Brand Warfare

Roughly between 1982-1997, X indisputably marked the spot for Marvel Comics. The publisher spun-off as many titles as possible from the core brilliance that was writer Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. The formula, resulting in New Mutants, X-Factor, X-Men, X-Force and Generation X (to name the most successful), went like this: mutants, feared and hated worldwide for their incredible powers, came into existence wherever teens hit pubescence (meaning everywhere). Professor Charles Xavier, aided by his “rescue and response team” of X-Men, tracked the kids and brought them to his School for Gifted Youngsters, where they received shelter and understanding… oh, and paramilitary training in the use of their powers.

Market saturation takes its toll, however. Star talents fade. The last decade hasn’t been as fruitful for Brand X as it’s been for the Avengers, Marvel’s shinier, happier heroes. Still, recent sprouts in the garden are Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. They’re noteworthy because, with mutants now all up in Hollywood, these titles are easily handed to someone new to comics; these titles create new fans.

Uncanny X-Force, for all its dystopian excellence, does not. It sits better alongside M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, and Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga- lyrical sword and sorcery masterworks from the 80s- than it does other comics. Scribe Rick Remender honors these brutal and defiantly macabre realms by sending X-Force to assassinate Apocalypse- an evil mutant several thousand years old and recently reborn into a fresh body.

Alright, but what the hell is X-Force? Like the name implies, they’re a proactively stabby branch of the X-Men who remove other extremist elements from the playing field. The current team includes the always hairy and marketable Wolverine, the wisecracking Deadpool (who’s basically an undead Spider-Man with swords instead of webs), the telepathic ninja Psylocke and the winged Archangel (lovers and lesser known X-Men, despite being some of the most visually striking), and lastly, Fantomex, a character Grant Morrison created, who- wait for it- has the power to “misdirect people.” He also pilots a UFO called E.V.A. that happens to be his nervous system.

They’re a balanced bunch, with Deadpool bringing the inane humor (“Down! Down! Down dives our hero into the menacing green mist!”), and Fantomex the philosophy (“A man can only go so long without his poison”). Wolverine, his berserker rage always a few degrees from boiling, is the unflinching leader. Archangel, the deadly persona of billionaire Warren Worthington III, is kept in check by the telepathic ministrations of Psylocke, the team’s conscience. The upset comes once they reach Apocalypse and find him reborn as a child.

Remender’s premise, a take on the historical koan that wonders whether Hitler’s death as a boy would’ve prevented World War II, requires more than a perusal of X-Lore. It requires familiarity with Apocalypse’s dark, Darwinian mission to eradicate humanity, allowing mutants to reign over a broken, cleansed planet. It helps to have read the Age of Apocalypse storyline from the mid 90s (an alternate reality where he achieves his goal), and to know that this villain who’s feared but seldom seen is responsible for the once dreamy Angel becoming the broody, unstable Archangel.

Remender’s character-heavy dialogue hardly ever acclimates the uninitiated: “Gotta tell ya, Flyboy,” says Wolverine to Archangel, “when you give bad news you don’t mess about.” When Fantomex mocks their mission’s dour tone, Psylocke replies, “You wouldn’t be so flippant if you knew what he did to Warren.”

One panel hints at the 1986 story Mutant Massacre, where Angel lost his original wings. But for dedicated X-Men fans, Uncanny X-Force is an adult, atmospheric read full of rewarding short-hand. Most of the heavy lifting comes from artist Jerome Opena and colorist Dean White. Opena is the kind of detail-oriented creator whose attention to body types and scale feels boundless. His citadels and plazas induce vertigo. His textured costumes and exceptional facial expressions invoke the legendary Neal Adams. Add to this White’s nuanced array of limes, lavenders and midnights, and the reader goes spelunking in narrative caverns razor-wired off from the rest of the Marvel Universe

This series also boasts some intensely gorgeous painted covers by Esad Ribic. An amazing sequential artist in his own right, Ribic does for decadent anti-heroes what Frank Frazetta did for barbarians decades ago.

Uncanny X-Force’s success has vaulted its creators onto Marvel’s A-List. In October, when the publisher relaunches the core universe, Ribic draws Thor, Opena draws Avengers, and Remender writes Uncanny Avengers. These assignments, I trust, have the trio’s creative juices running high. Ounce for ounce, there’s none stronger.

2 Comments to Brand Warfare

  1. Sam's Gravatar Sam
    September 15, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Classic Four Color Opera: I wouldn’t have given these things a second glance (I barely gave them a first glance), but now I will – great job!

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