Inside Marvel’s Onslaught Epic

It must have felt like an onslaught. It was only a few days into 1996 and New York City was bracing for a record blizzard. Rumors had been swirling for months amongst Marvel employees that the company was taking on too much debt and making secret overtures towards to Image Comics. The staff were becoming worried their work was about to get farmed out. Three weeks after the announcement of Heroes Reborn, a Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld relaunch of Iron Man, Captain America, The Avengers, and Fantastic Four, Marvel posted losses of $48 million. In the wake of these disastrous financial results the staff’s worst fears would be realized — 275 employees lost their jobs from across the company in marathon terminations from January 3 to 4 1996.

This is a huge event. Perhaps the second largest single event in Marvel’s history, given how many staff point to its impact on office morale, creativity, and book quality. Still, it is just one of several dominos that fell in the shadow of Marvel’s Onslaught Epic.

It was in this era that Marvel threw away it’s incredibly connected universe to chase after a stylistic trend and short-term profit. Onslaught, a 90-issue event ostensively designed to pave the road for two multi-million dollar contracts with former Marvel staffers, was the means to an ends. Today, we’ll look inside Onslaught and see why it infamously encapsulates the two worst years of Marvel Comics’ existence.

The Genesis of Onslaught

Juggernaut-Onslaught

Marvel had found significant commercial success in the 90s through a broad range of licensing initiatives, event comics, and breakthroughs in television. “I always thought 88-93 were almost like ‘golden years’ for us.” Fabian Nicieza told me last November. “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.” Alas, nothing gold can stay.

Under the leadership of investment tycoon and cigar aficionado Ronald O. Perelman Marvel had become reliant on generating short term profits though product iteration. The executives Perelman brought into the fold mostly sought out low-overhead licensing opportunities for restaurants and media while also pushing the publishing side to cannibalize its market through oversaturation. When the bubble burst in 1993 Marvel’s business tactics didn’t adjust in response and comics became more demanding of your pocket change.

“I think we always felt the pressure, all the time,” said Nicieza when I asked what it was like to work under these conditions. “It was actually pretty exhausting, especially as the direct market numbers were softening and more and more we were being run by 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.”

Still, the Age of Apocalypse was a huge success and editorial was looking ahead for its next big idea. “We had an X-Men story conference, and we were asked, ‘If you could do any story what would it be?'” Scott Lobdell recalled to Newsarama in 2016. “I said I wanted to do a story where the X-Men are at home, they hear a noise, they run outside, and there’s Juggernaut pile-driven into the ground with this five-mile ditch that he’s impacted out before finally stopping and when they ask him what happened, he just says ‘Onslaught’ and passes out.”

“Everybody said, ‘Yeah, go ahead,’ but that was all I had,” Lobdell recalled. “I didn’t know who Onslaught was at that point.” Onslaught was just a name on paper until someone wholly unrelated to the creative process would find a proper use.

Marvelution and President John Calabrese

In late 1994 Marvel was bleeding red over its spreadsheets due to a mix of ill advised acquisitions and a collapsing speculator market. Perelmen’s executives were increasingly more ingrained in the way books are developed, with sales and marketing departments in particular having a vested interest in diverting power away from then Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco who could rebuff ridiculous requests like having sales design comics covers. In the preamble to Onslaught DeFalco is pushed out and Marvel develops five “sub-brands” each having their own EICs.

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Marvelution T-Shirts were handed out with most discarded.

“Marvelution,” conceived by then-President Terry Stewart, was designed to produce as much product offering from a skeleton editorial as possible while maintaining a level of distance for Stewart from the creative process. The development and rollout of Marvelution is chronicled in Sean Howe’s spectacular Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and its effects were pretty devastating to the creative process.

Without a cohesive editorial staff each group would have their own sales targets to meet and couldn’t lean on each other for assistance. Editors were now competing against each other for the same artists and writers. Even the characters themselves were sent to their own corners. “It would have been easier,” said one staffer in an interview with Howe, “to have Spider-Man team-up with Superman than to have Spider-Man team-up with the X-Men.”

If the staff hated it they were in good company. Distributors were also frustrated.

