For the past few months, I’ve been taking a look at Marvel’s sometimes convoluted crossover chronology as a sort of lead-in to The Avengers, arriving in cinemas in 2012. Later on today, I’ll be reviewing Messiah War, a crossover between two of the series relaunched in the wake of Messiah Complex so I thought I might take a look back at some of the series leading into it beforehand. However, the two series – Cable and X-Force both have roots in the “darker and edgier” period of X-Men history known as the nineties. Driven by Rob Liefeld, the two series became by-words for ridiculous violence, convoluted storytelling, shallow characters and lots of guns. Lots of guns.
That is not the version of X-Force I’m going to look at today.
British writer Peter Milligan apparently laughed pretty hard when he was asked to write X-Force. However, the early part of the naughties was a different time at Marvel. Perhaps the financial collapse of the company in the nineties had made the company bolder, more willing to take creative chances. Perhaps they figured that, with Grant Morrison working on New X-Men, there wasn’t anything that much more radical that Peter Milligan could do. Either way, the author was granted incredible creative control and the chance to do something truly different. He took advantage of it, and produced one of the most fascinating comic books of the past decade.
Apparently operates under the name of… Wash-Out. A chronic bed-wetter who one fine day managed to harness the power of his nocturnal outpourings and use them against the tyrannical polygamous sect in which he was raised.
Is that for real?
You never know with this team, do you?
– X-Force considers new recruits
X-Force by Peter Milligan – which would become X-Statix after the run of issues collected here, apparently Marvel decided that the title X-Force was better served by filling it with gore and violence and death – was a brave companion piece to Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. While Morrison was suggesting that mutant culture would, after years of repression and hatred from the public, become “hip” and “cool” and “rebellious”, a fashion statement for the new millennium, Milligan went that little bit further. X-Force dared to suggest that, in today’s world, being a “freak” isn’t going to subject you to a life of misery, hatred and prejudice – instead it opens the doors to instant fame and celebrity. This isn’t the era of Civil Rights campaigners marching on Washington, but of the 24 minute news cycle.
X-Force is team that isn’t run by a “shady and mysterious organisation” but “a venture capitalist” in a baseball cap by the name of Spike. It’s a world where principles are for sale for the right price. Sure, some idealistic mutants might want to change the world, but they can be bought off with a chat show on prime time slot. It’s a post-modern superhero team, one for the era where image is everything.
It makes for quite a departure from the series as originally imaged (and, admittedly, as brought back a few years ago in the wake of Messiah Complex). X-Force was originally a black ops militaristic mutant group when caused all sorts of carnage while playing up to the grim and gritty tropes of the time. Apparently Milligan ruffled quite a few feathers by taking the title and revamping it into a post modern satirical look at a modern mutant superteam – I hear that the letter columns were packed with fans who “just didn’t get” what Milligan had done to their monthly dose of carnage candy. This sort of reactionary approach and fear of change is given voice to an appearance from the original X-Force crashing a press conference in the second issue. “You’ve got no right to defile what better mutants created before you,” Cannonball whines at the Anarchist, a sentiment undoubtedly echoed by countless irate fans. When the Orphan suggests that “someone is making fun of X-Force”, Tyke responds, “Hell, that’s our job.”
And yet it feels right. It’s brave and it’s new. The artwork by Mike Allred has a bright Silver Age charm to it (not to mention that the man can draw). Allred’s art makes the series look fresh, like a collection of boldly coloured pop art. And the series is unadulterated “pop” – it’s witty and sharp and socially relevant, which is what the X-Men used to be about.
Milligan puts together a mutant superhero team that are as carefully marketed as the latest boy band sensation – members aren’t selected on the basis of their combat prowess, but their show-reel (“you have to have an agent,” U-Go Girl observes to a prospective new recruit). They check themselves in and out rehab, are hounded by paparazzi and deal with all the trappings of our modern celebrity culture. Their floating green camera man Doop is on hand to capture their adventures on camera for later syndication. They live an utterly pampered life of luxury – where their status as genetic anomalies affords them nearly absolute freedom. “I’m a member of X-Force!” Tyke declares when the police arrive to arrest him for giving his penthouse an impromptu sunroof, “I can do whatever the hell I want!”
