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Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force (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.

Between Uncanny X-Force and Venom (and arguably his run on The Punisher), Rick Remender seems to have built a comic book career out of rehabilitating symbols of nineties excess. Taking a bunch of grim and nihilistic concepts that were very popular in mainstream comics during the nineties, Remender uses them to craft a compelling story about the wages of vengeance. Its premise and pedigree might lead you to believe that Uncanny X-Force is another throwaway comic about gratuitous violence. Instead, it’s a masterpiece about profound consequences.

Welcome to the World...

Welcome to the World…

On the surface, the premise of Uncanny X-Force is not too different from that of Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost’s X-Force run. Wolverine has assembled a bunch of mutants in secret, for the purpose of preemptively identifying and eliminating potential threats to the mutant nation. This time around, however, Wolverine has kept Cyclops in the dark about his team. He’s firmly calling his own shots.

However, Remender’s Uncanny X-Force immediately establishes itself as somewhat deeper and more introspective than its direct predessor. Even the make-up of the team is quite skilfully designed. It’s never explicitly discussed, but Remender has drawn together a bunch of characters who are linked by the common thread that they’ve been brainwashed and force to kill against their will before. While Yost and Kyle’s X-Force was populated with misfits and broken toys, Remender is much more explicit about it.

Deadpooling their resources...

Deadpooling their resources…

Wolverine, Fantomex and Deadpool are all survivors of the “Weapon Plus” program, a secret organisation which preyed and experimented on mutants to help craft the perfect living weapon. Psylocke was abducted and brainwashed to serve as an assassin of the Hand in the Uncanny X-Men issues of the Acts of Vengeance crossover. Angel was converted into Archangel and forced to serve the genocidal villain Apocalypse as the Horseman Death. Even Deathlok, who joins the team in the second arc, is a psychotic human host bonded with a pacifist AI to become an homage to The Terminator.

There’s something quite tragic and grotesque about the way that Wolverine has recruited all these haunted and damaged individuals. At one point, he compares X-Force to “an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting mandatory drinking contest.” There’s a lot of soul-searching about what the organisation says about its members, and to what extent they are trying to justify or rationalise behaviour that has been programmed into them. As Sabretooth observes of Wolverine towards the climax of the run, “He’s just another killer. He just fancies it up.” He’s just made it legitimate.

Dark angel...

Dark angel…

“Is it the real reason I keep X-Force runnin’?” Logan wonders at one point. “Place where it’s okay to let the animal out because it’s in the club’s handbook?” He reflects on his own complicity in the matter, whether he’s simply rationalising behaviour that other people expect from him. “Hell with all of ’em. No matter what they say — This is what they want from me. And it’s what I’m best at. Soon as somebody’s gotta be opened’ up, who gets the call? And I let ’em. Let it define me.”

In a way, Wolverine seems to be leaning against the fourth wall there. When he talks about “letting” his brutality “define” him, what is he talking about? He isn’t quite aware of the nature of his existence as a comic book character in the same way that Deadpool is, but there’s a hint of self-awareness there. Wolverine is a character who saw his popularity sky-rocket during the nineties, when he was portrayed as an increasingly violent and brutal anti-hero. Has the character come to be defined by that period of his history? Is he just the face of cynical and nihilistic comic book violence?

Come out shooting...

Come out shooting…

This is the beauty of Remender’s Uncanny X-Force. It manages to serve as both a beautiful character piece for pretty much all of the main characters, while also serving as something of a reflection on comic books as a whole. After all, Remender borrows quite heavily from the iconography of characters well outside the X-Men franchise to tell his story. Indeed, he even reaches into the iconography of characters well outside his publishing company to tell his story.

Remender makes a concious effort to pitch Warren Worthington as something of a counterpart to Batman. He’s a billionaire playboy with a dark secret. Early in the series, we discover that not only is Worthington funding the team, he has also built them a cool underground lair. “Cavern-X” seems like a giant shout-out to the Batcave, complete with trophy cases carrying the uniforms of vanquished foes and relics of old missions gathering dust.

Enter Magneto!

Enter Magneto!

Worthington has a dark secret buried inside his mind. It’s a darker alternate personality. Archangel is violent, aggressive and animalistic. When it rants and raves inside Worthington’s mind, struggling to break free of the mental cage holding it, it feels almost like a shout-out to Frank Miller’s take on the Bruce/Batman relationship in The Dark Knight Returns. Archangel describes Worthington as a weak coward, and seeks to consume him so that it may live. It is, to be frank, the darkest possible portrayal of Batman.

By using this iconography, Remender invites comparisons to The Dark Knight Returns and the darker and grittier portrayals of Batman. He’s using imagery associated with one of the comics most associated with starting the “dark and gritty” trend in mainstream comic book publishing. Indeed, Worthington seems to justify X-Force’s conduct in a manner quite similar to the logic that the wealthy blonde playboy Ozymandias  does in Watchmen, the other influential book that shifted comics towards the cynical. “These jobs need doing, and we’re going to shoulder them so the others don’t have to.”

