The Summer Binge continues with the look at a series that is most definitely not X-Men work.
Written by Craig Kyle and Christ Yost
Illustrated by Clayton Crain
Lettered by Cory Petit
Collects X-Force (2008) #1-6.
There are lines that the X-Men have sworn never to cross. But Cyclops realizes that some enemies need to be dealt with permanently — and the X-Men can never know about it. Enter X-Force!
While it is just barely a decade since its original publication, reading through this run has highlighted how things have changed at Marvel. “X-Force” is left to its own devices in this collection, but there is this feeling that is created that makes it feel like it is part of a line of X-Men comics rather than a singular X-Book. That effect is created in several ways, the title gets stuck in what feels like crossover hell as it takes part in “Messiah War,” “X-Necrosha,” and “Seconding Coming” before the series ends. I’ll be skipping those for the most part, barring a look at X-Force through he events of “Seconding Coming.” Tying into all those events however entails the writes beginning to set everything up or reference outside bits, for “Messiah War.” Kyle and Yost begin setting up “X-Necrosha” in this first arc. Their war with the Purifiers and Mastermold builds up to “Seconding Coming.” It begins setting up the Laura centric couple of issues in the third trade. These collections all have end points, missions end, but there is no resolution for the characters over the course of these issues. “X-Force” accomplishes its mission but never really wins. The lack of fullfilment on its face may sound dissatisfying but it is perfectly at home in “X-Force.”
While the series began publication half way through the first term of President Obama, there’s something kind of Bushian to the start of this series. The X-Men are coming off a 9/11 like experience with yet another attack on the X-Mansion and the events of “Messiah Complex.” Cyclops as the leader of quasi-sovereign micro nation is taking a more aggressive posture towards threats. He wants to stop them before they happen, and he aims to use the reconstituted X-Force to do it. That posture is put to the test right away as the Purifiers steal the head of Bastion – in a rather effective use of 90s comics and the timey whimey qualities of the property. Cyclops assembles X-Force to stop the Purifiers, kill them all, before they can do whatever it is they do and the X-Men are forced to react.
The broad mapping of historical politics aside, that posture is the first hint at Cyclops going down a darker path. The superhero figure cannot be active, they have to be reactive as guardians of the status quo. If they preemptively guard it, they look a lot like supervillains.(The Golden Age Superman is a good example of this.) To be an “Avenger” you need something to first avenge. Cyclops doesn’t want to be an Avenger anymore.
This places “X-Force” conceptually slippery ground. Wolverine may have a dark past as the best he is at what he does, but his long arc is one of constant redemption. Putting a team together of mutantkinds hunters and killers for the express purpose of acting as a black ops team clearly isn’t X-men work. The creative team are aware of this, building it into the long arc of the series as characters come in and out and grapple with their bloodletting. Narratively this is more directly handled in the pages of “Uncanny X-Force.” Kyle-Yost “X-Force” is more rooted in the drama of revenge and the dangers of losing the path along the way. James Proudstar and Rahne Sinclair are both motivated by revenge and go down dark paths because of it. Laura Kinney isn’t motivated by revenge but the mission puts her on a path back to where she started. At the center of it is Logan, someone perfectly fine with being the murderous sin eater of the X-men, and his attempts to keep everyone on the path. These personal journeys give the book some solid dramatic meat as it continually throws them in the grinder.Continued below
One of the most enjoyable aspects of revisiting “X-Force” is getting to look back at Clayton Crain’s art. Crain is this series primary artist and it was their distinctive style that caught my eye when I initially read the series. In looking back on Crain’s work you also compare it with some of his more recent stuff in the pages of “Rai” or “X-O Manowar”(2017) and see how things have changed. It’s a lot like looking at the early Top Cow work of Stjepan Sejic, you can see a connection between past and present, but there is this painterly rawness to the work in “X-Force.” Crain’s more contemporary work is defined more by sharp figure work and shiny texturing. In the pages of “X-Force” Crain establishes this tricky juxtaposed balancing act between realism – at least realistic faces – cartooned figure work and impressionist techniques when dealing with violence. While my survey wasn’t exhaustive, I didn’t come across much at Marvel that really looked like this. Crain gives this series a novelty and an energy that makes his absence in several issues later on all the more apparent.
The balancing act Crain attempts results in a somewhat fast and loose application of styles, as seen in the conversation between Logan and Scott at Angel’s Aerie that frames much of the series first issue. Technically speaking Crain renders the X-Men known as Wolverine and Cyclops in a realistic fashion, as much as you can with these superheroes. As Logan waits on the balcony, the fading natural light catches him. A natural light that highlights his ludicrous amount of muscles and veins. Crain doesn’t really use black line work which gives the figure work a softer quality but his rendering of Logan and Cyclops would not be out of place stylistically next to Lee, Liefeld, and Silvestri. The rendering of Logan is realistic but the figure work that supports it is cartoonish, with 28in python arms and a chest that would look proportionally askew on a taller individual. Cyclops meanwhile to create some contrast is given a hyper fit runners body, his dark blue costuming absorbing and failing to catch the fading light the way Logan and his T-shirt and jeans attire does. As proportionally out of bounds his body is, Crain takes great care in Logan’s face as he offers to do Cyclops wet work for him, heading off X-Force. That initial realism is what sells the blurry punch filled with angry parent like rage to Cyclops when he finds out that Laura aka X-23, has been roped into this without his knowledge.
