Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Essentials: X-Force #16-43

Comic fans don't tend to be the conservative sort when it comes to our little collecting habits. On the whole, we're packrats who accumulate hundreds of our beloved pamphlets, softcovers and hardcover collections and flood whatever storage space we have available in our homes with them without regard to logic, practicality, or the sanity of our significant others.

Or maybe that's just me.

Regardless, there does come a time when enough is enough and you've got to either sell a portion of your collection, give it to the interns at your job to make them like you more, or bring it back to your parents' house over the holidays to cram in the attic.

However, there are some books you love so much that whether you're headed off to college or moving into your first apartment, you just gotta have them with you. They're the Essentials, the comics that shaped various periods of your life and comic collecting tenure that you love to reread, loan to friends, and generally just have close by. Maybe it's a classic trade like Watchmen, or maybe it's the 30 issues of Fantastic Four you loved when you were 12, but these are the comics for you.

Here on this blog from time to time, I'll be sharing my own Essentials and what made them that way. To start, I'm going back to the very first comic I can remember collecting on a regular basis and considering "my" book, and that's the original X-Force.

Now to some people, I guess "X-Force" is kinda a dirty word. When people think about X-Force in the past tense, they think of everything that was wrong with 90's excess. They think of "empty calorie" comics, heavy on action and light on plot. And y'know what, maybe they've got a point, but really, who cares? I'll be the first to admit that the first comics I read were crazy 90's super hero books with tons of colors, codenames, pouches and undefined energy powers and I dug it. I still dig it. We've all got our opinions, but there's nothing more irritating to me than people who think it's their job to explain to me what is good by telling me what I'm reading is "crap." It took me over 20 years to get into stuff like Blankets and Maus, but when I finally did, it was because buddies of mine who enjoy those books said, "Hey, it's cool that you like Avengers--you may also dig Superspy." They didn't get me into non-spandex books to "save" me, they did it because they wanted to spread the love. And then they read Incredible Hercules.

Dig what you dig and let other people do the same--end of sermon, back to X-Force.

The interesting thing about my X-Force is that it's not the one people immediately conjure up mentally when given the title. I started reading comics seriously (i.e. buying them as opposed to finding them in a chest in my buddy's basement) around the time of "X-Cutioner's Song," circa 1992, and that was my first exposure to X-Force. It was not an X-Force featuring Rob Liefeld in any capacity as he had left the book a few months before I hopped on (issue #16, the first "X-Cutioner's Song" chapter of X-Force, was my first). It was also not (at least at first) an X-Force featuring Cable, who was involved in the crossover, but in his own way. My X-Force was a book by Fabian Nicieza and Greg Capullo with a group of teens led by Cannonball.

Summarizing "X-Cutioner's Song" is a whole other blog post, but the gist, at least as far as X-Force as concerned, was that Cable had been framed by his clone, Stryfe, in the attempted assassination of Professor X. Cable had left X-Force a few months earlier, so they were on their own, but in the course of trying to locate their former leader, they run headfirst into the X-Men and X-Factor, who consider them possible accessories to the crime, so they all throw down.

X-Force #16 is the grossly overmatched squad consisting of Cannonball, Boomer, Warpath, Shatterstar, Feral, Sunspot, Siryn & Rictor trying to fight a huge opposition force including the likes of Wolverine, Rogue, Gambit, Havok and many more. X-Force knows they have no shot in hell of winning, but they're so young and obnoxious and unwilling to quit that they just keep going and give the X-Adults way more of a fight than they have any right to. X-Force just keeps swinging, giving Wolverine and friends the figurative finger even as they've got two out of three claws popped under their collective chin. Gambit, etc. were supposed to be the rebels, but X-Force made them look like establishment goons--what 10-year old wouldn't have found that awesome? Hell, I'm 26 now and I'm still getting pumped about it!

That issue set the tone for the 27 issues I consider my X-Force. Three issues later, X-Force #19, one of my favorite single issues of all time, sealed the deal.

