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X-Force Omnibus by Rob Liefeld & Fabian Nicieza, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Wolverine later in the month, we’re taking a look at some classic X-Men and Wolverine comics every Monday, Wednesday and Friday here. I’m also writing a series of reviews of the classic X-Men television show at comicbuzz every weekday, so feel free to check those out.

Rob Liefeld has become something of a polarising force in comic books. The artist was a driving force in the industry in the nineties. Along with creators like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee, Liefeld really helped turn comic books into an artist-driven medium during that decade. (Rather pointedly, X-Force #1 credits Liefeld as responsible for “everything but…” the specific tasks dolled out to other contributors.) The artist became a celebrity in his own right. He got his own Levi commercial. He famously sketched while speeding inside a car.

Liefeld has arguably become more a symbol than a creator. His heavily involvement in the second year of DC’s “new 52” reboot really solidified the impression that former Marvel head honcho and current DC editor-in-chief Bob Harras was trying to channel the nineties comic book market. (The fact the line has been heavily emphasising contributions by Jim Lee and Greg Capullo, other nineties superstars, really underscores the notion.)

It’s hard to look at X-Force without seeing it as a hugely symbolic work. This is really one of the comics which defined the nineties – arguably even more than Jim Lee’s X-Men or The Death and Return of Superman. If you wanted a glimpse into the mindset of American mainstream comics in the nineties, X-Force is the perfect glimpse.

Welcome to the nineties!

Welcome to the nineties!

I should be honest here. I don’t hate Liefeld’s artwork with the same passion that is so common these days. I can acknowledge the many problems with his style. The man cannot draw feet. His depictions of human anatomy are… questionable, at best. I am aware of that infamous Liefeld Captain America drawing which only makes sense if the character has been cut open and his front has been allowed to “swing” out to his profile.

There are Liefeld drawings which are quite horrible. He tends to draw characters posing. When it comes to drawing characters in motion, they frequently bend or contort in ways that don’t seem natural. He can’t seem to maintain visual continuity from panel-to-panel. His male characters often look like over-filled water balloons, ready to burst in a moment or two. There are points were Cable’s head seems several times smaller than his thigh or bicep.

Moar powah!

Moar powah!

And yet, despite seeing all these flaws, I don’t really dislike Liefeld’s work. In fact, I can forgive it a great deal because – as a style – it tells us a lot about the time. Liefeld’s anatomy is horrifying even twenty years after it was originally published, but it offers a pretty insightful glimpse into late-eighties and nineties popular culture. Liefeld was, after all, the product of a decade which held up figures like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone as masculine ideals.

The action movies of the late eighties, where populated with hulking muscular figures. These days, masculinity is more likely to be defined by the more-realistically-but-still-incredibly-ripped abs of Brad Pitt or Ryan Reynolds than they “how can he fit through the door?” sort of machoism of Schwarzenegger or Stallone. This isn’t an excuse, and it doesn’t necessarily redeem the flaws in Liefeld’s art work, but it does explain where the artist was coming from.

A comics Juggernaut...

A comics Juggernaut…

The same is arguably true of female anatomy. Liefeld’s female characters look less like people and more like Barbie dolls. It’s hard to read the comic without wondering where Domino keeps her internal organs. Then again, this was the decade where Pamela Anderson became a star, and when plastic surgery and body-sculpting really took off. This doesn’t make the depiction of the female form any less creepy or uncomfortable (and it certainly doesn’t make Liefeld’s female characters sexy), but it explains a lot about where Liefeld’s depictions were coming from.

I can’t help but suspect that the hatred for Liefeld’s art – which always struck me as a little disproportionate – is somewhat rooted in a general frustration with what Liefeld represents. Nineties comic books sold very well. Indeed, a lot of the problems with modern comics – whether post-House of M X-Men comics or DC’s relaunch, are rooted in a weird nineties nostalgia. Comic book companies look at their balance sheets and long to return to the financial success of the nineties. The problem is that the financial success of the nineties was built on the complete destruction of comic book story-telling as an artform.

Cable in a single panel...

Cable in a single panel…

Super star artists started dictating the direction of comic books, based around what would be cool to draw rather than out of any organic storytelling. While Chris Claremont’s collaborations with John Byrne were – by all accounts – a genuine partnership, you get a sense of Jim Lee and Bob Harras squeezing the writer off the book in his last few years on Uncanny X-Men. Even Whilce Portacio seemed to be driving X-Factor towards the end of Louise Simonson’s run on the title. And then so many of these artists departed Marvel to found Image, a company built on the appeal of the super star artist.

