It was nothing short of revolutionary. In 1995, Marvel Comics teased inside their monthly editor’s/letters columns that they would be canceling every X-Men related title. And then they did the unthinkable: they actually followed through on those teases.
Yes, Marvel cut every X-Men book short, and effectively ended the entire Marvel Universe, from the mutants’ perspectives, replacing them all with new titles. This was the Age of Apocalypse.
It was an unprecedented event, and one that we posit couldn’t be done again – at least not the same way. Back then, the internet was nascent and there weren’t leaks or spoilers – it was teased, and then they did it, and it gave readers a very unique experience. As it turns out, it also gave creators a unique experience.
With the current flow of “Summer 2015” event teasers from Marvel Comics, one of them was for, naturally, Age of Apocalypse. It got us thinking about the unique nature of the event, and wondering whether anyone could do an event of its kind again in the modern era. For insight, we went to the source, one of the lead architects of the original event, Scott Lobdell. As an X-writer in the 90s, Lobdell wrote, essentially, every major X-Men character over the course of several years. He wrote both main X-books, and co-created new characters like Generation X. Lobdell, along with folks like Fabian Nicieza and Howard Mackie (along with a compliment of artists who modern-day X-fans know just as well with names like Bachalo and Kubert), were synonymous with the X-Gene in the 90s. They continued a legacy forged by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld and more just a few years before.
We talked with Lobdell about Age of Apocalypse, and got some surprising insight into the original story’s inception and creation. He told us how they pulled it off back then, what would be done differently today, and even the surprising role Jubilee played in the creation of the very concept.
Age of Apocalypse is coming back in Summer 2015, but it can never be truly duplicated.
Newsarama: Scott, what were the unique circumstances that led up to Age of Apocalypse?
Scott Lobdell: It all started with a message on my answering machine from Bob [Harras, Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics at the time]. "What if Jubilee goes to the mansion and everyone she finds there are claiming to be X-Men, but they aren't really the X-Men?"
I called him at the office from a pay phone and asked, "That would be cool! But what if they were right and she was wrong? What if something happened while she was out that all those people really were the X-Men!"
We got batting the idea around and decided it would be awesome if something happened in the past that changed everything about who the X-Men were, how they came to be, what they fought for. It kept coming back to Charles Xavier... what if Charles Xavier had died before he formed the X-Men? Was it enough for him to have to lived and to have dreamed?
We knew we wanted Legion to go back in time and kill his father -- but we couldn't figure out why. I think it was Fabian who finally said "He kills him by accident!" And then we were off to the races.
A week or so later, after it was decided we were going to tell this massive four month crossover event, I was in the office with Bob and marketing called. They asked how they should promote this unwieldy beast. Bob was looking at me and pretended to cut my throat – as if to say we are going to cancel all the books since Xavier was dead. Bob was telling them, straight faced, that we were simply going to cancel all the books and start with issue one across the line... we were laughing at the sheer audacity of the absurdity of cancelling the number one comic book line on the planet and starting over with totally new characters and concepts for four months. Ridiculous.
Bob hung up the phone, a little pale. "They love it."
We had a writers summit a few weeks later where Bob, Fabian and I handed out the overview to all the other writers. (This was before NDAs, when people used to trust each other. But then this was also before BleedingCool, too.) It said "This is the big story. We need to make sure you hit this, this and this. Have fun!"
I'd say it was about a month or two later I was asked to speak to a retailer conference in Baltimore. The head of marketing at the time was very excited and supportive of me addressing the retailers to discuss our plans... and I am always happy to talk in front of an audience.
It wasn't until I started talking and cheerily and excitingly explaining that we were "simply" going to kill of Professor Xavier and cancel all the X-Books and relaunch with all new titles... that I realized I'd been set up big time! The retailers were panicked, furious! I guess in retrospect I can see why – but I had been immersed in the story and the character designs and in the sheer overwhelming fun we were all having with the process of creating this crossover... I wasn't thinking about the sheer terror a ballroom full of retailers were feeling as a writer (what is he doing up there?!) was telling them that for four months there would not be any X-Men books as they knew them.
Ah, to be young again.
