While several of the Marvel Universe's super teams are endorsed by the countries they're based out of, that's far from a guarantee they will operate as agents for their country's agenda. Being a super powered government operative, especially a clandestine one, means their actions are often defined by morally murky concepts like realpolitik rather than simple right and wrong. The paths of soldiers and spies, super or otherwise, are both confusing and morally perilous.
Those roads become even more treacherous for the mentally scarred individuals who have no qualms about things like killing and often find themselves embroiled in such affairs. In his current "X-Force" series that follows the exploits of a team of covert operatives fighting for what team leader Cable calls the borderless mutant nation, writer Simon Spurrier has been demonstrating just how dicey and psychically crushing being a super powered spy and soldier can be.
In today's "X-Force" #14, Spurrier and artist Rock-He Kim kick off the series' final two-part arc which pits Cable's squad against former comrade Fantomex. Spurrier joined CBR News for an in-depth discussion about that battle, the role the relationship between Cable and his comatose daughter Hope Summers will play in the final two issues, plus a look back at his run on the book.
CBR News: Hi Simon!
Simon Spurrier: Hello! Great to be back. I warn you now that I'm in a loquacious sort of mood, so expect me to splurge all my energy and truth on the first few questions then rattle through the rest in a fit of oh-god-I've-got-deadlines-to-hit panic. 'Twas ever thus.
[Laughs] Fair enough. We appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. "X-Force" comes to a conclusion with issue #15. Did you have time to wrap up all the threads you were playing with and bring the book to what you felt was a satisfying conclusion? Is your story going to end the way you originally envisioned it?
Mmmmostly, yeah. It'll come as no surprise to readers familiar with my work that I'm fascinated by the shape of stories. If you'll forgive me the icky indulgence of paraphrasing one of my own characters (the titular "Six-Gun Gorilla," FWIW), I believe that in order for the important parts of a story to really have meaning the only thing that truly matters is that it ends. "Happy" or "sad" doesn't come into it.
That's obviously problematic when it comes to ongoing series. My approach therefore is always to construct an interlinked chain of modular stories, each with its own preoccupations and conclusions, which themselves should form the beats of a wider macro tale.
In today's climate one can realistically expect a mid-tier series to last somewhere between 10 and 24 episodes before a relaunch, change-up, paradigm-shift or whatever-it-may be (and that's a phenomenon I'm all in favor of, by the way, for some of the same reasons as the above waffle about endings). Hence it's a smart strategy to go into each gig with ideas for a good half-dozen modular stories, knowing that you probably won't end up using them all.
The upshot is that in this case there are definitely things I would have liked to touch on with X-Force but didn't -- but that would always have been the case. (Off the top of my head, there was an arc about Psylocke attending an AA-style group for people addicted to killing, only to discover everybody in the group was an assassin sent to kill the others.)
But, honestly, the macro arc is as complete and as satisfying as I could've wanted.
In the final issue of the last series that you helped close out, "X-Men Legacy," you and former "Legacy" scribes Christos Gage and Mike Carey introduced the world to the mutant known as ForgetMeNot, and in "X-Force" #13 you revealed he was still alive. What made you want to bring him back in "X-Force?" In issue #13 he almost felt like a Greek Chorus-style figure delivering some Meta messages. Was that your intention with the character? How big a role will he play in the final issues of this series?
ForgetMeNot is one of my most cherished creations. He -- quite accidentally -- ticks every box I could ever have given him. He's the antithesis of all my gentle concerns about some of the less healthy margins of superhero culture. He quietly gets on with doing what's right without expecting recognition or reward. He understands that morality isn't binary, but there are fundamental behaviors you invest-in if you intend to live in a safe and happy society. He watches and tries to understand before acting. He doesn't associate justice with the destruction-of-evil, but with the creation-of-good. That's a very important distinction. He's frightened and occasionally selfish and kind of out of shape. He gets shit wrong. And, for god's sake, his fucking super-power is to be forgotten.
He's basically the nearest you can get to a balanced fusion between a superhero character and a normal, good person.
So, I couldn't help myself putting him into "X-Force," because by the time he arrived we'd reached a point -- a point I knew would come -- that we desperately needed someone untainted to be present. It's a question of POV -- it's incredibly helpful to be able to step out of your "main" characters' heads during periods when they're behaving badly, as long as you can step back in afterward.
