With a new X-Force on the horizon, Christiaan takes a look at one of the best runs in the franchise’s history, Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force.
Magneto asks Wolverine for a favor. Showing Wolverine a picture of a Nazi soldier, Magneto demands Wolverine to kill this man that worked in the concentration camp that held him as a child.
In return, Magneto won’t expose Wolverine’s illegal X-Force.
Solemnly, Wolverine accepts the offer. He quickly finds the Nazi soldier, old and alone, in a home in the jungles of Brazil. The soldier remarks he deeply regrets what he did, and that he fled to Brazil to forget the war and to forge a new, happy life. He hid his past from his family, however the soldier knew one day someone from the camps would find and kill him. The soldier hangs his head against Wolverine’s blade and utters his final words, “No man can outrun his past.”
Wolverine kills him.
That’s Uncanny X-Force.
Finding The X-Force
I got into comics right around DC’s massive New 52 reboot in 2011. Among my first comic purchases were Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1 by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, the two titles that would reform the DC Universe. From then on, every Wednesday I would go to Forbidden Planet to check out DC’s new line-up, buying most of the first issues and only sticking with a handful. But between the constant influx of colorful #1 covers, there was one title that caught my eye with its distinct lack of an image.
Tucked at the far end of the shelves, past the New 52 and in between then fledgling X-Men titles, was a comic that, for months, had its issues sealed in a black bag with the text, “Uncanny X-Force: The Dark Angel Saga”, scrawled across it. I knew whatever this was, it had to be special. It wasn’t until Uncanny X-Force #19, the first issue I saw with an exposed cover, that I would pick up the series and fall in love with it.
Written by Rick Remender, Uncanny X-Force is a dark and winding story exploring ethics, moral dilemmas, trauma and guilt under the heavy glaze of sci-fi pulp weirdness that only the X-Men universe can provide. Characters jump between the future, the past, alternate dimensions and deep space, all in an attempt to understand their morality and where it failed. At first, the story follows Wolverine secretly resurrecting the X-Force, a mutant black-ops group, to take out dangerous threats to the world. Wolverine’s new X-Force recruits include Psylocke, Archangel, Deadpool and Fantomex. The X-Force’s first mission is to assassinate the child reincarnation of Apocalypse, the first and greatest mutant, being raised by Clan Akkaba on the Moon.
A History of Violence
The X-Force launched in the 90’s, created by Rob Liefield and Fabian Nicieza, and the series revelled in kill squads doing the dirtiest deeds possible. This version of the X-Force starred Cable and delved into typical Liefeld themes of sex, murder and sensationalist media networks. It exemplified the taste of the period as X-Force #1 became the second highest selling issue of all time by selling 5 million copies, just behind Jim Lee and Chris Claremont’s X-Men #1. As the series continued, it would highlight characters such as Domino and, you guessed it, Deadpool.
But by 2000, the X-Force franchise had lost its relevance.
Warren Ellis, writer of Transmetropolitan, attempted to keep the franchise afloat by relaunching X-Force in Marvel’s “Revolution”. The Revolution campaign aimed to give new creative direction to several books by attaching new writers and artists while guided by Warren Ellis. It was an unsuccessful push for the franchise despite seeing the return of X-Men writer, Chris Claremont. The X-Force would transform again with Peter Milligan and Mike Allerd’s critically-acclaimed run. This version of the X-Force saw the team eventually rebranded as the X-Statix, a media-friendly squad of superheroes that fought villains while constantly surrounded by cameras. At the height of reality shows like The Osbournes, Milligan’s and Allerd’s story found a dark comedy in the concept, turning the grim X-Force into a surreal reality show. As X-Statix and a brief, classic X-Force revival ended in 2004, it also meant the end of the X-Force books.
The X-Force franchise eventually returned in X-Force, Vol. 3 in 2008. This version of the X-Force returned to its gritty roots, with the team wearing jet-black suits and every issue filled to the brim with blood. Kyle and Yost were able to reinvigorate the franchise by bringing back some favorites and pushing into the modern era. It was in the wake of this run that Remender’s white-clad Uncanny X-Force emerged.
Changing Their Colors
What immediately separated Remender’s Uncanny X-Force from past incarnations was its striking white costumes. While this, to many, is considered a small change, it showed Remender’s significant shift from the larger X-Force franchise. By putting Deadpool, Wolverine and Fantomex in white, Remender was doing more than rebranding the X-Force, he was symbolizing a thematic shift. Not only would this team kept away from the public eye, but Remender’s version would expose and question the actions of his characters, rather than reveling in them.
Every character in Uncanny X-Force has blood on their hands. Remender deftly delves into each character’s justification of murder and shines in exposing their moral failings. Wolverine and Psylocke, the leaders of the X-Force, have shut themselves off from the world in an attempt to process the trauma that has been inflicted onto them and the pain they’ve inflicted onto others. Psylocke’s cold mercenary attitude puts the world in danger, as she fails to see her boyfriend Archangel’s failing mental state despite her telepathic abilities. Wolverine, on the other hand, sees himself as a murderer. He kills so no one else has to.
Fantomex and Archangel become pseudo-antagonists of the series. Fantomex sees the world through pure, Machiavellian logic, leading him to commit atrocities in the name of protecting the world. Remender, however, dives into Fantomex’s subconscious guilt as he tries to justify his immoral actions. Meanwhile, Archangel always aims to do good in a world full of evil, only for the world to break him. Archangel attempts to bury his emotions and guilt as his mind falls apart from trauma, turning him into the cruel Dark Angel.
