Things We’ve Read: Uncanny X-Force

18 Dec

Editors Note:  This article does contain some spoilers for Uncanny X-Force.  Its a great read though, so weigh your options carefully if you haven’t read the series yet.

I was taking a semester off and working part-time when I started collecting comics. Which makes sense, I guess. It’s not as though I had much else to do while I waited to hear back from UT, and I was living with my parents so my financial obligations were minimal to say the least. Such specious reasoning aside, you don’t have to be marginally employed and living at your parents’ house to start collecting comics, but I guess it helps. Collecting was always something I had wanted to do, but I had never been in a place in my life where I felt comfortable doing it. Which is weird when I think about it. My parents were never particularly prohibitive and the high school I attended was renowned for the fact that the students were nerds. Yet, with DC’s complete relaunch of titles, I found myself in a comic store for the first time.

Initially, I limited myself to “safe” picks like Batman and Justice League, but I quickly discovered just how little I knew about modern comics. My pull list (the comics that are put aside for me in a file) quickly grew and I began to follow comic sites like Comic Vine and Bleeding Cool. And then, before long, I fell in love- in love with a little story about assassins and time travel and other dimensions, about hard choices and fate, about killing and what it can do to you, and now just a year since I bought my first issue, it’s about to end.

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On December 19th Marvel will release Uncanny X-Force #35, the final installment in Rick Remender’s two year run on the series. Even though the title is relaunching under MarvelNOW!, their recent initiative to introduce new #1’s, it’s not going to be the same, and the reason is quite simple: Rick Remender has not only crafted a great comic, he’s produced one of the greatest stories in recent memory.

I feel compelled to point this out, to qualify my statement with “story”, because I fear that there remains a great stigma attached to the act of comic collecting. Certainly people are more receptive to it now then they were when my father was my age. Batman, Spiderman, The Avengers, Iron Man, X-Men, these are all properties that have entered into our cultural consciousness through their success at the box office. I remember growing up on Batman the Animated Series and Justice League, on the Spiderman and X-Men cartoons that played every morning. Superheroes, I think it’s fair to say, are cool.

Comics on the other hand. How is it that even as the characters who star in them have transitioned into cultural icons, the original medium has failed to keep up? I think I can offer a few answers. While discussing Scott Snyder’s current run on Batman with a friend, I was struck by one of his comments: “I would love to start reading comics, but there’s just so much history, so much backstory. I don’t want to have to read all of that stuff.” I think this is a fair complaint, if a bit misguided. Of course it’s easy to be intimidated when you have, say, Amazing Spiderman #700 coming out (which is honestly the number they are on). On the other hand, I think it’s also fair to say publishers realize this. That’s why you have massive reboots like DC’s New 52, where they scraped their entire lineup of titles and went back to publishing 52 comics, all starting at #1. All the previous continuity was wiped out, except in the case of Green Lantern and Batman.

Similarly Marvel is also in the process of relaunching many of their titles with new creative teams. They aren’t doing exactly the same thing as DC, but they have made it clear that their intention is to open up their books to new readers and offer a fresh jumping on point. But beyond simply coming out with new #1’s, comic arcs are constructed much like TV seasons. Does it help to have watched the previous one? Yes, but it’s not necessary.

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That was my experience going into Remender’s X-Force. I knew Wolverine, of course. I was slightly familiar with Deadpool and Archangel through cartoons and movies, and I had a vague notion of who Psylocke and Fantomex were. After reading only positive things about the then-ongoing “Dark Angel Saga”, I decided to start buying back issues to get caught up. Did I need to do this? No. I could have easily picked up the first two volumes in TPB (trade paperback). To extend the TV metaphor this is like buying individual episodes off of iTunes versus buying an entire season on DVD. Either way, it was possible to get caught up. But the reason I did this was because I came in mid-season. I can’t really complain about a show for being confusing if I was the one who chose to come in right in the middle of it.

But what a great decision. Working through the “Dark Angel Saga” was like the first time I heard “KC Accidental”,  or the first time I read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. When you experience something truly artistically excellent for the first time, well, it’s hard to describe. You feel something *click* into place, or as Murakami put it, “when we examine ourselves later on, we discover that all the standards we’ve lived by have shot up another notch and the world’s opened up in unexpected ways”. Even now, however, I feel reluctant to compare Rick Remender to a band like Broken Social Scene or such a prominent novelist like Murakami. This is not because I believe Uncanny X-Force is inferior to their works (clearly I don’t), but because I fear most people are unwilling to take a “superhero” comic seriously. In any case, here goes: Fundamentally, Uncanny X-Force is not just a great story but a great work of art as well.

On some level I think most people recognize the artistic potential of comics. Just look at a graphic novel like Persepolis or Sandman or Habibi, titles that have seemingly transcended being labled as just another comic. I think that most people are too quick to dismiss comics, especially ones about superheros that come out of the two big publishers, DC and Marvel. If you collect them you must be childish or immature. The act of going to the comic store every Wednesday is perceived as  adolescent. And, ultimately, their content not taken seriously because they are misunderstood.

