Sunday, 15 November 2009

Forces Both Ancient And Powerful

As part of my continuing quest to own every X-Universe comic book ever created (yes, yes, I know) I picked up the first trade paperback of the new X-Force series yesterday.

It's... kind of odd. I don't mean odd in the way Peter Milligan's X-Force was odd; that thing was so mental they ended up having to change the title just so the fans of all the previous, non-lunatic iterations wouldn't combust with rage and confusion (mainly confusion, I'm guessing). I mean odd in the sense that it's in almost in every way not odd to the point of self-parody, and yet I still really liked it.

Pretty much everything you need to know about X-Force can be gleaned from the conversation I had with Count upon picking it up.

Count: I've read that. Art's great.
SpaceSquid: I read a couple of them in the Messiah Crossover, but that's about it.
Count: The basic concept is simple. Pick out every X-Man with pointy bits, and stick them together.
SpaceSquid: Pointyness is the central theme?
Count: Pretty much. "The X-Men in their pointiest adventures yet!"
SpaceSquid: Isn't Warpath in here? All he has is a knife.
Count: Knives count as pointy.
SpaceSquid: He was using it to peel apples!
Count: "You with the knife! You are now part of Pointy Squad. Get out there and get yourself killed!"
SpaceSquid: "But I haven't even finished this Waldorf salad!"
Count: "Get out there AND DIE! Pathos is all we have left to offer!"

Operation: Pointiest Points Ever makes sense in the context of the original X-Force, a paramilitary squad of mutants dedicated to hostile actions of a somewhat more... premature nature than the X-Men would be comfortable with. X-Force was perhaps the most '90s of '90s comics, pointless mega-violence, minimal characterisation, pouches freaking everywhere, and of course drawn and written by Rob Liefeld. The '90s obsession with hideously unpleasant main characters and unfeasible body counts was so pronounced that the writers of DC's Lobo, whose eponymous character existed precisely as an indictment of the trend for brainless mega-violence, seemingly found it difficult to outpace the ludicrousness of the very comics they were parodying. [1]

This latest iteration of X-Force would be enough to make Lobo feel queasy and need to lie down for a while. It does at least take the "War is Hell" angle rather than the "shooting your prisoners is fun" one, but the pages are still littered with decapitations, eviscerations, and the involuntary separation of limbs from torsoes. You could use the resulting dead tissue to fill a 737 hangar, and by issue 6 that's pretty much exactly what happens. It's relentless, and it's nasty.

On top of all of that, this first arc falls into the classic mistake of attempting to tell a new story by simply collecting together a dozen or so elements from previous stories and hoping the resulting stew will somehow taste different. The main villains, the Purifiers, start off by resurrecting Bastion, who then goes looking for Magus, who is then used to infect Donald Pierce, Graydon Creed, The Leper Queen, Bolivar Trask, William Stryker and various other mutant haters (many of them once dead). You remember those old cartoon episodes where all of the main villains decide to join forces to finally finish off the do-gooders? It's like that. All of which is before you factor in Angel once more becoming Archangel. I guess struggling with one's place in the world and attempting to use your healing blood to help others is less interesting than having huge fuck-off wings of death-steel.

In short; it absolutely shouldn't work. Needless gore? Check. Sacrificing characterisation for violence? Absolutely. Upping the stakes by upping the villain count? Yep, that too.

Somehow, though, it manages to work. It manages to genuinely persuade that the endless parade of dead bodies is a bad thing, even whilst every third panel gives us some new way to depict ultra-violence (to say nothing of coming closer than ever to fetishising Wolverine by having everyone in the book wishing they could be more like him). It's also nice to set up a dynamic of mutants vs humans again, something which the X-books have never dealt with as thoroughly as you might have expected, though just as with Operation: Zero Tolerance, Bastion's position as a future-tech robot might weaken that idea long-term (especially given his use of Magus). The fact that X-Force don't so much win the day as show up in time to minimise the damage when the Purifiers tear themselves apart (using an army of razor-winged human angels, no less, which if nothing else make for a great visual) is also interesting, though perhaps not particularly satisfying in dramatic terms.

In short, then, X-Force is so '90s it manages to be more '90s than a '90s parody, and continues to struggle with the 21st century problem of finding ways to tell modern stories with an essentially out-dated core concept, but somehow it still manages to come out pretty well.

[1] I believe that the only DC comic I own is Lobo #50, in which he has a dream of killing every superhero on Earth. A friend bought it for me as a birthday present, believing (entirely correctly) that if there was one DC book I was liable to enjoy, it would be one in which a blatant Wolverine rip-off proved the inferiority of DC heroes by beating each and every one of them to death.

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