Set in the aftermath of "X-Cutioner's Song," X-Force #19 finds the gang under house arrest in the X-Mansion after Cable has disappeared into the timestream, presumed dead (he was running the team as a group of outlaws for the previous few years, so they're all wanted by the government). There are a lot of things going on in various subplots throughout the story, but the thrust is a philosophical debate between Cannonball and his former mentor, Professor X. Xavier is trying to get Sam to lead X-Force back on the "straight and narrow," to recommit to the traditional X-Men "Open Hand" approach to seeking mutant-human equality as opposed to Cable's more pro-active and aggressive "Closed Fist" routine (the title of the story is "The Open Hand, The Closed Fist"). Sam chews the Professor out for abandoning the New Mutants and leaving them under Magneto's tutelage and notes that they've learned a lot from Cable, just as they have learned from all their teachers. In the totally rad climax (after Boomer redesigns all of X-Force's costumes and makes them amazing), Sam gives a fantastic speech about how "the closed fist can be used to protect" (revealing a field mouse he had been keeping warm in his closed hand) and that "the open hand can be used to hurt" (and goes to open hand slap the Prof., who catches it just in time). Suitably convinced the kids know what they're doing, Xavier allows X-Force to go free and pursue their own path.

As a kid just getting ready to hit 11, the idea of a bunch of teenagers with cool powers and neat costumes living on their own and trying to create a better world with hard work and aggressive tactics while the adults all seemed to be sitting on their asses waiting for Apocalypse to attack appealed to me tremendously. There was a big element of wish fulfillment to that appeal, obviously, as it was hitting that childhood sweet spot of wanting move out of your parents' house and hang out with hot girls, etc., but something that jumps out at me now is that I didn't really care what villains X-Force fought back then, I honestly more looked forward to seeing how they would prove their points and show the Xaviers of the world that their way was the right way. That X-Force got me really thinking about heavier stuff like that at age 10-13 in addition to soaking up the brightly colored costumes and big explosions, I believe says something at least a bit profound.

The character of Sam Guthrie, Cannonball, was also a huge hook for me when it came to X-Force (if that isn't already evident). I couldn't get enough of the concept that here was a kid a few years older than me who had studied under Professor X, Magneto and Cable and took the best all three had to offer in their teachings to change the world himself. One of the things that lessened my enthusiasm for comics temporarily as I was heading into high school was Sam joining the X-Men and reverting back to wide-eyed, gawking kid. Some great Cannonball stories have been written since, but I'd say that arguably nobody has gotten the character back to the level Fabian Nicieza had him at back in 1993.

Cable returned to X-Force in issue #25, but with the caveat that, as he put it to Magneto in that issue, he was now following X-Force's path as opposed to them following his. Unfortunately, this approach lessened pretty quickly and Cable was back in the driver's seat with Cannonball shuffled to the back not too long after, but while it dampered my enthusiasm in the book, it didn't kill it. Even though "Dad" was back in the picture, X-Force remained a comic about young people trying to find their place outside the traditional structure and figuring out how to change the world around them for the better. The art of Greg Capullo and later Tony Daniel isn't exactly being celebrated as groundbreaking 15 years later, but for the time, it was slick stuff, not too over the top when it came to anatomy and the like (admittedly, I wasn't much of an art critic in my pre-teens).

I haven't gone back and read X-Force #16-43 in some time. Without doing so, I can't make the argument that the material holds up today rather than just through my childhood-colored glasses as I can without blinking with many of my other Essentials. What I can say is that X-Force was the book that got me into comics and it wasn't just because it was pretty or because it was fun (though it was both), but because it was good. It was the right book at the right time for me and I'm glad I found it when I did.


Brett said...

Great post! It's awesome to see someone else declare their love for X-Force. That title and characters have always been near and dear to my heart, and I actually just read the issues you're talking about. They do hold up, in my opinion.

I also wrote a huge X-Force blog a year ago (http://digsyhasablog.blogspot.com/2007/03/in-defense-of-x-force.html) that deals with the first 100 issues. I love all of it.

Rich said...

That run of X-Force by Nicieza and Capullo is fantastic. That 'open hand, closed fist' speech still sticks in my mind even though I haven't read it in years. As well as Cannonball, Sunspot, Siryn and Warpath all had pretty good stuff going on at the time.

It's a great run - although it doesn't reach New Warriors #1-51, also by Nicieza - my favorite run of comics ever.

Daniel Brooks said...

Good call, man. I loved X-Force #18 in particular and I still take it out to read every now and then.

Ben Morse said...

Thanks, dudes--glad to know I'm not alone.

Brett, gonna read that blog post stat, and Rich, fear not, that run of New Warriors will almost definitely be the next Essential.

David Gallaher said...

I also abosolutely concur with Rich. New Warriors #1-51 are excellent ... and out of a 75 issue run, that's not too shabby. The first 25 issues need to be collected. Even several of the Skolnick issues are quite good - I mean the return of the Dire Wraiths? That's pretty spiffy.

Gary Rodrigue said...

It's nice to see someone praise X-Force. That was one of my favorite titles back in the day.
Now I feel like pulling out some issues and giving them the re-read treatment.