One of my favourite editorial decisions in the opener "X-Men: Alpha" is how quickly the knowledge that the reality these Magneto-led X-Men is wrong is accepted. People ignoring the time-displaced Bishop from the original reality as a madman was a trope that could have been stretched for issues. Instead, through a psychic probe, Magneto sees the truth early on and immediately accepts it. From there, he forms a plan and off we go.
The X-Men need three things to repair the past, and the retrieval of each gets its own series. Gambit and the X-Ternals (replacing "X-Force") carries the largest consequences as the Cajun's band of thieves visit previously uncharted (for THESE X-Men) Shi'ar space to nab a shard of the M'Kraan Crystal. After fighting the imperial guard, Gambit learns that if the effort to restore reality fails, all time and space are screwed. Why? Because in this rewritten reality Jean Grey was never replaced by the Phoenix and never repaired the crystal. Excellent acknowledgement of history.
Despite the gravitas, "Gambit and the X-Ternals" is the weakest of the three comics in this subset. "Generation Next" is the eye-popper of the three, as Colossus and a frankly psychotic Kitty Pryde train the new class of X-Men barely established in the original universe. The team travels to The Core slave camp to rescue Colossus' sister Illyana - still alive because Stryfe never unleashed his Legacy Virus. With an entirely new concept and a frightening world at his disposal, artist Chris Bachalo really lets loose with over-the-top artistic designs for the team and its opposition. Bachalo highlights the freakishness of the opposition, including the striped suit-wearing monstrosity Quietus and - his crowning design achievement - the disturbing, long-tongued, four-armed, strange-speaking Sugar Man. Children being held at The Core speak nightmarishly of their captor, and when we finally get to see him, it delivers. On the writing side, Scott Lobdell goes for broke in what is easily the most gruesome chapter of the AoA series. Frankly, this may be the best "Generation X" story: period.
Still, I think the best of this bunch is "X-Calibre," spun out of "Excalibur." Written by Warren Ellis and centreing around Nightcrawler, this mini does the most to set its characters apart from their mainline counterparts and explores how cold the world has become. This Nightcrawler is a polar opposite of the fuzzy elf we'd known at that point. He has a better relationship with his mother (his name is Kurt Darkholme, not Kurt Wagner,) is a staunch atheist and has a mean strike a mile wide. When the not-dead-here Thunderbird confronts Nightcrawler, he learns quickly and gruesomely that it isn't polite to point.
Nightcrawler teams up with his mom Mystique to travel to the human/mutant sanctuary Savage Land, meeting a monk version of Juggernaut, and an alive Cypher as they track down the third piece of the puzzle: Destiny. As they arrive, peace in Antarctica crumbles and a ragtag team is forced into a great battle with the Shadow King. Far and away, this book has the best dialogue and scripting of the bunch. With Warren Ellis, that's expected.
While Magneto tries to restore history, there are still pressing matters for the X-Men to attend to. The universe as it stands takes up most of the narrative, and with the fascinating differences this world provides: why not?
The two core series "Astonishing X-Men" and "Amazing X-Men" (replacing "Uncanny" and "____") are likely the weakest of the bunch as they don't carry enough of a punch storywise. That is more than made up with, though, by the excellent characterization. For example: Rogue and Quicksilver are far more leaderlike, Banshee is a worn-down veteran, Sabretooth is a man of honour, Blink is a bastion of bravery and Changeling - as Morph - steals every scene he's in - especially the ones you DON'T realize he's in at first. Two X-Men teams protect refugees, protect some more refugees, battle one of Apocalypse's Horsemen... and battle ANOTHER of Apocalypse's Horsemen. Much of what goes on seems like a placeholder and doesn't really progress towards the endgame of taking down the High Lord.
