Mummyboon started as a blog talking about my life in Japan mostly as a way for all my family back home to keep up to speed on my adventures without me having to send out a million e-mails. As time went on it started to evolve into me talking about aspects of Japanese culture that fascinated me, specifically where Western culture and Asian culture mashed together as in the form of Kit-Kats.
Since returning to the U.K. it has evolved again into a website where I talk about the things that fascinate me and which I happen to know something about, Japan, Films, Animation.
However I don’t talk about comics very much and that really makes no sense since I know more about comics than pretty much anything. My undergraduate dissertation was about comics. They are by far and away my favourite form of entertainment and after things like my fiancée, my family and my friends probably the most important continuing feature in my life.*
So starting today we’re going to change that and Mummyboon is launching a new comic book feature, “Mummyboon’s longbox”
The structure of this is going to be slightly different to most comic websites. I have my background in English literature and the style of review employed in that is very different to the normal, this is what is out this week, stuff you get from sites like comicbookresources or House to Astonish. Not that I’m knocking that approach, nor do I consider myself to be half the critic Paul O’Brien is. It’s also not going to be similar to my film reviews which are usually posted over at Simply Syndicated first and are more of a “should you go see this” kind of thing.
Instead I’m going to be taking a run by a certain creative team and going start to finish on a story-arc by story-arc basis analysing the themes, character development, artwork and storytelling choices and re-ocurring motifs, approaching a run of comics as if it were a novel or a single contained work of literature.
And to start, inspired by comics should be good’s recent series on the greatest x-men stories ever told I thought I’d re-examine one of my all time favourite comics X-Force/ X-Statix.
Today we’re going to start with issue #116 of X-Force originally published in 2001 which is a done in one story that sets the tone for the rest of the run that follows it.
There is a lot of context behind this issue that we need to unpack before we can get to the issue itself since the state of comics and specifically the X-men at the time, as well as super-heroes in the media is a huge aspect of the themes behind this run.
The main thing you need to know is that Marvel was in a weird time in 2001. The 90’s were of course a huge boom time for comics, fuelled by a speculator bubble that perceived comics as collectibles rather than a medium for entertainment. When that bubble burst one of the casualties was Marvel comics and they went bankrupt.
That bankruptcy put a severe rot into the creative side of the actual comics. Marketing effectively took over editorial and they were hugely conservative. Any changes to the characters, any risk at all, was vetoed as it could potentially harm the image of the characters and was likely to affect the bottom line. This led to a few years of really dreadful dull comics for Marvel.
In particular it led to some bad times for the X-Men. The X-Men had never been particular good in the 90’s but they had been hugely, massively popular. X-Men Volume 2 Number 1 remains the biggest selling single issue of all time with over a million issues sold (to put that in some perspective a monster hit these days will be lucky to break 200,000 issues). But by 2000 sales were in the gutter as well as the actual books being lousy.
I personally had started reading comics in the early 90’s with that very issue of X-Men, as did many people my age, and although the comics of the early 90’s were confused, soapy messes with terrible art they were scientifically perfected to be the ideal brain candy for an imaginative kid aged 10. By the late 90’s I had matured and the stories had worsened and I had gradually fallen out of love with comics. I still went to comic shops occasionally but I was growing disillusioned and started to read older stuff in trade rather than picking up anything new.
Then in 2000 two things changed.
Firstly Marvel became solvent again and secondly they gained a new publisher Bill Jemas and a new Editor in Chief Joe Quesada. It was an exciting and free time at Marvel. There was an acknowledgement that the comics of the last five years had been drab and poorly received and so now there was an anything goes approach. Incredibly bizarre projects were greenlit in the early 00’s because the thinking seemed to be to throw everything at the wall and see what stuck.
Secondly the X-Men film came out.
X-Men the film was not a monster box office hit but it was a solid one and it stands as the film that kicked off the age of super hero movies that persists to this day. It was a financial success.
But it didn’t translate to any comic sales.
Anybody who had gone to see X-Men the Movie and then gone into a comic shop looking for some more X-Men stories would have been confronted by something completely unrecognizable. Different casts in costumes that weren’t the slick black leather of the films but instead absolutely awful pseudo medieval attire. And the stories were stuck in an incomprehensible morass about some mutants who were more mutant than regular mutants called the Neo. It was awful, even a lifelong X-Men fan like myself found it confusing and off putting.
