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The New Teen Titans Vol1 Issue 1 by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

New Teen Titans 2

Plot Synopsis

The issue starts with a mysterious alien princess known as Koriand’r breaking out of an alien space craft operated by what she calls slavers. Using bolts of energy from her hands she defeats her captors and escapes in a small space craft to parts unknown.

Cut to, Dick Grayson aka Robin, having bad dreams. He has visions of a team of New Titans battling a protoplasmic blob and losing. He wakes up from his nightmare to find one of the women from his visions, Raven, is standing in his room. She tells him that the visions were planted in his head by her to prepare him because a great evil is coming and a new team of Titans must form.

Raven gives Robin the phone to call Wally West, Kid Flash, who has quit the super heroing business. Before Robin can ask any more questions she disappears with instructions to find Wonder Girl.

Raven guides Robin to an abandoned building where Wonder Girl is helpfully expositing her origin for no apparent reason. It seems Changeling, another super-hero with green skin and the power to turn into any animal so long as its green, has also been guided there. Kid Flash also shows up, apparently he changed his mind when Raven told him to come.

The 4 follow Raven again as she guides them to newcomer Victor Stone aka Cyborg, who is presently showing off his cybernetic body to his sports coach who tells him that now he is a cyborg he can’t compete with normal people. Vic doesn’t take this particularly well.

New Teen Titans 4

He also explains that he was turned into a cyborg by his father in order to save his life.

The other heroes show up and Cyborg decides to join them since they’re all “freaks” like himself.

Raven then gets a psychic impression that the final Titan has arrived and needs rescuing so the team move off to do so and find the aliens from the prologue attacking a normal apartment building. Inside is Koriand’r, babbling in an alien language and seemingly exhausted by her flight to Earth.

The Titans fail to stop the aliens who escape through some kind of star gate with Koriand’r in tow. They also wreck the apartment of Grant Wilson and his girlfriend Carol in the process. Thanks to Raven’s teleportation powers though the Titans are able to follow and eventually free Koriand’r from her captivity, destroy the spaceship and escape back to Earth.

 

 

Of course, this isn’t the first issue of the Teen Titans at all.

Going way back to Brave and the Bold #54 in 1964 there was a team consisting of Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad and eventually Speedy and Wonder Girl. Wonder Girl was famously a continuity error. Wonder Girl was the teenaged version of Wonder Woman and not a separate character to her like Supergirl was to Superman. She was included as a separate character in Titans comics though and went on without an origin of her own for nearly 5 years until 1969’s Teen Titans #22 which established her as a non-Amazon orphan, rescued by Wonder Woman from an apartment building fire. Unable to find any parents or family, Wonder Woman brought the child to Paradise Island, where she had eventually been given Amazon powers by Paula Von Gunther’s Purple Ray.

That story was written by Marv Wolfman, writer of this issue, and it represents some of his earliest comics work.

Wolfman broke into comics at D.C. and worked there extensively during the 60’s, principally on the original Teen Titans and Blackhawks. But in 1972 he moved to Marvel and became such a Marvel guy that he eventually rose to the position of editor-in-chief, generally considered to be the highest ranking role on the creative side of the business. Wolfman oversaw some of the most important comics of the decade at Marvel including many of those influential X-Men tales. He kept his hand in writing too being the author of Tomb of Dracula one of Marvel’s biggest commercial and critical successes in the 70’s.

When he went back to D.C. in the 80’s then to write New Teen Titans he was in a unique position. He was familiar with these characters, with the rich continuity of the DCU and its history. He had even been part of shaping it as the creator of Wonder Girl’s origin. However he was a Marvel writer through and through at this point, trained in the house style at the time. This tension really informs New Teen Titans in its early years.

In terms of story this issue makes me nostalgic for the number 1s of days past. This is a very functional issue, more concerned with establishing characters than telling a great story in its own right but still giving us a beginning, middle and end with tension, some super heroic fisticuffs and some mysteries along the way.

The main thing this issue needs to do is establish the characters, establish the set-up for the team and plant the seeds for a few future plots. It does it very effectively hitting all the necessary story beats with aplomb whilst still throwing in some excitement for the story itself.

Every character gets a moment to shine here and show off their powers. Raven drives the plot popping in and out and teleporting the team to safety. Robin gets to lead the team and give orders. Changeling gets to turn into a mouse and fix some circuitry and Cyborg also gets to play with computers. Starfire gets to blast things, Wonder Girl gets to be strong and Kid Flash races halfway across the country in an instant. Personalities and origins are sketched in but present and we quickly get a sense of who these people are.

In particular Wolfman chooses to start with the characters that have already appeared in comics previously, Robin, Kid Flash, Changeling and Wonder Girl. He doesn’t bother to establish an origin for these characters, trusting that readers will know it already, except for Wonder Girl who is the least well known of these. What he does do though is establish that these four have a prior relationship immediately drawing on the history of the team.

