My favorite comics consistently present new context that make me reread earlier parts in a different way than I originally had. Or, they sustain a kind of rolling stasis where even dramatic changes are as passing as a crisis in a sitcom episode.
While our minds cull arrested stock images of Cable, all muscle, gun, and grit teeth, or Feral and Warpath in fringe and spangled and never changing, X-Force may seem overwhelmingly the one, but could it be the other?
It Changes on Reread: Ian Edginton and X-Force
by Travis Hedge Coke
The Counter-X run on X-Force began as a pitch by line curator, Warren Ellis: “A proactive strikeforce that holds humanity to task for it’s secret crimes.” The first arc began with a simple description. Ellis wrote, “[Games Without Frontiers] is about how deep the hate goes.”
Counter-X was a sub-brand of three X-Men related monthly titles, distinguishing them from the main books, those with X-Men squarely in their titles. Counter-X was a run designed for arcs, the first heavily handled by Ellis, the X-Force title, dialogued by Ian Edginton and drawn by Whilce Portacio (inked & embellished by Gerry Alanguilan), the second written from a brief by Ellis, by Edginton, drawn and colored by divers hands, then Edginton steering the whole ship with various visual artists after that. Generation X and X-Man were similarly revamped.
This was “writing for the trade” and required you to put words and images together in a sense context, designed for the reread. A comic that blended spyfy big optics and ludicrous reveals with bludgeony hip survivalism.
Our minds always default to Cable, guns, muscle, claw, all in the inimitable and much imitated Liefeld style. X-Force is, in our collective unconscious, the cover of their first issue. Hardened tough characters ready for battle.
But, X-Force, directly before Rage War began, was a 90s MTV reality show with super powers. The characters had been on an extended road trip, trying on new clothes and attending music festivals. Weird acid-style self discovery hallucinations and finding out their high school friend has dyed her hair and got two girlfriends after a semester of college.
Now, when this Counter-X run ended, and Mike Allred and Peter Milligan revamped the title with all new characters, as a high-farce, heavy-emotion comic about an actual reality show, both Counter-X’s well-meaning terrorist squad and the flashy kids on a trip runs were forgotten in lieu of the cover of X-Force #1, again.
This is not a cycle of alternating comfort and novelty, but the interplay of comfort and novelty at once, always at once.
Counter-X X-Force did not travel to a secret base and beat up six people in colorful costumes. They went to a secret base, fought five ugly monsters, had words with someone in an expensive jacket, then blew up a dissection lab or administrative building to cement a point.
Counter-X X-Force had to look, read, and play different. It had to feel like more of a shakeup than it maybe was. Received wisdom is that it flopped, but Marvel called it a sales success and I think, aesthetically, it is, in technical language, god damn good.
Whilce Portacio had drawn and co-plotted x-books a decade earlier, including creating the X-Man, Bishop, but here his pencils were more stylized, matured and experimental, cartooned and with a trust in his inker, Gerry Alanguilan, who would go on, as writer and artist, to make Elmer, and other brilliant comics. These were the first pencils to be digitally scanned and then inked in Marvel history.
The costumes were closer to the X-Men movies, black, heavy material, offset by X emblems and flashes of color, presaging the ribbed extreme sports look of the much more successful New X-Men a year and change later.
Ariel Olivetti does his best to stay in the aesthetic wheelhouse that Portacio establishes, while Jorge Lucas takes the run into a more Kirby-by-Corben retro modernity. Lucas’ lucid panels and wide open double-page spreads brought at articulate fight energy that Marvel had not seen in awhile.
Basically, for fourteen issues, X-Force looked like a contemporary Image or WildStorm comic and not something safer.
The second arc if the Counter-X run, Murder Ballads, jumps between “today” and half a year earlier. The aesthetic leap shines, as the artists fairly recreate the costumes and hair styles of the run preceding theirs, showing the transition and its logic, while also beginning to recreate the characters from their visualization in Games Without Frontiers to a new iteration.
Visually, as in other ways, the characters and the book, itself, changes as arcs pass by, to reward a returning reader, but also to allow each arc to potentially intrigue a new audience.
Twenty years ago, when these comics were published, this was new territory, and for both many pros and many speculators who could be readers, these new approaches could be disturbing.
The fear that you had to read an entire arc to “understand” an individual issue of it, even a two or four issue arc, frightened some people. Some people were scared by digitally scanned pencils; would this destroy storytelling by encouraging exciting layouts that looked great framed on a wall to the detriment of story details and flow?
Were costumes going away? Was every superhero going to wear a jacket now?
For all the talk of X-Force being the militant x-book, Pete Wisdom, in the first pages of Games Without Frontiers, blew up a compound full of government workers because he disagreed with their politics and their crimes against humanity. Mutant humanity, you may want to say, but that is like framing chat humanity” or “Chinese humanity.”
Pete Wisdom was engaged in, and encouraging the X-Force team towards, deliberate, calculated violent tackling of the State. They were not necessarily waiting for a supervillain to make a display, but for government and private sector players engaging in their normal day to day abuses that were not abuses of power but what their power was meant for.
X-Force were genuinely killing in combat, even if they did not want to. It’s not a cavalier murder book, but it had a body count. The heroes would fly straight through someone, even someone innocent, if they had to do it to stop the deaths of millions. Militants led by an extremist, then adrift at the whims of liars, cheats, and the desperate.
The A-Team with real death and more people who will get away with lies.
A radical position for a publisher who, only a few years prior, rewrote a comic to support a policy of noninterference by neighbors in cases of domestic violence.
9/11 made this kind of Marvel book impossible to keep generating. They stay in print, but the sexy terrorist, the optimistic extremist, the radicalized hero lulls into reprints after the US experienced foreign terrorism on its soil.
