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Feb 7

X-Force: The Apocalypse Solution

Posted on Monday, February 7, 2011 by Paul in x-axis

By this point, I have actually got last week’s comics.  But I haven’t read them yet.  And to be honest, I feel like breaking from format anyway and looking at some completed storylines.  So, as promised, let’s look at another recently relaunched book, and the first arc of Uncanny X-Force.  Again, beware spoilers – I’m assuming you’ve either read it or you don’t plan to.

The Apocalypse Solution

Uncanny X-Force #1-4

Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: Jerome Opena
Colourist: Dean White
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: Axel Alonso

In their endless quest for short-term sales spikes, Marvel will relaunch a title these days for the most tenuous of reasons – or indeed for no reason at all, if needs must.  But, at least relatively speaking, X-Force is a legitimate relaunch.  They’ve changed most of the cast.  They’ve changed the creative team.  They’ve changed the style and tone beyond recognition.  And it’s a clean slate for new storylines.

What remains is the very basic premise that X-Force are the black ops unit which the other X-Men don’t know about.  True, the previous X-Force were exposed during the “Second Coming” crossover, to general disquiet among the ranks (and boy, there’s a storyline that seems to have petered out).  But Scott disbanded that squad, and Wolverine’s re-formed it without telling anyone.  So the idea of a secret team within a team has been restored.

The idea is solid enough – and it’s probably strengthened by getting Cyclops out of the picture, since his inclusion was never terribly convincing in the first place.  The previous series was never particularly satisfying, though, since it tended to go for the easy option of piling on the sombre bloodshed, and the art all too often veered towards ponderous murk.  It was a book that took itself rather too seriously.

With Rick Remender and Jerome Opena as the creative team, that’s no longer a problem.  The muted colour palette has been retained – lots of grey and blue here – but the art is crystal clear.  The levels of violence are still somewhat higher than normal for a Marvel book, but it’s more targetted.  And while some of the characters are still taking it all terribly seriously, the cast now has Deadpool and Fantomex to provide the comic relief.  The tone is actually closer to a traditional team book; if you’re not keen on the sprawling cast in the core books these days, this may well be more to your tastes.

Where the previous team seemed to have been selected by putting all the vaguely feral and miserable people together, this time there’s a bit more range.  Wolverine gets to do his veteran soldier routine as the team leader.  Angel’s current status quo seems to be a major focus for the new series – he’s got a split personality, with Archangel being far more powerful but also worryingly violent and unreliable.  He’d have us believe that he’s on the team because he’s channelling Archangel in a useful way, but he’s not fooling anyone.  Psylocke seems to be here so that the creators can rekindle her relationship with Angel from the 90s.  That’s a smart move; part of the problem with Psylocke is that her history has become so incomprehensibly convoluted that it overshadows her as a character.  Remender wisely boots all of that into touch, focuses on her relationship with Warren, and puts the emphasis back on her personality.  Deadpool is here to stop the book getting too self-important.  Fantomex similarly lightens the tone, but mainly he provides a mystery: is he really just here for the money, and is there anything to him beneath the ironic facade?

Wolverine and Deadpool are massively overexposed characters, already appearing in several books a month each.  But they’re used here to balance out the team, and the real focus is on the other three.  It’s a good use of the characters.

The first arc has the group discovering that 90s arch-villain Apocalypse has been reincarnated by his cultists (um, again), and setting out to kill him before he can do any serious harm.  So issue #1 uncovers the threat and introduces the team; issues #2 and #3 have the group fighting their way past Apocalypse’s underlings in the form of the Final Horsemen; and issue #4 finally brings them face to face with Apocalypse himself.  All pretty standard.  The twist is that this version of Apocalypse is just a kid who’s being re-educated by the cultists, but doesn’t seem to have any actual memory of being Apocalypse, or any particular desire to be a world-conquering evildoer – though he’s trying his best to live up to expectations.  The mechanics of this aren’t exactly explained, but there’s something rather charming about the image of Apocalypse as a confused schoolboy in uniform.

