Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: X-Force Vol. 1

In discussing Uncanny X-Force, I referred to the previous volume of the series—plain, old adjective-less X-Force—as a team consisting of all the stabbiest X-Men.

I assumed I was making a joke, and exaggerating a bit, as at least one member of the team didn’t always have blades in her hands or growing out of her hands.

That character was Rahne “Wolfsbane” Sinclair, who was introduced in the ‘80s as a member of The New Mutants and has the neat mutant power of being a werewolf, which seems admirably like creators cheating (Like, someone thought, “I want to write about/draw a werewolf, but I’m stuck on this stupid X-Men spin-off, so I can only write/draw mutants…Oh wait!” I don’t know. Having a mutant whose mutation is being a werewolf seems somewhat akin to having a mutant hero whose mutant power is to turn into The Hulk or be basically Deathstroke, The Terminator from the New Teen Titans or something).

I assumed she was on the team, since she appeared on a majority of the covers I saw. But then I read the massive hardcover collection of X-Force Marvel published in June of last year and, it turns out, Rahne was simply one of the many X-Men characters who turned up in the book, who seemed to be in the extended cast, but wasn’t really an official part of the team, in that she worked with the other characters and went on X-Force missions.

Instead, she spends some time captured by some of the bad guys, gets brainwashed into taking something form another X-Men character and, while present for much of the first volume, isn’t really on the team. Other such characters who drift in and out of the various narrative threads without seemingly having X-Force membership cards include Cyclops, Angel, Domino, a golden-skinned kid with healing powers I’ve never seen before named Elixir, a bad guy with terrible tattoos and teleportation powers I’ve also never seen before named The Vanisher and, most randomly, Ghost Rider, who shows up for an issue or two to help fight a demon.

So who is on the team?Well there’s Wolverine, whom we all know and love.

There’s X-23, who is apparently a teenage girl clone of Wolverine, differentiated from her genetic source material by the fact that she only has two claws on each hand (but a third one on each foot!), has no identifiable personality beyond “killing machine,” has huge breasts and wears a mask-less, belly shirt version of Wolverine’s costume.

And, finally, there’s the Native American mutant whose name is actually—no shit—“Warpath,” the only member of the team who has to carry his own knives, since he doesn’t have any growing out of any of his extremities. He is also different from the other two in that he has apparently never killed before, or hasn’t in any great numbers, which is why Wolverine is opposed to him joining the team at first.

Actually, Wolverine is opposed to X-23 being on the team as well. And Wolfsbane, whom wants to join the team, but doesn’t get to. Either Wolverine knows the toll totally killing all your enemies takes on a person’s soul and wants to spare others from the pain he feels, or he loves killing so much he’ greedy for it, and doesn’t want to split up slaughtering bad guys duties with other characters—he wants to keep all the fatal stabbings for himself.

I would call these the X-Men stabbers, but the bad guys refer to this team as “all of the mutant’s best trackers and killers.”

And who are these bad guys?

Well, there are five individual stories contained in the giant, 300-page hardcover that collects X-Force #1- #11 and X-Force Special: Ain’t No Dog, three of them written by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost. Of these stories, the biggest is the imaginatively titled “Angels & Demons” (the series was relaunched as Uncanny X-Force before they could get to “Digital Fortress” or “The DaVinci Code”) and it’s pretty complicated.

There’s one of those crypto-Christian religious sects/militias that the X-Men sometimes encounter, the kind with suspiciously vague and simplistic tenets of belief (usually, something along the lines of “mutants bad, God good”). They are called The Purifiers, and they apparently had something to do with the X-Men crossover event that X-Force used as a springboard to publication (The one that introduced Hope, I guess—“Messiah Complex,” I think…?).

