After the events of “Second Coming,” X-Men mainstays Wolverine and Archangel took a hard look at the super teams of the Marvel Universe and decided to save them from the hard resolutions of killing the very evil villains that needed killing. They reached out to fellow X-Man Psylocke, the mercenary Deadpool, and the mutant thief Fantomex and formed their own top-secret team to do the bloody but necessary work that other heroes didn’t have the stomach for. In the current arc of the ongoing series “Uncanny X-Force” by writer Rick Remender and artist Jerome Opeña, the team embarked upon their inaugural mission, to end the threat of the villainous Apocalypse forever. It’s a mission that’s proving to be a lot more dangerous and complicated than they ever expected. CBR News spoke with Remender about his plans for the series.
One of the reasons X-Force’s mission to assassinate Apocalypse has proven so difficult is that Apocalypse’s followers in the Akkaba Society have awoken the Final Four Horsemen and sent them into the field to do battle with X-Force. The Final Four Horsemen are mutants from different points in history that serve as Apocalypse’s chief enforcers. They each have powers that live up to their ominous code names of Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War. In issue #3 of “Uncanny X-Force,” in stores now, Remender revealed the detailed origins of each of the Horsemen.
“I wanted the Final Four Horsemen to be very distinctive and very unique and I wanted them to be mutants taken from various points in time. Because the idea behind them was that these are the mutants Apocalypse collected over the years and basically just flash froze them. They were put in virtual reality and trained and he kept them on the side waiting for the last hurrah. This is basically the beginning of the last hurrah,” Remender told CBR News. “When you do these origins you write a lot and then you edit it down and show only the cream. That’s what I think people respond to. You have to find a concise and terse way to get these ideas across that is quick, interesting, and doesn’t feel like your drenching the reader in self-referential, almost masturbatory exposition.
“So with the Final Four Horsemen the plan was that they each get a story that feels unique and gives you a glimpse into who they are beyond the fact that they’re just a hero or a villain and to do that quickly in a way that fully fleshes them out,” Remender continued. “I spent more time on those four pages with their origins then I did on the rest of the script. It’s never easy. The research for the Four Horsemen took a lot of time. Your villains need to be as important as your heroes, though. They need to breathe and hopefully we accomplished that with the origins.”
Remender finds creating fully fleshed-out villains for a series like “Uncanny X-Force,” where the main characters are actively trying to kill them, a double-edged sword. “When you deal with stuff in the mainstream, a lot of time in the back of your head you expect things to go a certain way. You have assumptions like, ‘that’s not going to happen’ or ‘there’s no way it’s going to end this way.’ I want my books to constantly surprise you. In my ‘Punisher’ series I wanted Frank Castle to lose the fight to Wolverine’s kid. So by the end of it you’re shocked that his head has been cut off. You should feel that shock when you read a story,” Remender said. “It’s hard to create a lot of characters that you love and put that much time into knowing that they might get a claw in the head. But at the same time if you put that much time and energy into them, when they do get that claw in the head there’s an emotional reaction. I feel like when readers see that much time and background being invested in a character it makes them wonder if the character is going to die. So now the reader is invested and they care. So hopefully it adds a level of suspense and a level of excitement because people don’t know what’s coming next.”
In the aftermath of X-Force’s battle with the Final Four Horsemen, the five team members were separated from each other. Archangel and Deadpool were trapped on the moon’s surface, Fantomex and Wolverine were prowling the halls of Apocalypse’s massive underground chamber that houses SHIP, and Psylocke was just about to infiltrate Apocalypse’s main chamber. So in “Uncanny X-Force” #4, the final chapter of the series’ initial arc, Remender will have a chance to explore some individual character dynamics.
