost the psionic energy of the world upon which he can gain more power, he makes his presence known to the world in order to increase fear & anxiety (hence the creation of his big citadel). The Sentinels were then intended to also generate fear and anxiety, and to serve as batteries to store all that energy for Onslaught. 

He would then use the Landau, Luckman & Lake warp chambers (something which doesn't even get mentioned in the published story) to send his mind throughout the world, along with the heretofore unseen "grand chamber" of the Morlock tunnels (which taps into similar warp energy) under Central Park (explaining the locale for his citadel) and the assistance of Gateway, who is said here to be a servant of that warp energy (which helps offer up some explanation for Gateway's involvement in the story which, in execution, is fairly minimal). 

This collective intelligence spread through out the world, then, represents the end of everything in the face of a psionic "onslaught". 

The plot outline also suggests that while Onslaught is initially driven by rage (hence his punching his hated step-brother across the country in Uncanny X-Men #322) as he evolves his feelings & goals change, which seems like a way to explain away some of the inconsistencies in the character's actions in the various pre-crossover teases. 

A Work in Progress
The formative events in Professor Xavier's life leading to the creation of Onslaught which get showcased are his encounter with the Shadow King in X-Men #118, his friendship with Magneto as a young man, and the wiping of Magneto's mind in X-Men (vol. 2) #25

The Entity, an earlier manifestation of Xavier's dark side from the fill-in story in X-Men #106, is also cited as an early manifestation of Onslaught; the Entity's return in the X-Men/Micronauts limited series is not referenced, likely due to rights issues (Collection Recollection sidebar: due to X-Men #106 being referenced here and the fact that it was skipped over in Classic X-Men - my original source for reading most of the early "All New, All Different" X-Men issues - plus the fact that it was specifically adapted in the animated series - it was built up in my mind for years as being a much bigger deal than it actually is). 

Magneto is specifically referred to as being Romany, not Jewish, in panels reprinted from X-Men Unlimited #2

Xavier's "infection" by Magneto's dark side, as established in Wolverine #104, is presented here a little bit more metaphorically (relative to the depiction of a little evil mind imp jumping into Xavier, at least). 

Panels from Uncanny X-Men #309 are reprinted, and it's heavily implied here that the Magneto with whom Xavier has a dialogue in that issue is a representation of the dark side of Magneto that Xavier became infected with, rather than a pure creation of Xavier's subconscious. 

Austin's Analysis
This is just a bizarre issue all around. The first half, an overview of the events leading up to "Onslaught" using panels from assorted comics, is the kind of self-promotional "catch-up" thing that isn't uncommon for this era - in its way, it's not unlike, say, the Magneto #0 issue released prior to "Fatal Attractions", or the pre-"Age of Apocalypse" Year of the Mutants: Collectors Preview, or some of the promotional books put out ahead of Generation X's launch. It is odd, however, that it is published the same month as the conclusion of the story, rather than the month when the story began (or just before). Published earlier, it could have primed readers for the story to come. Coming at the end like this, it almost seems like someone read the end of "Onslaught" and thought "readers are going to have lost the thread of how this all came to be; let's put something out to remind them". 

To that point, the second half of the issue is even more bizarre. Presenting some kind of plot outline for "Onslaught" (it's not clear if the pages here are reproductions of actual pages written ahead of the story, or something crafted after the fact for this issue) that is A. vastly different from what actually saw print and B. a fair bit better than the story that actually was printed, feels like a tremendous self-own on Marvel's part. "Hey, remember that story you just finished reading after shelling out a bunch of extra money to get all the different tie-ins? Well, here's how that story was supposed to go!" What is particularly galling is that as much as "Onslaught" the X-Men event was co-opted to serve as the introductory vehicle to "Heroes Reborn", nothing about that co-option in any way predicated the changes to the overall plot of the story relative to what's presented here. The "Onslaught" we got was a meandering mess, plot-wise, functioning on a micro-level but rarely stepping back to present any kind of macro-plot. Things happen as the story progresses, but rarely is any reason *why* they happened presented in any of the comics themselves. Nor are Onslaught's ultimate goals on a macro level ever made clear in-story, aside from at the very end. Yet, having to use the story to write out the Avengers and the Fantastic Four has no bearing on any of that, nor does it offer up an explanation for why what is presented in this issue wasn't presented in the story itself.  