Death in the family...

Death in the family…

However, this cynicism is firmly contrasted in the optimism of the imagery borrowed from another comic book icon. When Fantomex sets out to prove that genetics are not the absolute arbiter of a person’s capacity for good, he takes a young boy from his home and drops him into life in the American heartland with his own “ma” and “pa.” The values are so firmly Middle American that they even have a little sign reading “god bless.”

Fantomex seems to be trying to raise his own version of Superman, hoping that the honest values instilled in young Evan will somehow make the young boy a paragon of virtue. “The fate of our world hinges on you choosing to be a good man,” he assures the boy. Just so we know that there’s no pressure. (In fact, to push the Superman analogy even further, Fantomex’s shrunk-down version of the World – a last relic of his home – seems designed to evoke the bottled city of Kandor.)

Being Frank with one another...

Being Frank with one another…

Uncanny X-Force is, against all odds, the story of light competing against darkness. It’s about optimism competing against cynicism. It’s about fate and free will, as against the sheer force of nature. This makes it something of an effective companion piece to Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men, which meditated on similar themes. This is why children play such an important role in the story – from the first child version of Apocalypse, to Angel reborn with the innocence of a child and even Daken.

Apocalypse haunts Uncanny X-Force, in what might be the single best use of the character in the history of the X-Men franchise. Remender pitches Apocalypse as an ontological force, akin to the Phoenix. It’s a raw force designed to serve a purpose without any compassion or humanity. “I serve a natural cosmic force for evolution,” Archangel suggests, and Remender suggests that Apocalypse isn’t so much a character as a concept, like Morrison did with the Phoenix. It manifests across time and space and universes.

He's no angel...

He’s no angel…

It is an idea, as much as a character, much like Remender seems to hint that Deathlok is an idea as well – one that keeps manifesting no matter how often time is changed and the future is reshaped. The Deathloks are a concept “perpetually travelling in time, protecting the events that ensure a future where all super beings are controlled.” It doesn’t matter how that control occurs, or what form it takes. They are the literal representation of predestination fascism – the future where everything is under control. (Similarly, the Goat in Otherworld is described as an infectious idea – “mind cancer.”)

Anyway, playing into this idea of predestination, Archangel is a nihilistic force. He is appointed to the role of cynical destroyer. “There is no good, no evil,” he boasts, “only evolution.” He claims to have matured beyond good and evil. “Wow!” a child observes. “Are you guys superheroes?” Archangel responds, “I used to be, the idea no longer holds meaning to me.” It’s the stereotypical depiction as maturity reflecting a desire to transcend “simple” heroics.

Into the wild blue yonder...

Into the wild blue yonder…

Archangel is so cynical and detached that he denies the very existence of love. “I am not mired by low mythology such as love. I have seen the universal truth – I know for certain… there is no such thing.” Perhaps the opposite of the cynicism that a reader might expect from a book branded X-Force, Remender suggests that love is a universal constant – a light that we can hold against the darkness.

Even the computer inside Deathlok can find love. “Life’s true progress is gauged entirely upon it’s capacity for love,” it remarks. “These men focus solely on the physiological mechanics of progress.” Love literally changes everything. If Archangel is couched in Batman imagery and associated with nihilism, Fantomex is couched in Superman imagery and associated with love. When Wolverine is hacking and slashing, being “true” to his nature, Fantomex is being true to his own nature by hosting an sexy party. As Deadpool notes of Fantomax. “If he can lay down his life for someone he loves… there’s hope for all of us.”

Pyslocked and loaded...

Pyslocked and loaded…

Indeed, it’s suggested that the rise of Apocalypse is all but inevitable. “There is no stopping Apocalypse,” Sunfire assures us. “He is reborn time and time again. The vile fate that has befallen us is what awaits you. Make no mistake.” Nightcrawler concedes, “From the look of it, the ascension and domination of Apocalypse is inevitable in all dimensions.” However, there is one variable in play here that is unique to this version of Earth. As Captain Britain notes of Fantomex, “Fantomex is a dangerous anomaly. He doesn’t exist in any other dimension. He shouldn’t even exist here…”

It’s important that Fantomex pulls the trigger in The Apocalypse Solution, and it’s crucial that the series ends with his resurrection. While Remender gives each of his characters a clear arc, it’s Fantomex who embodies the capacity for hope and redemption. It’s Fantomex who represents the capacity to hold back the darkness through nothing more than the power of love. “We are more than our evolution,” he explains. “More than machines, replication and improving. Love transcends such cold processes.”

You are my angel...

