There are innumerable and varying potential futures awaiting mankind. Between them exists only one constant: The rise of the Deathloks!
When you come up with a twist as good as the one Rick Remender dropped in the first arc of Uncanny X-Force, you have by nature locked yourself into a bit of a corner. Remender’s idea of using Apocalypse as his own little way of answering that pesky time travel question about killing Hitler as a child was brilliant for both its obviousness and for the unflinching way Remender went about exploring the moral dilemmas it posed.
Because, you see, that situation was exactly everything this version of X-Force was created to deal with. The sticky situations, the deceptions, the impossible odds--these are exactly what a mutant black ops division should be dealing with. It only increased the arc’s effectiveness when Remender ended it by revealing the vulnerability of the members of the team you expect to be the most heartless--Wolverine and Deadpool specifically.
Now, though, Remender has the difficult task of building on that tension ahead of him. Already we see Wolverine attempting to go back to his stoic self by rewriting the incident and making it appear as though he agreed with Fantomex’s actions all along. Wolverine’s brisk rejection of Deadpool’s questioning of the situation, and his need for closure, is just a subterfuge--something to disguise his own qualms. We’re not yet sure if Wolverine is more disappointed that he let himself get seduced by the idea of saving Apocalypse or that Fantomex, a figure Wolverine seems to lack respect for, was the one to pull the trigger on the kid.
The way the issue unfolds, it would seem that the team is unraveling from the heinous act they had to commit in the name of saving the world--whether they admit it or not. A large part of the success in this specific issue comes down to Esad Ribic’s art, and not just because he is in the unfortunate position of having to follow the incredible work of Jerome Opeña.
Where Opeña’s work is full of masterful, analog textures and brush strokes, Ribic favors an almost eerie, digitized cleanness. In Opeña’s panels you could see every mark, feel every contour, but Ribic works in painstakingly rendered clean lines. The two couldn’t be more different.
However, given the plot of the book, Ribic’s style makes perfect sense. After all, this is a story about a computer program that’s out to kill its user because of the interference of a part-organic, part-cybernetic entity. The dynamic team of John Lucas and Matt Wilson on inks and colors, respectively, obviously aids in the cleanness of the art since they give the book a very striking palette with just the right amount of shading to complement Ribic’s pencils without feeling overbearing.
Yet, where the art really excels is in Ribic’s work with the expressions of the characters--most notably in the scene where Deadpool has Angel call a meeting to decompress after the events of the fourth issue. Even though Deadpool is masked, you can read every expression he makes; every crease on his face is visible, and the slits of his mask reveal just enough from his eyes to make his intentions known.
In contrast, Wolverine and Angel look aged, worn down by the events of their lives both recent and old. Ribic, of course, does excellent work making the Deathlok-ified heroes look perfectly eerie, and the fight scenes are well choreographed--but any comic book artist worth his or her salt should be able to do that. Expressions, heated conversations, long meandering debates about the nature of the business from a group of grizzled vets--these are the hard things and without someone as skilled as Ribic to work with, Remender would have had an impossible task ahead of him.
What keeps this issue from being perfect is the plot, which doesn’t appear at this point to have stakes anywhere near as high as the last arc. The Borg-like intentions of the program sticks us with just a bit of a “been there, done that” feel. This is Remender, though, so I highly doubt that it’ll go anywhere near what we’re expecting, but it’s far too early to start handing out the perfect scores. What we have is an excellent start that fleshes out the team dynamics nicely, and that’s more than enough for the moment.
Rick Remender seems set on writing comics exclusively for me.
In the first six pages, he reminds us that The World, a crazy Grant Morrison idea from New X-Men, still exists. The World, for you newcomers, is essentially a giant petri dish where the experiments within can be aged a great number of years within a short amount of time. Like I said, it’s a crazy Grant Morrison idea--which, of course, allows Remender to use tasty comic book phrases like “algorithm of sentient infinity.” This stuff gives me a tremendous comics boner.
So, um, thanks, Rick.
The next six pages depict our heroes reeling from the surprising conclusion of Uncanny X-Force #4--which is brilliant fucking writing because it takes what could have been, in the wrong hands, cheap shock value and gives it weight--allowing for more tension and drama to ensue.
Even better is how Remender subverts the “stars” of the team. Wolverine comes off like a heartless dick rather than the cool, casual murderer he’s typically written as. Meanwhile, Deadpool gets a chance to deliver nearly dead-serious dialogue and have real, honest-to-god emotions. Plus, we get to see Fantomex’s mother, whom we probably haven’t seen since New X-Men #129.
When I reviewed the first issue of Uncany X-Force a few months ago, I wondered to what extent Remender would explore the psychological effect on the characters after all this X-Forcin’ around the Marvel Universe. Thus, it’s great to see not only the tough decision made at the end of #4, but also that nobody is incredibly pleased with himself in #5. If nothing else, Uncanny X-Force is a comic that fulfills its promise.
However, this issue isn’t a subdued wrap-up--though it seems that way at first. No, the final ten pages deal with the actual plot of this story arc; “Deathlok Nation,” involving Jason Aaron’s Terminator-like Deathloks that parade around the timestream and murder people in the present--except this time they’re superhero Deathloks in the forms of characters like Captain America, Spider-Man, and The Thing. While not an incredibly original concept (nor was The Terminator, if you ask Harlan Ellison), the Deathloks are totally frightening as only an unstoppable death squad from the future can be.
It helps that this future death squad is being written by Remender, who, as the brilliant Fear Agent tells us, is quite adept at depicting legions of scary aliens and robotic foes. If the last few arcs of Fear Agent are any indication, X-Force is going to be put through the wringer, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Superheroes should never have it easy.
Finally, as Jerome Opeña gets a break, we have Esad Ribic stepping in to handle penciling duties. To be honest, I’m so used to his painted work (see Sub-Mariner: The Depths and the cover of Uncanny X-Force #5) that I had no idea the guy even worked in any other style. Turns out he’s quite the penciler, his style meshes well enough with Opeña’s that I’m sure a few of the less detail-oriented readers might not even notice a difference; those who do notice such things won’t find a jarring shift in art between issues. It helps that colorist Matt Wilson, replacing Dean White, uses a palette similar to White’s work--by which I mean there are some amazing neon greens early in the issue.
Yep, Uncanny X-Force is the best X-Book right now. Hell, it’s one of the best books PERIOD that Marvel is putting out.
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