Laying out a more coherent, engaging plot here rather than in actual comic books, feels like a failure, yet despite that, Marvel still felt fit to publish this issue. It is unclear if Road to Onslaught was something the X-Office wanted put out, or something the larger marketing department pushed for, but while the additional depth and clarity to the overall plot of "Onslaught" (and the glimpse at what might have been) is appreciated, it really does speak to the apparent desperation of a Marvel Comics thst was unknowingly on the verge of bankruptcy at the time. So desperate were they to wring every last dollar they could out of the dwindling speculator market, they were fine publishing a comic that basically says "here's the story we wanted to tell, but failed to tell". Whatever that may say about the talents of the creative teams involved, or of the meddling of the marketing department in the execution of the story, didn't matter. It was another opportunity for fans to throw a few more bucks at Marvel, on top of what they'd already spent on the crossover itself. That, apparently, is what really mattered. 

Next Issue
Next week, the tour of ancillary "Onslaught" material continues with a look at the Onslaught action figures! 

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  1. I'm guessing Marvel saw this as "added value" and a "peak behind the curtain" for curious fans. I'm also hoping it was marketing driven rather than editorial. If an editor actually felt like this was needed for clarification then they would have to know that they failed at running a coherent event.

    What I also find interesting is that Onslaught still manages to be of interest enough to have warranted several collections. I'm not too proud to admit I just recently purchased the three volume collection just last month. So, obviously, I still find entertainment value in it.

  2. So bizarre. I never read this when it was released, and I don’t think I knew what it contained until I read G. Kendall’s review ten or whatever years ago. Like you said, the recap portion makes sense as something that Marvel might’ve published prior to the event beginning, or even as a backup feature in ONSLAUGHT: X-MEN or something like that. But to lay bare, for the entire fandom, that Marvel had completely screwed up the story they were trying to tell, is insane!

    1. I didn't even know it existed. I remember the Onslaught updates that were in the back of X-Men issues leading up to Onslaught. I might actually have to track this down.

  3. I had stopped reading X-Men way before this, so this is the first I'm learning about the Onslaught event. I'm super curious -- moving forward, did writers follow up on the story as it was actually printed, or did they course correct by referencing this recap/retcon instead?

    And just for the record, I agree. Printing an "Oopsie! We wrote the wrong story!" post-event apology is bizarre. It reminds me of that editor's note from Portacio's second Uncanny issue, explaining that the events of the previous issue didn't happen as they appeared. Never a good sign that editorial is at its most organized.

    -- Thom H.

    1. As far as I can remember the events of Onslaught were kind of just forgotten about by the time Operation: Zero Tolerance got rolling. Though, Onslaught has reappeared from time to time since. Most notably, Onslaught Reborn and Axis. It also appears that he's prepping for a comeback in Way of X.

  4. I am actually flat out stunned that Onslaught had a reasonably coherent plot, given Lobdell's tendency to fake it. The question I have now the hell did we end up with the mess we got? I know the answer to that for 90s Marvel is usually "editorial" but I'd really like to know how (1) we got from A to B and (2) who thought releasing the original plot was a good idea? Did they think the end result was an IMPROVEMENT?

  5. It's so bizarre for Marvel to put out a special about the event they just did that boils down to "so, here's the better, more concise & tightly planned idea we originally had before we went with what you saw". It feels like it's more of a focused story and that seeing this special would be more likely to lead people to compare the end result, for good or ill. Just a strange decision. Also, as you said, nothing about the original plan needed to be changed if they still wanted it to kick off Heroes Reborn instead of just being an X-title story.

    "Magneto is specifically referred to as being Romany, not Jewish, in panels reprinted from X-Men Unlimited #2."

    I would LOVE it if someone who was at Marvel at this era would explain why there was this push in the 90s to erase/retcon Magneto's Judaism, because when it pops up (like here & in Unlimited) it always feels kinda... wrong. I'm not saying an explanation would make it better, but it would at least make it less opaque.

    1. The revelation of Magneto being a Jewish victim of the Holocaust was a huge bit in his rehabilitation arch by Claremont. Did they feel that in order to turn him back into a viable villain they'd have to get rid of the backstory that has Magneto the most prominent Jewish holocaust survivor in the comics? May be the media attention of the 1993 movie Schindler's List is what prompted the push. I don't know if it could have been a real or perceived issue with Hollywood, which seems to have been a huge priority for Marvel at this time.

  6. I remember finding this in a clearance box at some point in 1997 and must have read it but I can't remember anything about it! Maybe by that stage Onslaught was history and I didn't realise just how much hadn't made it into the final books.


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