Uncanny X-Force #1-4
Rick Rememder/Jerome Opena/Dean White
“The Apocalypse Solution”
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The other great highlight of mainstream superhero comics art right now, outside of Marcos Martin, is Jerome Opena’s work on the opening arc of Uncanny X-Force. Sure, there is a lot of interesting art on boring comics, these days – Martin is probably the biggest example of that – but there’s Moritat on The Spirit, a whole bunch of other people doing work that’s worth your time even though the stories are nothing special. There is also the possibility of another kind of superhero art showcase, which is the kind of comic I used to think of when the phrase “artist showcase” came up. Which is a comic where the writer actually plays to the artist’s strengths rather than just allowing them to put their spin on things. Rick Remender, he’s never written anything before this that has caused me to have any feelings for him either way. Remender is a guy who I know by his association with artists and nothing else, I bought End League for Canete and Fear Agent for Tony Moore, but I’d be hard pressed to remember anything that happened in either of those books (although I guess I should have kept reading Fear Agent because Jerome Opena was the other guy I was skipping). But then again, Remender has only been around for a little while, and so asking him to have a clear definable voice and write well for artists is probably unfair. There is a problem these days, and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone else, to expect people to show up great and improve from there. The weird thing is that now people show up great and then settle into being okay and we get angry (see: every writer who got in at Marvel in the past 5 years who did much more exciting work before they went to Marvel). Anyway – Rick Remender and Jerome Opena were names I had no real associations with.
This is exactly the kind of comic that typifies everything “No One Dies” was written in spite of. Uncanny X-Force is about a team of X-Men characters who are down for killing people. The cast consists of Wolverine whose power is built in knives, Archangel whose power is flying on knives, Psylocke whose power is psychic knives, Deadpool whose power is not dying, and Fantomex whose power is a fake accent. They all wear a gray and black version of their old costume with red eyes because it looks cool (?). They kill the shit out of people, that’s the point of the book existing. The idea that this is the “black ops” version of the X-Men the way that Section 9 is a black ops team who do behind-closed-doors missions, or even WildC.A.T.S. were a black ops team, is ridiculous. This is a death squad. Like, the cliché of 90s death squad comics. And not in a moral “this is a squad of soldiers who deal in death” sense, either. This is just violence for violence’s sake, starring Wolverine and Deadpool and other guys. And at the end of this story arc, one of them murders a child. That’s the deal.
But the thing is, this being a comic about the murder of a child (in the “would you kill Hitler as a baby”/”did you see The Omen?” kinda sense, not in a serious sense), with it’s characters all gritting their teeth and having fight scenes with sharp objects and killing henchmen… It’s a million times more fun than an issue of Amazing Spider-Man that explicity goes “why is this superhero shit so dark?”. Archangel going to the moon to kill Apocalypse, it’s downright giddy in places. This isn’t nostalgia comics, it’s a job for these guys – almost in the mode of the shittiest Batman comics that come out – it has Wolverine and Deadpool in it, and it comes out in 6 weeks, do whatever you want. And Remender and Opena, they want to do a comic with some great fight scenes, and for me that’s always been something undervalued as a reason to make a comic. Especially in a place where comics are now, where real action is now much more of an idea you play to (which I think happens in all kinds of comics, from the Fort Thunder indie stuff to huge Marvel/DC crossovers, action is a pose more than anything). Giving a shit about things like fights and chases always makes me feel a bit silly, but it’s what I care about and I enjoy seeing it done right and hate when it’s paid lip service to. Uncanny X-Force is a comic that understands what it is, and then goes about being the best dumb fight comic it can be.
The thing is, that’s not something that is easy to pull off, especially in the kind of superhero comics that are made today. Approaching what is essentially a dumb premise with intelligence would seem like tilting at windmills to a lot of people, but I think should be something that is seen for the noble pursuit that it can be, and sometimes is. The trick that so many action-based comics creators never got (and movies, etc etc), is that action and character are one and the same. I don’t mean in the acting class sort of mentality way, I mean that even the blankest cipher should be able to walk into a story and shoot someone, and if it is written and drawn correctly it should tell you everything you need to know about that character. The more they do, the more you learn about the characters, the more their actions mean something. I’ve had arguments with people saying that John Woo movies need all that hokey melodrama and ridiculous machismo are actually incredibly important to what happens in the gunfights, and vice versa. You need both for the stories to work. While you probably find a lot of that stuff annoying (and if you’ve seen A Better Tomorrow II you probably do enough to skip to the last 10 minutes), if it wasn’t there, the insane shit would be hollow. These need to be people doing these things, same with musical, chase movies, whatever. So reading through X-Force, when you get to the scenes of Betsy and Warren talking about their relationship, you might roll your eyes a little bit. When there’s a scene where Deadpool is bugging the shit out of Fantomex as he works, where Wolverine and Warren amble through the museum talking about their feelings, you probably just read through it for the plot points (because, dear god, I hope you really don’t care about Deadpool and Psylocke as characters going into this). But I believe that a story like this needs those down moments, action is built out of peaks and valleys, and Remender actually understands not only that, but that the valleys need to allow you access into character dynamics. You can’t think of a book like this in the post-Alan Moore/Grant Morrison school of comics writing, which spends a lot time on theme and develops characters through the development of theme. Which is interesting because Uncanny X-Force, for all it’s shit-get-wrecked fulfilment, is thematically very strong. Each member of the cast has not only been manipulated at some point, but through the magic of X-Men continuity repetition, each of them has been physically changed into a weapon by a larger force. They have fought against their manipulators and are tenuously holding onto the current version of themselves, at peace with the idea that killing is as big a part of them as anything else, but not allowing it to define them. While they are all distinct characters under Remender, on paper they could easily all be interpreted as the same character. So the opening arc is about how all 5 of these characters can interact with one another with an immediate understanding of the task at hand because their experience is so similar. But the treatment of the theme, interestingly enough, actually moves the emphasis back to the variations of character, and because of the nature of these characters as a group of assassins, the emphasis returns to ACTION.