A small group of Marvel employees joined Terry Stewart on a nineteen-city Marvelution PR tour meeting with concerned distributors and retailers. “The first presentation was a disaster,” recalled one staffer to Howe. “People wanted us to talk to them about what was happening, not receive a thirty-minute editorial presentation. People wanted to find out where their comics were coming from — they didn’t care what was happening in X-Men.”

Marvel had purchased a small distributor named Heroes World in late 1994 to use exclusively in an attempt to better control the market. Competitors responded by becoming distributor exclusive as well. This turned the direct sales market on its head and created a lot of concerns for smaller comic shops. Retailers who wanted to stock a variety of publications were now forced to deal with at least two or three different distributors instead of one. The volume discounts they previously relied on to create a profit margin had dissipated. Worse, since the comics bubble burst the surviving comic stores were being smothered by unsold stock in all variants. It was estimated by Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics that 30% of new stock ordered from 1990-1994 ended up as over-stock.

With comic books being treated more like a pricey commodity, too much over-stock, and high profile Image Comics titles chronically shipped late a lot of these niche shops collapsed under the financial strain. By the time of Onslaught’s publication the market had leveled out to about 4,500 comic shops remaining — less than half the number of 1993’s retailers.

The Post-Bubble Decline of Comic Retailers (1).png

After months of this unsuccessful Marvelution PR roadshow something happens which I believe to be the trigger point for Onslaught’s production:

On April 2, in the midst of the tour, Terry Stewart announced that he was being promoted to a vice chairman position and that Jerry Calabrese, a Marvel marketing executive with a magazine publishing background, would be the new president. The retail community knew Calabrese’s name, and didn’t like it: he had been the one behind Marvel Mart, a campaign to sell the company’s product directly to readers through mail order.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe, pages 368-369

Sean Howe goes on to characterize Jerry Calabrese as “pure business,” who, unlike Terry Stewart, had no preoccupation with comic books. Calabrese’s immediate goal was to leverage intellectual properties to maximize profits. Which isn’t to say he’s a villain. I’d say he was facing a pretty daunting proposition at the time.

Imagine yourself in Calabrese’s shoes. You’re promoted to President of an industry leading publisher only to learn that the market has shrunk by about half in three years, your new distribution company (Heroes World) doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the business, and only one or maybe two of your book lines are getting the sales you need to meet quarterly expectations. It’s a frustrating situation given the company’s continued industry dominance in 1995.

1995 Top 100 Selling Comics by Publisher

With Marvel’s distribution channels, market, and profits all heading sideways it seemed that Calabrese was looking at the good old days of the early 1990s. The days when single issues sold in the millions and artists appeared in Levis commercials. Could there be a way to recapture that magic? To take the books that weren’t breaking the top 100 and give them the rejuvenation X-Men and Spider-Man experienced?

Calabrese first approached Chris Claremont in San Diego to see if he’d return. When Claremont turned him down, Calabrese met with the executive director of Image Comics, Larry Marder. He wanted to see if any former staffers would want a shot at revising the origins of some of Marvel’s biggest characters. There’d be profit sharing and who knows, maybe this would lead to some film opportunities too. Marvel’s new President banked on the Image boys being enthused by the prospect, though not all of them were:

“Why do you want to work for your competitor?” Todd MacFarlane wondered. “I’ve got a toy company; are you fucking out of your mind if I would ever make a toy for Hasbro or Mattel? It would never happen.” Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, though, were intrigued. Negotiations began.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe, page 371

With a plan in place for the weaker selling Marvel books, Calabrese turned his attention towards editorial. In his final contribution to Onslaught’s legacy, Calabrese would shake-up the org chart for the second time in as many years. Bob Harras, the X-Men sub-brand’s EIC, would become the sole Editor-in-Chief. Another wave of book cancellations was announced and several long-standing work-for-hire contractors were let go. Marvelution was officially dead.

