If it feels like yesterday that Marvel launched two new X-Force books, Cable & X-Force and Uncanny X-Force Vol. 2, it’s because it was barely a year ago. Now both of those titles have ended, and in their wake we have a single all-new Marvel NOW! X-Force book by writer Simon Spurrier and artist Rock He-Kim. The idea this time is going back to the whole “we are the bad asses of the mutant world” approach, one that features lots and lots of guns that look very heavy. Spurrier has a pared down team that features only four members – Cable, Psylocke, Fantomex… and Marrow. Yes, Marrow, remember her? Short lived X-Men member from the ’90s with, like, bones as weapons? I don’t blame you if you blotted her out of your memory. Most people did.
The basic plot of this first issue has Cable forming another X-Force team following a major event that kills thousands of people, and that also quite possibly involves a mutant. Mutants and others with powers used for clandestine reasons have long been used by many nations to do the “dirty work,” and, according to Cable, the mutant nation needs their version of that. So Cable puts together this new X-Force to act as mutantkind’s black-ops team that will deal with the whole underworld of international superpowered espionage. It’s your essential back-to-basics approach. But are the basics this time just too basic?
X-Force, at least as a title, has been around for over twenty years now. And for a book that’s been a mainstay of the Marvel Universe for that long, it’s also always had something of an identity problem. I think it’s OK to say that the majority of the book’s original ’90s incarnation ranged from downright terrible to just OK. In my opinion, X-Force just never had an iconic line-up, and that made it hard to care about them for me. Ask a Marvel fan what their “iconic” X-Men line-up is, and chances are they’ll say something like the ’90s Jim Lee/animated series team, or the Claremont/Byrne team from the ’80s, or maybe even the original five members. X-Force was a book that spent the majority of its first decade shuffling around members and mission statements, not to mention creative teams, so fast that there was never a chance to latch on to anything. It was a cool name and a trademark in search of substance.
In an odd way, this latest incarnation feels like a prettier, more modern version of the original Rob Liefeld X-Force concept; lots of posturing, lots of cool splashy shots of Cable fighting mutant bad guys who for some reason love to wear camo pants. (suggestion: camouflage really not effective when your torso is a huge half shiny metal and half weird monster thingy.) The book opens with the team fighting said monster in some jungle, and from there we go back and see how the gang got into this particular predicament.
I didn’t read the last two X-Force series, so I have no idea why this group is a team, or how they formed from two separate X-Force units. Even Psylocke doesn’t seem to know why, as she bluntly asks, “What’s X-Force for Cable? This time around?” (I wanted to yell back at the comic, “to keep the X-Force copyright going.”) Cable gives her an answer that’s not particularly complicated, something about mutants needing a “dirty tricks crew, and we’re it.” It pretty much sounds like the line Cable fed the former New Mutants way back in 1991. And hey, why not? The ’90s are back in pop culture in a big way; Why not go back to the simpler mission statement?
The problem with that line of thinking is that since then, we’ve had better, more nuanced and more interesting iterations of the team. Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, which ran from 2010-2012 and lasted thirty five issues, was one of the best mutant team books ever, and elevated the team to a whole new level when it came to writing and art. The Dark Angel Saga was one of the great superhero sagas of recent years, and everyone was blown away that a book with a reputation for mediocrity rose as high as X-Force did. I realize Remender set the bar high, but this new X-Force doesn’t even feel like they’re trying to meet it.
Adding in cliche characters like Marrow isn’t helping any. At least as far as this issue is concerned, she seems only interested in fighting and killing and looking like an extra from The Road Warrior. YAWN. It just feels like a ’90s “I’m a tough badass chick” cliche. I appreciate the idea of keeping the team small and tight; in this day and age there are so many great X characters, the tendency is to overfill the team with members, and then no one has a chance to shine. So I appreciate the idea of keeping the team down to four. But aside from Psylocke and Cable, I’m not particularly interested in any of these guys. Fantomex worked well when written by his creator Grant Morrison, but not really by anyone else too much. The overreliance on throwing in words like “oui” all the time to remind us that he’s French is annoying, and reminds me of how they used to write Gambit back in the day. And the constant use of incorrect English phrases is just lame. At one point Fantomex says “I went under the cover” instead of “undercover.” Ugh. Please just stop.
Psylocke is more or less written well, I’m just not sure why she’s here, and taking orders from Cable. Again, maybe this was covered in the end of the last two X-Force titles, but for people just picking this up, it should be addressed here as well. And as for Cable, one kind of feels that X-Force exists just to give the character of Cable a reason to still be around. A future time-traveler who has fulfilled all his missions back in our time period, he’s a character than just seems to have served his purpose and is just treading water now.
If I have anything super positive to say about this book, it would definitely be the art from Rock He-Kim. In many places, it’s simply stunning, and reminds me in the very best way of old Heavy Metal magazine art from back in the day. Rock He-Kim is a relative newcomer to American comics, formerly a storyboard artist in Korea. Each panel is rendered lovingly, and his style fits the whole gritty black-ops premise of the book. Unfortunately, it’s just a premise that I feel is really tired.
Could the book improve? Absolutely. Just right now, there doesn’t seem like there’s a lot for me to latch on to here. Art aside, there’s a “been there, done that” quality to the book that I just can’t get past. While I believe there is a definite audience for a comic like this, and a rather large one at that, at the moment I don’t think I’m going to want to continue being a part of it.
Writing: C –