REVIEW: X-Force #21 Has Some Identity Issues

If the stretch between X of Swords and the Hellfire Gala felt like treading water, this issue of X-Force at least feels like it finally has some momentum again.

X-Force #21

VC’s Joe Caramagna (Letterer), Joshua Cassara (Artist), Robert Gill (Artist), Guru-eFX (Color Artist), Tom Muller (Design), Benjamin Percy (Writer)
Marvel Comics
July 7, 2021

On the heels of the Hellfire Gala, X-Force takes some time this month to build up the overarching plot thread of a “bio-technical arms race,” as the issue’s title page reads. It manages to do that while calling back to that stretch, even — remember when sea creatures attacked, and then the team got to hang out with Namor? This is a loose follow-up to that, as the sample Forge retrieved then leads Sage to the trail of…Man-Things. Plural. Someone is using some kind of variant Man-Thing bioweapon for assassinations that specifically throw Krakoa in a negative light.

From there, the scene jumps to the field team (Wolverine, Domino, and Kid Omega, no Deadpool this time [thankfully]), who have deployed to the Olympic Peninsula in order to track down one of these Man-Things. It’s there that the identity issues between Wolverine and X-Force rear their head again…remember when covering Wolverine #13how I said it seemed strange for so much of the action to focus on X-Force as a team, and so little to focus on the titular character? Here, we have the entire X-Force team deployed to deal with something that falls squarely and singly within Wolverine’s lanes of expertise: hunting monsters in the woods, and convincing a near-feral, combative creature to come back to reason. It’s an odd choice, and it only further blurs a line that was already almost non-existent.

As a whole, though, the plot is a solid one. It ties threads together in a way that’s interesting and exciting and makes me actually look forward to things coming to a head—the culprit behind the Man-Thing problem is none other than XENO, the organization headed by the Man With The Peacock Tattoo, who first kidnapped Domino in order to use mutant DNA to penetrate Krakoan security, and later used the severed head of Quentin Quire to create an imperfect clone which was used to once again make Krakoa look bad as a nation (they don’t need the help, XENO, they’re doing fine at that on their own). As noted on a data page, this creates three distinct avenues of plant-based intelligence: Krakoa, Terra Verde, and now the Man-Things. That’s a kind of interesting complication I can get down with. Additionally, of course, XENO is tied to Mikhail Rasputin, who still has the Cerebro Sword, which I imagine we’ll see some follow up on soon.

There are a few things I don’t love: First, the framing of a businessman as implicated in the death of another young man, in such a way as to make it appear they are lovers. The narration makes it explicit this is not the case, but the framing nonetheless sets the scene up to create the idea that the businessman is gay and closeted, and that he has murdered a young man he met for a secret tryst. Shortly after this issue released, there was a real-life news story about a priest being outed via data obtained from Grindr. This kind of story beat gets tossed around carelessly, but it’s important to remember that queer identities are literally weaponized against people in real life, and it feels doubly insulting to see it here on the heels of the overall problems with queer representation in comic books.

The second thing that didn’t sit right is the representation of XENO as a “globalist cause.” I understand the context of it, in that the idea is to protect the entire world from mutants, but that doesn’t change the fact that “globalist” has been weaponized in news media by the far right. Having a line like that come out of the mouth of one of the book’s antagonists isn’t an egregious overstep, but it’s also not great and feels like it could’ve used a little more forethought.

Both of these problems together highlight a thing I’ve been picking at critically for a while; it’s possible for a book with good intentions to still make an egregious misstep. For all that I’m generally enjoying the spy games of these stories, for all that it’s believable an antagonist would use these types of tactics to target people, it’s still frustrating to read in the face of the overwhelming societal context. Years ago, we had Women In Refrigerators to highlight the sheer prevalence of women being killed on-panel in order to motivate male characters into tragic heroism; is it time for a similar accounting with regards to the depictions of marginalized people? Do we need an issue-by-issue breakdown in order to prove just how common this problem is? I’m beginning to think anything less than hard numbers will simply be ignored.

Cassara’s art once again is beautiful, evocative. I’ve sung his praises many times over the course of this book, and that remains consistent: he blends beautiful art with entertaining body horror, creating versions of these characters that feel iconic and memorable. He’s assisted by Guru-eFX, and while I still miss Dean White, the color work is equally great. The palette is similar, and has an almost paint-like quality to it, with the way muted tones and shadows are used. I really enjoy that consistency, especially in contrast to the book’s identity issues, story-wise; it’s a significant thing that anchors the book even when those issues become more prominent.

I hope the change in momentum represented by this issue continues; it would be nice for these books to be fun again!

Nola Pfau

Nola Pfau

Nola is a bad influence. She can be found on twitter at @nolapfau, where she's usually making bad (really, absolutely terrible) jokes and occasionally sharing adorable pictures of her dog.

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