Marvel Announces “Unfinished Business”

One of the benefits of reading through old Wizard issues today is seeing how branding is changed over time. If you were to go off information on the internet you may never have known that Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee’s Heroes Reborn was originally dubbed “Unfinished Business.” Wizard #55 (January 1995) ran a lengthy piece on Marvel’s deal with the Image boys along with a stunning Fantastic Four cover penciled by Lee:

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The Image pair were slated to create twelve issues each of Captain America, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, and Avengers, but they had an option to leave after six issues. The cover story announced that this new series would be tossing out continuity and starting from scratch. Lee and Liefeld would be paid well so long as they could maintain sales. Funnily enough, this article also included a sidebar called “Nuclear Reactions” where industry personalities gave sound-bite responses to the news. Three of the quotes are extremely relevant to Onslaught:

“It just seems like a desperate move on [Marvel’s] part. I think I would have had more respect for the decision had it been done with books that really needed the overhaul, not with books that were already on the upswing.”

– Ron Garney, artist of Captain America

“I don’t think its the death knell of Marvel, but as a person currently working for Marvel, I’m insulted that they had to go outside of the company to ‘save’ the company. I don’t think it needs saving.”

– Tom Lyle, artist of Punisher

“It certainly is a show of no faith by Marvel in its editorial and creative people. At the same time, it’s a big victory for Rob and Jim and creators in general. I hope they pull it off and have great success with it. The industry needs it.”

– Dan Jurgens, writer/artist of Sensational Spider-Man

Wizard Magazine #55, March 1996 issue, page 36

All three of these creators contributed to the Onslaught event but only one would quit in protest of it. Bob Harras informed Dan Jurgans, whom had been promised a much needed end to Spider-Man’s Clone Saga, that a conclusion would need to be put on hold for Onslaught. A frustrated Jurgans resigned from Spider-Man not long after to return to DC.

Captain America, meanwhile, was on the rise with a new creative team in writer Mark Waid and artist Ron Garney (quoted above), whom had started just a few months before the Heroes Reborn deal was announced. So, despite rising sales and critical acclaim Cap would also be sent off to the pocket universe. The new Cap’s design and creator Rob Liefeld became a target of derision from comic fans.

heroes-reborn

When I asked Mark Waid about Cap leaving his hands he was wasn’t upset over the business reasons but definitely wasn’t a fan of the direction. “Rob had offered to let me dialogue over his existing plot and art, but when I saw where he was going, I knew it just wasn’t for me. I don’t know that our approaches to who the man is was different, I just know that I didn’t connect with the artwork.”

Although Wizard Magazine was the platform Marvel often used to announce events like Heroes Reborn, the Wizard staff were infamously critical of both the event and Marvel’s treatment of Waid. Waid, who had been a DC darling up to that point, was announced as the writer of X-Men Vol 2 in Wizard as “comics’ hottest writer on comics’ hottest franchise” not long before his run on the book and Cap were upended. Wizard saw Marvel’s actions as a slap in the face and the fan response was huge. I asked Waid if he was aware of the fan response at the time and he replied, “A little — we had doubled the sales on the book, so we knew there were people paying attention, but honestly I had no idea that the blowback on Marvel would be so fierce.”

Meanwhile, news that Marvel was removing control of its characters from its staff and handing million-dollar contracts (plus profit sharing) to those who’d only recently walked out on the company was, in the words of one editor, “catastrophic to moral.”

Marvel’s Deteriorating Moral

Heroes Reborn was announced, and three, four weeks later, they had a massive bloodletting here,” Tom Brevoort remembered in a 2016 interview with Newerama. “They let an enormous number of people go from every strata of Marvel.”

“You’d be sitting in your office, and the phone might ring. You’d be told to go down the hall to Bob Harras’ office, and you’d be told you’re getting cut. Someone from HR would be down there, too, and you’d get your severance. And once the first call came in, everybody up and down editorial row knew it was going on, and we’re all living under the sword of Damocles, praying that phone doesn’t ring.”

One by one, editorial staffers were summoned into an office where Harras gave them the bad news. One even fainted. The staff who survived to work on the titles about to be handed off to Liefeld and Lee were told by a distraught Mark Gruenwald that they’d have to spend the next few months writing and drawing their own obsolescence.

Jack_Abel_Portrait
Jack Abel by Michael Netzer

Marvel faced the most depressing work culture since the late 1970s. Things were grim and they were about to get worse. On March 6, 1996 bullpen fixture Jack Abel, who’d drawn for Timely Comics since 1952, suffered a stroke while at his desk. A Marvel editor attempted CPR while ambulances arrived but Abel was pronounced dead at the hospital. He was sixty-nine. The staff were horrified.

