X-Force Issues 121 – 122 “Lacuna”
Our main story starts with Tike, Guy and Edie watching recruitment videos to replace Saint Anna and Bloke. The first one they watch is a black mutant named The Spike with the power to grow, control and fire spikes from his body. Guy and Edie are impressed but Tike thinks he’s “nothin’ but a glorified spear chucker” which technically with his powers he kind of is but is obviously supposed to be Tike playing some kind of race game.
The three agree not to pick The Spike and at a press conference announce that they have yet to pick replacement members. The conference gets interrupted by The Spike though and his “national association for keeping it real” who declare Tike Alicar a “Captain Coconut” because he’s black on the outside and white on the inside.
The Spike and Tike get into an argument about whether he’s a black man whose a mutant or a mutant who happens to be black and what exactly that means. It looks like the argument is going to escalate into a full on brawl but Alicar walks away before it devolves into fighting. Well Alicar doesn’t fight anyway but there’s nothing stopping Vivisector and Phat from throwing down with The Spike in front of the cameras.
Edie tracks Tike back to his home to find out that The Anarchist actually has obsessive compulsive disorder and likes to constantly wash his hands. She quizzes him about The Spike and he gets so annoyed he accidentally vaporises the building they’re in.
This issue also establishes many sub-plots. Phat and Vivisector meet up with Spike Freeman, the groups financial backer who is still trying to start an X-Force civil war to boost ratings. He convinces the pair that everyone sees the team as the Tike, Edie and Guy show and that if they want more media attention Phat and Vivisector need to do some outrageous and attention gabbing things like fight other members of X-Force.
Guy and Edie edge around a romance, Guy is clearly interested as is Edie but he’s unsure about doing anything since he has a responsibility as team leader. Edie though is clearly conscious of how fragile their lives are and wants to grab any opportunity while she can. For example she’s trying to get her own talk show which will involve her narrating old X-Force battles; something Guy finds to be incredibly trashy.
Lastly there is the mystery of just who or what is Lacuna. A mysterious piece of graffiti that signals something going wrong for X-Force like Edie’s hat changing or some fish being dropped in their swimming pool.
I turns out Lacuna is a new character, a teenaged mutant girl with the power to move between moments in time. Lacuna wants to do good in the world and sees X-Force as the means to do this as she thinks their media perception is a front for people who genuinely want to be heroes. She’s being playing these pranks to show how useful she can be but that’s not how you join X-Force, you need an agent for starters. Lacuna is undeterred though and threatens to kill herself by jumping into a pool full of acid if the team say no to her request.
So Edie of course smirks to camera and says “No!”
This issue starts with a flashback to Tike’s youth, growing up in the far North of America in a very white part of town, with adopted white parents and playing in the white snow. Two kids tease him that his colour is coming off in the snow and the idea so intrigues the young boy’s mind that he starts washing his hands in an attempt to scrub his colour away.
Our cliffhanger gets resolved boringly as Lacuna was just making an idle threat. A conversation ensues though, do we want her to join. Guy and Edie stick to the party line but Tike likes her and suggests her instead of The Spike.
Speaking of The Spike, Edie’s going to be standing for Larry King on his talk show whilst he has the flu and The Spike is her first guest. What’s more she’d like Tike and Guy to come along too to try and stir up some controversy.
As Edie, Guy and Tike prepare for the show conversation turns back to The Spike. Guy and Edie still want him and still don’t understand why Tike is so adamant he shouldn’t join. Eventually Tike fesses up, it’s because he’s black. Tike sees himself as the token black guy on the team and worries that if a younger black man joins he’ll be kicked from the team, literally killed off.
All the various sub-plots and angst comes to a head on the tonight show. Spike and Tike argue on the same theme of what being black means and as they do so Phat and Vivisector (who are high as kites) bust in, smashing up the roof and causing it to fall on the audience. Spike, Tike and Guy move to save the audience but Lacuna shows up, saving the day and at the same time stripping the team down to their underwear.
In the aftermath of that chaos Tike agrees to let Spike join if Lacuna joins, but now Edie is adamant Lacuna can’t join. At an intimate dinner with Guy (wherein they discuss how a guy that sensitive can have sex, apparently he has a special ointment) they discuss the various recent events and are once again interrupted by Lacuna. Edie is furious and Guy teases her that it might be because she’s jealous of a younger woman who also appears capable of teleporting. Apparently what was supposed to be an idle joke strikes a nerve as Edie actually is jealous of Lacuna.
Poor Guy, he’s going to have to have nobody to rub his ointment in.
There’s a twist though, Lacuna isn’t going to join X-Force after all. Instead she’s been offered the TV show that would have gone to Edie, identifying that her ability to get up close and intimate with celebrities makes her the ultimate TV gossip host. And Lacuna’s happy because she realises she didn’t really want to be a do-gooder, she just wanted to disappoint her parents.