What Wolfman does take the time to do, and this is quite Claremontian, is show off every character’s angst in the first issue. The problem they’re currently wresting with in life. Wonder Girl is angsting about her origin and not knowing who her parents are.  Kid Flash angsts about whether he wants to be a hero and there is also the mystery of his connection to Raven and why he changed his mind when she told him to. Robin angsts about being in Batman’s shadow and we get something you don’t see anymore these days, Smoking Jacket and Cravat Batman.

New Teen Titans 3

Man he used to wear a smoking jacket non-stop back in the day. I haven’t seen that thing in years.

Raven and Starfire’s deal is less clear although Starfire clearly has escaped slavery and Raven is trying to prevent some kind of coming doom. Cyborg gets the most screen time of the three newbies but unfortunately his portrayal in this issue is as the cliche angry black man. Cyborg has a good reason to be angry, his father has turned him into a freak and whilst he may have gained super-powers and would have died if his father had not intervened he has seemingly lost everything he cares for in life.

The only angst free character is Changeling who provides absolutely cringe worthy comic relief and hits on Wonder Girl.

New Teen Titans 6

If you want me to hate you Changeling then you’re onto a really good start.

One thing that connects all these characters is that their angst stems from their relationship with their parental figures. Wonder Girl is an orphan and seeking to find her identity because she didn’t have normal parental figures. Cyborg is angry with his father for his treatment of him and seeming abandonment. Robin feels stifled by his father figure and wants to forge his own identity separate from Batman. Kid Flash has a great and healthy relationship with his parents and worries about jeopardising it by becoming a hero.

Teen Titans then is a book with a central theme to it, the stories are all about being a teenager and the relationship between teenagers and their parents. in this way TT is also very similar to the X-Men. Unlike books like The Avengers of JLA, TT and X-Men have a central idea at the heart of the book that drives what kind of stories get told. For the X-Men its the metaphor of Mutants as outsiders from normal society, hated and feared. It’s a very flexible metaphor being able to stand in for race, sexuality, disability or even the disenfranchisement felt by teenagers and that’s partly the reason X-Men resonates to well with a readership of teenaged nerds.

The Teen Titans theme is less flexible, it is explicitly about the issues facing teenagers but whilst more limited than the mutant allegory it does provide plenty of fertile ground to inspire different stories all reflecting back on the themes of being a teenager and how they relate to the world and their parents. Also TT isn’t restricted to the Titans being seen as outsiders. Being a teenager can be wholly positive and good, as we see in Kid Flash’s relationship with his family.

As well as establishing characters and themes we also get some plot threads established that will pay off down the line. Chief amongst these is the threat Raven formed the team to stop. At this stage we know nothing about it other than that it requires these particular people to defeat it. We’ve also got Grant Wilson asking some mysterious shadowy figure to destroy the titans, Kid Flash’s weird change of face and the mystery of Koriand’r.

The New Teen Titans Issue 1 is never going to be held up as a masterpiece of the comic medium but it accomplishes all the goals it sets out to do and leaves the reader interested in these characters and wanting to read more. As such, it fulfils the brief for a first issue.

Artist George Perez is of course one of the most respected and influential artists in the medium and was so even back in 1980. Perez is usually praised for his detail. He draws backgrounds and figures with far more detail than most artists and he thinks about the realism of objects more so than most so that his anatomy, machinery and architecture feel far more realistic than many of his contemporaries. A great example of Perez’s strengths as an artist is how he’ll draw characters with very different body types but all with quite realistic anatomy. Kid Flash is svelte but with powerful calves and thighs that represent that he’s a runner.

He’s also famous for his layouts which use non-conventional grids that pack in tonnes of panels and details in a single image. He isn’t without weaknesses as an artist. Perez’s panel to panel story telling is good but never particularly inventive. He’s a great artist to look at, to stop reading and admire the artwork but not the best storyteller. He is also a dreadful costume designer and regularly creates characters which look okay when he draws them but that other artists can’t replicate due to the detail in their appearance. And he has a fondness for assymetric designs I’ve never understood.

Perez was already a superstar when he started New Teen Titans but he isn’t half the talent he’ll become by the end of his tenure and one thing I am looking forward to with this project is seeing him grow as an artist.

This is good stuff, even in this issue though. I particularly like this page.

New Teen Titans 5

The top 4 panels use a grid but Perez has them getting gradually larger with one panel being part of the next one. It gives the impression of the reader zooming through the skylight and into the apartment. It’s not earth shattering and it’s subtle enough that you normally wouldn’t notice the effect but it just demonstrates that Perez takes so much time and care in his art.

Then you get a double page splash like this one that really shows off what Perez can do.

New Teen Titans 7

 

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 New Teen Titans 1Part 1: Introduction 

Superhero fans usually cluster around a few key characters that form their thing. You’re a Spider-Man guy, or a Batman guy, an Avengers fan or a Justice League fan.  Sure every character is somebody’s favourite and I’m sure that somebody had a Maggott Geocities page back in the day but there are a few A-list titles that have been perennially published and which sort of carve out their own corner of the universe, with spin-offs, villains and recurring characters all their own.