I’m not entirely convinced that the arc needed two issues – closer to two and a half, actually – devoted to X-Force fighting their way past the henchmen.  Some of that space is justified by using it to introduce the Final Horsemen, who are yet another variation on the classic Four Horsemen theme.  We’ve been here several times before, but these four are a nice take on the theme.  Issue #3 gives them brief one-page origin stories, but it’s the visuals rather than the concepts that stand out.  The powers are a bit contrived; but Opena ignores the standard features of superhero design in favour of something a little more theatrical and surreal, so that the group includes a geisha with a swarm of insects, and a mute drummer from the civil war.  It’s not that the story offers anything particularly new (and for the life of me I don’t understand why Death has the plague powers, instead of Pestilence), but it’s done with tremendous style.  The designs for the Horsemen characters are a great example of the sense of grace that Opena brings to this book – though he also excels with the Angel/Psylocke conversation in issue #2.

The pay-off of all this comes in issue #4 where the team finally confront Apocalypse and can’t bring themselves to kill him – despite all their “he must die at all costs” talk in the first half of the story, which puts a slightly different perspective on their posturing.  There’s something of a problem with this sequence, in that the whole debate proceeds on the basis that the kid definitely is a reincarnation of Apocalypse, and that the only question is as to whether he’ll necessarily grow up to become a villain again.  Quite how the X-Men know this isn’t touched upon, and there would seem to be ample reason to question it.  But I’m willing to let that slide, because it’s not the debate that Remender wants the characters to have.  Ultimately, Wolverine and Psylocke both decide to try and save him; Archangel wants to kill him, but it’s decidedly unclear how much of that is moral judgment, how much is revenge, and how much is just because he’s a psychopath with an excuse.

The master stroke, though, is to cut off the debate by having Fantomex shoot the kid (and then abruptly ending the story with a couple of silent pages of people turning home, instead of following through on the conversation).  It’s beautifully timed, with some great misdirection by focussing the argument entirely on the three X-Men, and brilliantly drawn by Opena.  It also raises some really interesting questions about quite why he kills the kid.  Fantomex says he’s there for the money; but his employers have already changed their minds by this point.  He doesn’t have to do it.  Presumably he thinks he’s being cold-bloodedly practical, but it’s a great scene in the way it suggests what’s going on beneath the facade – a really great moment.

It could maybe stand to trim some fat in the middle act, and yes, it glosses over quite how this kid is supposed to be the reincarnation of Apocalypse – but the first arc of Remender and Opena’s X-Force is a success, and bodes well for a high-quality superhero team book.

Bring on the comments

  1. Tim O'Neil says:

    I don’t think the reaction to X-Force among the X-Men was a plotline that petered out, so much as there was only so much they could do with it. Beast had already left the team by then because he was dissatisfied with Scott’s ruthlessness – that hasn’t changed, and since he directly blames Scott for Nightcrawler’s death there isn’t likely to be any change there. The person who was most immediately upset was Nightcrawler, and his indignity was basically just a set-up for his death. Similarly, Storm was pissed but is only occasionally in the books these days.

    Of all the X-Men left on the island, who’s really going to care one way or another about a black ops team? Rogue? Namor? Friggin’ Magneto? The upshot was that Steve Rogers personally asked Scott not to do it again, so the fact that Wolverine is going behind *both* of their backs to set-up the new X-Force creates potential for conflict with both the X-Men and the Avengers. So I don’t think they handled it all that badly.

  2. Curt says:

    I would think that the idea of a mutant death squad would be the most devastating thing ever, and the fact that no one has really said anything short of mumbling “Hey that’s kind of bad I guess” makes no sense at all.

    With the exception of perhaps Magneto or Namor, anyone who’s been an X-Man for more than five minutes would have to see that if any kind of word got out that the super-powerful mutants who claim to only want peace and harmony had a secret wetworks team who brutally kill anyone and everyone who is opposed to them it would mean the humans would be justified in hunting each and every one of them to extinction.

    If I was Iceman, or Colossus, or Rogue, or someone and I found out that mutants as a race were now everything the humans feared we were I’d be very angry, and would probably quit the X-Men and go into hiding; somewhere in Antarctica.

  3. John G says:

    I don’t believe a targeted mutant death would be such a big deal if the news broke.

    Mutants have already done far worse in the MU (Magneto a few times) and then Bastion also made mutants blow up and cause mass destruction during the previous X-Force.

    Not to mention that people were (are) convinced mutants are a danger to them all anyway. Clawforce would not really seem very significant in comparison.

  4. kingderella says:

    some nice moments for warren. is he not able to kill the kid because he realizes it would be wrong, or because apocalypse still has that much of a grip over him? i like the ambiguity.

  5. JD says:

    I find Fantomex’s motives all the more ambiguous that I’m not convinced he actually killed the kid – the whole arc has him making extensive use of his misdirection powers, after all. I wouldn’t put it past him to have pulled a fast one… for whatever purpose.

