There’s just something about a good comic book.
Last week’s column, Closing Argument, was meant to bookend the lengthy commentary on retailing that guest columnist “j.hues” delivered in my absence, and voice some of my personal disappointment about the current state of the industry. While certainly not subscribing to the theory that the Internet is more trouble than its worth, the bad headlines had begun seeping into my Wednesday stash. Realizing that half of my purchases aren’t enjoying the audience they deserve, or that I’ve brought books home that won’t be around three months from now, is an uncomfortable feeling that’s a hell of a lot more difficult to overlook lately.
Too much time spent behind the curtain, and while the incredible access we’re afforded to the people and the companies that create these stories, one of the things that makes our industry unique, sometimes it should just be about the 22 pages. Not knowing every facet and inner working of the 22 pages, the art change editorial called for on page 16, or the dialogue cut on page 7. Just the finished product and a quiet spot to read it in.
Point being that I’ve been caught up lately, and without even knowing it, I needed some damn good comics to snap me out of it, and late one night I’m reading through a hardcover (X-Force: Famous, Mutant, and Mortal) and find this moment, and something occurs to me…the X-Force revamp orchestrated by Peter Milligan and Mike Allred was one of the best things to hit comics.
You remember this right? New Marvel was taking its first baby steps at altering the landscape of the industry, and fixing the X-books was top on the regime’s to-do list. They put Grant Morrison and Joe Casey on the main titles, inspired thinking on both parts, the former being, well, being Grant Morrison, and the latter having done an Ultimate comic before they called such (X-Men: Children of the Atom) and building a well-deserved buzz on Wildcats. In hindsight, though the industry were thanking the comic gods for such a bold maneuver, the history of the writers made the move a bit more obvious than it originally appeared.
We may argue about this, but the one book that epitomized “New Marvel”, and rightfully gave DC a three-year coat of nervous sweat that they’ve only just begun to get rid of, was X-Force. Calling it a revamp seems unfair, as the look and flavor that Milligan and Allred brought was wholly unique among comics in general, let alone superhero comics, let alone X-Men comics. Taking the barest essence of what it meant to be born with different genes, and spinning it around the logical and believable perspective that “feared and hated” would make the most unstoppably watchable reality show, Milligan was writing an X-Men comic for grown men and women.
This was also one of the first Marvel projects that former Vertigo editor Axel Alonso had a heavy hand in putting together, and made Quesada’s intense pursuit of him all the more understandable. Perhaps this is overstating, but from all appearances, there was not another editor at Marvel that would’ve shepherded such an intense departure as this one. So much so, that an industry urban legend suggests that original series creator Rob Liefeld sent Alonso a signed copy of X-Force #116 (the revamp’s first issue) along with a note that read, “thanks for fucking up my comic”. There isn’t any truth to this of course, but it makes for a great story doesn’t it? The best part about all this additional information, gleaned from the Internet, is that not one bit of it is necessary to enjoy the fuckin’ comic book.
Not one bit.
Abandoning the complicated continuity that often defines titles within the X-Universe was a risky decision, considering the vocal and passionate nature that X-fans are known for, but was something that Milligan’s run demands, and ultimately deserves. Contrary to the number on his first issue (#116), this title became a far different animal in his hands, and as such, a large portion of the first chapter is devoted to introducing us to the characters and status quo that’ll come to define Milligan’s run. We’re introduced through the eyes of Axel Cluney, also known as Zeitgeist, flashing back to the night he discovered his mutant power, and mistakenly burned off a young girl’s pretty face, whose name he can no longer remember. By the end of that first chapter, Zeitgeist’s intestines are lying on the floor, and we realize that Milligan just spent 22 pages emotionally investing us in a character, only to brutally murder him in the final scene.
From the word “Go” the title was infused with a level of unpredictability that turned every chapter into an emotional rollercoaster where your new favorite character might not make it out alive. Along the way, the familiar phrase “feared and hated” is effectively discarded for a satirical take on celebrity star status that casts the superhuman as fodder for the tabloids, more concerned with their paychecks and cut of the merchandising, than with saving the world. Half the fights are staged, the other half violent displays of power videotaped and sold, along with all the other licensed merchandise in the national chain of X-Force cafes. Our society erects the pedestals we place our celebrities upon, if only for the exclusive right to tear them down at our leisure, and in X-Force things are no different. Saving the world is a distraction that keeps the T-shirts selling, so it’s no wonder that new squad leader The Orphan plays a round of Russian roulette every night before bed.
I thought my dad’s X-Men had problems, but Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine don’t have shit on Edie Sawyer (U-Go Girl), Tike Alicar (The Anarchist), or Guy Smith (The Orphan), who serve as the anchors of the new approach. U-Go Girl is taking a steady stream of drugs to keep her powers working properly, The Anarchist is constantly paranoid because the black guy always dies first, and The Orphan’s parents tried to kill him as a child by setting the house on fire. Though using them as instruments to comment on a media obsessed populace, Milligan never ignores the fact that even intelligent comics need strong, realistic personalities to carry them, and through them Milligan offers several memorable moments over the first fourteen issues.
Wolverine’s guest appearance is clever and not gratuitous, Doop’s silent issue is wonderfully psychedelic, and the burgeoning romance between Edie and Guy adds enormous charm, and stops Guy’s nightly roulette sessions, but it’s not the “moment” I mentioned earlier. For those that haven’t read the book yet, shame on you, and consider this your spoiler warning.
The last storyline of the arc begins with Edie, Tike, and Guy confronted by “Death”, who ominously points at one of them. The remainder of the story centers on the belief that one of them will not come back from their next mission, and Milligan effectively ramps up the tension by pitting X-Force against a group of aliens that aren’t really aliens. And X-Force is expected to take a dive, because Guy did something a few issues back to piss off the government.
Before long our three main characters are trapped, with an escape pod that can only fit two people, and the only fair way to decide who boards is with a roll of the dice. The two highest scores get a ride home, and the lowest keeps the die. Ultimately, Edie and Guy emerge from the pod, having left Tike to perish, until we learn that The Anarchist’s mutant power allowed him to make the dice fall whichever way he wanted. So if Tike Alicar threw a one…Tike Alicar intended to throw a one. While considering exactly how he’ll end his life, Tike’s suddenly knocked unconscious.
Tike awakens among his teammates, effectively cheating death, or that’s how Milligan wants it to look. The moment after you relax, thinking it’s over, Edie Sawyer is seriously injured, and you realize the writer played you. Edie’s last words are a new name for the team, and as her body floats into space, among the stars, Tike Alicar apologizes to her and says, “You…you go, girl.” Meanwhile, Guy loads one bullet into his gun, spins the chamber, snaps it shut, and pulls the trigger.
That’s my moment.
Nothing to do with industry politics, people getting fired, or companies shutting down, just a bunch of stories connected by a cool premise, and told through the eyes of cool characters. When the message boards crash, and the net shuts down, the stories are all we’ll have left, and reading X-Force: Famous, Mutant, and Mortal, while in a bad mood, was a strong reminder that it’s the only thing that really matters.
What is it about a good comic book?