Three other series do a much better job at this, and have a habit of blending into each other. The centrepiece - and my pick for the best "Age of Apocalypse" title - is "Factor-X," which replaced "X-Factor." In a "nurture vs. nature" case study, Cyclops and Havok are high-ranking officers in Apocalypse's circle who have been raised by Sinister. The Summers boys are arguments for both sides. Alex suffers from a deranged inferiority complex to his higher-ranking older brother and is an unquestionable villain. Scott, other the other hand, is not so different from the man we already know, save for long hair and a missing eye. Joining them in Sinister's labs is the frightening Dark Beast, who experiments mutants in the name of science, though really - it's in the name of torture. Well-scripted by John Francis Moore and drawn by Steve Epting, Scott and Alex's sibling rivalry spirals out of control and stands out as an isolated story of betrayal and more betrayal.
Meanwhile, Sinister is involved in his own machinations by invading the pages of Jeph Loeb's "X-Man," which replaces "Cable." Nate Grey is the genetic spawn of Cyclops and Jean Grey, manufactured by Sinister to take down his boss. Nate Grey is frustrated about being treated with kid gloves by his mentor Forge as the two travel with a band of actors made up predominantly of what we had previously known as members of the Brotherhood. This is a rock-solid concept, but with obvious twists you can see coming a mile away it leaves a lot to be desired by comparison to other titles. For better or worse, though, this is probably as good as "X-Man" got as there is still a lot of palpable tension about what may happen if Nate were to let loose.
To the topic of Nate's mom, Jean is with a Wolverine who was never called Wolverine in the pages of "Weapon X." The two are doing work for the humans who are making a last stand in Europe by attempting to launch a nuclear strike. Larry Hama's "Weapon X" does not divert from from the mainstream universe outside of one of his hands being missing. Why mess with Logan when his character works everywhere? There are some fun interactions with Gateway, Carol Danvers and a grotesque Donald Pearce. But all is not well with Logan and Jeannie. The two are lovers - no Scott courting Jean in their younger days, after all - and she splits on Logan part-way through. In the pages of both "Weapon X" and "Factor-X," we see that perhaps there is some room in the Age of Apocalypse for destiny. Funny that Scott is missing an eye and Logan is missing a hand, hm?
At this time, you might be wondering what the rest of the Marvel Universe is up to in this alternate realm. "X-Universe" provides the answer, keeping up with Hawkeye, Tony Stark, Sue Storm, Ben Grimm, Donald Blake and others. Since Apocalypse's rise to power predates many heroes' origins, the surviving members of the Fantastic Four don't have their powers, Donald Blake never discovered that Thor lived within him, and Gwen Stacy is alive and NOT Peter Parker. Gwen, in fact, is a prominent member of the human resistance fending off an invasion by Horseman Mikhael Rasputin under the false pretense of peace negotiations. Despite a bleak outlook, Scott Lobdell weaves a pretty cool tale of heroism using a group of people who are a lot more powerless than we're used to. "X-Universe" is also as well-drawn as anything you'd find in this entire crossover, with the glorious pencils of Carlos Pacheco.
Despite everything that's going on, what you're most likely to remember most about "Age of Apocalypse" happens at the end as all tracks (save those in "X-Universe") lead to the same path. "X-Men: Omega" begins by hitting off each established story point piece-by-piece as the X-Men, the Summers brothers, Weapon X and Nate Grey are in Manhattan for the final showdown that would restore history AND end Apocalypse's reign. The narrative is chaotic, in a good way, as characters are killed off, pieces of Apocalypse's empire crumble and - well - a lot of people climb on a lifeboat. The undisputed highlight is the battle between Magneto and Apocalypse with a finish that may stand as Magneto's finest hour, no matter which character version you're talking about.
Hey, look at that - paragraph upon paragraph of 90's X-Men without me discussing the foibles of the Nicieza-Harras-Lobdell combo. That lack of heavy criticism is well-deserved. This was the story they got right. It is correctly looked upon with fondness and justifiably ranks among the greatest X-Men tales ever spun. Collecting its parts can be pricey, but for an era for which there is so much nostalgia these days, other post-Claremont X-Men comics from that decade are a waste by comparison.