Inside Marvel’s Age of Apocalypse

PROFESSOR X IS DEAD. AND HIS STRUGGLE FOR PEACE BETWEEN HUMANS AND MUTANTS WAS NOTHING MORE THAN A DREAM.

Never underestimate the impact one person can make. After a golden age of sales for the X-Men a very different Marvel from the one we know today cancelled the entire line for a four-month What If? story. The Age of Apocalypse would emerge from a chaotic 1994 as a fan favourite series, but it would also foreshadow Marvel’s immediate future.

I didn’t start researching a mid-90s comic event because the drama behind the scenes was interesting. At the end of August a close friend and mentor passed after a lengthy battle with cancer. It was hard for me to process his passing given how truly important he was to who I am. The world around me felt a bit alien.

The central premise of The Age of Apocalypse is that absence of one person can have a ripple effect.

X-Men: The Age of Apocalypse promo descriptions – 1994 

The setting of this alternate universe is familiar but warped. Large parts of the planet are inhospitable due to nuclear radiation, the destruction of landmass, and mass cullings. Apocalypse rules from a dystopian Manhattan, red skies and dark clouds looming over everything. What few humans left are either in North American concentration camps, fleeing for their lives to Avalon (the Savage Land) in Antartica, or hiding in Europe under the protection of the Human Council.

Mutants who would otherwise be heroes are coerced into the service of Apocalypse, while Marvel-616 (the main universe) villains have full redemption arcs. For as many heroics are on display in Amazing X-Men and Astonishing X-Men there is also doom and gloom. Apocalypse’s vision is a dark, genocidal nightmare masquerading as Darwinian thought. The proposed solution to the threat of Apocalypse is a nuclear strike launched by a council of humans (which may be in his grasp). The only hope humanity has left is Magneto’s X-Men.

How messed up is your timeline if Magneto has to form the X-Men?

I connected with a few of the writers involved in The Age of Apocalypse event to get a better understanding of its origins and what was happening at Marvel at that point in time. Fabian Nicieza recalled to me Bob Harras (X-Men Editor) stopping him in the hall to bounce an idea that came to him in the shower: “What would the world be like without Professor X?”

Dawn of The Age of Apocalypse

Fabian told me this cross-over was mostly planned by Bob Harras and Scott Lobdell. He was so busy with New Warriors and the complexity of the those crossovers that he was fine letting them set things up. Likewise Larry Hama told me that he was mostly out of the loop. “All I ever really knew about it was where and when my four issues began, and where they ended.”

The premise driving this event, however, fascinated Larry. “I was pretty ramped for the project, and could relate personally to some of the themes since my family was incarcerated in a concentration camp in northern California,” he told me. “It gave me the opportunity to delve into some heavy emotional moments.” The what, when, where, and why would be detailed in a January 1995 Marvel X-Facts article:

“Of all the methods suggested, the one possessed of the greatest sense of urgency involved someone travelling back in time to a crucial moment in X-history that would shake the mutant universe to its very foundations had it never occurred.”

Xavier’s death would occur during his days in Israel — his school hadn’t been founded, he and Erik (Magneto) were best friends, and a love affair had begun to form with Gabrielle Haller. It would be their Marvel-616 son, David Haller or the mutant ‘Legion’, who would have the means and ability to kill Professor X.

legion
A section of Andy Hubert’s iconic Legion Quest 2 cover

Legion (pictured above) has a severe form of dissociative identity disorder coupled with incredible mutant power. Each one of the personalities trapped within his head has an distinct ability (telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, super-strength, etc.). Whichever personality is at the wheel of David’s body determines his role in the story and threat level he represents.

In the mini-series leading up to The Age of Apocalypse, Legion Quest, David wakes from a coma with his fractured mind healed. Now in full control of his Omega-level abilities, he resolves to go back in time and kill Magneto in order to bring about his father’s dream of peaceful co-existence.

Magneto’s role as a global mutant terrorist had been a threat to Charles’s vision of the future since the X-Men were established. Perhaps David could amend things with his father after years of antagonism. Two problems with that idea though: (1) when David attacks Magneto he inadvertently reveals the existence of mutants to the public decades too early (allowing tensions between humans and mutants to unfold), and (2) Xavier leaped into the path of David’s attacks on Magneto — saving his friend’s life and dying in the process.

No Charles Xavier meant no Xavier Academy for Gifted Youngsters. No X-Men. No peaceful co-existence.

profx_death
Charles Xaviers’ death in X-Men #41 – LEGION QUEST PT. 4

“I think it was Fabian who finally said, ‘He kills him by accident!’ and then we were off to the races.” Said Scott Lobdell in an October 2014 interview with Newsarama. “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 [Harris] 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.”

Scott and Bob laughed at the idea of cancelling Marvel’s most successful line of books for a four-month crossover. Marketing loved it. This would be a new opportunity for one-shots, variant and chromium covers, and new characters for trading cards and action figures. Given the state of the comics industry in 1995 Marvel would need to build the event up and milk it for all it was worth.