To be fair, X-Force is an absolutely fascinating read. It’s a primary text when it comes to comic book storytelling during the nineties. There’s a wilful embrace of the “cool”, but without any nuance or insight. There’s the raw material for a compelling and fascinating narrative here, but there’s a sense that the comic is more interested in shallow hooks or action set pieces. In a way, I suspect that’s why Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force works so well, because it actually develops and explores the ideas which are so recklessly embraced here.

Exploding on to the scene...

Exploding on to the scene…

This collection includes the last few issues of New Mutants, the book that Liefeld had been driving for quite some time. It’s interesting to see how a book launched as a teenage superhero comic had gradually changed into something far more sinister. By the time we join the book, Professor X and Magneto are no longer taking care of the young mutant heroes of tomorrow. Instead, Cable has been put in charge. Cable is a character created by Bob Harras, Louise Simonson and Rob Liefeld, with Liefeld taking credit for the name. The character is pretty much ground zero for the nineties continuity of the X-Men.

You can see the influence of eighties pop culture’s depiction of masculinity in the way that Cable is portrayed. He delivers “witticisms” which feel like they might have been uttered by Arnie. To Stryfe, he offers, “You’re dead. End of story.” Masque gets the slightly more creative, “You’re a walkin’ autopsy, end of story!” He’s even designed to evoke comparisons to the Terminator. Towards the end of the run of issues here, which would have been shortly following the release of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the comic emphasises Cable as a time-travelling bad ass. He’s even drawn to expose what looks like a metallic skeleton.

Carry on...

Carry on…

He’s a mess, a character created to capitalise off the success of Wolverine as an anti-hero and designed to build off the same ideas. As Liefeld explains:

My goal in creating Cable was simple, establish a character that would be the next Wolverine. Create the same air of mystery and intrigue that had made Wolverine my favorite character in comics. A character from the future has all the obvious leverage and it was my intention to give Cable many layers as to who he was, what his true purpose and mission was would be revealed over time and further invest the readers in his every move. As far as I was aware, everyone involved was on board as we prepared to change the course and direction of the New Mutants. Except the name Cable was proving to be difficult for everyone to agree on. Bob called and asked if he shouldn’t be named “QUINN” I was vehemently opposed, feeling that the name was too soft. Louise offered up Commander X, which wasn’t horrible, but I felt it sounded like a G.I. Joe character , cartoonish. Fortunately for all, Cable won the day. I continued to lobby hard for my convictions, which would be a recurring theme as my time on the title played out.

It is a shrewd move, and one that demonstrates that Liefeld was definitely in tune with the times. However, it also points to a fairly obvious problem. Much like Wolverine, nobody at Marvel seems to have had any idea what Cable’s back story was meant to be.

All good in the Brotherhood...

All good in the Brotherhood…

We know his past is mysterious (and the covers advertise it as such), but there’s something cynical about how all this effort was put into building a mystery that it seems like nobody knew how to pay off. Indeed, even X-Cutioner’s Song, a crossover which teased the idea of revealing is back story, relented at the last minute. Like with Wolverine, readers would wait years to figure out what was up with Cable. And, for many, the resolution ultimately felt a little bit shallow.

However, this isn’t the most frustrating thing about Cable. The most frustrating aspect of the character is rooted in the way that he takes something implicit and uncomfortable about the way that Charles Xavier operates, and does it explicitly – without anybody really calling him on the fact. Since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the team, there has been something innately creepy about the upper-class Charles Xavier training a bunch of kids to serve as his paramilitary strike team.

They are so Dead(pool) when he catches them...

They are so Dead(pool) when he catches them…

Various stories get around it in various ways. Bryan Singer’s X-Men cast its leads as adults rather than teenagers. Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men addressed it head-on. Ed Brubaker called him out on it in Deadly Genesis. However, most of the comics just ignore the fact that Xavier is training kids to do extremely risky things while serving his own political agenda. It’s one thing to heorically defend a population that fears and hates you. It’s another to ask children to do it.

So there’s something just a bit disconcerting about how explicit Cable is about turning the New Mutants into his own personal paramilitary. “We’re not soldiers, sir — we’re family!” Cannonball protests. Cable corrects him, “If life were a picnic, you’d be a family. Since life is war, you’re soldiers.” He tells Warpath, “I have to prepare young mutants such as yourself for war.” He informs Cannonball, “We are fighting a war — pure and simple! You’ve just been sheltered from reality too long to see it!”

His name's like a portmanteau of Cain and Abel! It's ingenious!

His name’s like a portmanteau of Cain and Abel! It’s ingenious!

It’s one thing to teach a bunch of kids to defend themselves against outside threats. It’s another to proactively train them as child soldiers. (It’s one problem I have with Robin as a concept since Frank Miller’s “war on crime” approach to Batman became the norm.) Cable might advise Feral against cold-blooded murder, suggesting that it’s okay to kill in defence, but Cable is clearly operating under a proactive military philosophy.