This leaves Deadpool, surprisingly, as the moral center of the team. Despite being “The Merc With A Mouth”, Deadpool never takes money from the X-Force, and is the only one who considers leaving the team after a disastrous mission. With Deadpool, Remender shows that the trauma that has twisted his friends has only made Deadpool a better and more compassionate person. When Kid Apocalypse emerges into the story, Deadpool acts as an uncle to him, mentoring him and providing the emotional support that other can’t. This also leads to one of the best scenes in the book where Deadpool shares a stack of Playboys with Kid Apocalypse before the two of them have a hard heart-to-heart.
Surprisingly, Remender delves into X-Men canon without bogging the story down in lore and references. Events that happen in Deadpool and Wolverine’s solo series are never mentioned, nor are major event comics. Without any outside events weighing his story down, Remender is able to fully explore the consequences of all his characters’ actions through every twist and turn. Remender’s knowledge of the X-Men universe comes into play in his selection of the cast and setting by picking obscure characters like Fantomex, Dark Beast, and Daken or obscure settings like the Age of Apocalypse. These characters and settings do require some brief research to fully understand, but still function well.
Fantomex, for example, is a complicated Grant Morrison creation based on the famous Italian fumetti Diabolik and the French crime fiction thief, Fantômas. Fantomex’ powers are bizarre in typical Morrison fashion, as Fantomex has three computer-like brains, an external nervous system that can turn into a spaceship and the power to “misdirect”.
Dark Beast is an alternate version of Beast from the Age of Apocalypse, a timeline where Apocalypse took over the world and his Social Dwarnian principles of survival of the fittest dominate thought. Dark Beast uses his knowledge in service of Apocalypse and played a prominent role in previous Marvel events, such as Dark Reign, where he assisted Norman Osborn in running SHIELD.
Daken also came to prominence during the Dark Reign event, where he served as Osborn’s Wolverine. Daken is the illegitimate son of Wolverine during his days of living in Japan, and he possess all of Wolverine’s powers. The main thrust behind Daken is that he resents Wolverine for abandoning him in Japan, where his surrogate family and town resented him for being only half-Japanese. The abuse eventually turns Daken into a cold and calculated murderer that hates the world and his father.
X-Genes or Nurture?
Despite the complicated lore, Remender is still able to find the emotional tissue between characters. Fantomex’s and Dark Beast’s Machiavellian logic serve as mirrors to each other’s ideals. Dark Beast is solely dedicated to the dogmatic and religious goals of Apocalypse while Fantomex values only his own independence. In this context, Dark Beast becomes everything Fantomex fears he could be, a genius stipped of his independent thought because of dogma. Later, Daken’s and Wolverine’s inability to reconcile becomes heartbreaking as Daken’s hatred turns him into a monster hellbent on punishing the world. Even Psylocke’s complicated backstory is given an existential twist during the Otherworld arc as she attempts to understand who she fundamentally is as a human being.
What fundamentally lies at the core of Remender’s Uncanny X-Force is its exploration of the philosophical question of nature versus nurture. For those unfamiliar, the question of nature versus nurture simply asks if a person’s behaviors are determined by their genetics or by their environment. Remender falls firmly into that camp that one’s personality is nurtured by their environment. Wolverine, Archangel, and Fantomex were made to kill but all of them struggle against their instincts. Characters like Psylocke, Deadpool, and Dakan willingly choose mercenary careers after years of living in traumatic environments. Remender’s meditation on nature and nurture becomes even more pronounced in characters like Kid Apocalypse, whom Fantomex attempts to mold into the perfect superhero, despite his genetics.
Where Remender truly makes things interesting is by extending the question of nature versus nurture into a moral contemplation about justice. Should Wolverine feel guilty for all the men he’s killed, good or bad? Is Archangel responsible for his actions as he falls prey to dormant programming? Can a man be judged for crimes he will commit in the future? Remender explores these questions by bouncing the X-Force into alternate timelines to see what they, or their friends, could have become if things were slightly different. The final arc brings all these complicated philosophical and moral questions to a climax as Daken and Kid Apocalypse attempt to break free of a world that wants to control them. With this rare focus on a single theme Remender ties even filler issues to the larger story, and makes the book a delightful and thoughtful read throughout.
The Art of Murder
Artist Jerome Opeña illustrates Remender’s crazy sci-fi ambitions. The first four issues and the Dark Angel Saga see Opeña at his best, as he brings to life Remender’s vision of flying time-traveling temples, men made of plasma, seeds that erase life and music that makes skin boil. The X-Force’s time in the war-torn Age of Apocalypse are given a surreal and brooding atmosphere thanks to Opeña’s moody figures and dark inking. Seeing characters like Dark Iceman grow ten stories tall and destroy city blocks in a selfish rage would have felt far less emotionally dramatic under any other artist. Unfortunately, the art of Uncanny X-Force falls behind as Opeña leaves the series after issue #18, before picking up again thanks to artist Phil Noto in issue #24 for the final arc. Phil Noto, known more for his character designs, does an amazing job of etching complex and conflicting emotions on each character’s face. Kid Apocalypse’s mixed emotions become painfully clear during fights, fearing both what he’s becoming but also consumed by revenge to protect what he loves. Noto’s soft eye for facial details is at its best with scenes with Daken and Wolverine, as he brings to life their hate and pity for each other.
Remender’s Uncanny X-Force stands as one of the great stories in the X-Men saga It’s a story that focuses on murder, revenge and guilt while openly condemning them. It gave the Marvel Universe some of its most exciting characters in years by setting up Kid Apocalypse, the Fantomex Triplets and the Apocalypse Twins. It delves into comic continuity without getting mired in it, opening the path to back issues. It holds one of the best characterizations for both Wolverine and Deadpool since its release and has one of my favorite characters in Kid Apocalypse.
Uncanny X-Force is one of my favorite comic series and it’s one well worth reading.