For me, I’m an X-Men guy. That doesn’t mean I don’t read other comics or that I uncritically appreciate every X-Men book without questioning its flaws. It means that my primary interest in super-heroes is the X-Men. I have a love for them that goes far and above how I feel about Spider-Man, Superman or Batman even though I’ve read great stories with all of those characters. It means that I get as much Batman as I want to read from one title but I currently subscribe to about 8 X-books.

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And for people of my generation being an X-guy is pretty common. From the early 80’s through until the mid-90’s Uncanny X-Men was hands down the most popular and best selling comic on the stands and it was able to support a line of successful spin-offs, New-Mutants/X-Force, X-Factor, Wolverine and Alpha Flight. X-Men #1 from 1991 remains the biggest selling single issue of a comic of all time. The X-Men were a juggernaut that the industry had never seen before and probably never will again.

And the effect of the X-Men’s success was that many books morphed into X-Men clones. Chris Claremont along with stellar collaborators like Chris Cockrum, John Byrne and Paul Smith established a storytelling language and conventions for super-hero teams that would be imitated by basically every other super-hero team to follow right up until the early 2000’s and the development of “decompressed” storytelling, The impact was comparable to Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four. That had brought forward the ides of inter-team conflict, of filling a book with strong distinct personalities that clashed. Claremont extended this to turn team books into soap operas that treated characters as real people with stuff going on in their lives other than fighting bad guys. He would dedicate issues at a time to characters hanging out with each other adancing sub-plots and character development but conaining no big super villain of the month beat downs. Plot threads would build over years before coming to a conclusion. And angst, so much angst. Nearly every X character had some tragic flaw they could angst about. Not only could they all have a big whine about being mutants and being discriminated against but Wolverine had amnesia, Cyclops had a dead lover, Colossus loved a girl too young for him, Storm had lost her connection to the earth, Nightcrawler is an outcast even amongst outcasts, Rogue “cahn’t touch yuh remy.”

Stop, right there. Why are you talking so much about the X-Men in a review of Teen Titans?

Well, because I want to establish some context. I’m an X-Men guy, most people who got into comics from the 80’s and early 90’s are X-Men guys. But the other big group, they were the Teen Titans guys.

The Titans are D.C.’s equivalent of the X-Men. They were never as popular but when they launched din the early 80’s they became D.C.’s number 1 book. They wouldn’t stay at that position forever but they captured as much excitement in the D.C. audience as X-Men did for the Marvel zombies. Titans is not a rip-off of X-Men in any way shape or form. It builds on D.C. continuity very effectively and has its own stories to tell but in terms of tone, content, it’s use of continuity, storytelling style and place in the overall universe TT was clearly D.C.’s answer to The X-Men, a comparison Marv Wolfman has never denied and which is patently obvious when you consider the Teen Titans/X-Men crossover book jointly published by Marvel and D.C.

New Teen Titans X-Men

So in theory I should like TT, since I like the X-Men and they have similar styles. However, I’m not a Titans guy, or a D.C. guy. I know very little about the team and don’t have the strong emotional connection to them that many fans do. I have read Teen Titans volume 3 (the 2003 – 2011 series) which I mostly enjoyed and I tried to read the New 52 version before I gave up but I haven’t read any of these stories before. My main knowledge for Titans history is the Teen Titans cartoon that aired in the early 00’s and the recent Young Justice cartoon.

New Teen Titans Cartoon

I’m therefore going to be looking at them from a different lens to your typical fan. My intention with this project is to ultimately review every issue of The New Teen Titans Volumes 1 and 2 and probably the New Titans as well. This is the first time I’ve read any of these issues and whilst I might know a few things (Terra isn’t going to be much of a twist for me for example) almost everything here will be brand new to me.

 

 

Issue 123 “Tick Tock”

x-force-123

Okay this one requires some back story.

In 2002 Bill Jemas, Marvel’s Publisher at the time, launched an initiative called ‘Nuff Said, a common phrase from Stan Lee’s old soapbox column. The idea was this; Jemas had been having an argument with a television producer about the power of comic book storytelling and specifically how comics can tell a story without using any words since the reader can pace the action at their own desire.

To prove this, and also to test the Marvel creators mettle, he came up with Nuff’ Said, an entire month of comics featuring no words at all, only pictures. The challenge was simple, you’re the best creators in comics, prove it by telling a story using only comic images, no words.

It was a dismal failure.

Most writers just submitted the same script they would have anyway and reading it without words left the entire thing a jumbled mess. Without exposition you can tell what a character is doing  and sometimes how but not why. Uncanny X-Men for example, started a storyline where long time X-Men member Banshee became a pseudo-villain but whilst we could tell he was doing villainous things it was incredibly frustrating to realise we didn’t know why. And many pages featured scenes of conversations between character we were not privy to, so you’re just looking at two guys looking at each other and trying to guess what on earth they’re doing.

Chris Claremont in X-Treme X-Men introduced an entirely new character which is a horrible idea because when you introduce a new character you need to know their name, powers, motivation, personality etc and you can’t do that without any words.