Remender can write an action scene, he understands the difference between Wolverine murdering henchmen in droves and the shifting dynamics of real fights between important characters (think of it like a Bruce Lee movie, and then think about how often that basic rule is forgotten in these sorts of books). The need of these characters to be taken by surprise, to have their asses handed to them and then overcome – a great fight shouldn’t be about the fight either, it is about obstacles and detours. The X-Force crew vs. The Final Horseman is shown to not be about who is strongest in combat, it’s about the characters losing and thinking their way around the situation. It’s knowing too, and not in an overly jokey way. There is one moment of meta jokey-ness and it’s Wolverine sardonically muttering “Ya never know, might just be, this is the band of faceless goons that finally takes us out. But I wouldn’t bet on it.”, humor is used to alleviate tension before and during the darker moments, it’s not a crutch. Even Deadpool who is kind of a stand-in figure for ironic distance is written essentially like a combination of mouthy sidekick and Frank Gorshin. The biggest most important fight in the entire story is a fight over whether or not to kill the reincarnated Apocalypse in the body of a child between the members of the team. It’s over half of the last issue of the arc, and it’s made clear that for all the action in the book, the central conflict is whether or not these characters are okay with the job they set themselves out to do (hey it turns out none of them are, except Fantomex, who pops a bullet in the kid’s face without a second thought). What Remender does best with this kind of material is take it to some relatively strange and frequently innovative places. The iconic image from the series so far is Deadpool carving off pieces of his arm to feed to Angel, who has just been hit with audio cancer by the horseman Famine. It’s grotesque, it’s funny, and something that I can honestly say I hadn’t seen before buying this book. This is the place that a superhero comic should sit, really. I know personally I’d rather be surprised by a scene like that instead of Spider-Man outsmart a guy with a gun one more time for the cheap seats, wouldn’t you?.
But the draw here is and always has been Opena, no matter how great a job Remender has done with getting out of his artist’s way, and writing him material that will best serve him. The Final Horseman? Just an excuse to get some really interesting character designs to replace what had previously been just regular looking X-villains with a uniform design. Fighting an egyptian-themed sect on the blue area of the moon is an excuse for crazy Humanoids-esque layouts and villains to throw Wolverine at. Opena – I’m not the first one to say this, but this is the only X-Men comic that could pass for an issue of The Metabarons if you tore the covers off. The only X-Men comic in the history of X-Men comics (and if I’m talking about it, The X-Men is a dumb thing I know a lot about. You know how some people know way too much about Batman or Dr. Who or Catholocism? For me it’s the X-Men, I read a lot of them, I know stuff I will never have a need of recalling). What Opena is doing isn’t just bringing a european style to material that most people associate with Liefeld, etc. Instead he brings that sensibility to every aspect of the proceedings. At this point, no one cares about Wolverine or Psylocke and no one ever cared about Fantomex except for when Chris Bachalo was drawing him. Any character work I am enjoying with these characters may be written, but I honestly would never have cared about it if it weren’t for Opena’s tenderness in his faces, his lending humanity to the most savage of actions, his choice to make Horseman Death a sneering gloat by having him smile in every scene. Remender may be doing great work at writing exactly what Opena needs to deliver pages like this, but what it consistently recognizable, on every single page, is that any life on these pages has been draw by his hand.
That’s why Uncanny X-Force (and really just these four issues because the three issues that followed were drawn by someone else) is the kind of intelligent approach to a dumb fight comic that you wish would be more of a frequent occurence, but isn’t. This is a superhero comic where you can pay attention to the art without ignoring the story, and shit… that never happens anymore.
- Sean Witzke, April 2011