  6. Paul says:

    I did wonder about that, but I think it’s probably ruled out by the fact that he’s the last to leave the room and closes the kid’s eyes even though there’s nobody around to see him do it.

  7. Dave says:

    Re-using Apocalypse as a villain again was a poor choice, IMO. He’s been very much over-used since the early ’90s.

    Left for dead in X-Cutioner’s Song (where they made a point of saying he’d been woken too early, IIRC), he made a fairly speedy recovery in time for Onslaught.

    He was ‘killed’ in The Twelve, then his soul/essence was killed by Cable in Search For Cyclops. Hard to come back from.

    But he still came back again in Blood Of Apocalypse. At least this time they deliberately set up a return at the end, to do with the Celestials…

    only to completely ignore that, in favour of a method of return he’s never used before.

    For an ancient evil with all the time in the world to plan his actions, he doesn’t waste much time between schemes. And if kid Apocalypse lived, when would he be a problem for the X-Men? Something like 80 years, publishing time? Very strange choice for a story.

  8. Maxwell's Hammer says:

    While you can make a case for overuse, I don’t think the goal has ever been to actually kill Apocalypse. They always know he’ll eventually return, they just have to stop each new incarnation before he wreaks too much havoc. The creativity with which he is brought back is the criterion on which I judge each of his returns. As that goes, I felt this one was handled in a pretty novel way, and thus successful.

    When you think about it, Apocalypse wasn’t really even used as a recognizable character. His mythology (prophesied doom-bringer, the four-hoursemen, Ozymandias) was just a backdrop for establishing the tone and dynamics of the new X-Force team.

  9. Tim O'Neil says:

    I’ve always thought it was kind of weird that Apocalypse’s one universally-acknowledged “great” story never actually happened – the Age of Apocalypse was erased from almost everyone’s memories, after all. So, in terms of the actual Marvel Universe, Apocalypse hasn’t really done very much to earn his badass reputation.

  10. kelvingreen says:

    I felt this one was handled in a pretty novel way

    Yes, I believe the novel in question is called The Boys from Brazil.

  11. Maxwell's Hammer says:

    kelvingreen – dude, if you’re going to shoot down ideas because they’ve appeared at least once ever in the history of any storytelling medium, you’re going to have an awful damn lot to object to.

    In the context of an X-Men comic, and an Apocalypse story in general, it’s a unique approach to that particular character, and I enjoyed it. So nyeh.

  12. kelvingreen says:

    “Shoot down ideas”? Who did that? Not me. I may have, in fact, been making a joke.

  13. Brian says:

    That last scene with Fantomex was the sort of thing that made Wolverine popular way back in the day. Back when Wolverine was actually unpredictable. I don’t think you can really do a scene like that with Wolverine anymore.

    It reminded me of something Roger Ebert once wrote in regards to Eddie Murphy when 48 Hours first came out: “Sometimes an actor becomes a star in just one scene.” (the scene where Murphy feigned being a police officer at the redneck bar).

    That final scene with Fantomex might go on to be regarded as his “star” moment if the character takes off after this.

  14. “I may have, in fact, been making a joke.”

    Jokes and sarcasm don’t often translate well over the internet. I also got the impression it was a criticism. Just saying. No harm done.

  15. maxwell's hammer says:

    kelvin: my bad. we cool.

  16. acespot says:

    Kelvin, that was one of my first impressions of this story as well! However, the team dynamic/interplay – and especially the twist at the end – overshadowed the recycled bits and turned it into quite a good story.
    Any comic that has me rereading the last several pages over and over again, especially when the last two are utterly devoid of dialogue, is a winner in my book.

  17. acespot says:

    @Tim: you’re forgetting “The Twelve”, and all the times he’s kidnapped/converted various members of the X-Men, including Sunfire, Polaris, Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Gambit, Angel, Caliban, and even HULK!, and then proceeded to either make them his horsemen or to use them as pawns of another sort.

    That alone makes him a credible threat to the X-Men themselves. What Apocalypse then proceeded to DO with these newly minted horsemen makes him a threat to the rest of the world…like attempting to destroy NYC.

    And of course, Mister Sinister was his creation as well, and he has (retroactively) plagued the X-Men since their inception.

  18. Tim O'Neil says:

    No, I’m most definitely not forgetting The Twelve – in fact, The Twelve was the reason I stone-cold stopped reading the X-Men books in 1999. I can even remember the exact page that did it – the revelation that Apocalypse was really just an old guy in a giant Apocalypse suit. That did it for me.