This group attaches the head of a preexisting X-Men villain I’ve never heard of onto the body of another preexisting X-Men villain I’ve never heard of, and it’s apparently pretty powerful. It finds some other preexisting threat—like, semi-sentient alien technology, or something—on the ocean floor, and uses that to resurrect all of the X-Men’s old human asshole enemies, all of whom this villain can control as puppets. The human leader of the Purifiers and his immortal-monster-disguised-as-human friend grate against the leadership of this new composite villain. The grand plan, though, is to steal Angel’s wings, robotocize them, and graft them onto the militia guys, so they will basically just be a Christian, anti-mutant militia that can fly.

Also, they’ll look like angels!

Cyclops thinks this will be very bad for his people, so he wants Wolverine and the gang to stab everyone involved to death for him.

That six-issue story arc is followed by a four-issue arc entitled “Old Ghosts,” in which Wolverine, X-23 and Angel (now Archangel) bump into Domino while trying to capture The Vanisher, who stole The Legacy Virus, which is also something from old X-Men comics I never read (I think that’s what killed Colossus forever during the short-lived “dead means dead” period of Marvel Comics, before Joss Whedon brought Colossus back to life in Astonishing X-Men). Meanwhile, Warpath fights a giant bear with a mohawk, and Ghost Rider helps him. These are both pretty shitty stories, featuring poor artwork that is somewhere betweeen terrible and less-terrible, depending on who is drawing which.

The rest of the book consists of the one-issue “Who The Hell Is Eli Bard?”, which explains who the lead Purifiers not-really-human human pal is, and features the first appearance of good art in X-Force, when Alina Urusov shows up to draw flashback scenes.

The last two stories are both from the special, I think. These include “Ain’t No Dog,” by Charlie Huston and Jefte Palo, the best story with the best art in the book (which we’ll discuss later), and “Hunters & Killers,” by Jason Aaron, Werther Dell’Edera and Antonio Fuso, in which Wolverine finds Warpath feeling guilty about butchering so many enemies, and Wolverine reminds him that yeah, butchering your enemies can take a lot out of you, emotionally. The art on this isn’t as good as in “Ain’t No Dog” or those Urusov-drawn flashbacks, but it’s not as terrible as in “Angels & Demons,” and is head-and-shoulders above that of “Old Ghosts”, too.

As you can probably tell from my description of the plot of the first few stories in this collection, it is probably best enjoyed by people who already know all of the players. It’s not completely new-reader unfriendly, but I knew I didn’t know a lot of the characters and events being referenced, and I knew that the stories were being written as if I did.

Certain parts of the book made me wish I knew even less than I did, though. For example, that I had no idea that Rahne’s mutant ability was to turn into a werewolf, or who Warpath and Wolverine and X-23 were, exactly, or who they were to one another.

Because there were plenty of panels or entire scenes that just seemed loony—enjoyably so—and I found myself wondering what it would be like to be reading this book and just…happen upon something like some of these scenes.

For example?

Well, here are two panels featuring Rahne, as drawn by Clayton Crain, the primary artist in the book (He draws issues #1-#6, and the parts of #11 that Urosov didn’t). These are the fourth and fifth panels to feature Rahne. Before these panels, her only line has been “Logan…”Pretty great, right? Just all of a sudden this lady has a rat head and is saying “GRRRR…” Surreal. Absurdist. Unless you know she was werewolf power, in which it just looks like she has a badly-drawn wolf-head all of a sudden, than that Crain just dropped a new figure in on top of the same background panel so he could use it twice, and save on drawing/artistry.

Here is the first panel in which the official X-Force team all appears together. I laughed out loud when I first saw this panel, and can only imagine it would be even funnier if I had no idea who the hell these people were supposed to be:I would assume Warpath was cruising the park at night and tried to pick up Wolverine, unaware that Wolverine was waiting for a date, if it weren’t for the girl on the ground, whose butt Wolverine seems pretty pissed off about.

And check out Warpath’s arms! One of the things I hate about this level of representational coloring is how ridiculous it makes exaggerated anatomy look. If Crain drew Warpath like that in pencil and ink and it were colored the old-fashioned way, it would look like a cartoony superhero design. But with realistic-looking flesh over that bicep that’s almost as big as Warpath’s torso? He just looks like a grossly deformed man-thing. The photo-realistic night-sky and trees don’t help any.

