Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Trade Waiting - Uncanny X-Force

Major publishers are in the business of making money, there is no doubt about that. Like any company that is selling something directly to us, the consumer, there is a degree of supply and demand involved that then dictates the style of comics that said publishers give us to consume going forward. The fact that the vast majority of DC and Marvel’s output is filled with Batman and Avengers books is no coincidence, these brands sell. One of the saddest things about fan entitlement is the disillusion that Marvel or DC is cancelling your book to make room for another limb on an already massive franchise. This really is not the case, what is more likely is you are one of the few that is reading it, and these guys don’t want to cater to the few; they’re trying to cater to not just the most comic book fans they can but to take a chunk of that Angry Birds money. This is why DC started from scratch; this is why Hawkeye has his own upcoming title and ‘real’ Nick Fury now looks like Samuel L Jackson. Because of all this, there are only a hand full of titles being published by the big two right now that please virtually everyone. Admittedly, if Marvel and DC had their way, all of their titles would be critically acclaimed, easy to jump into, and top selling yet as we are all different that is rarely the case. When it does happen, it’s like catching lightning in a bottle. One of the books that succeed in doing this is Snyder and Capullo’s Batman. Another is Mark Waid’s breath of fresh air run on Daredevil, with help from some of the best artists in the industry. What makes Rick Remender’s run on Uncanny X Force worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence as those two books? Find out after the jump.

Uncanny X Force Volumes 1-4
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Jerome Opena, Rafael Albequerque, Esad Ribic and Matt Wilson, Billy Tan, Rich Elson, Mark Brooks, Scott Eaton, Robbi Rodriguez, Dean White, and Paul Mounts.

Uncanny X-Force really shouldn’t work. A book about the most emotionally and mentally damaged characters from the X franchise coming together under the leadership of Wolverine, a character that for the past thirty years has made it explicit that he is not a leader, to kill bad guys that are usually so steeped in convoluted history it requires a PhD just to untangle it? It doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. Add into the mix concepts and characters that were introduced in a time that is seen by many as some of the darkest days in comics history and you would expect fans to be burning effigies of Axel Alonso in the streets, or at least grumbling about it to their local comic shop. Oddly the title, alongside Jason Aaron’s fantastic Wolverine and the X-Men has actually been the shot in the arm that the franchise has so desperately needed, and all it took was for the creators involved to return to the very basics of what makes a good comic book.

Uncanny X-Force is supposed to be a team book, but one look at the members of the team, (Wolverine, Deadpool, Fantomex, Angel, and Psylocke,) and you would be forgiven for thinking that this was the most dysfunctional team line up in a history of dysfunctional teams. As leader, Wolverine has a mandate; kill the threats to mutant kind before they can become exactly that. This gives writer Rick Remender an excuse to tell a giant, multi layered story about Apocalypse without actually using the character that we know from stories past. Instead, Apocalypse is an idea, and through this Uncanny X-Force as a title raises the main question that the book represents; if it is in your nature to become something, be it evil or otherwise, how much can outside influences change that? The opening volume, The Apocalypse Solution, deals with this theme explicitly with the team on the hunt for a reborn Apocalypse that, as he is still a child, has no idea of the monster he will eventually become. Again, the idea is explored in the second volume, Deathlok Nation, when a group of super powered Deathloks from the future come back to steal The World, a concept introduced in Grant Morrison’s run of New X-Men, from Fantomex’s clutches. Aid comes in the form of the original Deathlok; a serial killer that was changed into a military sponsored cyborg only to actually end up being neither, instead conquering what is in both his DNA and his programming to become so much more. The metaphors may be glaringly obvious yet in the hands of Remender feel natural and fluid.

The imagery that the line up of the team represents also ties in to the question. All of them have been manipulated by outside forces and have come out the other side with various degrees of issues and damages. This makes someone like Fantomex such an interesting character. Like Deathlok, Fantomex is a character that has broken the shackles of what he was programmed to be and a large subplot of Uncanny X-Force is Fantomex testing whether he can be a force for good. To counter act Fantomex’s ascension is the fall of Angel, the character with seemingly the least amount of emotional scars on the surface, is actually the most damaged and although Wolverine may be (co) team leader, the foundation that the book rests on is the story of Angel’s descent into a rabbit hole that he has no hope of returning from. Beware; if you are even slightly well versed in your X history you will know that these are characters that very rarely get the chance to be happy.