The only person who tried to tell a normal story and succeed was J. Michael Stracszynski who basically did a day in the life of Spider-Man. So it was boring but it was comprehensible.

Many writers instead avoiding trying to tell any real narrative and just did a series of surreal imagery intended to work as a character piece. Exiles, for example, did an issue of the character’s dreaming that worked to symbolically tell us about each character’s desire and dreams. N=W X-M=N did a psychedelic, psychic rescue mission into Professor Xavier’s head which was basically a showcase for Frank Quietly to show off with some trippy imagery.

Basically the event proved the exact opposite of what it was supposed to. It showed how necessary dialogue is to comics because without it you limit the stories you can tell to things that can be inferred symbolically and nothing else.

Milligan decided to go the symbolic dream sequence route and offers us a story where the plot is this.

Doop has a pimple, he pops it, and this causes the members of X-Force to be sucked into the hole in his head. Doop climbs in afterword and rescues them from a series of symbolic nightmares. When they escape nobody remembers a thing except Doop.

X-Force 123 Doop Inside Out

So it’s crap fluff but hey it can do two things at least. Firstly it lets us see Mike Allred draw some really inventive and strange things and secondly we might get a little bit of character insight.

We don’t get all that much though.

X-Force 123 U-Go Girl

Edie, Guy and Tike don’t really get much character work done here.  Edie gets her tongue ripped out which tells us that, Edie likes to talk? That she fears losing her voice? That her tongue is her identity? I think we all know that Edie puts on a sarcastic front so this doesn’t really reveal much about her.

X-Force 123 The Orphan

Guy is a head….I do not know why.

X-Force 123 The Anarchist

Tike is in a dessert and sweats a lot and then his acid sweat becomes the sea because…Tike is scared of sweating? Honestly I got nothing.

The Spike probably get the worst treatment since he doesn’t really appear, he’s not even on the cover. Instead there’s a magazine of him wearing women’s clothes. I don’t know if this is because Spike secretly wants to be a woman, or to wear womens’ clothes, or fears it. Spike doesn’t really have a personality anyway, he’s a plot device to discuss Tike’s character and they accomplished that in the previous issue.

X-Force 123 Phat

Vivisector and Phat get the best sequences. Phat is in a ghetto, being chased by thugs and Doop has to save him. I think we all know by now that Phat isn’t really a gangsta and it’s all an act but it’s nice to see how scared Phat is of the ghetto really. As much as he plays this role he doesn’t want to be a wigga and is genuinely scared of being found out.

X-Force 123 Vivisector

Vivisector is the only character we learn something new about. He has a sequence where he is chased by a spectre of his father as a giant covered in incomprehensible writing. The animosity between Miles and his father has been hinted at before but we didn’t realise he feared him, and even more he appears to consider himself intellectually inferior to him since he can’t read the books in his monster father’s library or understand the writing on him.

We also get a lot of Doop stuff including the first suggestion at just how weird Doop is. Doop can climb inside his own head, change size, suck up people, swim through acid, etc. He has pimples that cause dimensional portals and can travel in time. The Doop is incredibly powerful and secretly really weird joke is one Milligan will constantly return to (even bringing it into X-Men at one point) but this is the first time it appears and it’s kind of shocking and strange.

So X-Force 123. It’s crap but it’s the best they could do under the limitations placed upon them.

X-Force Issues 121 – 122 “Lacuna”

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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.

X-Force 121 Captain Coconut

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.

X-Force 121 Pure Yankee Doodle

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!”

Issue 122

X-Force_Vol_1_122

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.

X-Force 122 I'll Be Killed Off1

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.

X-Force 122 Give Us Back Our Clothes

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.

X-Force 122 Don't Start Any Long Novels

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.

X-Force 122 I'll Be Killed Off

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.

But.

Spike

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.

X-Force 121 You're White

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.

X-Force 121 Mindless Violence

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.

Lacuna_001

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.

X-Force 121 Give My Food to the Homeless

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

X-Force Issues 117 – 120

Issues 117 – 120 form the first big multi-party storyline for this book and so unsurprisingly they hit the main themes hard and repeatedly. The issues and concepts raised in the first issue are all developed and expounded on, identity and how it is a creation, the influence of the media, the contrast between death and violence and the unreality of the characters’ lives all reoccur.

Let’s start by recapping the plot.

117

X-Force 117 Cover

In the aftermath of the massacre of their remaining team mates U-Go Girl and The Anarchist are arguing. Not grieving, not mourning but arguing. The Anarchist because he thinks he was supposed to die on that mission and U-Go Girl because she thinks The Anarchist may have organised the death of her team mates.

Before their argument can progress though it’s time to meet the new team. The Bloke, a gay mutant with the power to change colour and super strength. Vivisector a Harvard nerd with werewolf powers. Phat* who is basically Eminem with the power to stretch his skin and fill it with fat making him a slightly grosser version of Mr. Fantastic. Saint Anna, child of mixed Irish and Brazillian heritage with psychic and healing powers and finally Mister Sensitive who has incredible super senses that make rain feel like needles and the wing beats of a fly something that itches and irritates. He controls it now with the aid of mental discipline and a super suit given to him by Professor Xavier.

