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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”

X-Force_Vol_1_121

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

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