The moment that signals the death of New Mutants and the birth of X-Force comes when the mansion is attacked by Masque and his two henchmen intrude. Rather than engaging in a typical superhero knock-down brawl, Cable shoots simply Brute through the head, point blank. That ends the confrontation, but it also sets the mood for X-Force. It draws a line in the sand. This is a superhero who isn’t afraid of murder or guns. (A cynical observer might argue the need for the composite elements “super-“ or “-hero.”)

Somebody just got the shaft...

Somebody just got the shaft…

At one point, Cable has defeated the villain Black Tom. “Ye win, ye bloody scab!” the baddie admits, dangling over an edge. “Just pull me up an’ I’ll be surrenderin’!” Cable is having none of that. “So you can be arrested and escape in two months time to do this all over again? I don’t play that game, Cassidy!” Yeah, all that human rights nonsense! Cable only barely avoids killing Black Tom, thanks to the intervention of Deadpool. Later on, he kills Masque, and heads down to boast to the Morlocks about killing their leader.

When he confronts the team of Marvel’s New Mutants, writer Fabian Nicieza seems to realise that a character like Cable tends to break the whole Silver Age “two heroes meet up and fight” thing that Marvel is so fond of. There’s a sequence where Cable seems quite willing to order his team of teenagers to brutally massacre that other team of teenagers. It’s only the thought that this might be a stereotypical superhero misunderstanding which stays his hand. “I am shooting now, but just to keep them back! I’d hate to kill these punks if they were on our side!”

Fun fact: I owned a toy of Shatterstar when I was younger, but I never read about him until I picked up this comic.

Fun fact: I owned a toy of Shatterstar when I was younger, but I never read about him until I picked up this comic.

A later issue reveals that Cable apparently sources his weapons from the terrorist organisation Advanced Idea Mechanics. “I don’t see how the ethics of where you’re buying your guns from can come into play,” he boasts. “It is the height of hypocrisy.” Of course, the fact that buying guns from terrorists means that they are illegal, or that you’re injecting cash into an organisation that’s likely involved in the development and application of doomsday devices, doesn’t seem to cross his mind. The next time the Red Skull attempts genocide using some fancy AIM technology, at least part of that is on Cable’s head.

(The cynicism bleeds through the other books included here. One of the back-ups from Kings of Pain focuses on the mutant government team Freedom Force during the Gulf War. The Killing Stroke sees the team tasked with recovering a German physicist in the custody of the Kuwaitis. If they can’t? “In failing to get Kurtzman out of Kuwait, do not allow the Iraqis to get him. Liberate or terminate.”)

A black day for Black Tom...

A black day for Black Tom…

Being fair, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a morally ambiguous protagonist. If the writer is willing to explore and develop these ideas of subjective morality, and to genuinely weigh up the questions of right and wrong. Again, that is how Remender rehabilitates the ideas of X-Force when he writes Uncanny X-Force. (It’s also part of what made John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad work so well.) Here, none of the New Mutants or any of his followers dare to seriously question what Cable is doing or how he’s doing it.

Interestingly, the only time that Cable is almost called on his hyper-masculine nonsense comes in the Todd McFarlane Spider-Man issue of the crossover Sabotage. The Juggernaut was helping Black Tom hold some hostages, before X-Force and Spider-Man intervene. The hostage-taking is disrupted, and X-Force wind up engaging the Juggernaut in the middle of a crowded New York. Of all people, the Juggernaut calls the team out on their recklessness.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Fight! Fight! Fight!

“I was only trying to leave,” he explains. “Without Black Tom, I had no use for fighting. Too bad you won’t accept that.” Of course, it would be reckless for the team to just let the Juggernaut go, but they could have easily kept a save distance until he would outside a densely populated urban zone. Gideon accuses Cable of prolonging the confrontation for his own ends, but we’re not meant to take the observation seriously. Gideon is, after all, the bad guy. So it all feels rather superficial and shallow.

This is part of what’s so damning about X-Force. It’s the idea that it’s the most superficially nihilistic nonsense that mistakes cynicism for maturity. The book asserts that this is the logical evolution of the X-Men franchise, basically suggesting that any hope of peaceful coexistence is just for sissies and babies. Preparing to leave Xavier’s, Boom-Boom notes, “This school has meant a lot to me… but there’s nothing left of the school I grew up in…”

Shadowy figures...