X-Force 117 The Orphan

The team meet and have the standard arguments and interpersonal conflicts before being given their first mission; they need to rescue an orphan named Paco with explosive mutant powers. This reminds Mister Sensitive that he is an orphan and he decides to re-name himself The Orphan. They head off to a press conference which is attacked by the old X-Force who the new team quickly dispatches. After this The Orphan is named as the team leader.

He heads home to complete his daily ritual, putting a gun to his head with one chambered bullet and pulling the trigger only to be interrupted by U-Go Girl.

118

X-Force 118 Cover

U-Go Girl inadvertently saves The Oprhan’s (Guy Smith) life which she didn’t intend to because she’s actually here to scare him off the team. She fails in her attempt and we’re treated to a few vignettes of the new team getting ready for their first mission. It emerges that what we learned about them last issue is not strictly true. Vivisector may come from a family of geniuses but he and his father don’t see eye to eye. Phat wasn’t raised on the streets but has a nice middle class suburban home and only pretends to be a white gangsta.

X-Force 118 Saying goodbye

Then it’s off to a thinly veiled Cuba stand-in to meet up with the team’s contact Diego, who knows where Paco is. He’s sold out the team though and brought them into a trap where the thinly veiled Cuban army attacks X-Force. In the fire fight that ensues Bloke gets killed and Guy has to try and assert his leadership when nobody follows his orders, a situation not helped when he is the only person to cry over Bloke’s death. In the end Guy has to threaten to kill The Anarchist to stop him from killing their contact.

X-Force 118 Guy cries1

Guy threatens Diego and gets Paco’s location from him. X-Force (with Diego in tow for insurance purposes) find Paco connected to some strange machine and another fire fight ensues. As the fighting goes abdly around him Guy has to save Paco. However he doesn’t know how to disconnect him from the machine and if he does it incorrectly Paco will die.

119

X-Force 119 Cover

St Anna has been shot, Diego has been shot, Vivisector has gone crazy, U-Go Girl is about to pass out and The Orphan still hasn’t saved Paco. To rescue him he has to remove his protective suit and feel the depth the wires go. He rescues him successfully and orders Edie to teleport the team home; she teleports them instead to a decrepit wooden building.

X-Force 119 Saint Anna dies

St Anna dies and turns to some kind of dust cloud which The Oprhan inhales. Two women emerge from the wooden house and recognise Edie, and they have with her a young girl named Katie who looks a lot like U-Go Girl and which they describe as her sister. Edie sees this, freaks out and teleports the remaining team members away.

A few days later and Edie has checked herself into a substance abuse clinic and Coach has come to tie up loose ends, in particular where Paco is now. Guy knows but refuses to tell him. Coach lays down the truth. Paco is a walking medicine cabinet, if scientists kill him and experiment on his cells he may have the cure to cancer and hundreds of other diseases within him. Coach tries to convince Guy to give Paco to their backers for the greater good. Guy refuses and Coach sicks two new mutants on Guy, Smoke and Succubus. After a brief fight the rest of X-Force save Guy’s life and the two sides withdraw.

Paco it turns out has been sent to Brazil to live with St Anna’s father who runs an orphanage there and when The Orphan arrives the ghost of St. Anna leaves him and unites with the father she never met.

X-Force 119 Not the Orphan

Meanwhile Coach meets Eddie in the substance abuse clinic where she is dreaming of Zeitgeist dying in her arms. He reveals to her that Guy isn’t an Orphan and rather than his parent’s dying in a fire he may have started the fire himself to kill himself and his parents with him. He gives this to Edie with a job, kill Guy and take the job she always wanted, leading X-Force.

120

X-Force 120 The Cover

Doop meets with Wolverine (yes, that Wolverine) to offer him some kind of mysterious mission and Wolverine reveals they’re old friends and he’ll do Doop a favour this one time.

X-Force holds yet another press conference but this time without Guy or Edie. Coach announces that Guy is suffering from pressure and stress and Edie is still at the clinic. Whilst this is going on Edie is thinking about how Coach tried to have sex with her when she was younger and is preparing to kill Guy.

Coach meets with Spike Freeman the main backer and owner of X-Force who wants an inter-team war he can use to sell video games but Coach assures him now is not the time to organise that.

Edie teleports to Guy’s house just as the evidence that he isn’t an Orphan is broadcast on national news. Finding him upset and distraught Guy reveals to Edie he grew up thinking he was an orphan and when he found out his parents had abandoned him he started the routine of playing Russian roulette each night. Edie kisses Guy and creates a distraction to fill all the chambers in his revolver before teleporting away.

