Joe Caramagna (Letters), Joshua Cassara (Art), Tom Muller (Design), Benjamin Percy (Writing), Dean White (Colors)
November 6, 2019
After weeks and weeks of high praise for the new direction of the X-Men overall line, it was inevitable that we would eventually hit a stumble. X-Force #1 is exactly that point.
It’s not that it’s…bad, it’s just that it’s only fine against a stable of absolutely incredible, top notch books. I confess to a certain level of trepidation regarding this title in the first place, which was described as a “mutant CIA” book by its writer, Benjamin Percy. That’s…not a descriptor I take kindly to, given what the actual CIA has been guilty of in its seventy-two year history, but I do concede that the newly established mutant nation will have its own choices to make on the international stage, and espionage is certainly a tool in its arsenal, the same as any other nation.
That said, nothing in this book actually does feel like that concept; perhaps it’s simply the starting point, and the story is building to that point, but this is all some very reactive, very “shock for shock’s sake” material, and it’s frankly not particularly good at that. Percy, who wrote the script for the Marvel/Stitcher collaboration Wolverine: The Long Night (another project I was not fond of), makes some significant missteps with regard to character voice and tones, choices with those characters that don’t line up either to historical interpretations or even to interpretations of those characters as already established in other books in the current line.
At one point, as Kate Pryde arrives with a ship full of mutant refugees, she is referred to by both Black Tom and Jean Grey as ‘Kitty’ despite the very direct dropping of that name in the first issue of Marauders. She hasn’t seen either of them in-continuity since that decision, so it makes some sense that they would continue to use the old name, but what does not make sense is that she fails to correct them. Additionally, she has painted “Kitty Hawk” over the name of the vessel she appropriated, another reference to a name she has, again, since abandoned. The digital edition of X-Force includes the script, with a few redactions, but it does make a few things apparent; Percy himself identifies her as ‘Kitty’ in the script multiple times, outside of the spoken dialogue.
Listen: A name is a powerful thing. Ask anyone who has changed theirs. It is important to identity, both socially and to the self, and a big factor of a change like that is the enforcement of it. The question of names has been a big portion of the post-HoXPoX paradigm; it’s featured in multiple issues, and it’s important to address it here; mutants, among a nation of mutants, make the decision on how to identify themselves in a world apart from humans, and it’s furthermore on other mutants to respect those decisions. These are fictional characters, but the model of identity is a real concern amongst real people, and to see it glossed over here is difficult. It’s a slip on Percy’s part to let this go unremarked on, and it soured me on writing that I was already not particularly enamored of.
This is, of course, not the truly memorable incident of the issue, which it’s necessary to discuss in detail: an assassination occurs at the end of the issue, in an assault on the island of Krakoa. The assault is carried about by mercenary types who are identified in the script as ‘Reavers’ despite no markings to identify them as such in the actual panel work or dialogue. This is important, I think; the Reavers have a specific visual identity, and even if these are new members rather than the classic ones we know, to fail to identify them as such in the issue when the script is released alongside it is a kind of lazy and poor storytelling. If it’s meant to be vague, it should’ve been redacted in the script, like other information, if it’s meant to be known, it should have been a part of the comic book itself. The physical edition does not include this script, and so that means a portion of readers are being given information that another portion of readers are not. This is…a strange divide.
Speaking of the assassination itself; we knew that a death had to be coming at some point in this line; the subject of Krakoan resurrection has been a Chekhov’s gun hanging over the line since it was introduced, and at some point that gun had to be fired. The assassination is of a significant character, one that you can probably guess if you don’t already know, and that’s where I take issue with the act; in a series of books that have been delightful surprises, X-Force is the first one to portray an act that feels predestined, unsurprising, even necessary. It’s portrayed in a way that indicates it’s meant to be a shock, but it isn’t one. It’s a last page stinger for the next issue that doesn’t actually create any interest, because the stakes behind the death have been removed; for a mutant to be killed is an insult to the mutant community, certainly, but it’s no longer a significant means of lasting harm.
We know what the eventual outcome of this murder is just as we knew this murder would come, and to stretch it over multiple issues, to lavish on the death itself instead of the resurrection and what message that sends for the other nations of Earth is a mistake. I would have preferred to see said character hale and hearty by the end of the issue, because that is the true dramatic moment. The sight of him, alive, addressing his own assassin in a calm, controlled manner, would have created a narrative point that was truly exciting, instead of one, as here, that feels like it was carried over from a time before House of X and Powers of X began.
There are clever moments in the issue, and I don’t want to detract from those. The manner in which the Reavers are able to infiltrate the island is obscured, but apparent on a close read, and it carries a certain…despicability to it. Something that does feel entirely appropriate for the Reavers (who once, I’ll remind you, crucified Wolverine in the Australian Outback) and also feels like far more heinous of an act than even the aforementioned assassination. Even this reveal would’ve made for a stronger issue!
But I am belaboring the the script to the detriment of the art; the truth is that X-Force is a beautiful book. Joshua Cassara and Dean White, the artist and color artist respectively, are so in tune with one another that they could be a single person; White’s colors are a marvel to behold, clean and simple in scenes such as an airplane, a chaotic whorl when depicting the eerie faceless masks and intricate tattoos of the opening scene, or–my favorite–showing Black Tom, half-integrated with the island of Krakoa itself, disturbing, almost decomposed looking, corpse-like, but still alive, alert, and mobile.
Cassara’s linework is as vital to this as those colors, though; he provides the distinction of intricacy so that each of these things is clearly depicted. His careful work with panel angles give things the drama they should, and he even depicts certain uses of powers in new ways that still manage to entirely make sense; witness Jean Grey’s telekinetic shockwave as she propels herself through the air like a rocket, shaking leaves and snapping twigs. There’s a power and weight to it that ring far truer than the indistinct pink power flares of years past.
On the whole, though, I can’t recommend X-Force. There is…a hollowness to it, a value placed on trauma to the exclusion of all else that reminds me of nothing so much as the infamously reviled DC book Justice League: Cry For Justice. I hope, devoutly, that subsequent issues can course-correct the arc of this book in relation to the others in the Dawn of X line, but I don’t know that I’m willing to put my faith in it.