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Persepolis

Let’s look at Uncanny X-Force again. This is not about a team of superheroes heroically fighting evil while maintaining their own strong moral codes (like the Justice League, per se). Wolverine, Deadpool, Fantomex, and Psylocke aren’t boy scouts like Superman or Captain America. Remender is at his best when he is dealing in shades of gray. Even their uniforms stand out. There’s no primary colored spandex to be found here, instead muted grays and blacks reflect their own moral ambiguity and allow for the inevitable blood to stand out much more starkly.

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The X-Force is a team of killers. The first story arc, “The Apocalypse Solution”, involves the planned assassination of a child. But even here Remender was given free reign to allow room to explore what the moral implications would be. The specific child was the reincarnation of the evil mutant Apocalypse. Very comic book-y, no? And yet one of the persistent questions that has carried through all the way to the final arc, “Final Extinction”, was that of predestination. So what if this child was supposed to cause the end of the world? Could Evan, as the boy is called, instead be something else? Could he be a normal mutant? Despite his genetics, despite his past lives, could he be good?

These are the kinds of questions that get explored throughout Remender’s run. In the penultimate issue there is a terrific scene between Wolverine and his son Daken. Wolverine, undoubtedly one of the most famous comic book heroes, is forced to kill his own child. But even as he drowns Daken, Remender chooses to flash back to what could have been. It’s a powerful scene and the fact that it takes place through panels, with Phil Noto’s art reflecting Wolverine’s own emotional anguish, while Remender’s narration twists the knife into his own protagonist, is something only a comic could accomplish.

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Thematically, Uncanny X-Force reads unlike almost anything hitting stands today. It’s dark, gritty, and realistic sure- but not in the same way as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. There is time travel and sentient ships, characters who heal from anything, God-like beings, and dimension hopping. What makes it such a great read is that it never loses focus on the bigger picture. What’s important are the characters and the choices they make.

Remender never goes easy on this group of mutants. Wolverine has to kill his son, Psylocke do the same to both her former lover and then later her own brother. Archangel is slowly corrupted until he becomes the new embodiment of Apocalypse. Nightcrawler almost has to kill his own mother. Fantomex has his heart broken figuratively and later all too literally. And the whole time the reader is teased with moral questions. Is what this group is doing right? Given the right direction, can people be good? How do we fight the darkness in ourselves once it starts to take over?

At the beginning of “Final Extinction”, the team travels to the future to discover a militaristic dystopia with their own future selves in charge. Once you start fighting violence with violence, where does the sequence end, when you have killers tracking down other killers, how much of a leap is it to start attacking the ones who might kill? Of course, none of these are novel questions. Minority Report and Looper come to mind when thinking of endeavors that explored similar moral quandaries. And yet few in any medium come close to combining such philosophical questions with such a strong cast and art.

Although like most comics, X-Force has featured a rotating list of artists, all of them (Especially Jerome Opeña) have done an unreal job at capturing the tone of this book.

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Or in the Julian Totino Tedesco’s cover to Uncanny X-Force #34.

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 Here is the groups trip to the alternate timeline “Age of Apocalypse”, where Archangel feels possessed.

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It’s hard to not feel as hopeless as our heroes when looking at those images. But this is part of what makes comics so great, and why this one in particular stands out. Any novel could tell a story like those found in these 35 issues. We’ve seen from films like Zach Snyder’s Watchmen or Nolan’s The Dark Knight that it’s not impossible to make a good, dark superhero film. The Walking Dead proved that you can make great serialized TV from the pages of a comic book. I love all of these things, but none come close to what Remender and co. have managed to accomplish. There is something about the marriage of text and image that cannot be replicated. Each splash of blood, each hit these characters take, each joke Deadpool cracks and each time Wolverine recovers from an impossible injury feels far more real when spread out on these pages than anything on film can accomplish, yet these images are far more meaningful than any I could paint in my own mind.

Remender has written powerful stories that raise profound questions. The cycle of violence is only reinforced by the actual structure of the story as the first arc begins with the X-Force setting out to kill Apocalypse and the final one ends with them attempting to save him. It’s a cohesive web that he has spun and it’s hard to resist becoming entangled in it. In a way, Remender managed to encapsulate many of the anxieties our own society faces: a world of terrorists, where black and white is an outdated concept, with people having to make choices without clear outcomes, and where sometimes people have to die.

At the very core of my reluctance to watch this series end is the fact that I care about these characters. Even now I hold on to the hope that something will bring Fantomex back or that Nightcrawler will return. I don’t want to say goodbye to this cast. This is a team that knows they aren’t good, but are still trying to do the best they can in such a fucked up world. The stories that Remender crafted, “The Apocalypse Solution”, “Deathlok Nation”, “The Dark Angel Saga”, and now “Final Extinction”, brought to life the enormous potential that comics hold, and to me it’s an absolute tragedy that few outside of those who do frequent comic shops will ever experience them. Those who are unwilling to pick them up because they don’t like superheroes or comics are depriving themselves of one of this decades’ great works.

And now Remender has moved on to Uncanny Avengers and Captain America. While there will be two X-Force books, one under Cable and one under Psylocke, December 19th will mark the end of this inventive series. As much as I am loathing the drive to Tribe (my comic shop of choice) to pick up this final issue, I am looking forward to rereading these stories for years to come, and will happily share with anybody who asks.

– Nico

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