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Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost’s Run on X-Force (Hardcover Vol. 1-2) (Review/Retrospective)

I’m really not sure what to make of Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost’s run on X-Force. In many ways, it is a throwback to Rob Liefeld’s nineties team of anti-heroes, only with more gore and violence and dismemberment. On the other hand, it’s also the only book in the X-Men line that explores the dark ramifications of the direction that Marvel has driven the books, and Yost and Kyle are both careful to counterbalance the darkness and graphic violence with remarkably solid character work. It’s always going be in the shadow of Rick Remender’s more conceptually fascinating Uncanny X-Force, but one can see the seeds of that later comic sewn here.

An Angel gets his wings…

Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost are two very strange writers. The pair have been writing comic books on-and-off, but they are perhaps best known for their work in crafting two well-received animated adaptations of the X-Men – X-Men: Evolution and Wolverine and the X-Men. It was their work on the shows that really allowed them to branch into comics, adapting the female Wolverine clone X-23 from television into comic books. Despite their outstanding work outside the medium, I find it so surprising the pair haven’t been given more high-profile assignments within the field of comics.

Sure, the pair have written New X-Men and now X-Force, but I’m surprised that they were never granted a shot at Uncanny X-Men, the franchise’s flagship book. After all, they write in a medium with a far larger audience than comic books, and I would have imagined that Marvel would have welcomed the opportunity to broaden the appeal of the line. Then again, I’m surprised at how poorly the major comic book companies seem to treat those who have done such great work with their ideas in television or film – Dwayne McDuffie’s run on Justice League over at DC serving as the most obvious example, where the writer of the much-loved Justice League Unlimited found himself forced to bow to one editorial mandate after another.

Cyclops is pretty single-minded…

It’s a shame that the pair’s work on the X-Men books is confined to miniseries and New X-Men and X-Force, but such is the way of the world. I have to admit, I mostly enjoyed their work on the book, despite my initial skepticism about the concept. Indeed, the notion of the greatest “trackers and killers” in the X-Men branching off to form a proactive assassination strike force just sounds like “darker and edgier” has been stretched to the realm of self-parody. The covers and (to a lesser extent) the interior art don’t help disprove that observation, as it seems there are absurdly sharp blades and bloody slices every other page. Hell, this was the series that mocked its own excessive blood lust by proposing an all-ages friendly “puppies and rainbows” cover.

I’ll be the first to admit that this sort of book probably isn’t the kind of thing I’d usually be interested in. Indeed, during Yost and Kyle’s farewell miniseries, X-Force: Sex and Violence, the gore does almost get a bit much for me, rendered as it is in loving detail by artist Gabriele Dell’Otto. However, there’s a very valid argument to be made that – whatever about the criticism of the book as a nineties throwback – Kyle and Yost have managed to produce a book that perfectly fits the tone and mood of the entire X-Men line, as dictated by Marvel’s editorial. After all, the species had been pushed to the brink of extinction by the crossover House of M, and that sombre note set the tone for the stories to follow.

A Bastion of knowledge…

Based on the decisions and the status quo forced on Marvel’s merry mutants, X-Force is a book that makes sense – indeed, it makes more sense than almost any other book in the line. As other writers struggle to tell more traditional mutant stories with an overwhelming nihilistic extinction story forced upon them, X-Force embraces the direction of the line and just does what it sets out to do. In that way, the book feels very much like the team Wolverine has assembled, a brutal and somehow necessary part of the X-Men brand, a publishing line that had lost its direction.

If you are going to tell a story about the extinction of the X-Men, then a book like this is necessary. That’s a dark conceptual direction to drag the franchise, and I’ve made it clear before that I have fairly significant problems with how it impacted the line of books. If you are going to tell that story, then it needs this sort of darkness and cynicism. I think that the direction itself is far too dark for the whole line, because it’s simply overbearing, but I can’t fault Yost and Kyle for daring to deliver on the necessary tone for an on-going story like that.

