This week: Peter Milligan and Michael Allred’s X-Force, a series published from 2001 to 2002 that changed the course of Marvel Comics by offering a bold, bloody reinvention of the mutant concept rooted in society’s obsession with fame and celebrity.
X-Force summary: Instead of being hated and feared by the public, the mutant team X-Force is adored for its heavily publicized and merchandised superhero personalities. The mortality rate for members is very high, and the first issue of Peter Milligan and Michael Allred’s X-Force run kills off over half the team on a mission to rescue a boy band being held hostage. A new team is assembled for another rescue mission involving a young mutant heavily based on Elián González, and a couple more members die while new team leader, Guy “The Orphan” Smith, makes a decision to save the little boy that will haunt X-Force in the future. Wolverine shows up to help the team take out their evil manager, Coach; racial tensions run high when the latest team member, Darian “The Spike” Elliott, butts heads with Tike “The Anarchist” Alicar; and a time-manipulating mutant, Woodstock “Lacuna” Schumaker, messes with the group to disappoint her hyper-liberal hippie parents. After a brief trip inside the body of X-Force’s enigmatic green cameraman, Doop, X-Force veteran Edie “U-Go Girl” Sawyer and Guy begin a romantic relationship by visiting Edie’s childhood home and having her come to terms with her past. X-Force’s final mission takes the mutants to space so they can be captured by prison inmates who have gained superpowers after being experimented on by the C.I.A., but the team going off-script sets off a chain of events that ends with Edie’s death. Back on Earth, the members of X-Force cope with the loss by falling apart, setting the stage for the team’s reconstruction under the new name chosen by Edie with her final breath: X-Statix.
Oliver Sava: I’ll be honest: the main reason I wanted to do Milligan and Allred’s X-Force is because The A.V. Club got an awesome mural in the office and Doop (the 21st century’s most important superhero creation) is on it. But upon rereading, I realized that this is the perfect superhero comic for this current moment in U.S. history. As we head into a presidential election where one of the candidates rose to cultural prominence via reality television and social media, it’s refreshing to read a superhero comic dedicated to fame, the media, and the dark side of using the latter to achieve the former. Some of my most lasting comics memories involve X-Force. I can remember buying X-Force #116 at the Waldenbooks inside the Yorktown Mall, and my shock when I read that last page on the bench outside the store. Flash forward to a year later: I’ve started buying comics at an actual comic shop and I’m sitting in the front seat of my sister’s car, gasping over the death of Edie Sawyer in X-Force #128. Very few superhero comics have had such an emotional impact on me, and my appreciation for the series only deepens each time I revisit it.
This was my fourth reread of X-Force, and these issues remain my favorite X-book ever. The story is smart, funny, heartfelt, and action-packed. It embraces complex ideas regarding politics, race, and sexuality that superhero comics all too often ignore. It feels very much like a classic Vertigo book, which is fitting considering both writer Peter Milligan and editor Axel Alonso were best known for their work at Vertigo when they gave X-Force a dramatic conceptual overhaul. As someone who was ushered into the larger comic world through X-Men comics after the first X-Men movie, X-Force was a revelation, showing that the mutant concept had so much more potential than the reductive superhero comics I was enjoying, but didn’t stimulate my mind in the same way.
X-Force #116 actually came out on the same day as Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s New X-Men #114, another comic that brought a major status quo shift to the X-Men and introduced more ambitious storytelling to Marvel’s main mutant characters. But what made X-Force’s bold new direction so fascinating is how it really did start fresh. The characters were all new, the art style was unlike anything else in the X-line, and the creative team wasn’t afraid to take big risks like killing off over half the team in the very first issue. That grisly ending makes X-Force #116 an especially important issue in Marvel Comics history: It was the first mainstream Marvel book to not carry the Comics Code Authority’s seal of approval since the ’70s, a major first step toward abandoning the antiquated CCA, created in the ’50s to regulate comic-book content.