(The classic movie "The Apartment" does this better than anything: there's a sequence in which the protagonist is being kind of a dick, during which we seamlessly take a vacation through the eyes of his romantic-interest, up until he gets his shit together and becomes relatable again -- all done as smooth as silk. Like I said before: I'm a bit of a nerd about the shapes of stories.)
In the case of "X-Force" there's a line in episode #13 which really crystallizes some of my perverse intentions for this book. In fact it's basically a transcript of my own thoughts when I was first offered the gig, and there's literally nobody else who could've said this out loud except ForgetMeNot. It goes like this:
"It's everyone's guilty pleasure, right? Cheering-on the grim-dark heroes. That one team that gets a free pass on all its nasty Â£$%& because -- hey! -- it's all for the greater good! All heading to a positive outcome!
"Except -- whoops -- now and then there's a mission with no outcome at all. And that's when you have to hope that people, normal people, start to wonder:
"Were they secretly just cheering for the nasty Â£$%& all along?"
I'm not saying that question represents the culmination of all my plans for this book, obviously. Above all else I wanted to craft a cool story about big and important stuff going on in the real world, and introduce some really fascinating conflicts amongst fascinating characters.
But yeah, down in the grimy underwear of it all I wanted to pose a quiet problem for the readers. I wanted them to see this team in action, to cheer them on, to buy-into their goals and feel thrilled by their methods. And then very... very... very... slowly... I wanted to adjust the camera and show people exactly what they'd been rooting for.
In that sense, ForgetMeNot is my cameraman.
ForgetMeNot helped thematically illustrate that turning a group of psychically scarred characters like X-Force into a covert ops team is incredibly problematic and that the team members might not necessarily be heroic anymore. Is the big difference between X-Force and, say, MI-13 ultimately that MI-13 has members like Faiza Hussain and Pete Wisdom who are more emotionally and mentally equipped to make the morally murky decisions covert operatives must make? Or do you feel there is something ultimately corrupting about secret groups like this?
"X-Force" was me doing realpolitik in a superhero world. It's that simple.
Listen -- 99% of superhero comics invest in a very beautiful, very sensible illusion. They posit that there are all these incredible men and women who spend their entire lives at war, being violent, shouldering countless burdens and battles, propagating and defending a particular ideology -- but then at the end of the day they're still fun, hopeful, likable people. I mean, you can see why that's such an attractive paradigm, right? We're talking about a willfully embraced mythology: a modernist pantheon of colorful pseudogods who are both entertainingly powerful and somehow recognizable or relatable. Better yet, they present a seductive worldview in which morality is simple and any problem can be overcome with the right combination of heart, effort and teamwork. Given how monumentally complicated and difficult most of us consider our lives to be, it's easy to see why readers gravitate to that ideal. I've written countless comics which luxuriate in that fiction and I look forward to writing countless more.
But "X-Force" isn't that book. "X-Force "is one of the very few titles whose reputation is built on slightly drawing back the curtain in one way or another. One of those ways, once upon a time, was simply to depict excessive brutality. This was still a team of superheroes as-you-know-it, but they also shot people in half and punched their heads off in between the preppy bon-mots. For me, approaching this series, it felt like that side of things had been kind of done to death, and frankly I'm a tad iffy about the value in it anyway. I wanted to keep the same spirit of taking a more hardline approach, but tackle it in a rather more psychological way.
(Here's an aside, which is actually a conversation I've heard several times between comics writers, often in the pub. Kieron [Gillen] does a bit about this in a very presentation thingy he's given a couple of times, which I expect is now online. It's about "Watchmen." See, when that seminal work first came out, the comics industry rightly lauded its sophisticated, truthful and analytical approach to what a world containing super-heroes might really be like. The word "mature" was bandied about. It was fully expected to herald a new era in super-hero fiction -- and it did, in a way. Because, actually, what the industry really took from "Watchmen" -- that "mature" approach they decided to emulate -- was nothing to do with sophistication or truth or structure, and everything to do with Rorschach breaking a guy's fingers for no good reason. We missed the point by a country mile. I digress.)
So yes, "X-Force." The One That Does It Differently. For me it felt like one of the very few titles in the Marvel canon which can not only get away with confidently presenting a more problematic view of the superhero mythology, but which arguably has a duty to do so. After all, this is a book about a group of killers attempting to make the world better through covert death and destruction. Pretending that they're all well-adjusted, non-scarred, functionally normal people would be as icky as it would be disingenuous. So hey, I thought, lean into it.
I feel like I've probably been more successful than not. Maybe. The biggest challenge has been presenting these characters' various flaws and breakages while still giving us something to root for, to hope for and even relate to, no matter how guilty or shameful that empathy might feel. I slightly regret positioning the first six episodes as a "start at the end"-style mystery -- I think there's a limit to how many different kinds of challenges you should deploy when launching a new title. But I'm delighted by how many people got it, stayed the course, and now look forward to the meaty moral mess the team's adventures have become. Most importantly, throughout, the team have always got the chance of redemption hanging above them. (And now here we are back to the stuff about Endings I mentioned above.)
Anyway, whenever it got so dark that I was afraid I'd lose people I had ForgetMeNot's perspective to borrow. If I've done it right -- as we shall find out by the end of episode #15 -- there's been an even more important redemptive candle flickering, and an even more profoundly relatable perspective built into it all from the beginning.
Perhaps the most morally damaged member of X-Force is Fantomex, who has become a full-blown adversary to the team after using the Volga Strain to transform himself into an all-powerful super human. When Fantomex turns on Cable and X-Force he comments on how the team broke their promise to help him find his other selves. This leaves me to wonder, does his almost psychotic superiority complex stem from the fact that he does not feel like a whole person? Or do you think this is something that would have plagued him even if he had remerged with his other two selves?
Interesting point. Actually, apropos of the whole "unused storylines" thing I discussed above, the possibility of Fantomex going off to rediscover his two lost selves was obviously one of the posited plots I had in reserve. For a little while I was deliberately keeping the door open for it to turn out that our Fantomex was actually the evil one -- Weapon XIII -- but in the end that felt like a cheat which somewhat undermined the core of his struggle. It's too cheap, in a book like this, to say, "People do evil things because they're evil." Anyway -- would things have turned out the same way if Fantomex had been re-merged? Probably.
For me the defining aspect of Fantomex as a character is something which (I'm guessing) was probably included as a bit of a joke in his creation. To wit: he's incapable of conceiving of anything greater than himself. That's what's caused aaaaaall of this stuff.
What's beautiful about that one little characteristic of his is that we all know someone who's a bit like that. Instant relatable-douchebag syndrome.
What's really beautiful about it is that it chimes really nicely with the realpolitik vibe I mentioned above. See, we live in a world where being as unilaterally strong as possible is the guiding principal of almost every institution there is, rather than, say, being as collectively connected as possible, or even something frilly like being as happy as possible (which to me feels like the more valuable goal). Fantomex's unfortunate delusion -- "the flaw of flawlessness" as Eva puts it -- is simply an ugly reflection of the dark war raging on the sidelines of our world at all times. Nowadays it takes the form of predator drones, Special Forces, super surveillance, economic sanctions, tighter civilian controls, censorial approaches to satire, yadda yadda yadda, but at its core exists as a simple but wretched idea: If you can't make yourself stronger from the inside, you secretly work to make everyone else weaker from the outside.
It's pretty disgusting. And it's everywhere you look. And, as we're now learning, it's the very principal which X-Force in general (and Fantomex in particular) has been blindly following all along. Only now, as we enter the final furlong, do its members start making decisions about their commitment to that principal.
These last two issues deal with the team's confrontation with Fantomex. How big does this battle become considering it's the entire against a lone superhuman former teammate?Issue #13 showed Fantomex's rampage has been a very public and global one, so can readers expect X-Force to step out of the shadows to confront him?
In a way, yes. In fact, the grand finale plays out in a strangely confined albeit epic way -- no spoilers about that -- although the crux of these last two issues is precisely about the public impression you mention.
When X-Force does confront Fantomex they'll do so without Hope Summers who was impersonating the mutant Meme, but voluntarily went back into a comatose state after seeing something off panel in issue #13 that enraged her. Will we learn what Hope saw in these final two issues? What kind of role does her relationship with Cable play in the "X-Force" finale?
I can't say much here. I struggle somewhat to answer the question because it's based on a slightly wonky assumption. Because actually Hope Summers is very much a part -- the part, you might say -- of the final chapters. And yes, we shall indeed learn what she saw.
As for her relationship with Cable, well -- again I don't want to spoil things, but I can truly say that -- despite aaaaaaaaaaall the pompous waffling I've gone through above -- that's at the raw and bleeding heart of this series, and has been all along.
You kicked "X-Force" off with artist Rock-He Kim and now he's back to draw these final two issues. How does it feel to be bringing the book to a conclusion with Rock-He? Personally I've enjoyed his flair for action and surreal fever dream-style scenes. Will these two issues give him a chance to run wild with the action and bizarre visuals?
Very much so, yeah. I think it took me a little while at the beginning to start writing for Rock-He's strengths, and he's stepped-up over the series in a huge way too. Obviously he's perfect for those big crunching splash-panel impacts, but -- more surprisingly -- he owns the batshit psychedelic stuff.
It was nice to have the exquisite Jorge Molina along for a few episodes in the middle (he does those comical beats and snarky asides incredibly well), and my "Legacy" brother Tan Eng Huat with his beautifully skewed innocence in reintroducing ForgetMeNot, but the book's clearly been defined by Rock-He's aesthetic from the start. The last two episodes go all-out to harness that: ludicrous levels of action, fizzing deployments of godlike power, and Doc Nemesis having a tantrum in the midst of it all. Perfect.
Let's start to wrap up with a look back at the series as a whole. What were some of the more challenging aspects of writing this incarnation of "X-Force?" And what were some of the more enjoyable aspects?
[Laughs] I think I've probably circled around the "challenges" drain hole with a little too much disarming honesty already. Listen, with any series -- particularly one in which you tacitly set out to do something unusual -- you're going to learn lessons along the way, and inevitably foster some couldawouldashouldas. I mentioned above that I probably went too hard too fast into the territory of WHAT'S GOING ON HERE?! STAY TUNED TO FIND OUT! That's generally a pretty handy hook to build into a series, except when you're already dealing with a bunch of less-than-flawless characters, some seriously unconventional art and a looooot of high-concept metaphor. That's arguably a few layers of difficulty too many.
Likewise, some would say I made a rod for my own back by playing up aspects of Marrow's crazy syntax in episode #1. It all gets explained and rationalized pretty quickly, of course, but I could've eased people into the frame better. (Actually, this has just reminded me there's a weird story about the lettering in episode #1, to do with the fundamental psychological differences between dialogue appearing in lowercase text and uppercase text, which caused a bit of a last-minute scramble -- but it's frankly too technical and dull to repeat here. Needless to say: lessons learned.)
Bottom line: It's bloody gold in collected form, but I reckon I could've made it a little easier on the monthly readers.
But on the whole I'm super proud of this book. It's unflinchingly dark, and I use that word with great care and design, without simply implying "it's really violent." Which, I suppose, it also is.
At the very least I can say with my hand on my heart it's about something -- actually it's about some things -- of great importance. Things to do with the world, with tribes, with struggle, with family, and above all with responsibility.
By the end of episode #15 I feel I've made my point, I've drawn together everything that's gone before, and I'm utterly satisfied with the story as an entity. That's quite a privileged position to be in.
With "X-Force" coming to an end fans only familiar with your Marvel work might be curious what to try next. Which of your current crop of titles do you recommend to them? And I understand if you have to be vague here, but is there any more Marvel work in your immediate or near future?
[Laughs] This all comes with huge thanks and respect to anyone who's made it down this far. Like I said: I was feeling loquacious today.
I'll get to the Marvel work in a moment, but regarding the non-hero work I tend to ask people to start with "Six-Gun Gorilla," which was collected in '14, with art by the amazing Jeff Stokeley (you're going to be seeing a lot more of him).
Pretty much the one thing I can assure anyone about that book is that it's not about what you think it's about. Down amidst the epic sci-fi strangeness, suicidal TV-entertainment, clockwork civil war and trippy psychic visions there's a Harvey-nominated Western about the importance of fiction, loss and endings. Trust me, it's strong.
I can't talk much about the other creator-owned projects I'm beavering away on at the moment, but they'll variously be announced over the next few months. This year's going to be very, very interesting indeed.
As for my Marvel commitments, I'm working on the Next Thing right now. I so wish I could tell you more about it, but of course I can't. All I can promise you is that it's a whole new string to my Marvel bow, the artist is one I've been wanting to work with since the very beginning of my career, and I've never been more excited to dig into a Marvel project than this one.
"X-Force" #14 by Simon Spurrier and Rock-He Kim is on sale now from Marvel Comics.