Outside Marvel, industry analysts had been bracing for the worst since the previous fiscal. There’s a Business Week article from January 1996 titled “What Evil Lurks in the Heart of Ron” that Jim Shooter shared on his website a few years back. It’s an interesting read. Critics said Ron Perelman was intentionally bleeding profits from a vulnerable company, running it into the ground. “The Suits took over. People began to make marketing decisions who knew nothing about the product,” said Herb Trimpe, a longtime Marvel artist in the article.

Marvel had been accused of alienating readers by stretching plotlines over as many issues as possible to push sales. The company had admitted to catering to speculators that stormed the comics market in 1992, ultimately undermining the quality of its books, but with Onslaught Marvel would be doing the same before weeding out weaker titles.

What the F*** was Onslaught Anyways?

Onslaught may have been the result of a degrading corporate strategy but it was also an actual story with an actual plot. A blockbuster comic event which, at the time, carried ramifications for the entire Marvel Universe and the X-Men books in particular. And that X-Men connection was an important thing back in 1995. Marvel had dominated the top 100 in 1995 with 51% of the year’s bestsellers, most of which being X-Men:

Top 100 Selling Issues by Marvel Publishing Line (1)

The books that Marvel could rely on for sales in 1995 were either Spider-Man or X-Men related, and the latter brand was a freaking behemoth. When the time finally came to export several notable Marvel characters to Image it was the X-Men who were selected as the vehicle. This is notable for two reasons: (1) the X-Men hadn’t previously participated in crossovers with the rest of the marvel universe to such a huge extent, and (2) Onslaught is also cited as an important moment in souring human-mutant relations. The narrative impact is still being felt today.

Onslaught and X-Men co-architect Scott Lobdell spoke to Newsarama in 2016 about the event’s origins and his comments are pretty illuminating:

“When word comes down that Marvel was shipping off those characters to another universe, me and [then Editor-in-Chief] Bob Harras are sitting around trying to come up with a story that makes sense for the X-Men to stay where they are, but those other characters to go. The question became, ‘Who has that power?’ And I said, well, ‘Onslaught can do it.’ So we started to figure out why the X-Men would be involved too. But it was really once there was the need for Heroes Reborn that we reverse-engineered the creation of Onslaught.”

Scott Lobdell, Newsarama 2016

Onslaught was reverse-engineered into existence. Marvel PR, however, wasn’t presenting Onslaught as anything other than a long game being played. I described Onslaught as “a 90-issue event ostensively designed to pave the road for two multi-million dollar contracts with former Marvel staffers.” While that’s technically accurate it’s also a bit generous.

According to The Complete Onslaught Epic trade paperback reading order, the Onslaught event is a total of 36 issues running from June 1996 to February 1997, as highlighted on the release timeline below in purple. The Road to Onslaught trades collect 38 issues of X-Men running from X-Men Prime #1 (July 1995) until late Spring 1996, seen below in yellow, and finally the Prelude to Onslaught, seen below in red, collects 22 issues while acting as both a summary and connective tissue between the actual event and all the predating continuity. So, it’s only 90-issues if you believe the Road to Onslaught is earned. And it isn’t, really. I mean, Onslaught doesn’t actually appear on panel until X-Men Vol 2 #53 (June 1996) — after 42 issues of build-up.

Onslaught Epic Timeline by Releases (1)

While all of these releases fit on the timeline of Onslaught-era Marvel, my critiques of the event itself will largely be limited to The Complete Onslaught Epic, which, in June of 1996, was being billed by Mark Waid as “a suicide run for the Marvel Universe.” In Wizard #59, Waid also said it was “the last hurrah for Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, The Avengers, and The Fantastic Four.”

In reality most of the books being canceled had already been written into corners amid deteriorating sales. Iron Man was a teenager, the Thing had been disfigured and wore a bucket on his head, and Thor was obviously ripping off Spawn. Meanwhile, the Green Goblin was a hero named Phill Urich, the Clone Saga waged on for Peter Parker and Ben Riley, and there were roughly three different Hulks. For most of these books, Onslaught was a giant coffin offering one last outing before being buried with all the other bad 90s decisions like Moon Shoes and slap bracelets. Still, I didn’t find a single book to be a last hurrah or suicide run.