You are my angel…

It’s choice and love that makes us heroes, not destiny and force of nature. The version of Magneto from The Age of Apocalypse rebukes Jean for trying to help the heroes from our world. “I begged you not to go! Not to risk their lives for strangers!” Jean rather pointedly replies, in what could be a mission statement for the comic, “Risking your life for strangers is what heroes do.” As their version of Nightcrawler notes, “Human life is worth protecting, wherever it may be.”

Heroism is at the heart of Uncanny X-Force, despite the cynicism some might read into the title. There are characters who fail to live up to those expectations, although they are mainly the mirror images of familiar characters. Deathlok Nation is a story about fascist superheroes from an alternate universe who claim to “protect the world” while really seeking to control it. Wolverine meets a version of Captain America who is a refugee from a future where heroes failed so spectacularly that the public cheered while the were wiped out. “We’d gone too far, Logan,” Cap explains. “Without us — humanity flourishes!”

Another world...

Another world…

The solution is to be better. It’s to keep improving. Like people hope to do with children, raising them better so that they might craft a better world. Of course, as Wolverine will be the first to admit, we don’t always succeed. However, sometimes – like Fantomex – we can do just enough to justify our faith in humanity and the world. Uncanny X-Force seems to suggest that the comic book heroes have not been doing as well as they should, and Remender seems to hope that these icons should do better.

After all, the X-Men franchise has drifted too far from its roots. Archangel spares a thought for “obsolete, disrespected Charles Xavier, father to children who abandoned and ignored his dream the moment they were faced with the harsh difficulties of maintaining it in the face of adversity.” Psylocke tries to offer a defence. “I still fight for his dream.” Archangel is smart and honest enough to see through her protestations. “No. You kill people.”

Things heat up...

Things heat up…

Indeed, in a dream state, Warren reflects on how radically things have gotten worse. “Waiting so long I fell asleep,” he confesses, “had the strangest dream. We were living in a bleak and failed world. Xavier’s dream had been all but forgotten. You and I were… assassins.” What a crazy world. Psylocke and Warren are the two characters who served as X-Men before they were transformed into killers. They are the most firm connection to the innocence of Xavier’s dream.

Of course, Remender suggests that there must be a way to pull back from the abyss. It isn’t as simple as “rebooting” characters or wiping the slate clean. In a fantasy crafted by the Shadow King, Charles Xavier suggests that it might be able to “fix” Psylocke. “There is only one way out for you. I must erase your mind. Erase this mistake you’ve become. Rewind you to who you were before the Siege Perilous.” Naturally, the book rejects this idea.

Dark Wolverine...

Dark Wolverine…

Uncanny X-Force is a comic that builds heavily on continuity. All of the characters draw on their complex histories and their unique roles in the grand scheme of things. The gang face old threats and revisit familiar universes. However, it’s remarkable how Remender is able to build on all of this without making the book feel exclusive, or without locking out casual readers. It relies heavily on continuity, but Remender makes it all accessible.

Central to this idea is a notion which seems to sum up a great deal of Remender’s early work at Marvel: nothing is beyond redemption. He has managed to work on characters who are associated with the creative nadir of mainstream American comics, and found a way to craft compelling narratives around them. This reflects itself in both a theme of his writing when it comes to approaching his new characters and also as key theme of Uncanny X-Force.

The last Castle...

The last Castle…

After all, the thirty-five-issue-plus run is a story about how the ideology of X-Force sucks. Late in the run, the team visit a dystopian future where all comic book heroes have adopted their cynical methodology, and Frank Castle is cast as top cop. “Preventative termination. Your methodology taken to its exponential conclusion.” Psylocke discovers that the team’s preventative philosophy should apply as much to itself as those they seek to punish.

The Apocalypse Solution features the death of a young child, perhaps the most cynical story beat possible in a book like Uncanny X-Force. However, Remender never glosses over the consequences of that action. Indeed, it comes to define the team, as the members struggle to come to terms with the actions that they’ve taken and been complicit in. It’s to the credit of Remender that he presents a compelling argument for both sides of the debate – that perhaps there is a need for some measure of this action, but the taint of these deeds is impossible to remove.

Psyke!

Psyke!

There are always consequences, even for actions that are deemed (and might even be justified) as necessary. “No man outruns his past,” one victim tells Wolverine early on. “I hope you will try and remember that… when your victims come for you.” Violence begets violence, no matter how justified it might be, no matter what it might avert. It’s a considered and mature reflection on the web of action and consequence that weaves through the world.

One of the shrewder touches from Remender here is the decision to cast Deadpool as the team’s conscience. I will admit that Deadpool can be over-exposed, but Remender writes what is possibly the best “straight” version of Deadpool that I have ever read. (Only Joe Kelly’s interpretation is really stronger.) Remender finds some strange innocence in the character, and makes him the most sensitive of the heroes.

Evan help us!

Evan help us!