Bill Jemas took one look at the state of the X-Line, previously Marvel’s cash cow and he absolutely despaired. The books were bad, the costumes were bad, worse there were too many books that weren’t distinct from each other. What did X-Factor have to differentiate it to X-Force or X-Man or X-Men Unlimited, etc, etc.
So Marvel decided to re-invent the entire X-line at the time. Scores of books were cancelled, and new ones like Ultimate X-Men (a brand new streamlined continuity title designed to appeal to fans of the film) launched.
Most excitedly for me Grant Morrisson was brought on to write X-Men in a run of comics that may be my all time personal favourite. His first issue of E for Extinction is the issue that got me buying comics regularly again.
X-Force was part of this larger line wide re-launch. But whereas X-Men was trying to go back to the core concept X-Force instead had one of the most radical changes ever conceived.
Firstly this involved swapping the cast entirely.
This is a pretty radical thing to do in a comics re-launch, especially for the X-Men and their spin-off titles. X-Force had been a book without a high concept for most of is existence. Instead what kept readers coming back to it were popular characters like Siryn, Cannonball, Warpath and Boomer. If you liked those characters you had to read X-Force to get their continuing adventures.
It’s not without precedent though. Hell X-Force itself was originally the New Mutants.** The best example of this though was the X-Men themselves. Originally a 5 man band of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, Beast and Iceman X-Men was a mid to low tier seller that was basically cancelled in the early 70’s. It was brought back within the decade but with only Cyclops coming back from the original team. Instead new characters like Storm, Collossus, Nightcrawler and a little guy you might know called Wolverine made up the rest of the cast. It was this relaunch that would build to eventually become the absolute monster hit that would make X-Men 1 in the 90’s the biggest selling comic of all time.
So changing the cast was a brave move but one with precedent. The other big change was even more radical and something Marvel had never really done before; it would be published without the comics code.
Okay more unpacking here but very briefly the comics code was an authority that censored comics; they determined what could and could not be published in material that was considered age appropriate for children.
The code was a lot less powerful in 2001 than it was when it was first formed and publishers had been producing content that was clearly unsuitable for children without its stamp on it before. Marvel had not done so however, and those publishers that did so usually positioned those books as outside their main fictional universes which were meant to be safe and kid friendly.
X-Force would therefore be the first in universe Marvel comics published without code consent since some drug related issues of Spider-Man in the mid 70’s.
This was a big deal for me. This was a signifier that this book was going to have real adult story telling and deal with the proper ramifications of violence. That this was no kid’s book, but a super hero story that kids literally weren’t allowed to read.
That was exciting. The whole thing was exciting. With all the changes in X-men comics it was an exciting time to be an X-fan.
So with all that context laid down let’s actually look at what happens in X-Force #116
Zeitgeist, a mutant with the ability to vomit streams of acid, is watching video of his team the X-Force on an unspecified mission against unspecified bad guys. This is being filmed by a tiny green guy that looks like a potato named Doop. The mission goes well except for the death of Sluk, a mutant whose face is made out of orange tentacles. Zeitgeist wants to review tactics but he is distracted by two things, the hot models he has at home with him in his bed and the memory of the girl whose face he destroyed when he first learned he was a mutant. He vomited acid onto her uncontrollably ruining her life and he doesn’t even know her name.
Days later and at a media event Tike Alicar, The Anarchist, is announced as Sluk’s replacement on the team. Zeitgeist is against this as he sees Alicar as a threat, an angry and abrasive troublemaker who’ll defy orders and cause trouble. And he’s right, Alicar is all those things as he reveals during an interview with a news reporter where he blows the roof off a ceiling and declares that being a black mutant is like “being black with a little black added.”
Zeitgeist doesn’t have a choice though since he is not in control of X-Force, their media backers are and in particular their manager, Coach, who lays down the law; Alicar makes the team.
