“I will kill every hero this universe has ever known.”
This is the pledge of Onslaught during his return appearance in Onslaught Reborn. When I read this recently it struck me because I am a child of 1990 Superhero Comics and I remember when the heroes died.
Onslaught, at least a reasonable facsimile, is making another, more recent, return in the pages of Axis. I am not reading that book because I am allergic to Rick Remender (for me it was the ending of The End League put prognoses vary). I am still surprised to see that Big Purple Head back in the limelight. Superhero comics are not and should not be BuzzFeed. Empty nostalgia should not serve as both primary creative output and extent of artistic capability. Why is it so important that it is Onslaught who once again bedevils our heroes?
Because he kills superheroes.
I was in Middle School when Onslaught: Marvel Universe came out. I was the “Golden Age” of all speculative fiction: 12. This was it. True progress! Ben Reilly had replaced that sad-sack Peter Parker over in the Spider-Titles (which were effectively shipping weekly not long after Dan Slott completed his true magnum opus Ren & Stimpy) and now these older, “boring” characters were being cleared out of the way. The sprawling, unending X-Men Saga that had raged from time immemorial had reached its climax and the entire world would feel the effects.
How could anyone not understand the significance?
Looking back the first thing I remember is what awful versions of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four died that day. As is if every “true” Marvel, the Stan & Jack ones, had suffered long bouts with irrelevance and were finally being put out of their misery. Shirtless, post-Warren Ellis, Thor. Teen Tony in some mockery of an armor that Robert Downey, Jr. will never wear. Fantastic Force. All went charging into the great unknown basking in Kubert-ian glory. So now, after all these years, why should a new generation of heroes and readers care that Big ‘n Purple is back?
What is Onslaught? Walking plot device? Scion of the Beyonder? “The Hole in Things”? Yes (I think), but a bit more than that as well. Have you seen The Shining? Seen, not “read”. Stephen ‘Maximum Overdrive’ King’s all well and good but we are a Kubrick-fearing household. The film has a short, frank, discussion about what the people occupying a place do to that place. How the negative energies from the awfulness and petty, bitter lives led can affect the world. This turned a building into a monster that preyed on people using others to do so. What happens when this concept is applied to stories?
We all understand that the X-Men protect a world that hates and fears them. It is the franchise mantra in the same way that great power and great responsibility somehow merit going out there every day in a colorful unitard. Hate and fear are powerful emotions. Red and yellow ones, in fact! What if all that negative energy had a vessel, Ghostbusters style? What if the mob that first chased Kurt Wagner down a European alley and every bigot occupying a seat in Madison Square Garden during God Loves, Man Kills were unknowingly fueling a malicious entity from across spacetime? A bomb shaped like a man. What if it were not just these non-playable characters but the readers and creators as well?
The red and purple always kills me. I do not admit lightly that my favorite superhero is Magneto. Supervillain? Maybe to you, Flatscan, but I know where I would stand if the Revolution came. Seeing his visage warped and exaggerated and draped around nothing more than a pair of menacing eyes and inflated claws is hilarious. Onslaught’s look is the nightmare people in the Marvel Universe would have about Magneto. As the original story progressed there were more spikes, larger claws. He seemed to warp space and gravity around him as his look devolved (the art did not help dispel this). He even dragged Wolverine down with him! At the same time he reflected what had been happening elsewhere in these comics. Years before The Sentry showed us that you cannot have a Marvel version of Superman without the Void coming along to ruin everything, Onslaught seemed to reveal what was really happening behind the scenes.
As the armor grew more ungainly and the vaguely human face and limbs became distended it became apparent that Onslaught was not merely the product of Charles Xavier and his arch-enemy’s Fatal Attraction. He was whatever we wanted him to be. Whatever the readers and characters needed him to be. The swirling mass shown briefly beneath the armor is his true form. The obviously padded stories featuring his early appearances provided him time to grow and reinforce the chrysalis. This was the era of “the X” so of course the destroyer would take its form.
