With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.
Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Artists: Clayton Crain (#1-6, #12-13), Mike Choi (#7-10), Alina Urusov (#11)
Issues: X-Force (2008) #1-13, X-Force Special: Ain’t No Dog #1, X-Force Annual #1
First there was House of M, in which the Scarlet Witch reduced the mutant population of the world from millions to several hundred with three little words. Several years later the epic X-Men crossover event Messiah Complex gave us the first mutant birth since that day, and everyone wanted to get their hands on this miracle child.
Knowing the depths of which evil, bigoted humans (and evil mutants) would go, and seeing their backs firmly up against the wall, Cyclops finally becomes the leader we were all waiting for. The results are actually kind of terrifying as he’s become a hard-nosed militaristic leader, and reinstates the X-Force as his own secretive and deadly black-ops team.
X-Force, a new series that launched in the wake of Messiah Complex in 2008, brings together X-23, Warpath, and Wolfsbane under Wolverine’s leadership. Cyclops gives Wolverine the missions and he keeps the rest of the X-Men completely in the dark – even to the point of using the Cuckoos (telepathic triplets) to block Emma Frost from probing his mind about it.
Their first task is to deal with the immediate threat of the Purifiers, one of the X-Men’s biggest enemies that sprung from the pages of New X-Men. Under the creative writing team of Craig Kyle and Chris Yost (who also crafted New X-Men from issue #20 on), X-Force expertly layers in several explosive, fun story beats, while the accompanying water-color style art by Clayton Crain relishes in the bloody melee combat of having so many rough and tumble fighters together on one team.
With former leader William Stryker dead at the end of the Purifier assault on the X-Mansion in New X-Men Volume 2, his right-hand Mathew Risman has become the de facto leader. Risman works to create a new powerful threat to the X-Men by further modifying the body of Nimrod, the mutant-hunting sentinel from the future, and forming Bastion, a humanoid robotic warrior hellbent on the X-Men’s demise.
Kyle and Yost spend quite a bit of time on the Purifiers and their own cultish motivations and inner drama. Bastion’s methods soon sour Risman and others as he’s more than willing to kill humans as long as the ends (death of all mutants) justify the means. Risman has his own plan – letting a captured and programmed Wolfsbane be rescued by X-Force only to horrifically attack Angel and rip his wings off when they’re alone.
She takes the wings back to the Purifiers. Using the special Apocalypse-granted bio-technology they’re able to graft steel wings onto the backs of their most devout followers and create a winged army. Instead of attacking the X-Men, however, Risman seizes his chance to swiftly attack Bastion and the other Purifiers! Meanwhile it’s all Warpath, X-23 and Wolverine can do to try and follow Angel who violently ‘hulks out’ into Archangel – the embodiment of Death that Apocalypse had transformed him into years ago.
Angel had become a super boring character for years, and X-Men writers rarely even included him in most adventures. Let’s face it, being able to fly is quickly eclipsed by just about every other combat-savvy power that the X-Men possess. Credit to X-Force then for making Angel not only a badass as the steel razor-sharp winged Archangel, but a complicated character who has to battle his inner rage of having the Death persona take control of his thoughts and actions.
That whole first arc ends in a fantastically bloody and crazy battle between Purifiers and X-Force. The plot thickens for future events when we find out that Bastion has used a sleeping Technarch force (an alien bio-organic creature) to resurrect and enslave all of the X-Men’s old political foes. In this modern era you don’t defeat the heroes by summoning a giant creature to kill them – you raise up some savvy politicians and leaders to denounce them and turn the tide of public opinion.
It’s an interesting commentary on this post-Civil War Marvel world and works quite well. Of course we also get some just plain awesome fight scenes between Bastion and Wolverine, and Archangel kills dozens of Purifiers in a fit of rage. X-Force is easily the most bloody and violent Marvel comic I’ve ever read, and the painting-quality art style really gives it a mature and artistic angle rather than pure exploitative and gratuitous.