The One

Remember how I said that one person can change everything? For Marvel in the 90s this was millionaire businessman Ron Perelman.

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Ron Perelman (right) in a Spring ’95 interview with Cigar Aficionado

Perelman’s holding company, MacAndrews & Forbes, had a diverse portfolio consisting of everything from commercial cosmetics and health labs to banks and communications groups. He had personally brokered massive deals in nearly every industry you could imagine and in 1989 was looking square at Marvel.

“I always thought 88-93 were almost like golden years for us.” said Fabian Nicieza. “Sales kept going up, the various departments were getting along better than they had before, fans were engaged and having fun, we started getting cartoons and toys out into the marketplace that led to an influx of new, young readers.” Marvel’s intellectual property was increasingly more valuable and Perelman sought to capitalize.

Top Units Sold by Publisher - 1991
A 1991 market snapshot – Top 100 sold units (Diamond) – Comichron

Seeing the success of Marvel in their marketplace, Perelman would spend $82.5 million on the Marvel Entertainment Group in early 1989 and began “testing” the comics market with the intent to take Marvel public by Summer 1991. The charts above and below illustrate not only the dominance Marvel had at the time but also the dominance of X-Men titles.

Top Selling 100 Comic Issues
A 1991 market snapshot – Top 100 sold units (Diamond) – Comichron

“[Perelman] reasoned, quite correctly, that if he raised prices and output, that hardcore Marvel fans would devote a larger and larger portion of their disposable income toward buying comics,” wrote Chuck Rozanski, CEO of Mile High Comics. “Once he had enough sales numbers in place to prove this hypothesis, he then took Marvel public, selling 40% of its stock for vastly more than he paid for the entire company.”

Alpha: Aggressive Sales Tactics

This era was known for crossovers, enhanced covers, first appearances, and number-one collectors’ editions. Perelman was promising to his investors that profits would form due to more product variants and higher prices. So as sweet as it is to be holding a chromium (metal) dyed cover of X-Men: The Age of Apocalypse – Alpha this product wasn’t made out of love.

aoa1
The many Age of Apocalypse “products” in the market paired well with the event’s visuals

“I think we always felt the pressure, all the time.” Fabian told me. “It was actually pretty exhausting, especially as the direct market numbers were softening and more and more we were being run by the people Perelman was putting in place who thought of our comics more like a candy bar than a piece of entertainment that emotionally connects to people.”

When I asked Fabian about the vibe around Marvel’s offices at the time of The Age of Apocalypse‘s release he said, “Sales was worried about it, I think Tom Defalco (Marvel Editor-in-Chief from 1987-1994) was antsy about it. But they had to trust us. After the Image boys had left we’d maintained and even increased sales on a lot of the titles and we were the company’s cash cow.”

The industry had hit its peak in April of 1993 with 48 million issues sold through the direct market, according to Comichron. Speculators had been influencing a market that was still trying to figure itself out, a factor that by Perelman’s own admission was hard to gauge. The different “product lines” of comics were being ordered by retailers in the millions. Something that clearly rubbed creators like Fabian the wrong way:

“[The] more Perelman’s people saw they had a golden goose, the worse it got, because they were a bunch of greedy scumbags who cared nothings for comics, the company, its people or the industry.”

The more Perelman put into the market the more retailers struggled to keep up. John Jackson Miller, a comics industry expert who regularly posts at Comichron.com, claims that a contributing factor to the vulnerability of the industry were the easy credit terms offered by distributors to retailers. “[…] 11,000 accounts were ordering comics for those 6,000 retailers.” It was a recipe for disaster.

Speculators were becoming frustrated with the gimmicks, retailers were taking on too much stock, consumers couldn’t afford to spend much more, and Perelman’s group had plans to expand.

Reign: Forced Company Growth

chart
A chart of Marvel Entertainment Group Inc.’s subsidiaries.

According to Chuck Rozanki of Mile High Comics the flaw in Perelman’s plan was his promise to investors of even further brand extensions and price increases. Perelman went on a spending spree, first picking up trading card company Fleer in 1992 for $265 million. This acquisition had doubled Marvel’s short-term sales but the collectable card market was about to collapse in the same way comics would years later.

In 1993 Perelman negotiated arguably the weirdest deal an IP holder could have made with a toy manufacturer. In exchange for 46% of Toy Biz equity the company would get “exclusive, perpetual, royalty-free license” to Marvel characters. Toy Biz would go on to integrate with Marvel Entertainment in unexpected ways, with one executive — Avi Arad — going on to head Marvel’s animation group and brokering the infamous Fox deal that left the latter retaining IP and partial merchandising rights to the X-Men (to this day).

Avi Arad served as Executive Producer of the iconic X-Men animated series

Marvel continued making acquisitions with Panini (an Italian sticker-maker) and Malibu Comics in 1994 followed by SkyBox International (another trading card publisher) in 1995. All of these deals were rooted in a failed attempt at vertical integration, but Marvel didn’t create a quake in the industry until it purchased Heroes World Distribution to use as its exclusive distributor in December of 1994.

