Many of the super villains of the Marvel Universe have no qualms about murdering anyone who gets in the way of their sinister schemes, but is murder the right way to prevent them from acting on or devising these schemes? And if a group of heroes chose to go down that road, how would it affect them, both physically and emotionally? In 2010, writer Rick Remender posed those questions to readers even as he set to answering them in the pages of “Uncanny X-Force,” a series starring a team of costumed heroes moonlighting as assassins.
Two years and 37 issues later, Remender’s run on the series and its initial volume has come to a close with the release of “Uncanny X-Force” #35. Remender joins CBR News for a look back on his critically acclaimed run, with the writer explaining how the past couple of years will impact his current “Uncanny Avengers” series.
In 2010, Remender was an established independent creator who had begun to make a name for himself at Marvel with books like “Punisher” and the short-lived “Doctor Voodoo” series when the company offered him “Uncanny X-Force.” It was a dream assignment for the long time X-Men fan.
“They had already put the book on the tracks and knew what the team was going to be when Axel Alonso called me and asked if I wanted to pitch on it. So I wrote up a pitch and I sank into the Apocalypse stuff. I think the connection between Archangel and Apocalypse naturally told a story that had ramifications, context and seemed pretty interesting,” Remender recalled. “I bounced some of that stuff off of Matt Fraction, who was writing ‘Uncanny X-Men’ at the time, and he had a few suggestions. Then I spent a few weeks revising and writing up the pitch. A couple of weeks later, Axel called and said they were going to go with my pitch — I had the book.”
Remender’s decision to use Apocalypse in his initial “Uncanny X-Force” pitch spun out of writers Craig Kyle and Chris Yost having reintroduced Warren Worthington’s Archangel persona in their “X-Force” series, the immediate precursor to Remender’s book. In developing the mutant hero’s more violent alter ego, they established that the persona still had strong ties its creator, Apocalypse.
“I was really very excited about whatever was inside of Warren Worthington bubbling back up in the form of Archangel. That was the piece that really helped me. The idea that the Archangel persona was still in him and would always keep bubbling back up led to a lot of my ideas on how to deal with Apocalypse and what Warren Worthington’s role would be in all of that,” Remender said. “I read all of the Kyle and Yost run, and they did some terrific business, but I only ended up using the Archangel-Apocalypse thread because I wanted ‘Uncanny X-Force’ to be a book where all you needed to understand it was some basic X-Men knowledge. They sure did me a big solid with the Archangel stuff though, because that was the key for the big story I put together, and the story I’m still putting together. I’m really thankful to them for putting that back on the board.”
Archangel’s connection to Apocalypse was just one of several major character arcs that ran through “Uncanny X-Force.” As the series progressed, the book’s other cast members — Wolverine, Psylocke and Fantomex — all starred in their own individual storylines. The only original cast member who didn’t was Deadpool.
“Most of what Wade was going to be was comic relief, somebody who was sort of child-like. I like the fact that he’s unhinged and a little broken, but there would be a child like-aspect to his craziness; a neediness, almost. He’s somebody who was very flattered to be part of an X-Men team,” Remender said. “I had plans to give him his own storyline, but we just didn’t get to it. Deadpool may not have gotten as much screen time as the rest of the cast, but he was extremely valuable in that he gave me a way to do different tones and really helped lighten things up a bit.”
One of the ways Deadpool allowed Remender to achieve this was through the character’s inner flights of fancy, a tendency the character showcased as early as the series’ first arc: While attempting to save a dying Archangel, the duo were trapped on the moon, with Wade imagining the two of them as characters in campy crime novel. “I had a lot of fun writing that off-the-cuff insanity when he was going to save Archangel in that first arc. This guy is in a situation where he’s suffocating on the moon, his buddy next to him is dying and he thinks they’re living a cheesy crime novel and puts himself in that mindset,” Remender said. “That was always really fun because I would ratchet up the tension in the book and cut to him being crazy. It really added a nice bit of comic relief.
“I like that there was a disconnect from the fact that he was a mercenary. He’s a bit delusional, so he would drift in and out reality,” Remender continued “I also really like that out of all of these characters, Deadpool was the voice of reason on a few occasions. It seemed unexpected, but it also seemed to fit some inherent neediness that is embedded in a character who is constantly quipping and trying to make people laugh. There’s a need to be accepted there, and that always comes from a place of vulnerability.”
In “The Apocalypse Solution,” the initial ” Uncanny X-Force” arc which ran in issues #1-4, Remender introduced Deadpool and his teammates to the Final Horsemen of Apocalypse, a group that would come back to menace the team in later arcs, most notably the “Dark Angel Saga.” The villainous quartet was comprised of original characters, but in Remender’s initial plans, they were all big-name, previously-established Marvel Universe denizens.