Take a look at The Ultimates, for example, and how excessively and comfortably Conservative those twenty-four Hitch/Millar/Martin issues are.
A character suddenly having the power to fly, all on its own, frightened a number of speculators, whether they read the comic or not. The question of how many or how fast Cannonball would kill to prevent mass death was scary even being asked.
We are an easily startled breed.
Not just comics. Comics people. People.
Around the same time as Counter-X, John Frankenheimer and David Mamet made a wonderful movie combining the classic espionage thriller with the car ballet, which is like horse opera with cars instead if horses and more constant dancing. Ronin had a great cast, remains completely watchable, but at the time, my cineaste friends were all afire over it’s interruption of plot-moving dialogue with car chases or it’s overcomplicating car displays with talk and plot reveals.
Counter-X features beautiful explosions, exciting vistas, but it is a talky comic. It is a pay attention comic. If a spy comic, an espionage comic does not require you to be able to take new information back to earlier scenes or to recalculate motivations, how much is it really an espionage comic?
As part of an ongoing serial embedded in a shared universe with hundreds of titles and thousands of issues, Counter-X flipped the script on some of its own scenes, but also changed how we will reread earlier comics by other authors.
Kitty Pryde, beloved Uncanny X-Men and Excalibur character, never makes a physical appearance in this Counter-X run, invoked during her former boyfriend, Pete Wisdom’s funeral, via a “pride in more than name,” pun, as characters speculate on why she does not attend.
Traditionally, X-Men comics would have a transitional miniseries or issue to explain, but here we are left to connect the dots ourselves. Pryde did (in Excalibur) break up with Wisdom who had retired from espionage and blowing stuff up, for running with her team of superheroes and the pleasures of monogamy and island living. More, she ended their romance after briefly, herself, joining an extra-governmental police and intelligence agency, SHIELD (in Kitty Pryde: Agent of SHIELD) and while going through a rushed basic training, having a dalliance with an agent closer to her age than the ten years her senior Pete Wisdom.
So, we have an older man returning vigorously, suicidally to a life he had given up for a younger woman, after she sampled some for herself and then left his sedentary-for-her-butt when she found him less exciting now. Distracting from his needed cane, with his unnecessary eyepatch he could flip up and go aha! with, flirting up a storm, blowing up government buildings and bouncing powerhouse kids around the world. Acting out.
Similarly, while in Pryde & Wisdom, we saw Wisdom’s sister, Romany, as “not like he described [her],” a calm, level-headed bit of a hippie. And, in the Counter-X X-Force, she has a different hair color, different style, different body language and she is a global player in the intelligence field. “Project Director on a black ops initiative so far above conventional government, she was sitting at the right hand of God.”
The normal one of the family in the earlier comic, is now and always had been second to God in the international politics scene.
By the end of the run, the reader cannot see the early issues or issues of other comics from the year or four years before in the same way. We know too much, now. We know what it lies, we know what is misunderstanding, optimism and malice.
We know we are being played. We know more how the characters are being played.
Counter-X X-Force has its fun with the superhero reader’s inclination to skim pages, with a character dyeing his hair and beard so he superficially resembles another missing teammate. Coding physical deformity as a barometer of ethics. Dramatic mockery of “no body no dead” and other genre standards.
The run climaxes with the team’s inability to be what they set out to, in this run, or what they were before. Like the end of Grant Morrison’s years-long Batman run at DC, or Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America, Counter-X X-Force becomes, in its final issues, about what they cannot be even if that is what they are sold and identify as. The impossibility of being anything.
This run did not reinvent X-Force. It reiterated X-Force. The cartoon villains were swapped for a different, edgier-looking cartoon. The familiar aliens, replaced by dinosaur-killing smart-mass that builds people into tools. The familiar mad villains replaced by lizard-men in wheelchairs and gun-handed scientists. Mutants who mostly pass on sight, exchanged for awesome monsters. Cloning, manufacturing, even time and family, turned into threats, weapons.
It was still a superhero comic, it only stopped looking and reading like the kind that did not matter for any purpose but perpetuating trademarked characters. Yes, they’re attacking first, but attacking people and facilities doing horrible things. They are torturing, but it is the kind of intimidating torture that is max of feeling and minimizes physical injury.
Jesse Bedlam, in one scene, makes an enemy agent (who just murdered most of a commercial flight) feel as if her leg has been broken, then her other leg, and so, until she is willing to talk. Scary. She screams, cries, blood rushes from her nose to mix with her tears and spit.
Is that how superheroes behave?
But, the physical damage is a bloody nose.
If Batman swung down and punched her in the face, it would be superheroic. If Superman used some silly machine to trick her into believing she was injured and she surrendered, that would be one of many 1950s Superman comics.
Cannonball is no longer yelling orders, but only because Pete Wisdom is calling the plays Cannonball developed from his clearer sight at the sidelines. X-Force is still a bunch of militant teens fighting mutant terrorists, killer robots, and monsters. It is, to take this all the way back to the earliest issues of X-Force and Stryfe/Cable, Feral/Thornn, about siblings at war and clones gone wild and people with living machinery shoved in their bodies.
Is there an essential difference? Or, a cosmetic difference?
Are the mostly-black outfits with the big jackets not still costumes? Are their t-shirts and suits with black ties not exactly the casual wear of any young X-Men of old? Cyclops used to wear suit jackets and neckties all the time as a teenager.
Counter-X used other genres to give X-Force a new style and a renewed semblance of purpose. It never took that further than it could last.
Counter-X made X-Force a book where anything could change, novelty overtook comfort, and maybe it was. But, maybe it was the other thing, in nice new clothes, with a nice new haircut, too. And, wouldn’t that be a reveal that could change things?
It Changes on Reread: Ian Edginton and X-Force
User Review( vote)