The modern incarnation of “X-Force” is not a funny book, if there is humor it often darkly funny. There is something of a sly visual gag Crain plays to complement the scripting by Kyle and Yost in this sequence. As Cyclops tells Wolverine that X-Force is happening, with or without him, and the need to keep it a secret Crain figures the line straddling leader of the X-Men pinching his bleeding nose and giving Logan “shh” hand gesture. I’m fairly certain that’s the last gag that isn’t a pained response to some extra amount of gore.
For all the digital painting and application inherent to Crain’s process, the cartoon sensibility helps to elevate and sell the series quieter, interpersonal moments. “X-Force” is decidedly an action book but unlike previous works the action and violence helps to highlight the fading humanity within everyone – a motif that is further explored in “Uncanny X-Force.” After the team manage to save Rahne from the clutches of the Purifier, Logan and Laura have a chat. It’s an awkward one, he’s both her Father and commander, roles he’s not great at. Laura, still learning to read social cues, exasperates the frustration.
The work by writers Kyle and Yost isn’t spectacular, this book isn’t’ trying to be spectacular, but it gets what makes a good B-movie great: good style and storytelling fundamentals. Their use of internal monologue is both efficient exposition for anyone just picking the series up and establishing character arcs. The same kind of thudding efficiency is at play as Logan tells Laura who it is “we die for.” It’s a melodramatic moment, one that Crain both plays up in page design dedicating the largest panel to the one featuring Logan pinning Laura up against a tree. Conversely he visually downplays the melodrama on display as he hides Logan’s eyes. He’s the loud one bellowing about, yet his face is hidden in shadow as he his drug off for a beer by Warpath. Laura’s face isn’t, caught in the moonlight with these sad eyes as she gets another lesson in threading the needle between her machine like programing and her humanity.Continued below
Laura is among my favorite characters at Marvel, “X-Force” was my first real introduction to the character outside of the X-Men: Evolution show she was initially created for. That character would go on to grow under the pens of writers like Marjorie Liu, Tom Taylor, and Marino Tamaki. She’s a bit of a robot in this series, Kyle and Yost internal monologue for her is tactical and efficient, Crain for all the realism and cartooning does a good job of keeping her blank and ambivalent. It forms an effective mask that slowly gets stripped away as the series goes on.
“X-Force” is a violent book, built around a team composed of the trackers and killers of the X-Men. Our core trio are shown leaping about in silhouette, distinguished by their bared claws and knives. We see them stick people with those pointy ends. How that violence is treated by Crain is interesting. There are some gruesome money panels of X-Force stabbing, slicing, dicing, otherwise murdering Purifiers throughout but that isn’t the majority of the book. While this book is an action book, it moves at quiet the pace, graphic violence is something more often found obscured, recognizable only by what is left behind these action lost in the gutters. When we do see violent action, such as when Rahne goes berserk due to her trigger, Crain drops the realism. The sequence is this balance of perspective as Laura’s internal monologue ruminates on the words Logan gave to her and the pure red filter that represents Rahne’s berserk point of view. There are several panels that graphically show Rahne tearing into Laura’s body, but the red filter obscures and turns the sequence more into an over the top slasher kill.
Graphic violence and its residue are obscured because you can’t really understand it and remain whole. The corrosives of X-Force, conceptually, is further explored in Remender and Pena’s “Uncanny X-Force” but the creative team here begin to establish that tragedy with James “Warpath” Proudstar. As they track (read; murder) their way across the Midwest, Proudstar does things he didn’t know he was capable of and eventually finds himself without a choice but to be a killer. The effects of that choice reverberate through the series going forward as he struggles being with his old New Mutant teammates.
The obfuscation of violence reaches its climax in ‘Angels & Demons’ with issue #6, as Kyle and Yost frame everything through a retrospective debriefing between Scott and Logan. As X-Force chase after a reborn Archangel, the Purifiers have a civil war amongst themselves between the Choir and Mastermold sects. All hell breaks loose, and plenty of people end up dead. The use of retrospective narration gives events a somewhat ironic tone, as the creative team play Logan’s words off of Crain’s art. By limiting the point of view to what Logan is able to find out, action is defined by specific small beats that clearly have gaps in them. What matters in the end is the aftermath. Angel lays atop a pile of bodies. Rahne lies in a pool of blood. Both sleeping in a bed violent residue. Our final image is a question and a threat, Cyclops wondering “who’s next?” They killed lots of people, but did they really accomplish much of anything?