After 22 columns of totally dodging the question that has undoubtedly been on everyone’s mind, I’m now addressing the heavily-armed and needlessly shoulder-padded elephant that is half in the room and half body-sliding to a dystopian time period.
Seeing as how the very name of this column is derived from a bombastic string of words neatly placed on the top of credit boxes of comics that sold a million copies without the help of a big budget tie-in, one would think I owed my readership an answer to that question well before I crept up on my six month of publication. Here it is: I firmly believe “X-Force” was the most consistent Marvel comic of the ’90s. And yes, I firmly acknowledge that there are much better runs and storylines and single issues; I’m arguing that month-in and month-out, issue by issue, “X-Force” hardly faltered with the 99 issues put out in that notorious decade.
The series began as mediocre as you inaccurately assume the series always was. The first issues were a nearly incoherent ’90s mess saved only by Fabian Nicieza’s subversive dialogue. The dude was given new models of machismo on every other page; G.W. Bridge and Kane showed up with character designs that proved that teeth weren’t the only thing that could be gritted. What was he supposed to do, write serious dialogue? Instead he wrote in “X-Force #4”:
DOMINO: What kind of strategy are you guys employing?
DOMINO: Forget I asked.
Nicieza started off that issue, the second part of an incomprehensible and literally sideways cross-over with Todd MacFarlane’s “Spider-Man,” with the caption, “Manhattan. Pick it up as you go along.” The thing is, the plot is all-over-the-map, but Nicieza’s nonstop banter and the wry characterization he adds makes the first nine issues with Rob Liefeld gleefully tortuous.
Yes, that’s right. Rob Liefeld, the artist so irrevocably tied to “X-Force,” only drew eight of the first nine issues before saying “sayonara” and skateboarding away (it was the early ’90s). He drew nine percent of “X-Force’s” ’90s output. Nine percent! People don’t seem to realize this, what with those initial nine issues selling numbers so high that, if accomplished today, they’d make Robert Kirkman blush.
As soon as “X-Force” lost Liefeld, the book took off as Nicieza immediately began jettisoning the clunkier parts of the title. He tied up stories involving a Domino impersonator and Tolliver (quite possibly the worst named villain this side of Forearm, coincidentally another Liefeld jam). Then Nicieza ditched Cable and picked up Greg Capullo. Yeah, that Greg Capullo. And even though this was his first big assignment (sorry “Quasar” fans), the guy brought it in droves. He unified the team’s look, gave them more realistic proportions, and his knack for facial expressions meant that these kids could finally emote as well as grimace.
Every one of my arguments for “X-Force”Â being great pretty much stem from the absolutely phenomenal coda to the “X-Cutioner’s Song” crossover, the 19th issue entitled “The Opened Hand, The Closed Fist.” It’s the best issue of “X-Force”Â ever, and currently the seventeenth best comic I have read in my entire life. Yes, I have a database. Of course I have a database.
So why is this issue so great? It’s because Nicieza actually addresses the inherent consequences created by the title’s first year of stories while addressing the repercussionsÂ of the team being held captive by Xavier during “X-Cutioner’s Song.” This confrontation is the foundation on which “X-Force” was launched, and it’s one that was never touched under Liefeld’s control; here it finally happens and it pays off big time. Xavier still believes the team to be children, incapable of handling their own destiny. Cannonball explains that they are ready to take control of their lives, free of any mentor. “X-Force” immediately snaps into place here, as Nicieza firmly states this book’s actual mission statement beyond BIG GUNS BIG CLAWS THIS SWORD HAS TWO BLADES YO. This book is about the struggles of growing up, and every person who has had to tell their parents, “Hey, I’m an adult now” can instantly relate to the discussion Cannonball and Professor Xavier have in this issue. Yeah, I think this superhero story is secretly pretty deep, guys.
So many comics are about adults and teenagers, but precious few are about the awkward transitional period in-between the two. That’s what this series is all about. “X-Force” is thematically notÂ about Cable. It is about the absence of authority and who you become in said absence. That is why the Nicieza/Capullo run of issues, particularly #19, works so well.