The first step in researching Onslaught was doing a full re-read. I knew my opinions would be harder to recall the further I read through all 36 issues so I decided to rate each issue out of ten in a way that could easily visualize the peaks and valleys in quality. It’s wholly unscientific and absolutely subject to my own biases, however, I think there’s value if you take a closer look at the drop off points: Fantastic Four #415, Incredible Hulk #444, Green Goblin #12, Punisher Vol 3 #11, and Iron Man #332. I found each of these issues to be particularly emblematic of Onslaught’s problems.

chart (3)

Too many books feel only tangentially related to the events of Onslaught. Sure, there are Sentinels in Manhattan, the Hulk challenges Onslaught, and Hela can sense that Thor’s time is about to come to an end, but none of the books being pulled into the mix feel like they belong. Only the X-Men related books seem to really feature the threat of Onslaught, and even then Mackie’s X-Factor does so pretty clumsily. There are a handful of excellent issues in this event but much of this “Complete Epic” is dominated by filler. And it was all branded to hell.

Marvel’s sales and marketing departments crowded Onslaught covers with reader calls to action. The message was definitely that every book had to be read to for Onslaught to be understood. Here’s a collection of some of the branding used at the time:

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Marvel has never explained what this Onslaught branding meant.

Don’t bother asking what the distinction is between Onslaught: Phase 1 and Impact 1. None of these images mean anything other than “you need to buy me,” and as you can see in the bar graph of releases above there were a lot of tie-ins — spiking with 12 issues in August and 17 in September 1996. So, while there definitely are good comic books to be found in Onslaught they are often buried under books that have a different tone, art style, and idea of what the event even is.

One of the stand-out titles participating in Onslaught was Wolverine Vol 2. Logan, having previously lost his adamantium bonding in Fatal Attractions, was looking more beastial and acting feral towards his fellow X-Men. Wolverine now had bone claws, a bandanna, and a disappearing nose. Fans were anxious to see him returned to his former glory and poor Larry Hama just had to do the best with what he had.

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“I had various outside contracts including producer/writer deals at CBS, Disney and other places. I was playing two nights a week with my band. I was just going with the flow and writing to fit the storylines that were cobbled in committees.” Larry Hama told me of writing for Marvel during this time. “I didn’t have a lot of freedom, so I didn’t have a lot of interest. I did my best with what I had, but they had managed to dampen my enthusiasm by then.”

The very best issues of Onslaught have ample servings of the big crimson and purple dude himself. Who is Onslaught? How powerful could he really be? Could it really be Magneto underneath all that armour? Onslaught was a big mystery in 1996 and fan speculation ran wild until it was revealed that Onslaught was actually Charles Xavier. Kinda.

You get the impression that the Onslaught event was angling to be Professor X’s fall from grace. Wizard at the time was describing it as his Dark Phoenix Saga, which is pretty exciting. X-Men Vol 2 #53 and #54, two of my favourite Onslaught issues, dredge up bits of continuity to question Charles Xavier’s morality and actions since the Silver Age and Mark Waid makes a great case for an upcoming, dramatic heel turn for Xavier.

Finally, we know who Bishop’s X-Traitor is! Or do we?

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Onslaught ultimately would not be Charles Xavier, a decision Bob Harras seemingly made in the middle of the event’s publication.

“As created, Onslaught was always just a manifestation of Xavier’s darker corners of the mind, with the idea that a dark thought from someone so mentally powerful could take on a life of its own.” Waid lamented, “Everyone seemed excited by that when we pitched it, but, as near as I can tell, there were later some second thoughts from my editor [Bob Harras] and from my co-creator [Scott Lobdell] that we needed to keep Xavier purer and more heroic, even though everyone has dark moments and the occasional dark thought. I was as surprised as anyone to read that Magneto was somehow involved.”