“The Final Horsemen would have included members like Magneto and Namor, and they would have been infected long ago. The story was just this over-arching, giant thing. It was Axel, who was editing the book at the time, who came up with the idea for the Horsemen to be new characters” Remender said. “It was his idea for a number of reasons that I ultimately all agreed with. He thought it would be stronger if the Horsemen weren’t tied into all these other characters and all this other stuff. It would also help the X-Force story not interconnect with other books.
“That idea kind of terrified me at first, but then it became something that I really fell in love with. Now, not interconnecting is the thing that I want to do. X-Force interconnected with other books a great deal as we went forward — the creation of Tabula Rasa bled over into ‘Uncanny X-Men,’ then all of the other stuff from ‘The Dark Angel Saga’ bled over into ‘Wolverine and the X-Men.’ The events were felt, but they were always underground events that then percolated up in other books.”
The edict that the Final Horsemen be new characters encouraged Remender and his initial artistic collaborator on “Uncanny X-Force,” artist Jerome Opeña, to flex some of the muscles they used on their creator-owned series, “Fear Agent.” “Every time Jerome and I would do a new arc of ‘Fear Agent,’ we’d get on the phone and talk about the interesting visuals we wanted to give the aliens,” Remender said. “What they do, where they come from and what their world is like. For the ‘Hatchet Job’ arc, we came up with these barbarian warriors who ride flying gold fish through the sky. It’s the kind of thing that’s a big, exciting visual, and in the hands of somebody like Jerome it works out very well.”
At the end of the initial “Uncanny X-Force” arc, Opeña drew a scene that shocked readers and would resonate throughout the book’s entire run: Fantomex killing the villainous Apocalypse, who had been reborn as a small child.
“One of the things that inspired the main character in one of my creator-owned books was seeing his son’s murder. So having done a few beats like this in the past, I was hesitant because I didn’t want it to feel like whenever I needed to shock you, I shoot a kid, but it was also something that me and my editors discussed in depth. We felt if they walked out of there and took the kid to a school, right away the drama just fell off a cliff into a bucket,” Remender explained. “Fantomex worked perfectly for this because he’s a mystery, and Grant Morrison’s origin of the character includes the fact that he was intended to be a Sentinel. Plus, he’s a Sentinel with three brains! I liked the fact that one of the brains was a Sentinel and the other two were not. The other two brains were put in there by Mother and somebody else, whose identity was never revealed, but I know who it is in my head.
“The idea was that Fantomex was a Sentinel — and here is Apocalypse. So, we had to do it. Plus, there was no real hope in Fantomex’s mind that the kid could be rehabilitated given that he had lived for 10 years being indoctrinated into the craziness of Apocalypse’s Akkaba Society,” Remender continued. “Then, at the end of the next arc, you get the redemption of Fantomex, which is yes, he killed that kid, but he’s cloning a new one. Of course, one doesn’t quite negate the other, but it does show a different side to the character at least, and keeps the Apocalypse of it all sort of bubbling as the B-story.”
That second arc, titled “Deathlok Nation,” ran in issues #5-8 and revealed a bit more about Fantomex’s background, details Remender developed when he was plotting out why the character would shoot the Apocalypse-child and what would happen afterwards.
“He was definitely going to shoot the kid, but at one point I had the idea that it was all misdirection and he took the very same kid and was raising him. That took the punch out of the whole thing, so I went through all the permeations on what would be the best way to go and settled on a few things. I then had to apply logic to Fantomex using what Grant Morrison had set up for him, and that was the fact that he had three brains,” Remender said. “At that point, I started working on my ‘Descendants’ storyline, which actually moved over into ‘Secret Avengers.’ The ‘Descendants’ storyline was initially intended to be the big Fantomex origin. He had a huge role in all of that, starting with Father in the ‘Deathlok Nation,’ and then we see Lady Deathstrike and the Reavers in ‘Uncanny X-Force’ #5.1. That stuff was intended to be an unearthing of all those brains and their motivations.
“By the time I got to the ‘Dark Angel Saga,’ I had already written a metric ton of notes and ideas for Fantomex. I had a really good idea of who he was in my head, even though at this point and time, I never revealed any of it,” Remender continued. “Once I decided that the Secret Avengers would be the ones to stumble upon the Descendants’ plot, Fantomex’s involvement in the whole thing seemed sort of unnatural. I had the background for that story and the character, though, and I could work with it. It was wonderful having that and it might have shown through in little bits and pieces.”
Post-“Deathlok Nation,” Remender told a few smaller tales before kicking of what would be one the series biggest and most critically acclaimed stories: “The Dark Angel Saga.” While that story was unfolding, the X-Men universe was being rocked by some serious changes thanks to the Avengers-dueled “Schism” event, but due to the self-contained nature of his book, the writer didn’t have to deal with those changes until he was ready.