Milligan and his artist Mike Allred are clearly having a fantastic time with the material. These are a bunch of superheroes who employ publicists rather than butlers, or have reporters on speed-dial rather than law enforcement. Everybody on the team has an angle, even the strong and silent type. “I’d like to talk,” the strong and stoic Ram advises his team leader, “About my role.” Of course he does. To describe the team themselves as high maintenance is an understatement of massive proportions. “I hate you! I hate you all!” the drunken Gin Genie yells as her colleagues backstage in a paranoid rage. “You’re trying to destroy my fanbase!” When the CIA wants to blackmail the team into doing something, they don’t threaten to kill Guy, they simply threaten to assassinate his character.
These are characters who aren’t anchored in some sort of philosophical or ideological conflict – they aren’t trying to make the world a better place for anyone other than themselves. The inevitably disagreements between team members aren’t the usual soap opera (well, not just the usual soap opera), they are attempts to grab more oxygen of publicity for the team. Confronted on his badmouthing of the team leader to the media, Tyke responds, “Internal conflict. Struggles for ascendancy. Personal enmities. Isn’t that the kind of thing that keeps people interested in us?” When the Orphan is warned to beware the team’s enemies, the only example of an adversary he can think of is Liefeld’s X-Force, who clashed with him over naming rights. “Our enemies?” he asks, in a state of disbelief, “You mean like the former members of X-Force?”
Perhaps X-Factor was ahead of the curve. While some have criticised Marvel’s more modern books a deconstruction of heroism to the point of parody, where some iconic creations would be better described as sociopathic than heroic (and many would point to The Ultimates as the root of this trend), Milligan makes it clear from the outset that his heroes aren’t really heroes. They’re a bunch of selfish and immature jerks trying really hard to make a name for themselves. Some, such as the Orphan, do have sympathetic backstories, but Milligan manages the impossible over the run: he makes you care about them. These aren’t nice people, but they aren’t bad people either. Despite the fact that it is a razor-sharp parody of the shallowness of celebrity culture, Milligan manages to give most of his assembled cast some element of depth.
Over the course of the issues included in this collection, you come to understand and care for most of the cast. Despite the fact that they are a bunch of wannabe celebrities, Milligan gives each a wonderful level of characterisation. We come to understand Tike’s abrasive nature or Edie’s quest for fame through a series of small vignettes populating the collection. Milligan doesn’t soften the characters – that would be too cliché a move – but he does make them feel like real characters rather than bland parodies.
My personal favourite bit of satire comes from Milligan’s portrayal of the character “Phat”, an obvious parody of Eminem. The press release for the team features his childhood in a trailer park, “the kind of background every actor, rock star or mutant dreams of.” We later catch the character with his real (and decidedly middle class) parents in the hall of their house. “My agent thought I should have a dysfunctional family,” he explains apologetically.
And yet, right at the core of Milligan’s story is an idea which modern writers of the X-Men would be wise to catch on to – the same idea that Grant Morrison grabbed by the throat during his stint on the property. Times change. When Lacuna “outs” herself to her parents as a mutant, she is flustered to find them open-minded, liberal and accepting. “Why do they have to be so understanding?” she asks herself, “Why can’t they be just a little bigoted?” In the modern world, we don’t so much fear those different from us as glamourise us. Drug dealers and killers from social classes that perhaps terrify the establishment are able to “reinvent” themselves as artists and musicians. Phat would rather present himself as trailer trash than be honest about his upper-middle-class background, because the public imbue a sense a nobility to those outside the social system – rather than being afraid of them or hating them as they might have in the past. Whether such an “enlightened” perspective is just as harmful (as it seems at best patronising) is perhaps a matter best left to more qualified commentators than myself.
