I’ve been reading X-Men comics for over twenty years, and in that time time I’ve seen (and taken part in) many discussions and disagreements among fellow fans. Scott and Emma or Scott and Jean? Whedon and Cassaday’s Astonishing: love it or hate it? Some opinions seem universal, however — I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single person praise the mid-’90s crossover event (or its titular villain) Onslaught. That derisiveness is part of why Marvel’s recent reprintings of the event caught my eye. X-Men/Avengers: Onslaught Vol. 3 is out this week, and it collects the final third of the event spanning the pages of X-Men, Fantastic Four, The Punisher (really?!), and more. Having only ever read a single issue of the event before now, it was almost entirely new to me going in. So, does this trade reprint some unfairly maligned gems?
No. These comics are bad. Like, “have a negative impact on the emotional timbre of your day” bad.
But! There are a lot of aspects of the collection that got me thinking, so let’s dive in. I’ll start out like the trade does, with various random tie-in issues of non-X-books. Onslaught might have been the hate-child of Professor Xavier’s hubris and Magneto’s quantifiable evil (more on that later), but his plot for world domination wreaked havoc on New York, thus drawing the attention of the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, The Punisher, Namor, Black Panther, and hell, even Doctor Doom. The plus side of the event bleeding into the Marvel universe at large is that it reminds you this is in fact a shared universe. The goings-on of mutantdom have impacts that Captain America has to react to, and so on.
The downside to the far-reaching nature of the story, however, is that so many of the tie-ins just feel utterly irrelevant. This is largely because the emotional core of the event hardly ever shifts away from the X-Men. As such, we just get issue after issue of other characters reacting to events that have no meaningful thematic importance to them. I cannot stress enough that there is a goddamned issue of The Punisher in this book. In it, Frank Castle teams up with some S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to protect the contents of a downed Helicarrier from a group called the Junkyard Dogs.
What ramifications does Frank’s mission have for the event at large? None. What about unique emotional implications or examinations of the threat from a fresh angle? Also none. This event may take place within a shared universe, but it feels very plainly like the outer books are just being treated as ads for the more central X-books. Nowhere does this get more ham-fisted than in a Fantastic Four tie-in issue where virtually every word balloon reads as if the characters are reciting a plot summary of the event off of Wikipedia to inform the reader of what’s going on.
We hit the apex of the event about halfway through the collection, and it’s here that we must really grapple with the core concepts and conflicts of the story. Or rather, the very thin threads of ideas that it’s hard to imagine supporting the weight of a viable pitch, much less an actual published crossover spanning dozens of issues. Onslaught was born (via some nonsensical slight of hand) from the worst qualities of Professor X and Magneto, invoking the names of the X-franchise’s most important figureheads while Flanderizing both of them. Magneto’s “evil” is invoked many a time as if it’s a palpable, measurable construct and not a laughable reduction of years of his character development. What does someone’s non-subjective, actually definable “evil” look like? This, apparently:
Fear not, though, because all of this character flattening ultimately served to bring us the famously beloved relaunch event Heroes Reborn.
…Ahem. I won’t waste much time on the actual final battle because A.) it’s boring, B.) the book provided no reason for me to get emotionally invested in the way it ended, and C.) plot-wise it just doesn’t make any goddamned sense. Go figure that when you structure an event around the reality-warping powers of characters like Franklin Richards it’s hard to care about anything because key plot events hinge on literally rewriting the world’s own internal rules so the plot can proceed as desired.
Once the event proper wraps up, the last third of the book consists of aftermath. It’s here that we get what is easily the best issue of the collection: Uncanny X-Men #337. There are no more pressing threats to the fate of the world, just X-Men ruminating over the stress of their lives and coming together to try and have a halfway normal breakfast without utterly falling apart. The closest thing to an action scene is Cyclops, Beast, and Iceman play-fighting, and for the most part it’s charming. The issue does suffer a little bit from the sort of dialogue-as-exposition style I mentioned earlier, but it’s rooted enough in the emotional reality of the characters’ everyday lives that the charm outshines the negatives. Plus you have Joe Madureira on art, and his work still holds up as being just plain cool.
Unfortunately, Joe Mad’s work is damn near the only art in the collection that’s pleasant to look at. The other highlights are some issues featuring Mike Deodato, but even those feel rougher and more rushed than his usual work. (One issue even credits him on “breakdowns” but with a different artist on “finishes,” all but confirming that deadlines loomed heavily over them.) The art in X-Men Annual ’96 is especially bad, and again feels rushed with four different artists credited across pencils and inks. The finished product is one that leaves me wondering if all female mutants have secondary mutations triggering severe bending and unnatural angling of the spine, not to mention waist cinching that puts Violet Chachki to shame.
All in all, I can’t honestly recommend this book. There’s a single good issue of Uncanny X-Men in it, plus some solid Deodato art and little grains of good ideas thrown in here or there for good measure. My appreciation for the collection stems solely from the P.O.V. of being invested in the X-Men’s history, both good and bad. This event is solidly part of “the bad,” though, and unless you’re striving for a literal 100% knowledge of X-Men or Marvel history, then you can safely leave this book on the shelf.
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