Abandoning the Comics Code allowed the creative team to explore more mature content in this series, and while that means a significant increase in sex and violence in the first issue, these elements aren’t gratuitous. The opening scene of Axel “Zeitgeist” Cluney having a threesome with two models while watching footage of the team’s most recent mission reveals the perverse thrill he gets out of seeing the violence committed by and against his fellow mutants, and the gory brutality of the cliffhanger ending sets incredibly high stakes for the rest of the series. The creators want to shock readers, but all the shocks have an important narrative function. Do you agree with this sentiment, Caitlin? Are there any moments where you feel that the creative team goes too far without having a strong reason for it?
Caitlin Rosberg: In the interest of honesty, this is actually my first time reading any X-Force books. Like you, Oliver, I got into comics after the first X-Men movie (thanks, Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry) but I went in the opposite direction and started with Ultimate X-Men, and quickly abandoned the X-books entirely.
I do agree that most of the controversial and “shock value” narrative decisions in this run were made for a reason other than to be edgy. A lot of this book was dedicated to outlining serious issues about race, sexuality, fame, media, and exploitation. I recently watched the Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix and more than once found myself drawing parallels between the two. X-Force is confrontational in a way that at the very least causes meaningful discomfort; I suspect for a lot of people it provoked thoughts that weren’t easy to have or deal with, and that’s incredibly important in X-books.
I stopped reading X-Men comics in large part because I got tired of mutants-as-metaphor. Using bigotry against mutants as a literary tool to talk about racism or xenophobia or sexism or homophobia is only so useful without including people who aren’t white, European/American, male, and cis/straight. X-Men books for far too long showed a sanitised and comfortable version of hatred, and Milligan’s X-Force run fixed that in a powerful way.
All that said, the book still has a problem with women. Spike and Tike are shown as sympathetic and very human characters confronting the same problem (racism) from two different vantage points. Billy Bob and Myles’ slow slide into a romantic and sexual relationship is handled with a lot of kindness. Guy’s “Mr Sensitive” side is mocked a little bit, but he’s also shown as a loving and strong person, and as a character he’s honestly one of the best arguments against toxic masculinity I’ve ever seen.
But only two of the women in this book that aren’t in the media or clearly just there to bang an X-Man survive, and one of them is undead already. Yes, there’s a high mortality rate in this book, but it’s impossible to argue that Edie’s death is anything other than a fridging, which is disappointing. Beckah is portrayed as emotionally unstable and needy, and then she dies. Edie’s character growth is important and meaningful, but it’s also a perfect example of “all it takes to fix the crazy woman is the right dick.” The entire book is founded on the objectification and injury of women. In fact, X-Force #116 doesn’t actually open on Axel having a threesome, it starts with a flashback to Axel’s mutant powers making an untimely appearance and melting the face off the girl he’s kissing. It then transitions to the threesome, and then to Tike being interviewed by a female reporter while he’s in a tub with two naked women. The only living female mutant to survive, Woodstock, is portrayed as desperate and crazed, a stalker who abandons her proclaimed beliefs when offered fame (by way of exploiting and abusing celebrities) and a chance to disappoint her hippie parents. Dead Girl is the only sympathetic female character in the book but even she’s not free of the “everybody’s gotta have sex” rule, and to quote her, she hasn’t “been around long enough to establish [herself].”
Tim, Oliver and I both touched a little bit on how pertinent X-Force still is today, but there’s also a very of-the-time feel with reality TV stars in the early internet era. What do you think allows it to straddle that line between specific and evergreen?
Tim O’Neil: You’re both making me feel old, in that not only do I remember buying #116 off the stands, I remember buying X-Force #1 off the stands. X-Force #1 was a terrible comic that nonetheless managed to be very popular, and with 25 years hindsight it’s not hard to see why: Every fundament of craft required to create a good comic book is missing, except for energy and attitude. Rob Liefeld had those in abundance. The problem with X-Force 1.0 is that it never really fulfilled its purpose as the “proactive” “or “provocative” X-Men book. That’s an idea superhero comics have tried to run with for decades but only one book has ever actually sold the premise, and that was Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority. Cable was a hero who liked to shoot people in the back and he did that for a little bit until he became popular enough that they rounded off the edges and made him just another gruff-but-lovable superguy and surrogate father figure. Soon enough X-Force was just like every other 1990s X-Men spin-off, meaning it sold well at the time but is now mostly forgettable.