Our comic ends with The Spike making a threat to Tike not to start any long novels, he knows as well as Tike does that super-hero teams usually only have room for one black guy.
Tike Alicar, The Anarchist, was up until this point the least developed of the main characters in this book. He was loud, rude and resistant to authority but we hadn’t gotten to see any layers to him like we’d seen with Edie and Guy. These two issues though delve deep into his character in a big way and reveal a whole mess of neuroses in there.
The biggest reveal is that Tike has undiagnosed OCD. This throws his every action as The Anarchist into question. An anarchist is one who believes that there should not be any external forms of control or limits placed upon human freedom. In a more general sense it means a lack of order and everything we’ve seen Tike do so far, destroying hotel suites, filling swimming pools with acid, killing people and even threatening to kill his own team mates fits that image of an uncontrollable and wild person, of anarchy personified.
But OCD is all about systems of control and liking everything to be ordered and static. It’s a reaction to the chaos and randomness of real life by trying to control it and make it safe and ordered. Because Tike has OCD and keeps it hidden and secret from others we can assume that his OCD is his reality, his true personality and The Anarchist is a mask, a role he’s playing to disguise his true desire for order and control. He recognises he can’t have it so he plays pretend that he doesn’t want it in the role of The Anarchist.
His OCD is also tied up with his race and this two parter is about racial politics more than anything else. Tike Alicar is a black* man; this is an indisputable fact but he doesn’t feel like he is. He grew up in a very white part of the country with white parents. He grew up believing that if he could just scrub hard enough the black would wash and there’d be a white person underneath, he thinks that he is a white person underneath. And in a sense he is. Being black is just a skin colour ultimately but it’s a skin colour that works as a signifier for many common cultural biases and experiences. Many black people in America have known poverty either in their direct experience or from a recent family member. The Spike has, Tike hasn’t. Nearly every black person in America can trace their ancestry back to a slave and that has to have a psychological effect on how you view the world. And whilst Tike can probably trace his genetic ancestry in that way his actual family were white people and so he didn’t grow up in a household with that cultural bias. The Spike presumably did. Being black doesn’t make you anything other black ultimately but being black means you probably had a, b and c influences on you growing up that will affect your personality and outlook on life and so means that for most black people being black is about more than the skin colour in some sense.
The Anarchist isn’t just Tike playing a role it’s specifically Tike playing the role of what he thinks a black person should act like, angry with the system, resistant to forms of authority (as a reaction to slavery, etc) but utterly confident in who he is and unafraid to change it for everyone. Although he is small b black he is pretending to be large B Black.
All the criticisms that The Spike makes of him, that he’s white on the inside, that he pretends to be black are absolutely true.
They speak more negatively about The Spike than they do about Tike Alicar.
Because when The Spike is saying that black people have to act a certain way and that Tike Alicar is just pretending to act that way he is correct but Alicar is doing it to game the system for fame and fortune, whereas The Spike seems to sincerely believe it. And that, is racist. Expecting a group to all act a certain way and all hold similar beliefs because of something arbitrary like the colour of their skin is the very definition of prejudice, you are pre-judging what that person will be like even though the one quality that is true, being black, is not necessarily a signifier of any other feature, like liking fried chicken and watermelon for example.
And then you bring in the mutant metaphor and it gets even more complicated and clever.
Look at this exchange.
I’ve actually heard variations on this exact statement from many people, including some quite clever critics and artists that belong to multiple what we might call non-privileged groups. Somebody who is black and a woman or gay and jewish, etc, etc. This person obviously belongs in the venn diagram for black as well as the venn diagram for gay but might find that there is no group that accepts both aspects of their personality. If they’re involved in racial equality activism and politics they can find that many of the black men that work so hard to fight for equality based on the colour of a persons skin are raging homophobes. The problem with playing racial or minority politics is that it can work to separate people into discrete categories, gay, straight, black, white, men, women when it should be striving to break down the barriers between these groups. If your goal is to get equality for black people you naturally pull together a lot of like minded black people to help you, but that can have the unintended consequence of dividing the world into a duality of black/white and ignoring those other dualities that make it so much more complicated and messy to be a human being in a multi-cultural world.
Tike is both black and a mutant, The Spike’s statement is a nonsense, he is both. But what Spike means is which of these two groups does Tike define himself as? And he can only be one even though he is both. And although The Anarchist is a role Tike created Tike has been playing it so long that his response is basically fuck you I’m Tike Alicar I’m neither mutant nor black but me. Being black means you have to come from poverty and the ghetto? No, fuck you I’m rich and I come from a nice middle class home with good parents that loved me. Being a mutant means you’re hated and feared? No, fuck you I’m a celebrity loved by millions.