Of course, Cable came back when it was time for the next big X-Event, but his re-integration was not seamless. He found a more mature Cannonball who wasn’t as dependent as before, and a team of individuals with real problems. Nicieza explored Siryn’s alcoholism and Warpath’s quiet, self-sacrificing love for her. How often do comics depict a completely one-sided romance? Definitely not as regularly as we all experience them. Nicieza, now working with Tony Daniel (yes, that Tony Daniel), fleshed out Rictor’s past as well as Feral’s, the latter going from a one-note bad girl to a deeply traumatized individual with an origin story fit for an episode of “Law & Order.”
Nicieza’s initial 43 issues provided the team with firm characterizations that writers and artists would build on for the remainder of the book’s run. Jeph Loeb dove into Boomer’s history, exploring her estranged relationship with her father and ending her relationship with Cannonball, both pushing her towards a sudden identity change into the cocky Meltdown. The usually emotionless Shatterstar struggled with losing his best friend, Rictor, with Loeb going as far as the times would let him to out Shatterstar as having romantic feelings towards another man. Warpath abandoned his unrequited crush on Siryn and started dating Risque who was, as her name suggested, a very bad influence on him. And when they had their fill of fighting Sentinels and C-List adversaries (apologies to all fans of Mimic and the Blob), incoming writer John Francis Moore pared the team down to a manageable five and had them crisscross the country, leaving their costumes and codenames behind while hanging out at the Burning Man festival and getting piercings. Moore had the team reconnect with their old friend Karma, now a pink-haired film student who was also as much of a lesbian as the times would allow.
I would be remiss to omit the contributions of artist Adam Pollina, who, during his two runs on the book (one with Loeb and one with Moore), took the book to new heights of weird, artistic storytelling that blew my middle-school-aged brain. His characters were angular and dramatic as well as toned-down compared to the original buffed-up character designs. They dressed age appropriate and era-appropriate, at times looking more like the cast of the cult-film “Empire Records” than another superhero team. That worked to the book’s thematic advantage. These weren’t just another X-Team. They were X-Force. They were all 20somethings and they were just different, man.
I get that the young-adult-superheroes theme isn’t for everyone, but I’m hard-pressed to think of another series that feels, on the whole, as earnest an exploration of this theme as “X-Force.” The fact that this was accomplished by a who’s-who of notable comic book talent, most likely with no communication between creative teams, just baffles me. The team makes it through to the end of the decade feeling like a mostly-uninterrupted (Shatterstar’s origin two-parter did not happen) emotional evolution of the team that existed in the very first issue. Nowadays when relaunches seemingly dictate a harsh about-face of status quos, I look to “X-Force” as an example of how successful a comic can be without hitting the reset button.
I just made the case for “X-Force” being a comic you should not pass by when searching through the dollar bins. But still, Brett, “why X-Force?” Truthfully, I just loved it as a kid and it has as much of a piece of my soul as the Millennium Falcon does. This was the only series that I would regularly reread, as I was fascinated with seeing the friendships evolve over time. By the time I was in middle-school and high school, the series hit it’s innovative road trip period; these characters felt like they were growing up with me. I reread the Nicieza/Capullo run often as an adult, this feat made easier now that it’s been collected into one hardcover, and it never disappoints me. The friendships therein meant so much to me during an adolescence that sucked in the way that every adolescence sucks. “X-Force” vicariously let me hit the road with the coolest heroes around.
It seems like fan-adults, at some point, decide what their “thing” is and then ride it out. I have friends who collect Superman stuff and I have friends who live their lives by Batman’s rules. I know people who have transitioned from a childhood loving Spider-Man to an adulthood loving Daredevil. We all have our things. I have every X-Force Minimate figure that’s been produced and a sketch book filled with X-Force commissions. I have every ’90s X-Force hardcover that’s been produced even though I will never, ever part with the single issues that my young hands first pulled off a Kroger’s rack.
“Why X-Force?” Because it’s a part of me.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show Left Handed Radio: The Sequel Machine. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).