At the close of the story we are shown that he is a being made of pure energy. We are told that this is somehow “psychic” in nature. As with most comics of that period the heroes and villains tended to wield generic, poorly contextualized, coloring effects as offensive weapons. Here we see that that is literally all Onslaught is. The dark, brooding outside that proved to be less than ideally toyetic (full disclosure: I own all four figures from the first wave and each is more disappointing than the next) was merely a shell that allowed the gooey center to gestate. Coming to fruition was the formless void of misshapen energies capable of accomplishing exactly nothing. The heroes “died” to stop him by running at the Big Twinkie and dispersing what ‘was’ using what they ‘had’: themselves. Take this a step further and we have the characters themselves, shoddy and exhausted after so many pitiful attempts at relevancy (The Avengers should not wear leather jackets. Ever.) declaring that they need this. They need to go away, take some time off and maybe, just maybe, come back on their own terms.
The less said about Heroes Reborn the better but it fit with my worldview. The Old Characters were off in their own little place. The Fantastic Four became, basically, a new X-Team and the Avengers continued to descend into unrecognizability. That this gave way to, among other things, the Kurt Busiek/George Pérez run is a discussion for another day (as I do not think even that provided the audience connectivity that would ultimately be seen with Mark Millar’s take on the characters across two publishing lines). At home the people the remaining characters had to protect knew that a Mutant Menace, just the type they had always feared, had killed the Real Heroes. Onslaught also left a vacuum that allowed New Heroes to arise. The Thunderbolts was the first title I bought each and every month without fail. Even my beloved Clone Saga had not made me realize different comics came out every month. They just always seemed to be there.
What of “the beast” itself? What was Onslaught to the wider world? His arch-enemy, it would seem, was Franklin Richards. The First Son of the Superheroes. The Konami Code of the Marvel Universe. The kid that no creator could consistently characterize and whose birth was the last time Marvel, universe and company, appeared to move forward. It is easy to convince a child that things are important, they have to take you at your word. The fact that you may have had no idea what was going on is incidental, and can prove to be unimportant. We know Franklin’s important, we were told that. What if he is important because he represents the future? The future of the world, of these characters, and of the stories yet untold. Then Onslaught would have to control him.
I mentioned the Beyonder before. I think of him as the first, true Marvel Crossover Villain. He was the generic-ex-machina that allowed Jim Shooter and Mattel to cobble together Secret Wars. The first, but not the last, crossover. Focus-group tested to death before the first issue arrived on the stands and still unreadable today (it is no Infinity Gauntlet). Think of the scope! He Who is From Beyond! The great, unknowable wrath of the Old Testament. The Hand That Plays with the Toys! Compared to a man who could form Battleworld from occupied scraps of other places what chance did a Mega-Mutant such as Onslaught have at impressing readers? Not a fair comparison, I concede, but an example of how high the threat-bar had been set. What about the greatest, grandest threat that the Marvel Universe has ever faced? Thanos? Galactus? No, no. I’m talking about true, unbridled power: Dark Phoenix.
Long before Bryan Singer decided that Jean Grey was a physician (though “The Doctor” would make a great supername for her in the films now that Matt Smith has firmly embedded himself in the public consciousness), and long after her disastrous resurrection, she fought alongside her peers in the battle against Onslaught. Not even worthy of a moniker, she trudged her way through, making comments and looking suitably Madureirian. She had to have had a good laugh, remembering the time she ate a star because she was peckish, as she headed to Central Park to stop some Big Armored Bro. How easily we forget how grand our battles have been.
Is Onslaught, as Loeb (via Rikki Barnes) claims in Onslaught Reborn the Biggest Threat the Avengers, FF, and assorted Original Marvels ever faced? No, of course not, but if anyone ever believed that he had been then maybe it was because the story needed that to be true. Because the characters needed him to be that. Because being told something one too many times means that someone, somewhere may start to believe what is said. Not to fault Loeb. I loved the original Onslaught story. It felt important to me and looking back on it now I am happy to have had the experience of reading it when I did.
Does Onslaught’s return matter or are we merely playing with our old toys? Something dark and sinister lurks within that visage. He is not a man but a cipher for hate and fear. Something inhuman that an un-nuanced nut-ball like the Red Skull cannot hope to comprehend. Onslaught kills heroes. He does so with abandon. He is the darkest, basest ambition of every jaded fan and every harrowed creator. Onslaught is the god of the Senseless Spectacle. Maybe he can be controlled and made to serve the needs of a story but mostly he just seems to destroy.