    But that’s my point: as a marquee villain, many of his signature appearances in the 616 have been – well – laughably bad. I actually think the character would be much more interesting if they went back to Louis Simonson’s original characterization – which she followed up on a bit in her X-Factor Forever series. Otherwise . . . skulking around in the background, making X-Men “evil” occasionally – wow, that’s some real ambition, guy.

  19. Valhallahan says:

    I might pick this up in trade (I really don’t enjoy Deadpool stories though).

    One query though, from what I see googling, Apocalypse looks awfully white as a kid. Is he not meant to be from Egypt?

    Lol’ed at the Boys from Brazil.

    Isn’t Apocalypse an old chap who swaps bodies in Cyclops and Phoenix? Isn’t that why they clone Stryfe? I have vague memories.

    Looking at what I’ve just written, I think I’m contradicting myself.

  20. Paul says:

    If he’s been reincarnated, there’s no obvious reason why he should be of the same race. The story arguably leaves open the possibility that this kid might not even BE the real Apocalypse (though the cultists certainly think he is, and X-Force also take it for granted, possibly on the basis of whatever investigations Deadpool carried out before the arc began).

    Previous stories have indeed said that Apocalypse achieves practical immortality by jumping to a new host body from time to time. But that seems broadly consistent with the suggestion that if the host body is destroyed before he can jump out, he’s going to have a lot of trouble reconstituting himself without the help of his cultists.

  21. arseface says:

    I wondered whether I’d missed the resolution of the Celestials angle that Peter Milligan set up in his run. I guess not.

    Does this mean there is a second Apocalypse somewhere out there doing the Celestials’ bidding?

    On the whole, however, I really liked this opening arc. Given his beginnings, it’s funny how Wolverine is now the reasonable, reliable core member of the team, and Archangel, Deadpool and Fantomex are the loose cannons.

  22. Paul says:

    Hmm, that is an interesting point. The last we heard of Apocalypse, he wasn’t actually dead. Again, I’m keeping an open mind as to whether that’s an oversight. (It’s not technically an error since the assumption would be that he got killed in an untold story.)

  23. moose n squirrel says:

    “(and for the life of me I don’t understand why Death has the plague powers, instead of Pestilence)”

    Well, in the original Apocalypse (the John of Patmos one, not the X-Factor villain), the horsemen are War, Famine, Death (who kills by spreading pestilence), and some other dude on a white horse whose identity and significance seem terribly opaque. So from a literary perspective at least, any horseman named Death should be allowed some license for plague powers.

  24. Paul says:

    According to Wikipedia, the fourth Horseman in the John of Patmos version is Conquest. But in any event, once you’ve decided to have a Pestilence, it seems a little odd to ascribe the plague powers to Death, and to give Pestilence powers related to insects.

  25. moose n squirrel says:

    Apocalypse’s role as 90s arch-X-villain really can all be traced to that Claremont/Lee story where Cyclops sends his kid to the future. That’s what cements Apocalypse as the giant figure in Cable’s backstory, that’s what creates a dystopian future based entirely around Apocalypse as a world-conquering genocidal monster, and without that you never would’ve had the idea – or even the proper characterization – for Age of Apocalypse.

    But yeah, Tim, all of Apocalypse’s greatest hits take place either in the hypothetical future, or in a universe that no longer exists. In terms of actual shit getting done, Magneto’s done a lot worse – but one of these guys takes a bullet in the face as a six-year-old, and the other gets to hang out at the club and make creepy old-man passes at Rogue.

  26. maxwell's hammer says:

    Valhallahan: Deadpool has been horribly over-exposed and criminally under-written by hordes of hack writers over the last several years, so skepticism is warranted. But Remender version of the character channels the insanity in a way that does come off as funny, but more as grotesque. I highly recommend David Lapham’s “DeadpoolMAX” series as another interesting take on Wade Wilson that isn’t just a one-dimensional Loony Tunes cartoon character.

  27. kelvingreen says:

    maxwell’s hammer: no problem.

  28. Tim O'Neil says:

    That’s another thing: I sort of gave up on a lot of this shit somewhere in the late 90s, so I don’t even really know the status of Apocalypse’s future. I know that Rachel Summers was supposedly the aged Mother Askani after something in Excalibur caused her to go forward in time, but then the next thing I know she’s back in the present day as young twentysomething – and, of course, now she’s been written out of the books entirely, in space limbo. Messiah War was *a* future with Apocalypse, but obviously not the one in which Cable grew up, but not Bishop’s future either, or the Days of Future Past future (which was, I believe, obviated by an Excalibur story somewhere in Davis’ run?).

