Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

15 May 2009

X-Men: The Complete Onslaught Epic, Book 1

Collects: X-Men #53-4, Uncanny X-Men #334-5, Fantastic Four #415, Avengers #401, Onslaught: X-Men, Cable #34, and Incredible Hulk #444 (1996)

Released: February 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 256 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785128236

What is this?: Behold my mighty hand! Onslaught’s true name is revealed, and he begins his slow, ponderous march across the Marvel Universe.

The culprits: Too many to name or punish.

X-Men: The Complete Onslaught Epic coverI remember the Onslaught “Epic”; although I did not behold his mighty hand first hand until years later, I watched the story unfold from the safety of Usenet in 1996. There was some excitement at the time, since the identity of the X-Traitor would finally be revealed and a big summer crossover would sprawl before the reading public. I don’t know that anyone was expecting it to be any good, though.

That was fortunate, since the crossover was widely panned at the time. But how does it stack up more than a decade later?

About as badly as you might expect. Wisely, the setup for the Onslaught storyline is omitted in X-Men: The Complete Onslaught Epic, Book 1. It was too large and too confusing; the writers admitted they changed the direction of the storyline and at times were working blind. But it’s helpfully referenced in footnotes (when you can read the footnotes, which are often the same color as the text-box background).

The text balloons! They’re everewhere!The plot has the X-Men discovering the identity of the ultra-powerful psychic entity Onslaught, who happens to be one of their own; once he’s flushed out, Onslaught starts gathering his power by collecting Franklin Richards and brainwashing the Hulk. There’s unrealized menace and handwringing and angst and oh God text balloons everywhere. You might expect better from writer Mark Waid; keep right on expecting, because you’re not going to find it here. Waid wasn’t happy with the direction of the X-books or the freedom he was given; that probably explains the wretched pile of X-cess he and fellow writer Scott Lobdell handed in to editor Bob Harras — or maybe Harras ordered them to give him that. I don’t know.

Here’s what happens over 250+ pages and eight issues (plus a larger special issue):

  • Buildup to the revelation (Onslaught taunts Jean, Juggernaut punchy-punchies his way into the Mansion) (X-Men #53-4 and Uncanny #334)
  • Revelation — which was completely obvious by this time — plus fight (Onslaught: X-Men)
  • Yak with the Avengers, during which nothing happens (Uncanny #335)
  • Cable and a mind-controlled Hulk punch each other (Cable #34 and Incredible Hulk #444)
  • Joseph (who was thought to be Magneto) introduced to the plot, for non-obvious reasons (Avengers #401)
  • Onslaught kidnaps Franklin Richards (Fantastic Four #414)

The pacing is appalling. Interestingly, the ancillary titles actually have a decent pace — well, all right, two issues for a Cable / Hulk fight is excessive, but I’ll blame that on Cable. None of them stand out as particularly good examples of the comic book arts; even Hulk, written by Peter David, is sapped of all its individuality by the crossover. They’re either padded or unremarkable large-scale fight scenes.

Orange milkThe art is all over the place, but fortunately, since it’s the X-titles of the mid-‘90s, Marvel had a lot of their best working on this crossover. The two X-Men issues feature the flashy if a bit underdeveloped early Andy Kubert, while the Uncanny pencils are from the manga-influenced Joe Madureira. These work together about as well as you might expect. Kubert and Dan Green get the important X-Men: Onslaught issue; Green’s work resembled John Romita Jr. at the time, and Green had been an X-Men artist earlier in the decade. Interestingly, there are parts that look like the work of neither, but whyever that is, I’m sure the orange milk isn’t either’s fault.

But with the crossover issues, you have the early Mike Deodato on Avengers, which I didn’t care for, and Carlos Pacheco’s early American work on Fantastic Four. Then to end it you have the pretty-but-stiff Ian Churchill on Cable and the hideously unattractive work of Angel Medina on Incredible Hulk. (Those last two are one hell of a whiplash, I can tell you, since they are linked and back to back in the collection.) It’s a real mishmash with the ancillary issues added in. There’s nothing that can be done about it now, and it doesn’t detract from the readability (except for Medina’s work), but it’s a real range of styles.

Behold my mighty hand!The back cover and indicia claim Book 1 contains Fantastic Four #414 and Avengers #400; it doesn’t. There’s only a page from each of these comics in this book, and it’s deceptive to claim otherwise. (It’s the same practice that allows retailers to claim X-Men Visionaries: Jim Lee TPB has Uncanny X-Men #252, 254, 260-1, 264, 280, and 286 when in fact the book contains only the covers from those issues.) On the other hand, it’s better information than you can get on the Internet. The usually reliable (and invaluable) Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators claims X-Force #57 and X-Man #18 are included as well; they are not. Marvel.com makes the same claim, as does Amazon. In fact, wherever you look on the Internet, the listed contents of the four volumes in the series are contradictory or overlapping. (If anyone knows the true contents of these volumes, leave them in the comments.)

Much as you’d expect, the Onslaught crossover is best experienced through Wikipedia. Read X-Men: The Complete Onslaught Epic, Book 1, at your own risk.

Rating: X-Men symbol (1 of 5)

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