“One goal of mine in storytelling and in doing comics is to take something that could be stretched into seven issues and tell it in four. I want to make sure you’re getting only the very best and the most important cream. Watch the Coen Brothers’ ‘True Girt’ and you’ll see there’s no fat on the bone. They come late and they leave early. That’s the kind of storytelling I like. Don’t waste my time. Give me the cream and get in and out. So with only five characters I’m capable of doing that,” Remender said. “What we do have in issue #4 is a really big moment that a lot of people will enjoy. There are some big surprises at the end with what’s going on with Warren [Archangel]. We get into Warren’s head a little bit and I saved that to the end. If you read the first three issues Warren has been there and he matters, but he’s been reacting to the rest of the team on some level. There’s a little mistrust there as well. That’s so we could get into his head at the end of issue #4 and reveal what’s going on. When you see the internal monologue and what’s going on in Warren’s head, it adds a different dimension to this story. He and Deadpool spend the majority of the issue together and it was a very fun dynamic, especially when Deadpool realizes that he has to save Warren’s life because Warren is dying from the effects of Famine’s powers.”
The final page of “Uncanny X-Force” #3 had Psylocke discovering that when the Akkaba Society resurrected Apocalypse, the mutant villain was reborn as a young boy. So in issue #4 Psylocke and her teammates will have to make a tough choice about the boy’s ultimate fate.
“Betsy [Psylocke] loves Warren and she goes into Warren’s head on a frequent basis fixing what’s going on in there between him and his Archangel persona. That’s what Apocalypse has done to her man. So what if your spouse, your girlfriend, or a person you love has been so terribly tampered with by some malevolent badass and you went off on a mission to kill that person? You get all built up and you get banged around and you almost get killed. You fight your way through this place and you finally get there and you open a door only to discover that things aren’t what they seem,” Remender said. “Here is this doe-eyed ten-year-old kid and at that point it comes down to Betsy as a character and a human being. She’s a character that I love and have been reading about for almost 25 years. So my nerd encyclopedia goes through who I think she is at that point and I think that obviously you define your characters on how they react to just this situation. That’s why everyone has been so excited about this arc and why we’ve had so much fun writing it. So many of these situations define the characters based on how they decide.”
The decisions X-Force makes in issue #4 will have consequences that will come back to haunt the team for some time. “I just finished my outline for this series up to issue #17 and we have some things happening in the book that are so big that I don’t think anybody will anticipate them. Everyone is crazy excited. You probably won’t expect how issue #4 ends and everything is interconnected in this series; the Deathlok stuff, The World, Kid Apocalypse, the Akkaba Society. There are so many twists and turns coming up that every issue will be a revelation.”
On February 16th Remender and artist Esad Ribic (“Loki”, “Silver Surfer: Requiem”) kick off the second arc of “Uncanny X-Force” with issue #5. It’s a storyline with roots that stretch back as far as Grant Morrison’s 2002 “New X-Men” storyline “Weapon Plus,” which established the titular sinister program as the creators of Fantomex, Captain America, Wolverine, and Deadpool while also introducing their massive lab and artificial environment complex, “The World.” The second “Uncanny X-Force” arc also picks up elements from writer Jason Aaron’s “Dark Reign: The List: Wolverine” one-shot, in which Fantomex used a stolen shrink ray to miniaturize the World and then put it in his pocket. It also picks up some threads from Aaron’s “Tomorrow Dies Today” arc of the “Wolverine: Weapon X” series, which featured multiple copies of the cybernetic soldier from the future known as Deathlok.
“One thing that’s fun about working in an interconnected universe is taking things you like by other people, and Jason and I are buddies who talk frequently about stories. When we were discussing his issue of ‘The List’ I was writing notes. Then when Jason was going to do Deathlok in ‘Weapon X’ we spent two days on the phone and we figured out the first part of his story and then the second part would be the basic building blocks of what I’m doing in ‘X-Force’. In ‘The List’, Jason established that there was a file on Norman Osborn’s desk about the World, which was labeled ‘Project Deathlok,'” Remender explained. “That all tied it together for me. So with this second arc we are definitely picking up a lot of Jason’s stuff and a lot of stuff that we cooked up together about the Deathlok mythology. We want to make Deathlok a big deal and I think we figured out a way to do it. Then beyond that, there was the Grant Morrison’s stuff which I then reread several times. I really got my head into how he operated the World and what the potential of the World is. At that point I was in New York and had chatted at length with editors Jody LeHeup and Axel Alonso and the ideas began to solidify. That night with Esad and we were having dinner and we started talking about some of the potential for the World and what could be going on in there. We cooked up some very, very cool things.”
