I’m going to need to lay a little groundwork for this one.
Back in the early Nineties, a group of superstar creators rose to prominence at Marvel. They practically reinvented storytelling in comics, breaking a lot of rules that the established writers, artists and editors at Marvel believed at the time were vitally important to telling good comic-book stories. Their art was, for the most part, totally different from the style that Neal Adams and Jim Aparo had popularized, and frequently broke rules of anatomy and perspective. Their stories shook up the established status quos of many series, introducing overt anti-heroes who grew to dominate the landscape of comics (like Cable and Venom, to name two quick examples.) The older guard of editors who ran the company didn’t really understand why these younger creators were popular; they didn’t even like the books they were publishing, in some cases. But they sold like hotcakes, they were incredibly popular with Marvel’s target audience, and the young men seemed to know what they were doing.
Then, almost literally overnight, the superstar creators all quit. Worse, they started their own competing company. To say that this caused some problems at Marvel would be a titanic understatement.
In essence, Image changed all the rules for what creators were allowed to do on a comic. Because Marvel’s editorial staff looked at the Image books and saw nothing but crap. Whether it actually was crap is almost irrelevant to the conversation; the point is that Marvel was put into the position of trying to emulate Image, and they patently did not understand what made Image books popular and held the comics in question in no small amount of contempt. To them, “make it more like Image” meant “make it louder and shittier.” And they proceeded to do just that. This is not to say that there were no good comics in the Nineties, but Marvel did make a lot of mistakes in their attempt to imitate the Image creators’ style, because they were deliberately trying to do bad comics in the mistaken belief that this is what their audience was into at that point.
I won’t go over the mistakes in detail, but I will mention enough to (hopefully) forestall people coming to the defense of these books. Ben Grimm wearing a giant metal bucket on his head because Wolverine had disfigured him. The Wasp as a literal insect woman with yellow skin and antennae. Teen Iron Man. The Clone Saga. X-Cutioner’s Song, a story with a denouement that is literally incomprehensible to modern readers because they were writing dialogue related to Cable and Stryfe’s origin without having actually agreed on what that was yet. The Legacy Virus, a plotline that managed to last six years without ever actually going anywhere. The Upstarts and the Gamesmaster, ditto. Sabretooth, the White Queen and Mystique all joining the X-Men within months of each other. Joseph, a Magneto clone who never had a point or a purpose beyond being in the series. X-Man, a spin-off book with no central concept and a character whose origins were a convoluted nightmare. Wolverine losing his adamantium claws and slowly mutating into a thing that looked like a feral weasel wearing a bandana over his head. Captain America wearing power armor. Force Works and Fantastic Force. The Crossing. Starblast. If you haven’t had enough yet, I could probably dredge up some more.
The point is, Marvel was at this point desperately flailing for a direction. They literally had no idea what would appeal to their audience, their creative vision was completely undercut by self-doubt, and they had made a number of major, seemingly irrevocable creative missteps. Onslaught, a character who they’d already introduced as the main villain behind their next crossover, was quite literally nobody–behind the scenes, the only decision that had been finalized was that they needed to follow up the Age of Apocalypse with something big, and they needed to start selling it right away before the people who’d been reading that crossover drifted away. There was no planning, no cohesion, no direction, nothing but throwing shit against the wall to see what stuck.
In that light, it’s amazing how well ‘Onslaught’ turned out.
‘Onslaught’, the storyline, probably wasn’t intended as a metaphor for the direction that the company had taken the last five years. For that matter, neither was Onslaught, the character. But it worked perfectly for that. Onslaught was the ultimate evolution of the pointless heel turns, the random and unmotivated shock plots, the endless raising of the stakes and the unearned “big moments”, all wrapped up in Liefeldian armor and given a life of its own. His whole origin was tied up in the biggest, most pointless, least comprehensible and most off-model moments in the post-Claremont era of the series, and when he finally broke free of Charles Xavier, his host, it felt strangely appropriate. It was as if everything bad about the Nineties had broken free and given itself flesh, and was stalking the Marvel Universe in an attempt to inflict its awful, poorly thought out paradigm shifts on every single character and series.
In that light, the character’s bastardized mess of an origin actually made sense, as did his shifting and incoherent goals. He was the living embodiment of everything bad about Nineties Marvel, of course he was going to be pointlessly convoluted and inconsistent! Again, I’m not saying that any of this was intended by the writers on the series or the crossovers, but it fit the metatextual concept of the series so well that it almost bleeds out of the cracks. When the heroes of the Marvel Universe finally defeat Onslaught, not through brutality or pointless violence but through nobility and self-sacrifice, it feels like they’re actually taking a stand for everything that superheroes are supposed to believe in. They’re saying, “No, this is what we’re about. Doing the right thing, no matter what the cost.”
And on that level, ‘Onslaught’ really did work. It was a Viking funeral for everything shitty about Nineties comics, wrapping up the X-Traitor plot and tying off the bloody stump of all the attempts to rewrite Xavier as a manipulative bastard. It ended by almost literally throwing all the crappy Nineties versions of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four onto a massive bonfire, burning away Teen Iron Man and the Malice Invisible Woman and the disfigured Thing and the what-the-fuck-was-that-even-about Thor and allowing us a full year of real time to forget it all like a bad dream. It allowed the Image creators to write Marvel’s flagship titles for a full year, just to show us all that they really had no idea what to do with any of them beyond simply aping other people’s ideas less well. (‘Heroes Reborn’ really was the point where Image ceased being taken seriously as a threat to Marvel and DC. They remained a solid company, and have gone on to do some really good work, but 1997 ended talk of the Image style being the new paradigm for comics.) The only thing that would have made it better was if Peter Parker and Ben Reilly had fallen into the ‘Heroes Reborn’ universe together, and come out as a single character.
And Marvel did some really interesting things around the edges of the ‘Heroes Reborn’ event. For a full year, they told stories in a Marvel Universe without the Avengers and the FF, and they seemed to actually be thinking about what that might mean instead of just using it as the starting point for another goddamn crossover. This was where the Thunderbolts started, for example. When they did bring back the Avengers and the FF, it was with some actual talent behind it, although Waid’s ‘Captain America’ and Busiek’s ‘Avengers’ and ‘Iron Man’ clearly worked better than Lobdell or Claremont’s ‘Fantastic Four’. The beginnings of Marvel’s resurgence under Quesada came in the wake of ‘Onslaught’. It didn’t all come at once; the X-books were still suffering from the deeper lack of direction caused by the departure of long-time writer Chris Claremont, a problem that wasn’t even solved when Claremont returned to the books a few years later. But in a lot of ways, the fever had broken.
‘Onslaught’ was everything we thought we wanted out of comics in 1996. If nothing else, it deserves credit for snapping us out of that.