After an argument with his other team members, who behave more like celebrities than super heroes, Zeitgeist has dinner with the most senior member, Edie, known as U-Go Girl, a teleporter that is in the job for money and fame and doesn’t think about the consequences of the violent missions they go on. She takes the side that Alicar’s bad behaviour will be good for the cameras but before the argument ends the two are summoned for a mission.
A thinly veiled version of N-Sync has been captured and X-Force have to go rescue them. They do so treating the entire event not like a super-heroic rescue mission but like a media event asking who the sponsors are and what their motivation is.
X-Force teleport in, kill numerous unidentified villains and then.
Well then everyone dies.
Yes, you read that right.
Okay Anarchist and U-Go Girl survive but every other member of the team*** we just got introduced to is killed by random faceless terrorists and the issue ends with Edie cradling Zeitgeist’s body, his spilled intestines on her lap and Zeitgeist suddenly remembering the name of the girl from his nightmare’s. Her name was felicity, now he knows that maybe he can sleep.
It is hard to overstate the level of impact this has a first issue and much of its power stems from those last few pages.
For most of the issue this is structured as a very standard, and very well done super hero first issue. We start with an opening action scene that introduces our cast, their powers and their code names. We moved into a series of scenes that establishes them as characters and sets up future potential character conflicts. Gin Genie and U-Go Girl don’t get on because Gin Genie is a raging alcoholic, Battering Ram is worried about being seen as the dumb strong guy, Alicar resents authority and Zeitgeist is worried he’s going to challenge his leadership, etc, etc.
We also get a broader mission statement about what X-Force are, what they do and what makes them stand out from other super hero teams. This is the comic about the Super-Hero as celebrity. They take a camera man with them on missions, they hold press conferences, they have X-Force café’s selling merchandise all across America and they put their costumes on not in some subterranean lair or satellite but in a dressing room in the Staples Center in L.A.
And then boom, everyone’s dead. All that character development, all that interpersonal conflict is undone in about three pages. As a mission statement it is undeniably effective. Writer Peter Milligan makes a statement very effectively that this is the non-code comic book and they can do anything they like. All the standard rules are gone. Kill your whole cast? Yup, we can do it, in fact why not do it?! The effect of reading X-Force 116 is to be completely sucker punched. Sure the media stuff is new but nothing in the first 23 pages leads you to believe that this will be anything other than a regular Super-Hero team with soapy super-hero drama and then Milligan pulls the rug from out under you and states unequivocally that this is not a regular super-hero team.
What helps him pull off the trick is that the characters that are introduced seem so well rounded and real and so intriguing that he makes the audience care for them. If we ddin’t care it would be a gimmick, because we do the end is instead a shock. Zeitgeist is particularly well drawn because we’re privy to his inner life. We know how he feels about his team, about being a mutant, how he worries for the dangerous life they undergo but maybe seeks death as atonement for what he did to Felicity. He doesn’t have to deliver some kind of monologue either, Milligan establishes a lot about the character very quickly in his dialogue and the contrast between his actions and what he says about his actions. Zeitgeist isn’t the only well drawn character either. Battering Ram, a big purple horned guy, is intriguing because the way he speaks belies his appearance using “like” in the valley girl style and constantly enquiring about his role in the team.
You get to like these people and so it hurts more to see them die, even in the space of an issue. Indeed the only survivors are Alicar and Edie and in this issue they seem like the most unlikeable dicks imaginable. Edie is a smug condescending bitch, obsessed with her image and self centered. Alicar is similar but he’s also wild and reckless, liable to destroy property just because he can. Both are rockstar caricatures, at least in this issue**** but they’re the only ones to survive.
Mike Allred also helps sell this because his character designs are so distinctive and original that they too intrigue the reader and make you want to know more about them. When you look at that front cover the team has a defined uniform but every character has something different going on visually which has a story behind it, La Nuit’s green skin, Zeitgeist’s weird face mask, Gin Genie’s weird pipes.