Shadowy figures…

The times they are a-changing, and X-Force seems to imply that this is what “grown-up” X-Men comics looks like. Cable boasts, “We now have the kind of fighting unit I’ve felt we needed all along.” He none-too-subtly tells Cannonball that it’s time to let go of all that pacifist stuff that Xavier was peddling. “You were first brought here by a man who had a dream, Sam. The dream is dead. It’s time to face reality.” Welcome to the nineties, where reality is a cocktail of guns and pouches.

To be fair, there is the occasional good idea here. I love, for example, the idea of the Externals, even if I suspect that the publisher flirted with the idea of calling them “the eXternals.” This group is, we’re told, “a small sect of mutants, many of whom have been alive for centuries — men and women who have influenced the direction and affairs of people on this planet since civilisation began.” It’s a nice hint at a subculture of mutants, existing as more than just supervillains or superheroes, beings with life spans long enough to watch the world itself grow. It’s never developed, but it is fascinating.

Young killers...

Young killers…

Of course, this run is also famous for introducing the character of Deadpool, “the Merc with a Mouth.” The character has become incredibly popular at Marvel, to the point where there’s a lot of industry buzz about the possibility of spinning off a Ryan Reynolds from from the god-awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Depending on how he’s written, Deadpool can be a parody of hyper-violent comic book self-indulgence, or a straight-up example of it. It depends on how a particular writer works with him.

Deadpool is an interesting character, because he’s not fully formed here. Arguably, he wouldn’t be fully formed until Joe Kelly took over the Deadpool solo series at the end of the nineties. (Which is getting a nice omnibus collection at the end of the year.)  As it stands, he’s a very obvious homage to the character Deathstroke (as the oft-quoted joke goes, “you do the deathstroke in the deadpool”), to the point where even writer Fabian Nicieza acknowledged it. He wrote to Liefeld, “This is Deathstroke from Teen Titans.” He even named the character Wade Wilson as an acknowledgement.

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship...

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship…

The character is known today as plucky fourth-wall-breaking comic relief. It’s rare to see the character handled too seriously, outside of Remender’s Uncanny X-Force. While his appearances here do mark him out as a lighter character than most villains, there’s only a trace of the wry self-awareness we’d come to expect from Deadpool. In a move that is surprisingly symbolic, his text balloons are not yet his trademark yellow; they are only bordered yellow. Perhaps it’s an indication that he’s not quite ready yet.

Interestingly, Liefeld has admitted that Deadpool is actually heavily influenced by Spider-Man:

Visually I was creating Spider-Man with guns and swords. During this time, Todd McFarlane was my closest friend in the industry and he would always rub it my face about how easy he had it with Spider Man because he wore a full face mask with big eyes. No eyeballs, nose or mouth to line up, just a mask. I wanted one of those characters, no one in New Mutants wore a full face mask, I needed something simple and fun dammit! Deadpool was my entry into the Spider Man derby, and it paid off bigger and better than planned. I used the black and red Spidey motif, added pouches, swords and a gun and felt that he would be a powerful graphic visual in the book.

 

It makes a great deal of sense. It explains the flippant characterisation and the costume design, but it also fits thematically with Cable. If Cable is Liefeld making a conscious effort to craft a nineties version of Wolverine, then it makes sense that Deadpool is a nineties version of Spider-Man. In a way, the two characters represent a conscious attempt to “nineties-ise” two classic Marvel icons.

Crossover time!

Crossover time!

(It is interesting that Liefeld suggests that Deadpool was always intended as a part of the Weapon X program, with project which gave birth to Wolverine. By his own admission, Liefeld was “obsessed with Wolverine and the fact that Wolverine was actually labelled Weapon X, a product of experiments that produced at least NINE others before him.” While this is interesting, I don’t believe that “X means 10” came up before Grant Morrison’s wonderful New X-Men run almost a decade later.)

Perhaps that just about sums up X-Force, in that it casts a more nineties version of Wolverine and Spider-man, complete with bloodlust, brutality, guns and pouches. At one point, during his self-titled two-issue miniseries, Cable declares, “Time to show Kamikaze what one man can do — when that one man — is all weapon!” It’s a line which really sums up the philosophy of the book, which sums up the philosophy of Marvel in the nineties. It’s heartbreaking, but that doesn’t mean it’s unfair.

He's so Dead(pool)...

He’s so Dead(pool)…

I don’t hate X-Force with the same passion or derision that it typically receives on-line. I don’t think it’s a good comic book, but I do think that it perfectly captures the essence of what was a very troubled time for the industry. It’s intriguing and insightful.

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2 Responses

  1. This comic I’d totally 90s. The decade seemed to rip it off. Also, good lord I hate Deadpool.

    • I will admit to not having a strong Deadpool feeling one way or the other. Which is ironic, given he seems to be everywhere. I seem to just keep missing him outside of books where he works. (I think he works very well in Remender’s X-Force, for example.)

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