The thing about X-Force is that somehow, after a full twelve issues, what would’ve been a year’s worth of comics in non-COVID times, I still keep wanting to come back to it, review work aside. That it accomplishes this despite featuring two characters I’ve come to despise is impressive.
Bazaldua (Art), Joe Caramagna (Letterer), Edgar Delgado (Cover Art) Guru-eFX (Colors) Tom Muller (Design), Benjamin Percy (Writer), Dustin Weaver (Cover Art)
September 9, 2020
It’s just really, really clever work, you know? A year and change ago, this book was billed as “mutant CIA” and that description alone made everyone very, very nervous. The CIA has been a hot topic in the comics community thanks to a certain writer over at Detective Comics Comics, and frankly, they’re not a good organization. They’re guilty of horrendous crimes on an international stage, and we already have a glut of fictional media that just loves to paint them as heroes. It was reasonable to worry that we might see something along those lines; prior to this new era of X-books, we’d certainly had those kinds of letdowns before. Instead, what we’ve had in X-Force is twelve issues of characters already historically associated with some of the franchise’s murkier operations allowed to explore their relationship with that morality, and a couple of characters who really are just the worst allowed to be the worst without the story around them either justifying or excusing their actions. And boy are there some actions this issue.
One of the story threads being told through data pages in the last few issues is the role of the “Chronicler,” a Russian agent on Krakoa who has been writing accounts of events there, for an unknown audience. Beast has known about this Chronicler since issue #7, when he found a scrap of paper signed by that individual. This was the first time that this Chronicler was named, although remember that as early as X-Force #1, we had an intelligence report that referred to Krakoa from the perspective of an outsider, despite a discussion of intimate political knowledge concerning the fledgling nation. That report also referred to Colossus by his full, Russian name, then translated that name into Russian, an step that seemed unnecessary, unless the scribe were specifically writing a report to be cross-referenced using that language. A full report attributed to this Chronicler didn’t appear in data pages until X-Force #10, a page which I lambasted for its rendition of actions in text rather than on panel. X-Force #11 gave two entire data pages over to this individual, and they told a story unconnected to the rest of the events in that book, about the Chronicler’s own past, their penchant for drink, and their established fame and reputation as a writer. In those pages, the Chronicler receives a visit from an unknown patron, who removes all the alcohol from the room with a wave of his hand. That visitor is almost certainly Mikhail Rasputin, which seems obvious here in issue #12.
What really fascinates me, though, is that both that account in #10 and the account in this issue specifically depict events that do not take place on panel. The Chronicler, whoever they are, does not write like a planted agent sending reports, but like a fiction writer. The prose is lurid, dramatic, and here, with the blatantly crossed out passages of an event that did not occur, we see them deliberately put forth as an unreliable narrator. I will freely admit that my criticisms about that page in #10 were likely wrong; I believe that we’re seeing something else at work here. Either way, what we’re getting is the shape of a character without knowing who that character is.
That’s a careful, slow tease, and I suspect that the events that do occur on panel here are yet another; Hank’s actions are despicable here, as they have been in the series so far, and a gross betrayal of his own compatriots for the sake of theater and propaganda. Furthermore, his reasoning as given in his data page is a level of xenophobic paranoia that is truly disturbing:
Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon was not merely a brilliant design for a prison — it was a brilliant insight into the philosophy of control. The central guard tower makes the inmates unsure whether they are being observed, and so they behave accordingly. In much the same way, America’s crime rates are significantly down due to doorbell cameras, traffic cameras, cell phone cameras. The want to do wrong will always be in us. But the fear of being seen overrides it.
I have a plan, and though it may be controversial and condemned by some, I know it is right. We will detain all mutants with Russian ties. And we will make their detention a spectacle. I don’t want to keep this quiet. I want it to be a parade. I recognize this is unfortunate, but it is also the best possible thing we could do for Krakoa.
Essentially, Hank’s plan is to terrorize Krakoan citizens into reporting on their neighbors via McCarthyism. It is right, he says, because he cannot believe in the goodness of people; he literally cannot believe in or accept the dream of Krakoa for what it is meant to be. Because he cannot believe these things, he is personally setting out to poison the tree, as it were; so that when the fruit rots he may hold it up and say, “See? It is as I told you.” I’ve been wondering what sort of iconic villainy we might see in this new era of X-Men comics, and it appears we have an answer: Hank McCoy is the single greatest threat to Krakoa that currently exists.
I’m getting so mired in the contextual politics of the storytelling though that I’m ignoring how X-Force #12 functions as a comic book. Art duties are once again handled by Bazaldua, her fourth issue in the series, and I’m enjoying each entry more and more. For all that she doesn’t quite nail some little details (I still think her Beast is a little too lean), her dynamism and her panel layouts are fantastic; there is a scene in this issue of Omega Red hunting some of Krakoa’s native wildlife that carries a breathless (if grisly) kind of beauty. I also appreciate the way that she presents Mikhail Rasputin; he’s large, physically imposing, and his design naturally allows for a lot of drama in motion, what with a simple bodysuit and a bright red cape. Bazaldua takes that design and runs with it, depicting him swooping and swirling with abandon. It makes for a lush viewing.
There’s another bit with the art that I’m curious about; in a later scene when Beast comes upon Colossus, the latter armors up, instinctively. It echoes Betty Banner’s transformation into Harpy whenever Bruce attempts to speak to her in Immortal Hulk; it’s simply all she’s willing to give him. In the same way, Colossus is all that Piotr Rasuptin will give to the X-Men, it seems; while he will let his armor fall around this Kayla, the mysterious purple flower girl, she appears to be the only one. I don’t know if this bit was in the script or if it was something that Bazaldua improvised, but she renders it beautifully, and it’s telling that it’s the thing I noticed, despite both Piotr and Hank being present in the same panel.
I was not expecting X-Force to be as emotional a book as it is, and it will certainly pale in comparison to the other big reveals in X-books this week, but damn if it isn’t a tale that proves deeply satisfying, every issue.