The main antagonist of the second arc of “Uncanny X-Force” is the enigmatic Father, the architect of the World. The plot of the story revolves around his attempt to reshape reality using the cybernetic Deathlok Virus.
“The Deathlok virus is precognitive evolution. It’s seeding itself in all dimensions. So these Deathloks aren’t just time traveling. They’re jumping through dimensions seeding the Deathlok virus and it’s not nefarious,” Remender revealed. “Father thinks, ‘All these super heroes and villains are destroying the world. They’re causing environmental catastrophes and cities are always being blown up. So why don’t we just have a Big Brother-style program that puts a robot cap on their heads, i.e. the Deathlok virus, and make them controllable police that can then go out and be used to usher in utopia? So Father’s plan is to spread Deathloks throughout the Everdimensions and create a Utopia in every possible situation. These Deathloks are always computing about things like the probability of future success. They also compute the probabilities of other futures. They might see the possibility of a Nimrod robot in a ‘Days of Future Past’-style scenario and try to calculate how to stop that and make sure that their future is the one that happens. So the hit of the ‘Deathlok Nation’ arc is that in order to achieve their goals X-Force must kill the future.
“While still in New York, I spent a day in the office with my editor Jody LeHeup. We had a black board and we made sure that just for these three issues we spent an entire day in there breaking it down to be tight and perfect, seeding our future plans for the World and thinking how it’s going to play into future arcs like an upcoming story involving the Shadow King,” Remender continued. “It’s solid. And of course Esad Ribic being inked by John Lucas and being colored by Matt Wilson makes for a supreme art team. So the people who are spoiled by Jerome Opena and Dean White’s work on the first arc will not be disappointed. ”
X-Force’s initial outing to kill Apocalypse was complicated by the fact that that the villain had been reborn as a small boy. In the “Deathlok Nation” arc, the team must once again wade through morally murky waters because their chief opponents are victims of the Deathlok virus and have not necessarily made a conscious choice to do evil.
“If you’re writing ‘X-Force’ the challenge it to make sure every kill is a difficult kill. I don’t think there should be many situations where it’s cut and dry. That’s something that Jody and I have spent a lot of time working on for these upcoming arcs. Jody had a great idea for something that that comes up involving the Shadow King and I had a couple of other ideas that tied into it. That led to four or five other very crucial and difficult assassination jobs. Each one they make has consequences. So the dominoes start falling all over the place and they’re forced to make other compromises and do other things. Then behind it, all as the dominoes start falling, the reality is if humanity were to discover that there was a squad of X-Men that murdered people it would start a war,” Remender remarked. “It would be the end. So they’ve got a lot of pressure in terms of keeping their existence a secret. Also I really like the idea that like Hitchcok says, ‘Killing a man should be a very difficult endeavor.’ It should never be an easy and simple decision and it should never be easy to accomplish. Beyond that I’m a fan of the consequences of murder. It’s what makes ethical dilemmas like ‘would you kill Hitler as a baby? and if you did, who would take his place?’ so fascinating, and it leads to great drama.”