In one cutting moment, Fantomex remarks, “It must be exhausting to live your life so utterly entrenched in the war of manipulating other people’s perceptions of you, Wade.” Deadpool responds, “I know how people see me. I know what you all think — but guess what? I choose to be who I am anyway. Can you say the same?” That’s a strangely touching confession from a motor-mouthed mercenary (and one which plays into Remender’s themes concerning free will), almost as affecting as his response when Evan calls him a hero. (“That… that’s the first time anyone’s called me that.”)

“He murdered a kid,” Deadpool remarks of Fantomex after The Apocalypse Solution. “He saved the world,” Wolverine clarifies. “We saved the world.” Deadpool bluntly responds, “That doesn’t help me.” Wolverine continues to cut into him. “Let me save you a few years of psychotherapy and boil down your real dilemma: you’re a tick, a bloodsucking mercenary with no heart motivated solely by money.” And yet Wade’s position remains unchanging. “Yeah. But I never killed a kid.”

He's got them Dead to rights...

He’s got them Dead to rights…

There’s something delightfully absurd about the world where a hired killer is voice of moral absolutism on a team of X-Men characters. Indeed, Warren points out that Wade seems to be motivated by something approaching altruism. “He never cased my checks, Logan. Been working for me for over a year.” In the finest tradition of dysfunctional superhero teams, Remender suggests that Deadpool has found himself a makeshift family.

Remender’s Uncanny X-Force continues to demonstrate just how much ground the X-Men comics lost when editorial tried to brush away Morrison’s New X-Men run. It seems like the books only really began to pull themselves out of a downward spiral years following House of M. Remender borrows quite heavily from Morrison. Some of the elements are quite obvious – Fantomex and the World – while others are more thematic. After all, Morrison is quite fond of the notion of infectious ideas, and one suspects that he’s be quite fond of Remender’s take on Deathlok and Apocalypse.

Lovers' spat...

Lovers’ spat…

Remender is ably assisted by some truly fantastic art. Uncanny X-Force might be the most consistently beautiful book from Marvel up until Mark Waid took over Daredevil. Jerome Opeña beautifully set the mood for the book and defined the look of the comic. Opeña has worked with Remender before, and his contributions to the style of Uncanny X-Force are an absolutely vital part of the book’s visual identity. Even looking at some of the screenshots here, the artwork is stunning.

Of particular interest is the way that the artists make a clear effort to avoid overly-sexualising Psylocke. It’s not something that should be noteworthy in this day and age, but it’s fantastic that the artists working on Uncanny X-Force take care to portray Psylocke as a realistically-proportioned athletic woman. They don’t stray into the realm of hyper-sexualisation or pandering. This sort of thing should be the norm in the industry by this point, but it isn’t. So I appreciate the care taken by all involved.

Meditate on that...

Meditate on that…

Of course, Opeña didn’t work alone, and the entire run is the work of skilled artists. Colourist Dean White does a wonderful job ensuring some measure of visual continuity, and it’s amazing that the book shipped as regularly as it did, looking as stunning as it did. There’s really no way that Uncanny X-Force wasn’t a triumph for Marvel and isn’t highly recommended to any fan who is looking to try something a bit exciting and clever.

It’s also worth noting how Remender structures his epic. It’s very clearly all one story, but his story arcs aren’t designed to be broken down into neat six-issue chapters. The individual components all unfold in a space which feels appropriate. Nothing feels stretched out or decompressed, and it’s clear that Remender has a wonderful understanding of how to pace a comic book story. One-issue tales fit between four-issue adventures and longer epics. It works because it never feels like he’s “chunking” his story. It’s all unfolding at a pace that feels organic.

A wing and a prayer...

A wing and a prayer…

Uncanny X-Force is a beautiful book, in just about every sense of the word. I read the book on my iPhone as part of comixology’s “bundle” sale, but I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a high-profile omnibus release yet. I love the book so much that I would double-dip on it. If you need a measure of quality, you can’t ask better than that.

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5 Responses

  1. Great review – it is a great comic book, one of the best X-men tales of recent years, especially the Ark Angel saga. A shame that the titles that were spawned from this can’t hold a candle to it. Still, Remender’s Uncanny Avengers has pucked up a lot of the elements and threads from Uncanny X-Force. have you checked that one out yet?

    • Haven’t had a change. Mostly limiting myself to deluxe hardcovers and digital comics. I’ll wait for a nice oversized hardcover of Remender’s work or a nice 99c sale on the Marvel website. But I am very interested to read it.

  2. The current arc in Uncanny Avengers is basically a direct sequel to the Dark Angel saga. Definitely worth reading at some point.

    • Yep, looking forward to it. (And Remender’s Secret Avengers. And his Venom, if I can get my hands on it.)

  3. The current story arc in Uncanny Avengers basically a direct continuation of the Dark Angel Saga. Definitely worth reading at some point.

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