X-Force 120 Without us you'd be freaks

She meets Alicar who comments she’s drunk and then she attacks a paparazzo before teleporting to The Staples Center. She’s had a change of heart, when she kissed Guy she felt like herself for the first time in a long while and recognised that he’s the only person on the team trying to genuinely be a hero. She wants to save him but has teleported too much today and needs some drugs from Coach to teleport again. Instead of drugs he slips her a cocktail that leaves her paralyzed but conscious and attempts to rape her.

Guy arrives in time to save her having noticed that the gun was heavier, stopping the rape but then he is attacked by Smoke and Succubus again. With his low pain threshold he starts to lose but is saved by Wolverine. Smoke and Succubus are quickly defeated and Edie shakes off the drugs and kills Coach with Guy’s revolver.

Wolverine gives Guy a video from Doop secretly and leaves. Later on Guy watches the tape and sees that the death of the old X-Force was organised by Coach and Zeitgeist was in on it. The idea was to shake up the status quo to revive interest. Zeitgeist thought the plan was for him and Alicar to survive but was obviously betrayed. Guy neglects to show this to the rest of the team and destroys the tape as Doop looks on, a mysterious figure pulling everyone’s strings.

X-Force 120 Zeitgeist ordered the team to be killed

The two big changes in this arc from the opening issue are the development of the characters and the addition of a self-referential element. This isn’t a meta-fictional comic, at no point does it break the fourth wall or acknowledge it is a comic but it does often play with the tropes and conventions of super-hero comics and much of the dialogue of the characters could easily be read as a reference to their status as comic characters as much as it works in the ontological reality of the comic itself.

Let’s start by looking at the characters.

From the opening issue four characters re-occur Tike Alicar, Edie Sawyer, Coach and Doop.

X-Force The Anarchist

Tike is the same as the first issue, he doesn’t develop as a character in this arc at all really and his appearances just re-enforce what we already know about him. He’s an angry black man, he resents authority and he feels persecuted both as a black man and as a mutant. We’ll later learn that there is a lot more to Tike Alicar than he appears but his personality in these issues isn’t a mask so much as it is an exaggeration of his true personality.

X-Force Coach

Coach is the villain of the piece with no motivation beyond making money at any and all means. He isn’t a character so much as an archetype.

X-Force Doop

Doop is interesting. X-Force is not a humour comic. It has humorous moments and a sense of absurdity (i.e. everything to do with Phat) but it is telling a serious story not just cracking jokes. The absurd elements are usually used to satirise the absurdity of celebrity culture i.e. U-Go Girl which is a terrible superhero name but an amusing pastiche of pop culture in the noughties. Even allowing for Allred’s more out there design choices Doop sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s a floating green potato with arms and he talks in a gibberish font we can’t understand. In the first issue he’s a plot device, an explanation of how the team’s adventures can be filmed.

However, in this arc Milligan starts to suggest that there is more to Doop than meets the eye. His friendship with Wolverine is obviously supposed to be humorous and slightly a dig at comic tropes since one of the easiest ways to imply a character’s potency in Marvel comics is to make them a friend of Wolverine. But even as it is silly it has the desired effect of making Doop into a character rather than a visual. The story also hints that Doop is looking after the team, ordering Wolverine to help The Orphan. There is great visual at the end of issue 120 where as Guy talks about his guardian angel we see Doop hovering there and realise in retrospect that Doop is always watching over everyone and everything. Rarely noticed but always watching.

X-force120 Edie kisses Guy

Edie by far gets the most character development in this arc. In the first issue she was a self-centered, arrogant, hurtful bitch. In these issues we learn that whilst Edie still craves power and fame her personality and actions are something of a role she’s playing rather than her true self. This realisation comes in bits and pieces. The most obvious being the glimpse into her backstory where we see her family and what is described as her sister but which we’re probably supposed to assume is her estranged daughter. That in and of itself adds two layers to Edie since it humanises her to reveal that she’s come from such humble beginnings to her superstar lifestyle but it also reinforces that she makes bad choices that hurt people, even her own daughter.

The other thing that humanises her a lot is that she is genuinely messed up by seeing Zeitgeist die in front of her. In issues 117 and 118 Edie seems pretty fine with the whole ordeal, just shrugging it off as an aspect of the dangerous life she leads in X-Force. Indeed she tries to scare The Orphan away by pointing out how dangerous the life they lead is and how certain people can’t cope with it. However when we see in her dream sequence that she’s still having nightmares about Zeitgeist it drives home that we don’t really know how much of what Edie says is just an act. She does want to be an actress after all, is she just playing the role of strong leader? This scene seems to imply pretty clearly that she is.

Edie begins her long march towards redemption in this arc starting with her decision to save Guy. She firstly has to get very drunk to do it, then has to kiss him and finally realises she can’t allow him to die. Not because she any compunctions against killing, she doesn’t. She’s murdered with X-Force many times and kills Coach without regret at the end. No, she saves Guy because he’s a decent person, and maybe the first she’s met in some time. It’s this realisation that superheroes are supposed to try and be decent that starts reforming her behaviour.

The attempted rape will have basically no bearing on her character by the way. It’s basically a plot device so that we don’t question her killing Coach by making him pretty irredeemable. It’s not the best judged plot device but it doesn’t bother me too much.