Indeed, even racism has changed in this day and age. Although there’s always a mob willing to turn on X-Force if they screw up, the series suggests that political correctness has led to its own brand of racism. Through Tike and the new Spike, Milligan explores modern attitudes to race – a culture where even though Spike projects spear-like objects, a description of him becomes a racially-loaded term (“if you say it, it might be,” Tike explains to the pink(!) Orphan, “if I say it, it ain’t”). Indeed, Milligan doesn’t shy away from exploring the racial politics between the radical Spike and the surprisingly conservative Anarchist.
Ignoring the Spike’s obvious instability, the other Spike (the team’s owner) is unable to justify keeping him off the team, lest they be labeled politically incorrect. “We can’t afford to have X-Force seen as a racist institution,” he explains, leading to a ridiculous situation where the team is forced to have a second token black person on the team (because having one makes it look token). On a related note, it’s nice to see Milligan actually taking the time to show us some homosexual characters in mainstream comics – there have been a few token examples over the years, but it’s still all too rare to find an LGBT character in popular Marvel or DC book. Milligan does play with the sensationalism of our fixation on a given character’s sexuality (he teases us with revealing a character’s orientation before remarking, “none of your damn business”), but he also displays any number of characters for whom their sexuality isn’t a big deal and doesn’t define them. It’s kinda sad that this is remarkable in this day-and-age, but unfortunately it is.
Despite his somewhat wider condemnation of popular culture, Milligan also manages to get in some rather cutting jabs at his own publisher. There’s the rather wonderful cover to an issue which parody’s Wolverine’s ability to be everywhere (“Ya know, I’m only doing this to boost sales?” he muses). “Death’s a very devalued currency these days,” Axel remarks to a team member, perhaps keeping track of the number of characters coming back from the dead. Coach justifies his revamp of the team with the remark that the X-Force have lost their connection to the public, “They’re finding it a bit hard to empathise with you.” This seems quite similar to the rationale behind the wiping out of a large number of mutants by the editors at Marvel in the crossover House of M.
In fact, the team’s manager might as well be a stand-in for a Marvel comics executive, full of ideas on what he needs his superhero team to do. “I need something to spin-off,” the team’s rich investor muses as he plans a civil war within the team. Of course, Marvel would have its own spin-off-full Civil War crossover a few years later. He actively encourages conflict among the characters for no reason other than to engage the lowest common denominator. “It’s called conflict, Myles, drama!” he explains at one point. “The life blood of this industry. This ain’t some modern novel that can drone on for hundreds of pages with nothin’ but descriptions. This is X-Force!” As some of the team take his advice, he watches a monitor, entreating, “Go on, my little profitable units! Fight! Fight!” I remember hearing rumours that Spike was based on Rob Liefeld, the original writer of X-Force.
I do have an admittedly minor complaint. Like so much of Marvel’s material – including, for example, the superb Nova – X-Force and X-Statix are inconsistently collected. This deluxe hardcover contains all of the run on X-Force before Marvel relaunched the title, but if I want the complete run, I have to find the out-of-print paperbacks of X-Statix. There are over forty issues written by Milligan, more if you factor in miniseries like Dead Girl or Wolverine/Doop, which would make the series a prime candidate for an Omnibus collection. It’s certainly prestigious enough, and would make a fitting companion for Morrison’s New X-Men run. Hell, I’d double-dip on an Omnibus. Or give us two oversized collections of X-Statix. The run is too good to remain uncollected.
Other than that, it’s a pop post-modern classic, and proof that there is still room for innovation within the X-Men as a franchise. The combination of Milligan’s sharp satire and Allred’s pop art aesthetic make the series a very high recommendation for any comic book reader. Who says the concept of the X-Men is outdated?
Check out our reviews of Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s work on X-Force and X-Statix: