Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Second Look at a No. 1: X-Force (1991)

1991 was the most transformative year for the X-books since Len Wein and Dave Cockrum created the All-New, All-Different team in 1975. That fall, the books were revamped like a network’s fall TV schedule. Suddenly there were enough X-Men for two titles, X-Factor was now a government-run team made up of brilliantly written C-stringers, and Wolverine and Excalibur … OK, not every book underwent a huge makeover.

But two months before the Blue and Gold teams and Havok’s first gig as team leader, there was X-Force, the book that took a bunch of skinny, gangly-looking New Mutants and turned them into jacked weapon-wielding warriors under the direction of Cable, a paramilitary leader who looked like an AARP rookie on steroids.

Early X-Force followed the proto-Image format of the rockstar artist getting top billing and a writer, in this case Fabian Nicieza, who started working with Liefeld on New Mutants, scripting Liefeld’s plot. The same concept drove Chris Claremont from X-Men. Then the artists themselves – Liefeld, Jim Lee, Todd MacFarlane, et al – left several months later to found Image Comics, leaving Marvel with a major talent drain on its hands and giving rise to the Scott Lobdell era of X-Men.

One of these trading cards was polybagged with each X-Force #1

This X-Force had a different relationship to the X-Men than the X-Forces of the past decade. Whereas the modern X-Force started as a band of killers and trackers within the X-Men, the original team were fugitives hunted by the government, putting space between them and Xavier’s school and even some of their former teammates in the New Mutants.

Gone are the whimsical trips to Asgard and colorful characters like the alien robot who bonds with a boy who can understand any language. Now, everyone looks like they went to the Van Damme/Segal/Lundgren school of acting, where even older gentlemen like Cable and SHIELD Commander G.W. Bridge are Mr. Universe specimens. Domino at one point calls both Cable and Cannonball “beef bags,” a phrase that could not be applied to the coal-miner’s son just a few years prior, when he was being drawn by artists like Bill Sienkiewicz.

Even the introductory tag line sounds like it fell out of an action movie: “Some would call them heroes. Some would call them rebels. They fight for a fading dream in a world of nightmares.” Now, imagine that being read by the late Don LaFontaine, accompanied by “Rated PG-13. Exploding onto a screen near you this fall.”

P.S.: Three guesses what the G.W. in G.W. Bridge stands for, and the first two don’t count.

Picking up from New Mutants #100, Cable’s group starts out small, with his confidante Domino (who is eventually revealed not to be Domino), ex-New Mutants Cannonball and Boom-Boom, former Hellion Warpath (brother of dead X-Man John Proudstar), and new, Liefeld-created characters Shatterstar (warrior from the Mojoverse with the double-bladed sword) and Feral (Morlock).

The book opens with X-Force planning a raid on the Mutant Liberation Front, the group of thugs run by Stryfe, who will go on to become the focus of a major X-Men event in a year’s time. In the meantime, enjoy muddling through an endless string of clues about Cable’s and Stryfe’s pasts.

And the first Sign That This is Not the New Mutants occurs on Page 9, when Shatterstar cuts off MLF member Reaper’s left hand. Reaper essentially reacts like the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, holding his stump and saying, “Yeah, but you won’t kill me.” Feral then snaps Wildside’s jaw on Page 17. Note that the largest acts of violence are being perpetrated a) by the good guys and b) by the newest, Liefeld-created characters. As violent as they are, though, Cable’s rule is clear: “You can kill in self-defense, not for sport!” Because at this point, the Comics Code is still in effect. That said, he sees Stryfe two pages later and says, “You’re dead, end of story,” without Stryfe having attacked.

Meanwhile, in the B plot, former New Mutant and future Avenger Sunspot is training to run his family’s company – and take out assassins, or something – with his adviser Gideon, who clearly cannot be trusted because he is bald except for his long, flowing, green ponytail. The two prep for a hostile takeover by fighting robots, then end up getting taken over hostile-ly themselves by Black Tom Cassidy, leading to a pre-9/11 explosion at the World Trade Center that at the time was a novel idea.

Speaking of Gideon, there are at least three characters in this book – Gideon, Domino and Shatterstar – who are drawn with ponytails worn high on the head. And most of them are dudes. Now, I may have only been 11 at the time, but I do not remember this being a major fashion trend. There was never an episode of Saved by the Bell in which Kelly, Jesse and Lisa all wore high-on-the-head ponytails, and certainly not one in which Mr. Belding did. Thankfully, Liefeld apparently abandoned that fashion choice by the time he started pilfering his X-Force designs to create Youngblood for Image, but the ponytail menace didn’t start and stop with him. A Topless Robot post from 2013 points out that Omega Red, created by Liefeld compeer Jim Lee, and temporary Thor Eric Masterson also sported some sick ponies, though Masterson’s didn’t ride high on the head.

P.P.S.: Yes, that is my Gideon action figure. Maybe one day I’ll collect all the Externals.

Appropos of nothing: Bridge at one point refers to Cable as “the silent explosion.” Come on, guys. A fart joke? You’re better than that.

Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

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