Rick Remender is not only a great writer but a fearless one. Jumping into eras of X-Men history that others would deem toxic, Remender takes all the best ideas from the last three decades and meshes them together to tell an exciting, cohesive story, proving to the readers that in the right hands any story is fair game. His grasp of the characters, their actions and their dialogue is nothing short of fantastic. Angel is aloof, Wolverine determined, Psylocke deceptively vicious, Fantomex charming, and Deadpool just funny. In fact, the way that Remender uses Deadpool is fantastic; sure he cracks jokes and lightens the mood yet he never is the joke, actually proving himself on more than one occasion and staggeringly, becoming the teams’ moral compass. A recurring theme of the book is none of the characters actually work as a team to fight and that makes perfect sense; a group of loners would always fight as a group of individuals rather than a unit. Helping Remender to make this book work so well, and arguably the reason why critics and fans alike are in adoration of it, is Marvel. Thankfully, (and like other great Marvel books in recent years,) they have allowed Remender to tell his story, free from the potential shackles that being part of a cross over brings. In fact, as said before, the first four volumes of Uncanny X-Force are actually one large story in the old school Chris Claremont mould; each arc gives you a satisfying conclusion whilst building on a larger narrative and themes that carry over into the next arc.

The art talent involved to make this book a success has, on the whole, been pretty stellar. Jerome Opena is the main artist on the book, handling the first volume and the fourth, and is an absolute superstar. Apart from Ron Garney, Opena is the only penciller that this reviewer has seen that actually benefits from not having an inker. His pencils are so deep and rich in detail that an inker would actually harm the work. Of particular note are his character designs for the Final Horsemen and through them, his ability to render some of the more horrific imagery seen in a Marvel book. On top of this, Opena draws characters jumping off things better than anyone else in the mainstream and thankfully gets to do so at least once an issue. Aiding Opena are some incredible talent such as American Vampire artist Rafael Albuquerque in a one off Lady Deathstrike one shot, and Esad Ribic and Matt Wilson, delivering some beautiful line work with striking colours for the Deathlok storyline. Mark Brooks take a chunk of the third storyline and performs admirably with his Joe Madureira by way of Jim Cheung style, as does Robbi Rodriguez, using an off kilter style not to dissimilar to Tony Cypress for his one off tale. The true winner in this book is colourist Dean White, who in Uncanny X-Force is doing some career defining work using a thick, chalky style that suits the subject down to the ground; even going as far as making you wish all colourists were as brave and experimental as him. Unfortunately the art falls over a little in the third volume, suffering from the twice a month schedule. The aforementioned Mark Brooks does his part with help from the ever dependable Scott Eaton handling their side of the bargain but unfortunately Billy Tan does not. With a somewhat questionable grasp of human anatomy and incredibly sparse panels, Tan’s work is the antithesis of the rich detail and line work that the other artists provide. Ending on a high note, Esad Ribic also provides the painted covers for the series and they are nothing short of amazing.

Verdict – Buy It

Uncanny X-Force is the comic book equivelent to Craig Mack's seminal posse cut, Flava in your Ear (Remix.) By allowing Rick Remender to play in his own little corner of the Marvel universe and letting him, more often than not, bring some of the industries best pencillers and colourists along for the ride, Marvel have essentially put out a book that is rightfully praised by every corner of fandom. Remender utilises characters that have all at times been considered shallow and gives them more life than they have seen in years, making you care about them and the consequences of the decisions they make. Add that to some career defining work from Opena and White and you truly have a recipe for success.

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Jon said...

This series came as a huge surprise. I jumped in a few issues in and have tried my darndest to track down the first few issues. It's definitely on my pull list week after week.

Great review!

Naymlap said...

I've tried this book a bunch of times but I never could get into it. It's not for lack of talent either. There is a lot of excellent writing and the art is quirky without being distracting.
But I just don't care about the characters, and that's a big draw for me in superhero comics. I never was a huge Wolverine fan, I hate hate hate Deadpool, and Fantomex annoys me.
But I did really like how he wrote Psylocke and Archangel. And the plots were cool. So that's something.

Air said...

It's like the x-men I know and love from my (mid-90s) teen years, only better!

Have been trade waiting on this one after hearing lots of buzz and love the ability to be grim, gritty, action-packed, but actually have character development and plot arcs!

CombatSpoon86 said...

This has been probably one of my favorite x-series in the last 10 yrs. There isn't many x-titles over the years that has caught my interest for the long run.

Whenever Remender finishes this title, rereading the entire series over again will be a real big treat. Definitely one of Remender's best comic series he's ever created.

Dustin Lesperance said...

Another series you guys have put me on -- I'll have to clear some room in my long boxes, but I'm looking forward to hunting down the back issues next time I'm out.

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