I also love when he calls Edie white; because she isn’t, she’s blue. Bright blue! She is as “coloured” as he is and emphatically not white. But we kind of understand what The Spike means. Edie has parents who are white and she was born blue not because she belongs to a culture of blue people but because of her mutation. His statement “you’re white” kind of makes sense but on the surface is completely wrong, she’s blue. It just goes to show that people like The Spike deal in dualities his world is divided into white/black and has no space for blue people.
Mutancy is often used a stand in for race in the Marvel universe. Being a mutant works as a kind of metaphor for being a different race or sexual orientation or basically any divergence from the norm. But in using mutancy in tandem with race Milligan points out people differ from “the norm” in so many different ways that constantly defining yourself against it is ludicrous.
Especially because identity is fluid and a creation. Tike can’t help but have black skin but it doesn’t inform his identity unless he chooses to let it any more than Edie’s blue skin informs hers.
I think that’s another reason why I love Edie so much. She’s the most fame obsessed member of the team, as shown in this arc and her desire to get her own TV show, but at no point does anybody ever point out that she’s blue, like this would be any kind of problem to being a TV star.
Milligan has a lot of fun with sending up super-hero concepts again in this arc. Tike admitting that he’s scared of The Spike because he thinks he’ll be killed off is probably the best example of this. It’s a nod towards the conventions of genre fiction that often use token black and Asian characters and don’t feel like they need to double up on them but it’s also a nod to horror movie conventions about how the black guy always dies first. And it’s a stab at broader pop-culture where sit-coms, films, etc also come from a white dominated default and only feel the need to have one token black character. You might imagine Milligan and Allred themselves sitting down and going, well we have a black guy and we need this new character why not make him Hispanic or Asian instead? That would come from a well meaning place but it reduces Alicar to, black guy on team, when he is a character so much more well rounded and fleshed out than that.
My favourite meta gag this time is the announcer at the press conference. “Once again, dramatic events interrupt an X-Force Press conference… of course they will avoid dealing with the real issues of race, gender and capital in this country.” X comics of course use the mutant concept as a metaphor but always end their plots with a brutal super-hero slugfest because of course what better way to avoid answering the questions your concept raises than mindless violence!!
Phat and Vivisector finally get a plotline that is both broadly satirical of reality TV (with its need to invent conflict where there is none to keep audience attention) but also satirical of super-heroes in specific. They get told to fight the other team members, to do something controversial in order to steal the spotlight. This functions both as a dig at stars who exist solely to fill gossip pages such as Lindsey Lohan whose fame and earnings are contingent upon her being high as a kite at public events and on the structure of super-hero comics where face time goes to those character with dramatic story conflicts such as internal angst or arguing with other characters. It’s as if Spike Freeman is Allred, gliding in and going, I’ll draw you more if you start doing interesting things guys but at the moment you’re boring.
X-Force is remembered as that comic that satirised pop culture but really in re-reading it I’ve felt it functions more as a satire of super-hero conventions than a straight pop-culture satire. It’s also kept the stories very dramatic and serious even if there are jokes and absurd moments.
Then there’s Lacuna.
Hoh boy Lacuna.
Lacuna is a joke character, plain and simple. She does ridiculous slap stick things like strip the team naked and drop fish in their pool.
In terms of personality and motivation she’s a character created for a joke too. See her parents are hippies and anti-establishment. Lacuna is in the stage of her life where she wants to rebel against authority, broadly in the sense of the world and specifically her parents. She also wants to do good in the world. So she tries to do things like, give her food to the homeless or join a super-hero team, things she think will annoy her parents and make the world a better place.
But since her parents are more rebellious than her they fully support her whatever she wishes to do and she can’t annoy them, no matter what she tries she can’t rebel against rebels.
Until she instead decides to rebel by becoming a part of the media machine and making the world an actively worse place by becoming a gossip show presenter.
It’s a joke. It’s not a bad joke and some of the slapstick (especially the naked sequence) is beautifully drawn by Allred and very funny. But it’s a joke and at this stage X-Force isn’t a full on humour comic and the tone feels misjudged. Lacuna may be the name of this arc but she’s the worst thing about it whereas everything involving The Anarchist and The Spike is a very well observed and intelligent satire on race in the media and in comics.
*Just as an aside I’ll be using black rather than terms like African American. I know it’s a weighted term because of our associations in western culture of white with good and purity and black with evil and filthiness but a) it’s the term the comic uses b) I’m British and that’s the most widely used term over here and c) African American has massive issues and loaded biases too. Just know that I’m not intending to offend anyone when I say black I’m just using a simple term to denote dark brown skin tone