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