Crain’s art is pretty poor in general, with every panel looking like a still from a not very good video game from 2002 or so—Mortal Kombat fumetti. I’ve read comics he’s illustrated before and not minded the art in them at all—his 2005 Ghost Rider series with Garth Ennis, for example—but I hated it here. It was hard to read, in addition to just being hard to look at, and there are panels where certain actions are meant to be taking place that don’t make any visual sense, but must be figured out using context clues, like when you’re a little kid reading a book and you see a word you don’t know, but can guess its meaning from the way its used. Only with comics, and the unknown vocabulary word is just a crappy panel with stranger blurs meant to evoke motion of some kind.

If I had to guess, I think a big difference between that Ghost Rider comic and this X-Force one is that motorcycles, chains, fire, skulls and demons look more natural in this video game-paint style, whereas flesh and blood humans—even spandex-clad ones—look gross and off-putting and, obviously, hard to “read” emotion or even motion from. And nighttime highways and Hell are easier settings to fudge than the real-world settings of this X-Men comic.

Here’s something I didn’t know about X-23: Apparently, she is a “cutter.” That is, the slangier way of referring to someone who suffers from the behavioral and/or mental disorder of self-harming, usually with non-suicidal tendencies.

Unlike most cutters, Laura has several blades conveniently stored inside her own forearm. And she has a healing factor which immediately repairs the self-harm she does, which makes the whole thing kind of…odd. And, I think, sort of crass and insensitive.

These panels are the only reference to this among the 300 pages of X-Force Vol. 1; perhaps the ramifications are discussed in greater detail and with greater sensitivity elsewhere.

This is probably my favorite, “God, this comic must seem weird” moment in X-Force. The epilogue for issue #10, the conclusion of the “Old Ghosts” storyline, features a wolf running through the snow, panting, when it gets knocked down. And, on the next page:Holy shit! This X-Men comic is suddenly about furries?!

That male furry only appears in that panel, and that’s his only line, so, um, not sure what’s up with that. Is he a recurring character, that X-Force/-Men/New Mutants fans will immediately recognize, or does that page seem just as out-of-left field to them as it does to me?

Okay, let’s take a look at “Ain’t No Dog,” or, as I like to think of it, “The Good Part.”

This is a clever, perfectly constructed 21-page story which opens with Wolverine in front of a bound and gagged man, holding his own spilled guts in while he waits for his healing factor to fix him, sitting around in a pool of blood spilled from himself and the various dead bodies scattered around.

He’s there to get something from someone, but first he has to fight a bunch of mindless berserker cannon fodder that chants "KILL KILL KILL." He does all the talking in the book, to the gagged man, save for one scene with Cyclops told in flashback.

Huston does a fine job of doling out information efficiently and dramatically, in such a way that the reader gets it when the reader needs it, and can put the story together for him or herself as the story is read. He has a lot of fun with Marvel’s Quesada-era no smoking policy (more on that later) in the process. And the story both fits in with what was going on in the main X-Force book the one-shot containing it spun out of and stands alone (at least one of the bad guys Wolvie kills is wearing a Purifier uniform).

With the possible exception of Urusov’s flashbacks, this the best X-Force looks. Jefte Palo’s Wolverine is rather Frank Miller like, as is his entire comic. Not necessarily in terms of design, which is detailed and round where it needs to be, but in the starkness of the juxtaposition between shape and space. And some little details, like Wolverine in profile, the way he pulls on his mask, or the way the bodies of ninjas pile up around him.Palo and colorist Lee Loughridge do neat work with the copious amounts of blood as well. The borders around the spilling or spilled blood aren’t inked, so it has an almost unreal, luminescent effect to it accomplished by a lack of black (rather than a computer-added lens flare effect), and it looks like red paint. It’s beautiful, which allows the reader to see it as the protagonist sees it, and the result is a story in which there is literally vats of blood spilled, but while its bloody, it’s not gory or gross. A little artifice goes a long way…especially in art.

