The fourth in a series of posts on my favorite pamphlet comics of the decade
X-Force #116, by Peter Milligan and Mike Allred. Published by Marvel Comics, May 2001.
For all intents and purposes, this was the decade that Marvel died.
Or at least became unrecognizable. Since 2003, the publisher that took over the comics world by being controversial and timely, by pushing the envelope of what superhero comics could do, by presenting fallible heroes who were always more human than super, has eroded into the comics world’s version of daytime TV: safe, predictable, overdone, and in the end, completely mediocre. Marvel releases the most comics per annum of any American publisher, yet not one of its post-2003 series has had anything but the most fleeting, ephemeral aesthetic merit. Not the long-running, vague soap operas of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America and Matt Fraction’s Iron Man. Not the watered-down noir of the creator-owned Icon line. And certainly not the best-selling “event” titles and epic brainfarts of the publisher’s two most overhyped writers, the execrable Mark Millar or the merely mediocre Brian Michael Bendis. Marvel is a ship becalmed in an ocean of worthlessness, a publisher whose greatest impact on anything is the amount of trees that must die for the flood of forgettable comics they pump out every week.
But for the first four years of this decade, it was a very different story indeed.
Marvel started the 2000s with a bang, ceding control of their entire comics division to the young artist-turned-editor Joe Quesada and the brilliant, iconoclastic publisher Bill Jemas. The two took a sledgehammer to the venerable Marvel line, turning bland series into must-reads, refocusing the release schedule around the company’s most worthwhile books, and hiring a spate of brilliant creators to go wild with their library of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko creations. Books were cancelled not because they were failing financially, but aesthetically. Other books which had become staid and repetitive were given to writers and artists known for kinetic, oddball approaches. It was a golden age, and the Marvel line in those years was the best line of comics published this decade, and a serious competitor for the best line in the medium’s history.
One of the staid, repetitive books mentioned above was X-Force. An X-Men spinoff originated in the dark days of the early 1990s by the Britney Spears of comics, Rob Liefeld, X-Force had degenerated into a self-cannibalizing, continuity-heavy, unfunny parody of superhero comics. With nothing at all to lose, Jemas turned the reins over to the writer-artist team of Peter Milligan and Mike Allred, both of whom were known for an avant-garde approach to comics, and in Milligan's case one that occasionally flirted with outright Dadaism. Perhaps incapable of playing it straight for a Marvel superhero book, they immediately dispensed with X-Force’s original cast of characters, leaving only the comic’s title the same, and turning their eyes instead onto a very different kind of superhero team.
In a postscript to the first issue that functions as a kind of mission statement for the all-new X-Force, editor Axel Alonso puts forth the bold assertion that the superpowered mutants featured in the comic have finally won the X-Men & friends’ long struggle for acceptance and equality. They are “accepted – even adored – by humankind”. They are celebrities, stars of reality TV programming that depicts their battles with carefully-vetted foes -- entirely different kinds of mutants. Milligan’s X-Force is less about power and heroism than it is about fame, influence, and the navigation thereof; about the adorers and the adored.
The story, almost perversely for such a supermodern work, hearkens back to the early 1960s, evoking the early-Stan Lee story structure; introduce characters, action scene, introduce new character, group scene, big fight scene, cliffhanger. The retention of the X-Force title backs this up: we’ve read this story before, it just wasn’t done quite like this.
Milligan’s new characters are addictive from page one, their personalities perfectly pitched to the mixture of superego and all-too-human id that is so unique to modern media celebrities.
This, by the way, was 2001, when parody of reality TV was novel and it was interesting to consider that the average person might act like a prima donna in front of a makeup crew and a few video cameras.) We’ve never seen our superheroes this way before, engaged in petty squabbles and not at all passionate about the work they do – only in it for the fame and money. After all, who wouldn’t want those things? Milligan gives us the small, unflattering sides of the book’s heroes, but he does so to humanize them in a way that is both more entertaining and less predictable than the simple, mindless shit-slinging seen in other superhero sendups like Garth Ennis’ The Boys. We care about these people before the issue’s half over, and not because they’re Good and Just and Brave, but because they act as we would probably act in their places: vain, scared, drunk, confused, still occasionally trying to figure out what the right thing is so they can do it.
Allred’s 1960s-Pop Art stylings are perfect for the story, which could have been completely ruined by more typical “dark”, “realistic” comic art. Allred seems to possess an instinctual understanding of the conceit Milligan’s story has which other nontraditional superhero comics lack: X-Force isn’t only subversion and satire, it’s also pure pop comics, more perfectly pitched to the times than any other comic on the rack was during its run. It’s tempting to see the use of such a classic-style, straight artist on this weird, sometimes abrasive title as simply sarcastic, but Allred’s pure-superhero art shoulders the burden of legitimizing what X-Force does. Wrapped in his candy-colored visuals, this isn’t just a warped, bizarre look at superheroes through a modern lens. This is the modern day equivalent of the Lee/Kirby/Ditko Marvel Pop Art Productions of the mid-60s, comics that wore their cultural credentials on their sleeve and weren’t afraid to position themselves right in the middle of the mainstream. This self-aware, savvy look at edgy, sexy superheroes was as pop, as mass-media friendly as comics could get in 2001. (Right down to the Marvel logo on the cover, which announces the book’s risqué appeal as brashly as a “Parental Advisory” sticker on the front of a best-selling CD. “Hey kids,” it proclaims, ballyhooing Marvel’s new abandonment of the Comics Code Authority’s censorship, “Look! No Code!”)
By the end of the comic the sheer virtuosity of Milligan and Allred's approaches is so powerful that the actual story is the last thing we’re thinking about as X-Force head to New York to rescue a prefab boy band held hostage by a paramilitary group. That changes when what started – what the readers were introduced to – as an easy, ideal superhero mission goes from bad…
… to …
… and the novel, edgy, lovable superteam Milligan has created to replace Marvel’s old X-Force is itself suddenly in need of replacement. It’s a truly shocking, unexpected ending, and lays out the rules of what ends up in the next issue as the new new X-Force’s world, in giant, fiery capital letters. If this wasn’t a superhero comic like none other before the death of all its main characters in the first issue, it certainly is now. Welcome to the new pop superhero, and by extension to the new Marvel, where for a few brief years, anything was possible. This issue was the best introduction the Jemas/Quesada Marvel could have asked for, one that completely rewrote the superhero-comics playbook in a manner both timeless and incredibly modern. This issue is the peak of Marvel comics in the 21st century, both faithful to the precepts of the company that broke all the rules in the 1960s, and to the bold new world of the 2000s. Shocking, confrontational, pretty, smart, sexy, and emotional, this comic doesn’t leave you happy or thoughtful or anything but completely blown away, incapable of anything but a kind of – adoration.
I was in fifth grade and this was the second comic I ever bought.
It changed my life.