So then we get our new characters.

X-Force Saint Anna

Saint Anna gets very little development and then dies, meh.

X-Force VivisectorX-Force Phat

Vivisector and Phat have nice visuals and make a nice contrast with each other, one the poor boy from the streets, the other the rich wasp but both violent killer mutants. They don’t get too much to do or much development in this arc but they do grow into very well rounded characters themselves.

X-Force 117 Vivisector

As individuals I like the contrasts in Vivisector, he’s an intellectual but also a wild animal. Admittedly that idea has been used before (looking at you Beast) but they can cut loose with the violence here in a way they can’t a mainstream X-Men book.

X-Force 117 Phat1

Everything about Phat is great. I love his powers and his entire concept just works so well for this book. He’s a poor street kid, except he’s not. He’s a middle class white kid pretending to be a poor black kid from the hood. That is such a relevant issue in the noughties and it fits so nicely into this book with its themes of identity of pop culture. Plus it just makes his name, Phat, so very, very perfect.

X-Force 117 Bloke

Bloke is really interesting and gets so much to do in issue 117 that of course he’s the first to die. Again like Vivisector he’s all about contrasts between his appearance and what he really is, he looks like the big bruiser but he’s the sensitive gay one and yet he still is the big bruiser showing how image and reality blend together. And he literally changes his image since he changes colour (in fact Vivisector and Phat change their image literally too now that I think about it.)

The star of this arc though is Guy Smith aka Mister Sensitive aka The Orphan.

X-Force The Orphan

The first thing you have to address about Guy Smith is why he changes his name from Mister Sensitive to The Orphan. Mister Sensitive after all is a good name for him. It reflects his powers and it also sums up his personality. This is the guy who is so sensitive that he cries when a team mate dies when the rest of X-Force just shrugs it off and moves on. The Orphan doesn’t fit him at all, he’s not an Orphan, it doesn’t describe his powers it is basically a terrible name and the rest of the team agrees.

So why do it? Well it all ties in with how identity is something constructed and chosen in X-Force rather than something that reflects reality. Mister Sensitive is a role forced upon Guy by X-Force whereas The Orphan is a role he chooses. It’s not something he intrinsically is, since he isn’t an orphan, but something he chooses to be; a symbol that he has distanced himself from his parents and his former life.  The Orphan role works as hero for Guy as it stands in for all orphans everywhere, all children who have no parents either literally or symbolically and how he aims to help them. Mister Sensitive doesn’t symbolise anything but The Oprhan does and Guy would rather be a symbol than what he is now which is just a mister who is a bit over sensitive.

Incidentally his real name Guy Smith ties into this theme of identity since it is so obviously the most generic name imaginable. He is literally just some guy, he doesn’t have a life outside of Mister Sensitive or The Oprhan like Edie and Tike do. The roles they play as The Anarchist and U-Go Girl are creations masking their true self and the same with Phat and Vivisector. But Guy isn’t masking anything because there is no Guy to go back to. He is either playing the role of the overly sensitive guy or the role as The Orphan. That’s why he has never killed himself when playing Russian roulette even after three years; because there isn’t really a Guy Smith to kill he is only either Mister Sensitive or The Orphan.

Also of note is that Guy is generally drawn wearing his helmet in his first few appearances especially when they refer to him as Mister Sensitive but once he takes it off it stays off for pretty much the rest of the series. This is symbolic of how he has come to inhabit the role of The Orphan as his true self, not a mask but his real face from now on.

As to why an Orphan would be heroic? Well that’s starting to get into the self-referential aspects of the comic. Many super heroes are orphans including the three most famous super-heroes of all time Batman, Superman and Spider-Man. Driven by the tragedy in their past to do good in the now so as to prevent any child in the future becoming an orphan. It’s a standard comic trope and X-Force subverts it by having Guy recognise it as a trope. He doesn’t feel he can be a hero unless he has a tragic back story, unless he is an orphan so he announces that he is becoming one and this will then allow him to inhabit the role of the hero. He’s also stopping children from becoming orphans because he will become all orphans ever in taking on this role.

Guy is a fascinating character even if you strip away the symbolism he wears at all times. He’s a guy who wants to be a hero but with a super power that is basically a disability. He’s a decent person but he chooses to join the shallowest and most fame obsessed super team that exists. He seems to set out to do impossible things that he expects to fail at. I think this connects with his suicide ritual each day. Guy isn’t prepared to kill himself outright he wants the world to do it to him. He was rejected by his parents and his powers make it seem like the world is rejecting him constantly. He wants to die but can’t bring himself to kill himself because he is a decent person at heart and so he tries to do impossible things in the hope that he’ll either improve the world or die trying.

X-Force 117 Saint Anna

In terms of the main theme of celebrity culture and satirising it the most interesting thing about this arc to me is that the new characters are all freaks twice over. To be a mutant in the Marvel universe is to be a persecuted minority, a freak as the characters often say. But all of these characters would be outcasts and minorities anyway, Phat because he’s poor (well he pretends to be), Guy as an Orphan, Bloke because he’s gay, Tike because he’s black etc. Again it ties in with something I observed in the first issue, what stops them being outcasts is the fame but the fame makes them outcasts as well.

