Onslaught: Avengers #400 / Fantastic Four #414 review

Avengers (1963-1996) #400Avengers (1963-1996) #400 by Mark Waid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alright guys, we’ve got another double-review revolving around a major Marvel Comics event, although this time we’re not dealing with one of the Infinity Events, it’s Onslaught. Specifically, two issues that (aside from two individual pages from each) have never been collected: Avengers #400 and Fantastic Four #414.

Onslaught was an event that was on the forefront of the Marvel Universe around the time I became aware of modern comic books, and being a sprawling ’90s epic it was fairly hard to understand without all the accompanying back-story. But now, as I’m reading it as a part of my trek through reading all of X-Men and, eventually, all the Marvel titles in general (it’s gonna take a while, but I’m committed) and getting the full scope of it, I’m learning that it is actually something of a turning point for the entire timeline of the Marvel Universe.

Avengers #400, except for its last two pages, acts as both a stand-alone issues and a part of the larger arc that the Marvel titles have been building towards for some time. Knowing that Onslaught will end with the apparent destruction of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, many Marvel titles had spent the last few months alluding to “the end of the Age of Wonders” or “the conclusion of the Era of Heroes” or other such. Even titles taking place in the far-flung future of 2099 got in on it, often making reference to this time-frame, near the end of the 20th century, as being the time when many of the heroes died.

Avengers #400 takes advantage of that trend with a bit of misdirection from the master of misdirection, Loki. The issue starts with him approaching Edwin Jarvis and telling him he’s from the far future, where it is known that this was the day the Avengers were killed, although they do not know by whom. He then tricks Jarvis into going through the Avengers computers to try and discover who killed them with him, and then using the information on the screen to create versions of the villains to fight the Avengers. It’s an interesting way to have what amounts to an anniversary issue in which the Avengers fight all their greatest foes (but not really).

What’s interesting from a dramatic standpoint is how Loki’s ruse misdirects not just Jarvis, but the reader as well. Reading this, with the opening scene involving a character from the future returning to warn of the upcoming death of the Avengers, I just assumed that this had something to do with the larger Onslaught narrative. Its timing made it so that even a long-time reader was ‘tricked’ into believing the words of the new character just as Jarvis was, making it one of the few instances in which a villains subterfuge works on all levels. A major kudos to Waid for pulling that off, I know for a fact it is legitimately hard to do.

The last page, as mentioned, is the only part reprinted in the larger Onslaught trades. Nate Grey, the X-Man, literally just knocks on the Avengers’s door and tells them Charles Xavier has gone insane. It literally could have been tacked on to the ending of just about any issue of Avengers and made just as much sense, but here it does provide a sort-of Oh Henry twist to the proceeding events: having just had a trickster make them believe their deaths were upon them, it turns out it really may be.

Family Business! (Fantastic Four, #414)Family Business! by Tom DeFalco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The next issue to get the “only one page reprinted” treatment is Fantastic Four #414, which features the return of Franklin Richards to his familiar young-child form that he is most commonly found at. The pages that are reprinted in Onslaught: Book One are those that deal with the Franklin’s new “imaginary” friend Charles, who ends up being a representation of Onslaught.

But that’s not what this issue is really about, and its not what made me excited about reading this issue. I’m not sure how I would have felt about this issue had I been, say, reading my way up through all the issues of Fantastic Four, but in reading my way up through the X-Men I can say it blew my mind. It acts as what I can only assume is the culmination of a long plot-line involving the villain Hyperstorm, typing up several plot-threads because — spoilers — the Fantastic Four title is coming to an end in the wake of Onslaught. And while that fight — involving feeding Hypserstorm to Galactus! — is one of the most epic in recent memory, even that isn’t what got the fan-boy in me excited.

What got me excited was Nathanial Richards’s references to the future he’s seen, which is very much one of the possible futures presented in Days of Future Past.

See, until this issue, I had a kind-of piecemeal vision of the canon of the Marvel Universe future. I knew about Days of Future Past and the dystopian future presented therein. I knew about the future presented in The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix, where Cable grew up, some 2,000 years hence. I knew about the Marvel 2099 future, and the future that Bishop came from, presented in XSE. And I assumed that there were yet-more futures presented in the pages of Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Spider-Man, etc. I assumed that each of these was a different variation on the future, kept wholly separate from one another.

In reading this issue, I realize that many of those futures I named above are on the same timeline, and that this storyline (The Onslaught storyline, I mean) represents a pivotal moment in the Marvel Universe that isn’t spoken of a lot: this is the moment when we truly, completely, diverge from Days of Future Past and make that future alternate.

Despite the events of Days of Future Past when an elderly Kitty Pryde is sent back into her younger self, later storylines would still present that future as very much being “out there somewhere.” Bishop was presented as being very much from that future, as was Rachael Summers over in Excalibur… and here in this issue, it is revealed that Hyperstorm is actually the child of the adult Rachael and Franklin Richards in that timeline, making him yet another refugee from that timeline in which the Sentinels took over.

In essence, Days of Future Past was prevented by two time-travelers performing two events. One was Bishop, who leaped into Onslaught’s line-of-fire in Onslaught Book One and prevented the X-Men from being killed as his future had foreseen. The second was here, when the time-traveling Nathanial Richards brought Franklin back to the present as a child, although that was not his original intent. In doing so, Franklin was present to use his awe-inspiring powers to create the Heroes Reborn Universe and transport the heroes to it, meaning that they only appear to have died here, rather than actually dying as the events of Days of Future Past state happened.

The Onslaught Saga even involves, as a main plot-point, Onslaught taking over all of the Sentinels and using them to take over New York, before eventually deciding that everyone has to die and thus turning the Sentinels on everyone as such. It is never states a s such, but these events are clearly meant to mirror and foreshadow that dark future story-line, and instill a sense of dread in the reader that “this is it.” But it isn’t it: it has already been prevented, by Bishop and Franklin. Because of them the X-Men, Avengers, and Fantastic Four all survive the ordeal.

What I’m saying about all this is this: people complain about there being no “permanent change” to the status quo in comics, wherein anyone that ‘dies’ like at the end of this arc just return again later. But this represents a sly, covert change to Marvel canon: this is the point in which the future that has been worked towards for the last 20 years of storylines is rendered alternate, and its done in such a subtle way that many don’t even see it. Despite being never reprinted, this is one of the most important issues in the entire Marvel Comics timeline.

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