In the second half of this massive collected Volume the revelation of all the old X-Men foes returning further galvanizes Cyclops’ brutal and cold decision-making (and causes Wolverine and Cyke to have some deliciously heated arguments). X-Force is sent to retrieve a deadly sample of the Legacy Virus, recently stolen by a teleporting mutant called Vanisher. The virus is a famous plot device from years ago that only targets and kills mutants.
The team soon runs into Domino, a former X-Force member, lover of Cable, and all around snarky and awesome Deadpool-esque fighter. Domino adds some much needed levity and one-liners to this normally dour and serious group. Taking on Vanisher becomes darkly humorous as the teams splits up to cover all his safe houses. He teleports to each one, getting sliced, shot, and attacked at each one before Elixir touches him mumbling an apology.
Josh Foley, AKA Elixir is another former New X-Men. He has the power to manipulate the inner workings of the human body, mostly to heal people but can also cause great harm (he single-handedly killed Stryker). In this case, he gives Vanisher a brain tumor with the little X logo on it. Vanisher freaks out and reminds me of that classic whiny sidekick villain from a kids movie, but here done in a legitimately funny and enjoyable way. Him and Domino both are fantastic additions to the team, while Exliir is really only used as the situation dictates.
Meanwhile both Warpath and Wolfsbane are given rather strange side quests which have little to do with the main plot. Warpath decides to go visit his dead brother’s grave to collect himself, but he’s attacked by a giant demon spirit bear thing. Then Ghost Rider shows up to help him fight it. It’s seemingly random but when Warpath returns to the group he does set up the stage for upcoming X-Force crossover event X-Necrosha, regarding a new villain named Eli Bard, returning evil witch Selene, and the possibility of an army of undead.
Wolfsbane is given such horrible treatment that I was constantly annoyed with her arc throughout. Here is a character that was specifically ripped from her role in X-Factor only to be captured off screen in the first issue of X-Force, used as a pawn by the bad guys, then rendered untrustworthy by the good guys. In the second arc she’s simply left at home after they fail at deprogramming her (she still wants to kill Angel). She goes off on her own and eventually runs into some wolf-man dude from Thor’s neck of the woods, and the two share some romantic scenes. Being totally unaware of her character pre-X-Factor it did nothing for me, nor had anything to do with anything else. I love you X-Force but your treatment of Rahne Sinclair is just really crappy.
It all comes down to an exciting final few issues as X-Force tracks down the Leper Queen, one of the Bastion-resurrected and controlled foes who’s injecting mutants with the Legacy Virus and using them as human bombs. At the same time Beast has crafted special time-travel discs that can send a squad into the future to help Cable and baby Hope survive Bishop’s relentless pursuit, setting up X-Force’s immediate crossover story Messiah War.
So, that’s the seeds of X-Necrosha, Messiah War, and X-Force’s own main plot all interweaving together, and it’s damn impressive. Our heroes get teleported away to the future just as they reach the Leper Queen, and she just straight-up murders her most recent victim, the mutant Boom-Boom. Introducing a D-list character at the climax just to kill them off is old hat, dumb, and unnecessary, and it’s a shame that it’s the last panel of the book.
Despite some glaring mistreatment of certain characters and a lot of stories going on, I really did enjoy X-Force. It didn’t quite grab me at first and I found the art style quite jarring, but as I read I appreciated the carefully layered in plotting and pacing, and Crain’s art really grew on me. Even when the comic briefly switches artists to the slightly brighter work of Mike Choi it still meshed very well. It’s also very fun seeing several of my favorite New X-Men (which ended at Messiah Complex) used in various roles, even if they’re just captives waiting to be rescued (sorry Surge and Hellion).
Reading Messiah Complex and a good chunk of New X-Men is recommended to get the full breadth of these characters and situations, making X-Force a tricky jumping-on point for new converts. Even if you just come to see Wolverine stab dudes in the face, it’s pretty damn entertaining. Highly recommended for crafting a fun team of violent mutants and setting up some really fun plot threads for years to come.