Nrama: Sounds like a blast! What was it like being part of something that so radically changed the books you were writing?
Lobdell: Fun. It was fun to work on the books and it was just as much fun to read them! A lot of people gave me credit for writing Generation Next because of how intense it was. But among all the other stand-out books I still don't think Factor X by John Frances Moore gets the respect it deserves! Man, the energy he was able to inject into the Scott and Alex dynamic over those four issues? It was brilliant!
In many ways it was fun because we were flying by the seat of out pants. "Too much story? Lets do a book setting it all up and another book ending it all with a bow around it!" [Newsarama Note: Those became the "Alpha" and "Omega" books of the event, a concept mirrored in future events.] "Should we include Generation X? It's only been on the stands four issues – maybe we should exempt it from the crossover. But if we do, it will feel like it is the 'unimportant' book!"
I don't know if this is remotely true, but back in those days “We The Creatives” were running the show, and Publishing and Marketing were giving us the tools that were necessary. Nowadays it feels like the cart is built by a bunch of people in blindfolds in a dark barn with water leaking through the ceiling and only then are the horses hitched to it and told to giddyup because the books have to be at the printers in three weeks!
One of my most fun memories was sitting in a diner in Manhattan. It was me, Bob, Fabian and Joe Mad, and probably Ben Raab and Suzanne Gafney. Fabian and I were divvying up the available X-Men and you could see how both are brains were working at the time (and maybe since!). Fabian was creating the ultimate super x-men team: marquee names like Storm, Phoenix, Iceman and Quicksilver! And I was saying "I want Sunfire! And Wild Child! Oh and Morph from the television show!"
I was just going crazy with ideas. "Yeah, Sabretooth. But he's the sane one – he's got Wild Child attached by a chain to his wrist! He'll let him off to do what he has to do but then when it is over – BAM! – Sabretooth slams him against the wall and throws Wild Child over his shoulder until next time!" Everyone at the table was sort of "Uh, sure Scott." But Joe and I were giddy at the possibilities, the freedom involved with believing there was nothing off-limits about what we could do so long as it stayed true to the core idea of a world without Xavier. Sabretooth is really a great example of this. In a sane world he can flourish as an agent of chaos. In a world of chaos, he doesn't have that luxury. In one world he is evil... in the other other he is forced to be the lesser of two evils.
The more editorial started sending all our stuff to each other, the more we came to push each other to be more awesome in the stories and the character designs we were creating. Yeah, fun was the operative word.
Nrama: With the nature of the internet and comic cons and every announcement being made far in advance today, do you think there’s any way for the big 2 to pull off a similar event again? And what’s it like seeing the legacy of such an event?
Lobdell: I am sure there are. I just don't really see the publishers having the stomach for it any more. Or maybe it is a lack of intestinal fortitude.
I think I have the opposite thoughts that you have on the subject. I'll go to a convention and sit on a panel and hear the same response over and over. "I don't want to tell you what is happening because I don't want to ruin it for you." "Something big is going to happen, but I can't talk about it." "We're are planning something huge but I won't discuss it!" That is kind of anti-marketing to me. When I was younger I went to a comic book convention so that I could learn something I wasn't going to get from reading Diamond’s Previews from cover to cover. I wanted clues, I wanted slip-ups, I wanted people blurting out things by accidentally answering a fan's question honestly! Woot woot!
Conversely, I am privy to a lot of ideas that are just as crazy as canceling all the X-Men titles and replacing them for four months... but we live in a world now where creators usually know nothing. We aren't really solicited for our ideas or advice or opinions. When did that happen?
Am I flattered that Marvel is still picking at the bones of Age of Apocalypse, that Blink was front and center in X-Men: Days of Future Past and that Onslaught has found his way into the spotlight again (though this time with a red-tinted gel)? Yes. But the truth is I created these concepts over twenty years ago. Marvel used to be the House Of Ideas. Now they are content to hold a yard sale every few years trying to sell their used ideas to an ever-dwindling audience.
Don't be afraid of creating new things, people.
But yes, I think there are a lot of ways that publishers can still surprise the hell out the audience. Unfortunately it feels like the most surprising aspect of comic books these days is how unsurprising they've become.