Milligan really foregrounds this with Edie’s encounter with the paparazzo. The suggestion seems to be that the only people who are famous are freaks and outcasts. This cuts both ways. In part the reason the only people who are famous are freaks and outcasts is because people who are outcast from society seek validation from it but can’t achieve it in the normal way. If you’re gay or nerdy you don’t fit in but you crave that approval that the popular kids get, and so you get that approval through other means like acting or music or art. That’s a pretty common thing you’ll hear actors say. Although viewed as gorgeous and successful celebrities that many “normal” people want to emulate they started out as awkward kids who wanted to escape into another life, another role just as the characters in X-Force do.

It cuts the other way though, the very act of being a celebrity makes you an outcast. You don’t have a normal life, you’re constantly looked at, viewed and critiqued and forced to act a certain way even if it isn’t how you really feel. Like Guy thrust in the role of leader without asking for it needs to threaten to kill Tike even though he doesn’t want to and really is a very gentle person at heart.

X-Force 117 Phat3

Phat’s interesting in this regard since he is completely normal. He’s a white middle class suburban kid. However, to become a celebrity he has to pretend to be a poor black kid. In a way it’s suggesting that to become famous you almost need to be an outcast, that people aren’t interested in the normal but the abnormal.

That’s certainly true of super-heroes as well. Very few super-heroes come from nice normal backgrounds. Almost everybody has a tragic back story such as their parents being killed, or belonging to a persecuted minority (mutants) and so all the discussion of the need to be an outcast works a self referential statement about the tropes of comics.

Indeed I never realised quite how meta X-Force was before re-reading it. It abounds with references to and satirising of the common super-hero archetypes and story telling devices. The first issue which is structured like a standard first issue is really a parody of such because of its shocking ending. Furthermore these issues are full of characters that upend stereotypes, Bloke being the gay sensitive type but also the bruiser, Vivisector being the team’s intellectual but also a crazed killing machine. Guy and his feeling the need to play the typical super-hero Orphan is the most obvious and developed idea but we’ve discussed this at length already.

Instead let’s touch on two more ideas. Firstly there is the guest appearance of Wolverine. This is pure satire. Wolverine is easily the most popular character Marvel owns and he is a frequent guest star in comics, especially low selling ones; an idea Milligan addresses and jokes about on the cover to issue 120.

The story beat of having Wolverine show up as a dues ex machina and his mysterious connection to Doop is all lampshading the typical use of Wolverine but just by setting him in the absurd world of X-Force with their silly names, Saturday morning cartoon art and connecting him with, of all people, Doop is enough to higlight how absurd these tropes are.

The other really deeply self referential aspect I like is the revelation that Zeitgeist and Coach organised the death of the old team.

In a way it’s acknowledging that these characters’ lives are plotted out and constructed like stories without breaking the ontological reality of the story itself. Zeitgeist and Coach are basically Milligan and Allred plotting which character will live and which will die. Killing some characters because it will shake up the status quo and hopefully drive up sales. Milligan foregrounds how meaningless death is in comics by turning it into a storytelling device in the reality of the comic world as well as in our own reality.

Which brings us to the fight with the old X-Force.

X-Force Cannonbal vs Anarchist

As I said in the last post X-Force was largely a title without a high concept. Although initially launched as the more pro-active and militaristic spin-off from X-Men it quickly morphed into anything but that including a long story line that was just a road trip across America. What people liked in X-Force were the characters, long standing fan-favourites like Cannonball.

So when it was announced that those characters were going away to be replaced with an entirely new cast many fans freaked the fuck out. Milligan received huge amounts of hate mail before Issue 116 was even released. The fight in Issue 117 is him addressing this head on, showing how the old X-Force characters haven’t stopped existing and highlighting the differences of approach, that his characters wear shiny colourful costumes and tell jokes and aren’t so grim and dour.

It’s also yet another dig at the conventions of super-hero stories. X-Force show up to fight X-Force and achieve, precisely nothing. Their argument is a legal one over the trademarking of a name and they can’t win by beating up the new guys. It’s a reference to how violence doesn’t solve anything in the real world and highlights just how pointless and meaningless the violence is in X-Force and super-hero stories in general.

Plus I think there was a part of Milligan that just wanted his new guys to beat up the old guys to get vicarious revenge at all his haters. And why the hell not?

*Who as an aside has the best name of any super-hero ever

X-Force 118 Guy cries

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.

X-Force 116

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 Movie Poster

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.

X-Force 116 Team Arguing

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.

Approved_by_the_Comics_Code_Authority

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.

X-Force Sluk

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.”

X-Force 116 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.

X-Force 116 Zeitgeist dies

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.

X-Force Zeitgeist Vomit

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.

X-Force Zeitgeist

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.

x-force 116 Doop

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.

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