X-Force’s mission against Father and the Deathloks continues in March, but that month also sees the release of the special “X-Force” #5.1 issue, which features art by Rafael Albuquerque (“American Vampire”) and pits the team against another cybernetic threat: Lady Deathstrike and the villainous Reavers. “#5.1 takes place between issues 4 and 5 continuity wise. Again, it plays another big role in stories that are coming up. It’s actually a huge piece of the puzzle,” Remender stated. “The Reavers and Lady Deathstrike are back in Australia. They’ve grabbed up Gateway again and I can’t really get into the specifics, but things are sort of how they were when we first saw them in that situation back in ‘Uncanny X-Men’ in the late ’80s. Gateway is in a situation where he has no choice but to work with the Reavers again.
“Deathstrike has been rebuilt and is back in her original Barry Windsor Smith designed form. The main six Reavers of the Australia era are back. So you’ve got Macon, Cole, Reese, Bonebreaker, Pretty Boy, and Skullbuster,” Remender continued. “There’s a lot of cyborg activity going on in ‘X-Force’ this spring. It’s all going to build. I like seeding things. I like telling stories that might leave you wondering ‘what the hell was that all about?’ Then maybe ten issues later things explode in your face and you realize that there was something going on there.”
Though the artist did a “Fear Agent” backup tale, “Uncanny X-Force” #5.1 is the first full collaboration between Remender and Rafael Albuquerque and the writer hopes it’s not the last. Remender has been consistently amazed by the artist’s work on the issue and would love to collaborate with Albuquerque again. “Rafael’s art is spectacular. We’ve literally had like five project together almost start over the past few years, including a creator-owned book we still have plans for. One thing that we had discussed while we were working on this issue was the work of Barry Windsor Smith on ‘Uncanny X-Men’ when he was doing Lady Deathstrike and the Reavers. We also talked about Marc Silvestri’s work on the later Reavers stuff,” Remender said. “I dug through those and did a lot of scanning and sent a ton of reference to Rafael because I really wanted to capture that era’s aesthetic. He took it and tweaked it and made it his own in a way that will blow away both X-fans going back and new fans. These characters have a whole new life breathed into them while still maintaining their classic aesthetic.”
Fans of Remender’s work know that the writer’s affinity for cybernetic characters stretches beyond Marvel cyborgs like Lady Deathstrike, the Reavers, and Deathlok. “I don’t know what it is about cyborgs. I know that there’s something cheesy about them, but I swear to god everything I write ends up having a cyborg in it,” the writer laughed. “I’ve gone back through my books and there are plenty of cyborgs in ‘Fear Agent.’ ‘Doll and Creature?’ Sure, cyborgs. ‘Blackheart Billy?’ Skate punk with a robot head. And now we have the Reavers and Deathlok here in ‘X-Force’, which came from an idea I had dealing with the World. We’ll see that start to unfold in issue #5.
“There’s something aesthetically about cyborgs, though. It might just be my art brain more than my writer brain, but I do love them and I think I figured out a really great hook for why there are so many cyborgs in these storylines. There will be a lot of seeding for that going on issues 5, 5.1, 6, and 7. There are some things that will play out in the bigger story that develops with the fourth arc and might play a big role beyond.”
Ultimately Remender views the first few arcs “Uncanny X-Force” as chapters in a novel. He’s working hard to make sure that these stories can be enjoyed on their own, but he’s striving just as hard to make sure they fit together to tell one grand saga. “That’s the great thing about sequential periodical storytelling. I can go big and I like to. My current Punisher mini-series ‘In the Blood’ is the end of a 26-issue story that literally began in the first and second arcs of my ‘Punisher’ series with Henry Russo and Microchip,” Remender said. “So the trick here is to make sure that the arcs break down in a way where you can come in at the beginning of each arc and you can be a new reader and get into things, but also that it all fits into a bigger story that rewards people who read from day one. I’ve got the series outlined up to issue #16 and I’m working on 17-20 now. Now I’ve got it locked down and we know everything that happens up until that point and everything that’s happening now builds up to that. So if people like that kind of story; like a big, churning pot that boils over, then explodes soup on you, poke you in the eyes and sets your house on fire; that’s what’s coming. Literally. Get insurance. ”