Omega: Distribution Wars

Marvel’s attempt to self-distribute its products directly through Heroes World took place in in the background of  The Age of Apocalypse. Omega — a one-shot issue that closed out the event– was released in June 1995 and Marvel’s distribution was exclusive to Heroes World as of July 1995. This situation was destined to create a land-grab situation among all other publishers. Instead of solidifying Marvel’s grasp on the comics market it burst the bubble.

Perelman had revealed himself to be Marvel’s own En Sabah Nur (Apocalypse) — here to usher the end times for both Marvel and the industry as a whole.

Because there was so much change in an increasingly volatile market direct sales data is near impossible to obtain for the mid-90s. The below chart illustrates a dead zone from 1995-1996 when the Distribution Wars took place.

Comics Market Shares, 1991-1999 (1)
as reported by Capital City (pre-1993) and Diamond (1993 on) – Comichron.com

You see that downward trend? The more Perelman’s group treated Marvel’s IPs as a means to an profitable end the worse their output was received in the market and the more market share Marvel offered its competitors. Coming through the Distribution Wars the only publisher primed to take advantage was DC. Marvel’s chief competitor would overcome them in 1999, when Marvel’s market share took its worst dip ever.

Perelman pushed an organization that was flourishing into a position of vulnerability due to a series of poorly timed acquisitions worth over $700 million. In the the wake of The Age of Apocalypse‘s success as one of the best selling comic series of both 1994 and 1995 Marvel would be crippled by an ill-fated attempt at self-distribution.

According to Chuck Rozanski, Heroes World Distributing lacked the infrastructure to ship Marvel’s weekly sales volumes and their management team failed miserably in their PR when dealing with any distribution issues:

“The factor that ultimately made quite a few comics retainers decide to leave the business entirely was the error rate at Heroes World, both in shipments, and billings. The word “fiasco” simply doesn’t come close to describing the depth of the problem.

As problems mounted for Marvel the industry’s distribution channels were falling apart. Smaller distributors would close, unable to maintain their operating costs:

Without Marvel comics to distribute, all of the surviving Direct Market comics distributors suddenly found their overall sales volume reduced by 35%-40% (Marvel’s market share), while their operating costs remained constant. In a business where even a single point of discount or volume could translate into huge differences in earnings, these massive losses in sales volume were simply not sustainable.”

Because it’s easy to loose sight of all of the players impacted by Perelman’s aggressive business tactics I’ve created the below graphic. You cannot underscore the ripple effect this one person’s choices had on the entire comic book industry in the 90s.

Perelman-Effect.jpg

Twilight: The Collapse of Marvel Entertainment Inc.

Marvel was heavily in debt by 1995 and Perelman was shifting his focus towards film production. Perelman planned to support the newly formed Marvel Studios by buying the remaining shares in Toy Biz and merging the two companies. Shareholders resisted, concerned about how much financial damage the company had already incurred.

Perelman’s response was to file for bankruptcy in 1996. In doing so he could reorganize Marvel without stockholder consent. A power struggle between shareholders and his team took place, complete with an ugly, drawn-out court case that saw Toy Biz finally merge with Marvel and Perelman out. The Marvel of the 90s was dead.

It’s a shame that so much drama lives in the shadow of such a spectacular event. The Age of Apocalypse is arguably the most creatively ambitious cross-over in X-Men history. The themes of bigotry and power dynamics are examined with the paradigm of X-Men being turned on its head. The X-Men office may have been budgeted to do a cross-over, but the scope and amount of creativity the creators poured into The Age of Apocalypse is worth applauding.

“There was something in the air back then with Age of Apocalypse, and I think everyone involved felt it.” – Larry Hama

The Age of Apocalypse is so iconic with that Marvel has returned to its ideas and settings again and again (1996, 2001, 2005, 2011, 2012, and 2015). Just recently it was announced that 2019 will feature a ten-part Age of X-Man series, which highlights how much of a lasting impact The Age of Apocalypse has. It is my hope that you may read this article as a companion for better understanding the event itself.

*****

In preparation for this article I went on a Perelman-like spending spree which included all six of The Age of Apocalypse volumes, the Secret Wars (2015) Warzones! book, as well as Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe. These were great references books but also fantastic distractions from how dour my life had become.

I’d like to sincerely thank both Fabian Nicieza and Larry Hama for being interviewed by me. Both were truly gracious and I encourage you to check out their current projects. I’d also like to acknowledge the direct market information collected by Comichron.com and the expert analysis provided by John Jackson Miller and Chuck Rozanski. The facts around these events were necessary for this article and I truly appreciate their work.

I stayed away from spoilers for the event so if you haven’t yet checked out The Age of Apocalypse I would highly encourage you to do so. You can find the collected volumes on Comixology, Marvel Unlimited and Amazon.

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This article is dedicated to the memory of Michael Alan Cunningham. Thank you for all you have given me, Mac.

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