Grave danger…

Indeed, it seems that Yost and Kyle do most of the heavy lifting connecting the two gigantic crossovers to one another. I will concede I had difficulty making sense of Second Coming, and Yost and Kyle’s X-Force actually does a pretty solid job connecting that massive finalé to the earlier Messiah Complex crossover – much more than, for example, Matt Fraction’s Uncanny X-Men. In fact, most of the key players from that final crossover are introduced here. X-Force ties into another crossover half-way through (the surprisingly efficient Messiah War) that marks something of a bridge between the two. Oh, and it has its own event as well, in Necrosha.

I had a hard time putting names to faces the first time I read that crossover, and I reckon that, if I went back and read it now, it would probably make a lot more sense. That does, of course, raise issues around the publishing schedule for X-Men related oversized hardcovers (with these coming out well over a year after Second Coming), as opposed to the Avengers schedule which seems almost perfectly in step with the books themselves and the massive crossovers.

Quite a Legacy…

There are times, reading X-Force, that it feels like the book is being slightly overwhelmed by too much continuity. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of X-Men continuity, and I reckon relatively few fans do. While the pair handle the reintroduction of old villains like Bastion and Magnus relatively well (telling us all we need to know), it often feels like they are including many old supporting villains for the sake of having old supporting villains.

There’s no real need for Bastion’s resurrected cabal of assorted X-Men villains (some with only a handful of previous experiences) other than to pay homage to previous continuity. “It was like seeing every skeleton in the X-Men closet back from the dead,” Wolverine remarks, as Bastion harvests recycled villains for a recycled concept. Fortunately, this sort of hanging on previous continuity to convolute an otherwise accessible plot doesn’t happen too often. Some stuff is interesting, but I couldn’t help but feel like the execution was a bit sloppy. While it’s fascinating to explore what impact Rahne’s experiences during Claremont’s Asgardian Wars have on her now that, as of Straczynski’s Thor, Asgard has literally fallen to Earth, I wonder if the writers couldn’t have handled it just a little bit better.

Things are going to get quite hairy…

On the other hand, the pair do quite an effective job “rolling with the punches” as continuity warps around them. Marvel has gone into event overdrive in the past ten years or so, and everything seems to change once every three or four months. Yost and Kyle actually work quite well around fairly significant changes to the structure of the fictional universe, refusing to allow the transition from S.H.I.E.L.D. to H.A.M.M.E.R. to disrupt the flow of their story, and never getting hung up on the frequent mobility of the X-Men, who first moved to San Francisco and then to Utopia. It never feels like the story misses a beat to catch up, and the pair are skilfully able to incorporate the changes to their story as they go.

While I’ll concede that Yost and Kyle do an outstanding job balancing all the continuity demands on the book, I can’t help but wonder if they might have done better with the relative freedom that Rick Remender enjoyed with his Uncanny X-Force run. Here, Yost and Kyle spin out of one event, take part in a crossover, lead up to a gigantic line-wide crossover and host their own “smaller” event in Necrosha. For a book running two years, that’s quite a lot of demands on the title, and it means that Yost and Kyle seldom truly get time to tell their own stories. Indeed, the team actually gets abducted towards the end of one arc to serve in Messiah War, a perfect illustration of the difficulties facing the pair.

The Wolv pack…

It’s a shame, because they actually craft some decent stories in their own right. Kyle and Yost definitely have a solid understanding of the characters involved, and a strong grasp of the group dynamics. After all, they reintroduced Archangel, the character who formed the backbone of The Dark Angel Saga, and even suggested adding Deadpool to the team, both ideas the next volume of the series would pick up on. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the book had been given a bit more room to manuever.

Even outside the stuff that builds to bigger stories by other writers, the pair craft some interesting X-Men stories and pitch some interesting ideas. Given that they created the character of X-23, they take the team back to her origins and manage to craft a convincing character arc for her. The notion of a conglomerate of racist humans planning a series of attacks to destroy what remains of the mutant population is fascinating, and the pair put their dark imaginations to good use. The only forced note in the systematic attack that they depict is the aforementioned resurrection of various older badguys.