    I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: if you’ve lost *me*, your continuity has officially gotten too wonky for words. I’ve always thought that what the X-Men needed was a really good Kang story: considering how natural an idea it is, it’s amazing it’s never happened.

    But hey, I’m that guy in the back still wondering what happened to the Externals, so what do I know.

  29. Armagon says:

    All the convoluted backstory of Apocalypse aside, I really thought this was an excellent start to the book, and it’s zoomed to the top of my X-men list. I love the team and how they handle them (especially handling Deadpool right). Hopefully they can keep this up for awhile.

  30. Valhallahan says:

    I think too much damage might have been done on Deadpool by bad writers trying to be funny for me. I might have to give it another year or two.

    Isn’t it funny how Marvel decide to start a new series that’s NOT tied into another book’s crossover and everyone seems to have enjoyed it. Perhaps there’s a moral to that story.

  31. Thom H says:

    I picked up this arc based on Paul’s good reviews of the first few issues and specifically because it was not tied to any of the other X-books in any way (although, disclaimer: I haven’t found or read #2 yet). Also, the art is gorgeous.

    I think Apocalypse was the perfect villain for this story because of his stupidly convoluted history, in that none of it mattered at all for this book. In fact, the whole first arc seems to be about setting aside overplayed X-Men story ideas and forging ahead with a good, old-fashioned, character-based comic book.

    From the very first issue, the characters are already making fun of X-Men tropes like “feared and hunted” (Deadpool) and “I’m the best there is at what I do” (Fantomex). Then Apocalypse shows up and does absolutely nothing the entire arc because he’s a little boy. Not very menacing at all, aside from his fantastically insane cult. And his history matters not one bit, at least to this lapsed X-reader. I followed the story without a problem.

    But the frosting on the cake is that Fantomex mercifully cuts short one of the X-Men’s oldest storylines: We could have killed the villain, but we’re better than that. Now we’ll take him in as one of our own and agonize over whether we trust him or not. Blah blah blah. Nope: a bullet to the head is all it takes to show that this X-team is not playing by those rules. (Although, for the record, I’m not convinced Fantomex actually killed the little boy, either. We’ll see…)

    Like I said, I haven’t read issue #2, so it might contradict what I’m saying here or it might provide more evidence. From what I’ve read, though, this arc was all about setting up some great character dynamics, putting our heroes in entertainingly dangerous situations, and showing us that convoluted continuity and tired old X-Men story ideas have very little place in the new X-Force.

  32. To go along with the praise of Deadpool, Deadpool is most amusing when 1. he’s only trying to amuse himself, not other characters or the “audience,” whether or not he’s aware of them, and 2. when he’s purposely trying to get a rise out of other characters or just annoy them, and enjoys it at their expense.

    But point 2 only really works when the reader is aware that Deadpool’s probably making a mistake and the other characters don’t deserve the ridicule. Like Spider-man, Deadpool jokes because it’s the way he copes with not really knowing what he’s doing or if he’s doing the right thing (but unlike Spider-man, his jokes can be self-destructive in the way it pushes others away). He’s funny when he’s compensating for his flaws, not when he’s showing off.

  33. The original Matt says:

    Deadpool I find funny when he is just plain insane. Take Messiah War for example. He walked around shooting corpses to make sure they didn’t come back as zombies cause, hey, you never know, right?

    Of course, spending a few hundred years in a freezer playing naughts and crosses with yourself may cause one to lose what dangling threads of sanity one has left..

  34. Brian says:

    “Although, for the record, I’m not convinced Fantomex actually killed the little boy, either. We’ll see…”

    Uh.. why not? Either the kid truly was the next reincarnation of Apocalypse or Fantomex killed a completely innocent child. Either idea is much more interesting than “Hey, the kid didn’t actually die after all!” Who cares about the kid? We all know Apocalypse is going to come back in some form again eventually, and the kid doesn’t need to be resurrected in order for this to happen.

  35. Thom H says:

    I dunno…I kind of like the idea of Fantomex having motives that we’re completely unaware of. If he really believes that the kid is Apocalypse, then maybe he wants to keep him for himself and train him for some nefarious purpose. It’s just fun to speculate.

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