X-Force #1 came out a couple months before Jim Lee’s relaunched X-Men #1. Both books sold millions of copies thanks to (respectively) random trading cards in polybags and a total of five different covers. The books represent the absolute zenith of the early ’90s collector’s mentality that demolished large swathes of the industry in the years immediately after. X-Force and X-Men were still twins in 2001, only instead of appealing to speculators buying terrible comics by the crate load, they were trying to appeal to readers who had left because the books were awful—the result of many years chasing those same speculators who had made Marvel so much money in the early ’90s. It worked, at least for me. I believe the greatest character reinvention in modern comics history remains Swamp Thing #21, but I’d put X-Force #116 in a close second place. If the series had just consisted of that one single issue, it’d still be hailed as a classic.
It’s interesting to see that X-Force #116 came out on the same day as New X-Men #114. I didn’t remember that. At the time I had cut all the X-books off my list—the fin de siècle pre-Nü Marvel era, right around the time of the first X-Men movie, was especially heinous. Buying a new X-Men book was a very risky proposition for me, but I liked both and kept up. We haven’t really mentioned X-Statix yet—maybe we will later in the article—but it’s worth pointing out that the sequel book just wasn’t as good, even though I continued to buy it. The original Milligan and Allred run was lightning in a bottle whose premise was not built to sustain a franchise.
What struck me at the time—and which I still believe holds true—is the way X-Force #116 succeeded in fulfilling the mandate of the original X-Force #1 in a way that Liefeld never quite managed to stick. It was dangerous, sexy, and extraordinarily tacky while also managing to be a marvelously constructed single issue that completely sells the concept of the new team (while, er, also slaughtering the new team). The media satire and explicit content for which Liefeld was reaching was just not within Marvel’s grasp in 1992. It still feels fresh because this is still the media landscape in which we live, albeit no one in 2001 was walking around glued to their hand-held phones as a primary media device.
Even though the book deals with diversity issues such as race and sexuality with an openness bordering on (but never going over the line into) exploitation, it still manages to have it both ways in regards to the use of female characters as disposable, sexy bodies. The question of women in the book is important since so much of the series is dedicated to setting up a central female character who is destined to die in order to give the remaining (predominantly male) heroes great inspiration. Which I thought was disappointing and wasteful at the time, and which I regard in hindsight as even more so. Shea, how badly do you think the ending mars the book as a whole, and does the fact that there’s a Volume 2 that isn’t quite as good color your reception of the original run?
Shea Hennum: I’ve read my fair share of X-Men comics, but like Caitlin, this was the first time I had ever read this particular one. I actually have never read the follow-up, X-Statix, so I can’t rightly say how the quality of that book may affect a reading of this one, but I will say that I don’t think that the series was particularly marred by that ending. That’s not to say that the gender politics at work in that final couple of issues are particularly meritorious; I think Caitlin’s comments about the ending being a textbook fridging are fair and accurate. But for these final couple of issues to sour the series, there had to be something to sour, and I just did not find that to be the case.
I was initially thinking specifically of Tim’s question regarding Edie’s death, but the more I’ve sat with it, the more I want to extend that criticism to the whole book. After finishing my initial read, I thought it was clear to me why Oliver chose this; it stood out from most other superhero books, for the Allreds’ fantastic artwork, as well as for its subversion of superhero tropes and its more thoughtful concerns regarding celebrity, identity, and performance. But all of that is rather superficial, and the book’s engagement with those things is largely unsatisfying, as Milligan fails to give his subjects the time, focus, and space they require.
Oliver and Caitlin, you both mentioned the book’s attempt to address race, but you seemed to have a more positive read on its handling than I did. It often approaches interesting moments, but it consistently fumbles them. For example, the scenes where we learn Tike has OCD and it manifests as the need to scrub his skin white. That kind of internalized racism and compulsive, even unconscious, self-loathing is something that is very real and very damaging for innumerable black and brown people. Milligan provides himself a fantastic opportunity to examine the damage that racism can do and the ways it can be internalized.