Under his wings…

I do like the way that the pair play up the religious aspect of the X-Men’s current troubles. After all, religious fundamentalism (of all denominations) is an increasingly serious concern in the modern era. More than that, though, it fits with the “mutants-as-gays” or “mutants-as-Israel” metaphor that Matt Fraction was crafting over on Uncanny X-Men at the same time. Both groups find themselves under siege from those holding strong religious views, and its that fundamentalism, the unquestioning belief in some higher form of moral authority, that makes them such dangerous adversaries.

Of course, religion was an element of the anti-mutant sentiment before. After all, Chris Claremont wrote William Stryker as a preacher. Yost and Kyle merely augment and develop that theme,  putting a biblical spin on Nimrod’s arrival in the present, casting it as a prophet, “a messenger from the future.” They manage to find an ingenious way to play that off Angel, providing the book with rather striking imagery. That final splash page involving the “choirs of Angels” is absolutely stunning. It’s a very clever idea, and the execution from Yost and Kyle is pitch-perfect. It makes me even more disappointed at how the book was tied so heavily into various “events” and other outside interference.

A wing and a prayer…

The pair also do solid character work. Obviously they handle X-23 well, but they also provide a fascinating take on Wolverine, one in-line with most depictions of the character. For a character who is written into so many damn comic books, I think that it’s impressive how consistent the character generally remains. Much like Jason Aaron’s Wolverine work, you can see the groundwork being laid for the character’s development in Wolverine and the X-Men, as he reconciles himself to doing dirty work so that others won’t have to.

Kyle and Yost have a solid grip on the character, even in the moments where he’s not at the centre of events. The darker tone of the series allows for the writers to play with the character a bit, and to give us a few scenes we wouldn’t see elsewhere. I especially like a small sequence where Wolverine is waiting for news, idly popping and retracting a single claw. However, here we see that each time he does it, it hurts. It’s like picking at a scab, and it’s a nice little character moment that couldn’t be conveyed without the use of blood.

In-and-out…

Outside of that, the pair craft in interesting examination of Cyclops, the de facto leader of the remaining mutants. He’s effectively the one directing the team, so he only shows up from time to time, but the pair offer an interesting depiction of the man Beast would refer to as “fearless leader.” He’s always wearing his mask and his costume, even when the other members of the team are dressed somewhat casually. He lies to the other mutants, concealing the existence of X-Force.

He directs the mutants he can trust to watch what they say in front of others. When the Cuckoos find mutants being abducted, Scott urges caution in the presence of Sooraya. When she asks who is being taken, he instructs them, “Don’t tell her. No names.” He uses people he knows won’t cause trouble. And people are noticing, even if they aren’t expressly stating it. “So tell me, Summers,” Doctor Nemesis asks, examining medical data, “why aren’t you asking McCoy this?” Wolverine is clearly wary of his old colleague and the possibility that Cyclops might be turning into something of a dictator.

Chances are slim-to-none that this ends well…

When Cyclops has the Cuckoos consult on Foley, a young boy who knows some things he should know, Wolverine is upset at the possibility of a mindwipe. “This is exactly the kind of ~$!% we turned away from Xavier for!” he warns Cyclops, in what ultimately turns out to be unjustified concern. “I haven’t gone evil,” Scott assures him. “I haven’t been taken over, I haven’t been replaced. We’re entering new territory, and it’s dark.” I’ve actually really liked the direction that the story has taken these two characters, and Yost and Kyle handle it well.

The pair’s dark and cynical worldview is perfectly filtered through the art. The title has a fairly solid rotating art team in Clayton Crain and Mike Choi, but it’s Crain’s designs that really help the title stand-out. The artist’s work has been criticised for being too dark, but I think his tone matches the title’s outlook perfectly. More than that, though, his style is in perfect harmony with the book itself. His creations somehow manage to look like both cartoonish figures and highly-detailed illustrations. It’s a wonderful approach that’s perfectly in step with the book – which is cartoonishly violent and yet wickedly macabre.

Forced together?