In fact lets talk more about Mike Allred now. Mike Allred was the absolute perfect artist for this book and under anyone else’s pencils it wouldn’t have had the same impact and effect. Mostly this is all to do with Allred’s style. Allred has a style that is very retro and almost cartoony**** and it doesn’t look like anything else in contemporary comics. It most closely resembles a Saturday morning cartoon, an effect enhanced by Laura Allred’s colours. Laura usually colours things flat. Again this is not a criticism, allow em to explain. Laura colours a single block colour up to the edge of her husband’s line, the same way you colour in a colouring book. The trend in modern comics is to use gradient colouring so a patch of flesh won’t be one colour for all of it but will fade from darker to lighter giving the effect of curvature and a greater sense of realism. Thing is, until the 90’s (with a few exceptions) all comics were coloured flat. Therefore when you look at Mike Allred’s simple (but elegant) lines and his wife’s colours on them it evokes a sense of the comics of yesteryear.
That just makes it all the more shocking then to see Allred draw a pile of intestines. It sends the message “hey kids, these ain’t your dad’s comics” far more effectively than a more realistic artist would because it looks like your dad’s comics but has content that would never appear in them.
The flatness and simplicity of Allred’s style also helps sell the themes of the book. These aren’t real heroes, they’re heroes in image only, all style over substance and Allred’s art in contrast to his contemporaries looks noticeably less real, more iconic, more simplified. These aren’t real people they’re avatars signifying real people, and that speaks to how the characters don’t present their real selves but some created image of themselves. The effect is enhanced in that Allred often uses photo collage to create his backgrounds so the rest of the world seems real but the characters themselves are noticeably false. Laura’s bright colours help sell this too, we’re not in the real world but a hyper-real world where people can have blue, green or purple skin and pop out more dramatically from the background.
Thematically this issue really stands in for Milligan’s X-Statix as a whole. He would go on to explore the idea of super-hero as celebrity in the rest of the run but it’s here and fully created in the first issue. Zeitgeist is three people, his super-hero image, his real self feeling he’s a freak for hurting a girl and the hard ass super-hero leader that lies somewhere in between. Nobody considers dangers or the value of their own lives because the world they live in is so unreal it seems like death isn’t real either. The themes of identity, recreation, falseness, media manipulation, etc are all here at the offset.
One thing that I don’t think gets mentioned enough is that X-Force aren’t just super-hero celebrities but mutant super-hero celebrities.
Now mutants in the Marvel universe are an extended metaphor for any minority you care to name, be it religious, sexual or racial. They can stand in and stand up for the persecuted because the key thing about wearing an X on your costume is that it means you’re protecting a world that hates and fears you.
Except X-Force aren’t; they’re protecting a world that loves them, they’re celebrities, adored by millions.
Except they aren’t really. What the world loves is the image they present, not the real person and that is a theme that Milligan and Allred will repeatedly hit as this run continues. It draws an interesting real world parallel in the idea that minorities are often more accepted in entertainment than they are in reality. Think of Liberace or other camp entertainers in the 60’s, forced to hide their true sexuality but showing it in a coded sense in people’s homes on television sets every week. Or black performers in the 30’s and 40’s going to their own gigs via the rear entrance or not allowed to stay in hotels they performed in. it seems we accept minorities when they become our clowns, when we laugh at them and they perform for us, when they’re distanced from us by a stage or a TV screen or a fake identity or a super-hero code name.
*Full disclosure this feature is in part born out of an argument between me and my fiancé. You see I have about 6 longboxes full of comics that I keep in the little bedroom in our flat and she is annoyed that I never re-read them. So in doing this series I’ll have an excuse to dig out and re-read some old comics that I love and also prove to my fiancé that we totally need to keep these and she’s not allowed to throw them out.
**I’m going to talk more about the history of X-Force as a title in next week’s review because it is pertinent to the events of that issue.
*** And Doop but nobody ever seems to remember Doop
**** There is a lot more to learn about both Edie and Alicar in later issues and if you read this whole run and Edie doesn’t become your favourite character I’m afraid to tell you that you lack a human heart.
***** one comic artist once said that he stopped reading reviews when he saw the word cartoony so let me explain. I do not use that word in a derogatory fashion. Allred’s work most closely resembles a Saturday morning cartoon from the 60’s or 70’s. He resembles artists like Alex Toth who designed many Saturday morning cartoons in that period. Allred uses lines sparingly preferring not to add a lot of shading and detail to figures but such simple evocative and iconic lines. Where he does add details it is to suggest movement or emotion.