It’s been a while since I dipped into the world of X-Men comics, but I had some free time this last week so I started reading through my back catalog from the last couple years. One of the things about reading back issues is that my desire to read everything means that I occasionally get bogged down when I hit on an arc for a book or character that strikes me as lackluster (I’m looking at you, Deadpool and Wolverine). One particular strain of the X-universe that has never been totally my thing is the line of X-Force teams. Part of this distaste stems from the fact that the original incarnation of X-Force had the misfortune of being both the replacement team for the New Mutants, who remain far and away my favorite X-team of all the stuff that I’ve read, and the quintessence of ’90s comic book trends (it should be acknowledged that the New Mutants book lost a lot of its appeal a couple years before X-Force premiered thanks to the creative input of Rob Liefeld, who turns everything he touches to footless ash, and the book became, if not good, at least fun after Liefeld went on to other projects). I severely dislike Liefeldian X-Force, and the basic premise of it being a superteam that’s willing to use the utmost force in opposing its enemies regardless of moral implications has always been a difficult one for me to stomach (in the ’90s it was just stupid, and most of its incarnations in the late ’00s suffered from being excessively grimdark).
In the last five years, things have taken a turn for the better with the X-Force brand. Dennis Hopeless and Salvador Larroca did the book Cable and X-Force that was surprisingly fun with a basic conceit that Cable, the Marvel multiverse’s definitive grizzled soldier, has gathered up a team of operatives for his latest mission who never stop bickering which leaves him in the unenviable position of being the straight man in a group of screwballs (the pairing of Forge, the mutant superinventor, with Dr. Nemesis, the mutant superscientist, is comedy gold, and I wish those two characters had had a spinoff series all their own). Back in April of 2014, a new volume of X-Force started written by Si Spurrier and illustrated by Rock-He Kim. This book’s pretty incredible.
A while back I discussed Spurrier’s previous X-book, the second volume of X-Men Legacy which featured Legion as its main character. I was really taken with that series, mostly because it struck me as an honest attempt at deconstructing some of the common tropes around superhero fiction, particularly in relation to the pervasive conceit that in order to be in significant stories, superheroes have to participate in events that massively impact the world around them; the fact that Legion’s arc in that book ended with him deciding that it would be best if he just rewrote himself out of existence was really affecting for me. I enjoyed it enough that when I saw Spurrier was doing an X-Force series next, I was intrigued.
In the same way that Legion worked as a vehicle for exploring tropes in solo superhero fiction, Spurrier uses X-Force as a testing ground for the stuff of team books. Our setup here is that once again, Cable has assembled a team of operatives, and the people he’s selected are all extremely damaged: Psylocke, who’s gone through some significant development in the X-Force books since Rick Remender did a run beginning back in 2010, has become addicted to killing; Marrow, who makes her first major appearance since being depowered by M-Day, has mysteriously regained her powers and has a very tenuous grip on reality; Fantomex, one of the enduringly weirdest creations of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, is along for the ride and secretly plotting to kill everyone in order to prove that he’s undeniably the best; and MeMe, a technopath who’s trapped in a coma and only able to express herself through technological hardware. It’s a very similar set up to Hopeless’s Cable and X-Force, except that where that series had Cable trying to corral a dysfunctional team, Spurrier’s take has Cable being just as damaged as everyone else so that he can’t be an effective leader. The ultimate effect is that this isn’t so much a team book as it is a book about a group of people who work near each other rather than with each other.
Of course, that’s only half the fun of this run. The ultimate outcome of the story that Spurrier is telling involves a rather poignant critique of the amoral, “success at whatever cost” style of superheroics. Without giving too much away, the climax of the final arc involves Hope Summers (Cable’s adopted daughter) harnessing all the brokenness of the X-Force members to take down the big bad of the arc and emerging as a legitimate leader for the team.
The art for the run is done primarily by Rock-He Kim (Jorge Molina and Tan Eng Huat fill in on a couple of issues), whose style has a rough, sketchy quality to it that I think works well with the subject matter of the book. His figures are all sharp angles and stern expressions with the occasional hint of mania that helps give the reader the impression that these characters have a lot more going on beneath the surface than just commitment to a specific mission.