I should also note Crain’s rather wonderful visual style, such as the way he structures his overlapping and overlaid panels, all given definite borders and smooth round edges. They seem almost like tactical read-outs, with large panels providing context and the smaller inset panels providing minute detail. It’s a wonderful approach to the structure of a comic like this – I should not it’s not a style that would for every comic, but it fits perfectly with a “black ops” X-Men book.

Crain also gets points for rendering familiar X-Men concepts as downright horrific. After all, having seem things like Magnus and Bastion rendered countless times by countless artists, those familiar plot devices start to look almost familiar and comfortable. Crain’s style is creepy, making his subjects seem remarkably alien. It reflects what Yost and Kyle are doing in their scripts, taking old X-Men concepts and making the notably darker and more uncomfortable. Bastion remark at one point, “We forget that seeing a techno-organic creature for the first time can be… unsettling.” It is when Crain is illustrating, as it should be. This kinda makes me want to pick up his Carnage miniseries just for the art.

Nothing can S.H.I.E.L.D. them now…

The two hardcovers collect some nice bonus features, including various miniseries, annuals and one-shots. I have to admit that Yost and Kyle’s Sex and Violence was the one point in the book where I did feel a little over-whelmed by the pointless violence and absurd amount of graphic violence on display, even if I could admire the joy with which the pair mashed together two Marvel concepts. There’s something inherently cool about the idea of the Hand and its ninjas taking on the Assassins’ Guild. “And I left the assassins and ninjas to kill each other,” Domino explains, pretty much succinctly stating the charm of the series. Still, it felt quite light, and a little excessive.

The other stories collected here are from a variety of other authors. Given that his Ultimate X-Men run was an affectionate homage to the nineties, I was not surprised to see Robert Kirkman contributing a solid annual. Jason Aaron gets in on the act as well, though I did get a chuckle of Charlie Huston’s Ain’t no Dog. It’s a nice short story that exists purely to mock the way that Marvel have banned Wolverine from smoking because it’s a bad habit, but it’s perfectly acceptable for him to run a covert assassination squad. There’s something grimly hilarious about a hero who can stand in a room full of brutally slaughtered enemies, but can’t smoke. “The Kitten,” he explains to a hostage he has hanging upside down, “she’d come back an’ kill me if she knew I did somethin’ that bad.”

Real genocidal time-displaced killing machines wear pink…

Okay, so Yost and Kyle’s X-Force isn’t a modern classic. It’s too tied into the event-driven continuity of Marvel’s X-Men books to ever truly distinguish itself and forge its own identity. However, it manages to meet all the objectives and requirements set of it with considerable grace, while even offering a bunch of clever and ambitious ideas on its own terms. It’s solid, well-written and well-drawn. It’s a worthy predecessor to Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, which is just begging for a nicely oversized release of its own.

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One Response

  1. Personally, I liked this X-Force more than Remender’s. New X-Men (a great series) led into the awesome Messiah Crisis, which in turn created this X-Force team, which led to the gory but wonderfully conclusive Necropolis.

    I agree that Marvel should give Kyle and Yost more reign in the mainstream books. I’ll feel like the publisher has shifted the talents so that the 616 X-books are floundering in inconsequentialness. The last X-books I can say that I really enjoyed were Dennis Hopeless’s Cable & X-Force, and Marjorie Liu’s work on Astonishing X-Men and X-23.

    Darren, I hope you have a Kyle & Yost New X-Men review somewhere here. I enjoyed what DeFilippis and Weir did in New Mutants, and Kyle and Yost fleshed out those characters in a way similar to what Claremont, Nocenti, and the Simonsons did with the original New Mutants. One of my favorite issues was where it was the kids hanging out on the eve of Messiah Crisis, trying to figure out what has happened to them since M-Day and a trip to Limbo. Elixir’s depressed, X-23’s having trouble dealing with her personal identity, and Wolverine hallucinates on Pixie’s special dust clouds.

    The best part (along with the writing) is that all the pencils, inks, and colors were done by Skottie Young. I followed Young’s work on the Oz books, and since then think that Marvel’s squandering his talent by just having the guy do promotional alternate covers.

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