This decision to backtrack from the original pitch fumbles the potential of this story in order to excuse Charles Xavier of any actions as Onslaught. Instead of Onslaught being an ode to Jungian Psychology we get some nonsense explanation of Professor X’s consciousness merging with Magneto’s to create a separate persona. Marvel even printed a handy little formula to help you make sense of all the the crazy-talk:

Screen Shot 2019-12-24 at 2.16.49 PM

In an effort to understand I recently re-read all six issues of Fatal Attractions and I can comfortably say that while Xavier definitely crosses a line by mind-wiping Magneto there’s no indication that he was a changed man from that event. There was also the failed rehabilitation of Sabretooth, the death of Illyana Rasputin, and propagation of the Legacy Virus, but those events would only serve to darken Charles Xavier’s character — not to create a brand new entity that splinters off, giving its host plausible deniability.

Although storytelling potential is lost with this mid-event retcon, when Xavier does shed the hulking Liefeldian armor it feels metaphoric. As though the time had finally come to shed all of the bad ideas of the edgy 90s. Even though Onslaught, divorced from Xavier, isn’t all that interesting he does his job as a literal plot hole to absorb all of the Marvel heroes that Marvel stopped believing in. They are warped to a “pocket universe” for Heroes Reborn and Onslaught himself disappears (for the moment).

Marvel’s Onslaught Epic ends with the world wondering what happened to so many of its heroes, more hatred towards mutants, and a lot of mixed feelings towards Professor X. There are questions from the beginning of Onslaught that don’t have answers by its end. The biggest being Onslaught’s motivation, given how frequently it appears to change. It’s clear from the roll-out that Onslaught took shape over time and was subject to a lot of change. So much so that Marvel even published an Onslaught tie-in book with plot outlines that never happened. No joke.

A Symbolic Death

imgBefore heading off to his vacation house for the weekend, Onslaught editor Mark Gruenwald grabbed a preview copy Liefeld’s Captain America #1. Cap was Gruenwald’s favorite Marvel superhero and he had either written or edited every issue of Captain America since 1982, so you could say he was excited. Sadly, Mark Gruenwald died of a sudden heart attack three days later on August 12, 1996. Terry Stewart made an official announcement the following monday to a devastated Marvel staff.

“Literally, between the last ‘regular’ Captain America issues being finished and before the first Heroes Reborn issues, Mark had died,” Tom Brevoort recalled to Newsarama. “I know logically one has nothing to do with the other, but it seemed scary. It loomed large. It seemed like destiny saying, ‘Yeah, this is the end of an era.'”

Known for his peerless knowledge of continuity, Mark Gruenwald was the driving force behind the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. He was also the office cheerleader; always declaring the merits of Marvel and bringing an infectious love for his work to the office. Even when times were bad.

It’d be a disservice to his memory to assume how he felt about Liefeld, Marvel, or the last few months of his job, but there were those around him who thought Marvel ultimately responsible for his passing:

Gruenwald was forty-three years old, a nonsmoker who exercised regularly. But over the last year he’d been in the position of removing dozens of freelancers from titles and seeing his longtime colleagues put on the street. Those closest to Gruenwald had no doubt that Marvel’s disintegration was one of the reasons for his death. In the words of one friend, “He was so attached to that place, and it had stopped being what it once was, and what he had worked so hard for it to be. It took the soul out of him.”

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe, pages 371

Marvel has a lengthy history of staff members suffering from strokes or other stress-related health issues. Gruenwald’s was the latest and perhaps most heartbreaking. Still, it didn’t persuade Perelman or his executive team to evaluate the workplace culture they had been creating. Perelman furthered his short-term promotional strategies in the wake of Gruenwald’s passing to inflate the company’s paper value. Marvel was on its last legs financially even with a Heroes Reborn’s short-term sales bump.

The Heroes Reborn Bump

There was reason to doubt the long term success of Heroes Reborn. It was designed to capture the very essence of the 90s, with extremely stylish visuals and machismo for days. In bringing in Lee and Liefeld, Marvel was transparently pandering to fans under the false pretense of a new era with lasting consequences. Perhaps Marvel hadn’t anticipated any production delays, narrative issues, or a sales drop, but creators at the time had a more cynical view:

“It’s pretty pathetic. As soon as Image has a little trouble with sales they go running with their tails tucked between their legs back to Marvel for a little bit of coin to prop up their flagging interest. There’ll be a big buzz, and there’ll be good sales, and then six months later it’s gonna tank hard.”