“With ‘The Dark Angel Saga,’ we wanted to do an event level story in ‘X-Force’ that was taking place in the background. Me, my editor Jody LeHeup, artist Jerome Opeña and our colorist Dean White, who offers a lot of great story input, were all working together to assemble the biggest, most elaborate thing we could do while still keeping it in the background,” Remender explained. “That was the benefit of the road Axel set us on at the beginning by advising us to keep things self-contained. Later, I had an idea for X-Force’s involvement in ‘Avengers Vs. X-Men,’ and really for all of this stuff. Every editor on the book, though, maintained that our stories needed to stay self-contained, and I think that was one of the best decisions that could have been made. Now, the book stands as one big story that can be read and enjoyed on its own, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
The nine-issue “Dark Angel Saga” was one mega arc composed of three stories and a single done-in-one issue. All of those stories relied on the connective story tissue of X-Force attempting to rescue their teammate Warren Worthington from the grip of his villainous Dark Angel persona.
“When I work on a book, I end up seeding larger stories that I can tell, but it’s too easy to think up a big story and just keep escalating things,” Remender said. “I like to seed things that have intention and show that there’s a long plan. At the same time, it feels like my responsibility is to give you an ending every four to five issues; to give some sort of conclusion while there are still plenty of B and C stories percolating and moving forward into my bigger plan. I’m making sure to tell you stories with beginnings, middles and ends, and when those stories are put together, they form a much bigger story — like a Voltron of Nerdocity,” Remender laughed.
The initial story of “The Dark Angel Saga” sent the cast of “Uncanny X-Force” to the dystopian “Age of Apocalypse” reality, where Apocalypse had taken over Earth and turned it into a mutant-dominated empire. The dimension first appeared in a 1995-1996 crossover, during which alternate-reality versions of the X-Men fought back and ended Apocalypse’s rule. Remender was fan of the original storyline, and the reality had appeared infrequently in the years since its introdcution into Marvel canon. When “The Dark Angel Saga” offered him the chance to reintroduce the “Age of Apocalypse” dimension to his readers and explore some emotional moments that weren’t currently possible in the main Marvel reality, he was only too eager to do so.
“I saw there was an opportunity to have interactions with characters that were dead, and using the inter-dimensional counterparts of these characters to invoke emotion was an opportunity I hadn’t seen exploited in comics before,” Remender said. “Where else but in comic books can you have a character deal with alternate-reality versions of people who are dead? At that point in time, Nightcrawler, Jean Grey and Sabretooth are all dead, and Wolverine also has a daughter in that universe with Mariko. So for Wolverine, being in the AoA is an emotional roller coaster. That’s how the story works; the action is a byproduct, and once I started to figure that out, it felt like this was an opportunity to pull some emotions from Wolverine that we haven’t seen to this point. Basically, we made him interact with a daughter he never had, a woman he once tried to marry, another woman he loved very much and three people that were huge parts of his life and are now dead.
“Beyond that, it was just a matter of figuring out where the world was at. The Wolverine of the AoA, Weapon X, had ascended and become the Celestial Caretaker and picked up the mantle of Apocalypse in that world,” Remender continued. “That’s the fun ‘What If?’ of it all, the big twist. It was just one of those things that hadn’t really been done, and it offered some real emotional beats for the characters.”
“The Dark Angel Saga” also gave Remender the chance to incorporate some of the “Age of Apocalypse” characters into the larger narrative he was telling. In the aftermath of that story, the AoA versions of the Blob and Iceman became targets of the team, while the AoA Nightcrawler joined X-Force’s ranks.
“Bringing the AoA Nightcrawler into the book allowed me to explore a character who — you knew his whole motive was revenge, but you overlooked it, and the scorpion stung you. He’s not a bad guy. I see AoA Nightcrawler as the Wolverine of his universe. He’s a killer, and he’s not a soft and gentle person, but he is ethical,” Remender said. “What I wanted to show in our ‘Otherworld’ arc [which ran in issues #20-23] was, given an opportunity where it doesn’t get in the way of his goals, he’ll go to great links to help people. He doesn’t know the people in Otherworld, but when they’re in danger, he still wants to try and do the right thing and help them out. That was a wonderful misdirect, because there was no point where that was going to get in the way of his revenge. That led to the team, on some level, trusting him enough to keep him around.
“The ‘Final Execution’ arc was a perfect opportunity to punish the team for trusting somebody whose sole motive was murderous revenge,” Remender continued. “As soon as his goal of finding Blob and X-Force’s goal of finding Evan [The clone of the young Apocalypse that Fantomex raised to be a hero] got in the way of one another, you got to see Nightcrawler make the decision to take care of his revenge and the thing that fueled him. He was still going to go back to help them after he killed Blob, but at that point they didn’t really want his help so much!”
That does it for the first half of CBR’s look back at Rick Remender’s “Uncanny X-Force” run! Check back soon for part two.