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THE RISE OF APOCALYPSE

A look into the origins of the X-Men's archenemy

By Jason Henderson     June 29, 2000

In many ways, the story told in The Rise of Apocalypse reminds me of the sort of comic stories that Marvel published before the launch of the Silver Age. In telling the origin of the X-Men's powerful enemy Apocalypse, Rise gives us something like in Amazing Fantasy. It plays out in an exotic ancient Egyptian milieu, against a backdrop of intrigue at Pharaoh's court, love with a royal daughter and bitter vengeance for the death of a roaming bandit father. This is historic fantasy, and not even all that fantastic fantasy at that, until strange elements creep in to remind us that we're still in the Marvel Universe.

Apocalypse, we learn, was born and abandoned to the Egyptian deserts some 3,000 years ago. Despite his oddly discolored face (Apocalypse has blue streaks that outline his lips and rise up his cheeks, making him look rather like a giant Ventriloquist dummy,) the baby was rescued from certain death by the nomadic Sandstormers. Led by the ruthless nomad chieftain Baal, the Sandstormers rape, pillage and scavenge their way across the barren wastes and into Egyptian settlements, putting them on the wrong side of Pharaoh's law. The boy is named En Sabah Nur, and he comes to know Baal as his father.
Baal is the sort of character who would be the bad guy in an old western, so it's interesting that he's painted completely sympathetically in this story, since we're riding with him. He's clearly proud of his adopted son, who gains whispered fame across the land as a strange boy of prodigious strength. By the time En Sabah Nur is 17, he's caught the attention of Pharaoh himself.

And here's where the story leaves the realm of 'DeMille Spectacle' and takes root in Marvel continuity. Pharaoh in the time of the boy Apocalypse is none other than Rama Tut, the time traveler from a thousand years in our own future, who has set up his base of operations in ancient Egypt because his own time was boring and sterile. (In flashback--or flash-forward--Rama Tut watches '3-D stereograms' all day until he decides to travel back through time and conquer Egypt). If I recall my continuity, this same Pharaoh will reappear once more in the guise of Kang the Conqueror, the Avengers' most overused but under-exploited villains.

Rama Tut has known that En Sabah Nur would show up for some time and, like King Herod, wants this boy dealt with before he threatens his kingdom. Also like Herod, he only makes his situation worse when he destroys the Sandstormers and kills En Sabah Nur's father.

Now En Sabah Nur's story winds its way into the sort of courtly intrigue that I associate most with Prince Valiant, as the boy courts the Princess Nephri and slowly works his way towards killing Rama Tut and his warlord, Ozymandius. But in a brilliant conceit, all of this plays out at the same time that Rama Tut is busy dealing with none other than the Fantastic Four, who have dropped in from 1963. The Four successfully drive Rama Tut back to his own time, leaving En Sabah Nur in Rama's busted kingdom without Reed Richards et al. ever noticing him.

But how does En Sabah Nur become Apocalypse? It doesn't take much. He's hated and feared by humans for his ability to rearrange his body to whatever shape and density he prefers (Apocalypse has all the versatility of urethane) and because his face is 'hideous.' Oh, and because Pharaoh killed his dad. In the end, he sort of awakens to the identity after he's so overtaken with rage that he vows, 'There is only survival now! The weak will perish and the strong will survive!...I am the Apocalypse!' Which doesn't make much sense, but this mutant who came from nowhere to try to take over the earth has to have at least some motivations.

Rise of Apocalypse tells an interesting story in milieu rarely seen in Marvel Comics, and one has to applaud the thought behind doing a story about a court of Egypt. But I can't help feeling that this story is so far distant that it still does little to enlighten us as the motivations of our Apocalypse, who never seems much more human than Darkseid, which is to say, not at all. Even Magneto, ostensibly not human, comes across as a wounded man. In Rise of Apocalypse the spiritual sublimation of En Sabah Nur is all too quick.

In order to beef out the trade paperback, Rise of Apocalypse also reprints the issues of X-Factor that introduced the character, but the effect is jarring and a little unnecessary. Worse, it's full of distracting and irrelevant continuity like Jean Grey wondering why Cyclops is being cold towards her (if you care, it's because he's recently abandoned his wife and child for her).

As Apocalypse has appeared since, he's a Kirbyesque villain who makes grand gestures and speaks like Doctor Doom. Supposedly Earth's first mutant, Apocalypse is important; no other villain save Magneto has affected the X-Men so much, and he does seem to come close to taking over the world again and again. But all the characters ever do is react to the great plans Apocalypse sets in motion. We never get involved with him.

I want to see Apocalypse in his non-blustery moments. What does he do? Does he read? Play badminton? Call up Doctor Doom and play word games? That would be an Apocalypse story worth reading.

Trade Paperback from Marvel Comics. Written by Terry Kavanagh, Louise Simonson, Bob Layton, James Felder and Karl Bollers. Pencils by Adam Pollina, Jackson Guice and Anthony Willis. Inks by Mark Morales, Joe Rubinstein, Harry Candelario and Al Milgrom. Colors by Christian Lightner and Petra Scotese. With reprinted material by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers

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