– Hart Fisher, publisher of Boneyard Press, Wizard Magazine #55, March 1996 issue, page 36

As with any new title, comic readers flocked to issue #1 for each line of Heroes Reborn before falling off for issue #2 by about half. While the later Heroes Reborn numbers were still much healthier than the 1995/1996 sales averages for the same lines there is reason to believe the book profits didn’t justify the multi-million dollar creator contracts.

The Heroes Reborn Sales Bump (1)

When sales dipped Marvel was forced to renegotiate Lee and Liefeld’s contracts. Liefeld and Marvel came into conflict and he was taken off the line, his books given to Walt Simonson and Michael Ryan. None of the creative changes did anything to improve the sales and all of the books came to a close after 13 issues. In December 1997 the heroes were returned to their regular continuity for Heroes Return, which just so happened to feature a Captain America book with writing by Mark Waid and pencils by Ron Garney. Funny that.

The Tragic Legacy of Marvel’s Onslaught Epic

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Onslaught ends several months after Heroes Reborn is launched. It’s not until February 1997 that the dust finally settles on this blockbuster comics event. Two months prior Marvel had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, as Ron Perelman, Carl Icahn, and ToyBiz were having a three-way courtroom war over Marvel’s future. Perelman initiated the bankruptcy process in order to consolidate his control of the company and industry, with eight shareholder lawsuits responding in kind to block the deal.

Along with bankruptcy proceedings Marvel cut its workforce by one third after posting $400 million in quarter losses. So many people were let go that the Marvel of early 1997 was wildly different from the year prior. Marvel marched towards the new millennium with hopes of a renaissance now that a very dark era was reaching its end.

Comic book fan reaction to Onslaught was echoed by the only source for comics news in the 1990s, Wizard Magazine. The publication ran their “Top 10 Biggest Disappointments of 1996” in the January 1997 issue and five of the ten were related to Onslaught and the state of Marvel:

Mark Waid on X-Men — “Comics’ hottest writer on comics’ hottest title!” Unfortunately, his work on X-Men was easily his weakest, and his six-month stint was shorter than a Liz Taylor marriage.

Waid/Garney off Cap — Mark Waid and Ron Garney breathed more life into Captain America than it had seen in practically a decade, creating buzz with fans that saw the book steadily climb the sales charts. Marvel’s reaction: cut the creators loose and take the “Heroes Reborn” short-term quick fix.

Professor X as the X-Traitor — This attempt at a “Dark Phoenix”-style story was a bit of a baffler. And now Marvel is planning on writing the Professor out of the series? It’s been proven that a part of what makes the X-Men work is having a father figure like Professor X at the helm. Without him, a vital ingredient is missing.

Wolverine’s Adamantium — Just get on with it already. Turning Logan into a bestial, noseless animal (and still no adamantium) is pointless. Get him back to what makes him great: a loose cannon with adamantium claws.

Heroes Reborn — this “starting from scratch” maneuver by Marvel was unnecessary. The best part about the Marvel Universe is that its continuity is so great, you don’t need to blow it all up.

Wizard Magazine #65, January 1997 issue

No, Onslaught was not well received at the time. It’s clear Wizard’s staff was frustrated by Marvel’s direction as I’m sure many Marvel employees were as well. But that’s the real story of Onslaught — comics creators doing the best they could with what they had at the time. Many Marvel staffers knew they’d be getting the chop and it didn’t deter them from creating the best comic books they could in the face of that adversity.

Onslaught may forever be looked upon as a bloated, overcomplicated event comic more concerned with introducing a new status quo than making a statement of its own. And there would be some truth to that view. Still, there are good comics in hiding. Both X-Men Vol 2 and Uncanny X-Men were firing on all cylinders and if you read the X-Men stuff in a vacuum Onslaught is pretty enjoyable. If this look back has made you at all interested in this era I’d encourage you to check it out.

Just maybe don’t spend as much time as I did reading those tie-in issues.

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