For example, here’s how Crain draws a scene in which a couple of guys have parts of their heads cut off:And here’s how Palo draws a scene in which a guy gets his head cut into pieces by Wolverine: Discussion of art can get tricky when you stop to wonder if you’re factoring in personal taste or preference when evaluating quality, but I don’t know—the one image seems so much better than the other, even in terms as simple as legibility, that I don’t see much room for uncertainty regarding quality here.

And that’s X-Force Vol. 1, which isn’t at all as good as Uncanny X-Force Vol. 1, but is at least big (I borrowed it from the library; you should too if you’re interested, because it sure ain’t worth $35) and has some funny bits, even if they’re not meant to be funny, and at least one really good story in it.

Oh wait, before we go, here’s the last page of “Ain’t No Dog,” which you shouldn’t read if you don’t want Huston’s best joke spoiled:There are two references earlier in the story to the fact that Wolverine used to smoke but no longner does. See, smoking is really bad, but killing enough dudes to form a twelve-foot pile or corpses to perch upon? That’s not as bad as smoking.

I think that’s pretty cool that Marvel let Huston essentially get away with saying “Quesada’s policy regarding smoking in Marvel Comics is fucking insane.”

Wait, one more image. Since I wasn’t terribly kind to Crain, I should also point out this variant cover to the first issue by Bryan Hitch, whom we all generally consider a pretty good artist. That image sucks. (Is it something about the word “X-Force” that brings out bad work in artists? Is it a magical word that executes a “draw worse” spell? Is Rob Liefeld a warlock, and did he place a curse on the property when he left in the early ‘90s…?) Is Warpath’s mutant power that he’s fucking gigantic, or are X-23 and Wolfsbane only about three-feet tall? How unusual is it for a man's butt to be that much smaller than his head?


Nicholas Ahlhelm said...

I'm generally a fan of Kyle & Yost, and I think you're being generous to this book. It was pretty awful all the way through. In answer to a couple wonderings you had:

The Vanisher is one of the X-Men's earliest villains (and former leader of the Fallen Angels) but the tats are new.

Domino joins the main team for the rest of the book (and Archangel remains a member as well).

The wolf guy at the end is the Asgardian Wolf Prince that only ever appeared in a New Mutants special and a X-Men annual back in the 80s (the Asgardian Wars story). Rahne and her fell in love and this serves as a set-up for a bunch of actions wildly inconsistent with Wolfsbane as established even in this book.

Matt D said...

I actually though the downtime issues in the Kyle/Yost X-Force was good, and I thought some stuff, like the Boom Boom cliffhanger was good too.

But it doesn't hold a candle to the current Archangel stuff going on right now

Matt D said...

Oh, just to clarify, I didn't love the first arc, but once it hit issue 7 I thought it got a whole lot better

Jacob T. Levy said...

The bear panel looks like this is a callback to the 80s Demon Bear in New Mutants, complete with imitation Sinkiewicz art. Yes? No? Maybe?

The wolf-god looks like an extra from "Cats."

Caleb said...

Thanks for dropping the X-Men knowledge, Nick.

Matt, are you referring to stuff later in the run? I don't remember a Boom Boom appearance, and that sounds like something I would.

Jacob, I THINK that might have been the case? Someone "poisoned" a good bear spirit/a bunch of good animal spirits by sticking 'em/it with a magic dagger or something. When they plucked it out, the giant bear turned into a bunch of little white animal spirits. So maybe it was a that bear combined with other spirits or something?

I was mainly confused because during its first appearance, a two-page spread from which the image I scanned was the right half, it was drawn so as it looked like a normal-sized bear (it was in the background, with nothing nearby to give it scale) and then in the rest of its appearances it was King Kong sized.