Instead, there is a complete lack of consistency regarding Tike, with no commitment to exploring this idea. Sometimes he speaks standard, unaccented English, attempts to keep other black characters from joining the team, and uses vicious racial slurs at them. But when it’s funny, he dresses like Cam’Ron at the 2003 Grammy Awards, speaks stereotypical slang, and regularly calls Spike, the only other black team member, “brother” or “the brother” even when it leads to awkward and clunky phrasing. The other black characters in the book are incredible stereotypes. And ultimately, the only black character who lives is the one compulsively trying to approximate whiteness; all the characters performing a kind of stereotypical blackness are killed.
That’s not to say that Milligan is explicitly writing a racist comic. More than anything else, it’s mostly just a mess. There are spots where you can see the book earnestly grappling with some of these things, and it does a good job of rhetorically repudiating racism, but there is a total and utter failure to meaningfully commit to these ideas, and so their effect is undercut and even overturned. This is true of the racial politics, but also the gender politics, and pretty much everything else here.
Oliver, you briefly mentioned the book’s handling of race, but, seeing as how that subject occupies a prominent place in the last two-thirds of the book, would you mind unpacking your reading of that a little more fully?
OS: My reading is largely informed by the idea of racial performance, and I always viewed that inconsistency in Tike’s character as an indication of his difficulty of negotiating his past as a black man raised by white parents in a white community with the stereotypical image of a conflict-stirring, macho-posturing black man that became pervasive in American pop culture with the ascension of hip-hop. Tike performs the latter when he’s on camera because that’s what he thinks the world wants to see from him, but from the very beginning he’s uncomfortable with being put in a box. I love the moment where he uses a tmesis during his bathtub interview and then points out that he knows exactly what “tmesis” means, immediately asserting an intelligence that adds even more layers to the performance. That moment is followed by more smacktalk against his team leader, but it’s all calculated on Tike’s part to maximize the internal drama that fuels this team’s popularity.
Spike represents a more “authentic” blackness that makes Tike worry his performative blackness won’t be able to compete, and then there’s his legitimate concern that he’s going to be killed because you can’t have more than one token black character on a superhero team. Milligan’s exploration of racial politics is far from perfect, but I do think there are more layers here than Shea suggests. In a current cultural climate where black men are regularly killed by the police because of institutionalized racism, Tike’s obsession with death in the last third of X-Force can be seen as an extension of that heightened awareness of mortality and vulnerability in the black community. I don’t know if that’s intentional, but I appreciate that there’s enough there that I can draw these types of conclusions from a superhero book.
What I’ve always admired most about X-Force is its ambition and willingness to go hard with the metaphors that Caitlin dislikes so much in the book. The massive X-Force franchise in this title is one big metaphor for the X-Men franchise that was experiencing a huge surge in popularity after the first X-Men movie, and the constant string of deaths and new characters is a commentary on how superhero comics kill off familiar faces to boost sales and replace them with new heroes that will ideally build their own fan bases (if they manage to survive). You see this trend in Marvel’s current crossover disaster, Civil War II, which has haphazardly killed off both War Machine and Bruce Banner in a story that makes X-Force look like War And Peace.
You guys have mentioned Edie’s death being a textbook fridging, but that’s never bothered me the way other fridgings have because I’ve always felt like death was where her story was supposed to end. The very first shot of Edie in this series is her asleep in a warzone after teleporting, and she’s in a warzone for the entire story. Edie is the only surviving member of the team introduced at the very start of the run, and having her be the big death at the end makes this book feel like a more tightly constructed narrative than the meandering X-Statix. The Darwyn Cooke-illustrated X-Force #124 situates Edie as the central figure of the narrative, but that narrative isn’t just concerned with her troubled life; it’s also exploring the ramifications of her death on the rest of the team and the world at large, which makes her even more of a mutant icon in the Marvel Universe.
We’ve touched on Michael and Laura Allred’s artwork on this book, but I don’t want us to understate just how much the visual aesthetic of X-Force differentiated it from other superhero comics at the time. I can still remember the furious message board comments when X-Force #116 was announced with the Allreds’ bright, Kirbyesque promotional art, and putting them on an X-book was a risky editorial decision that ultimately became part of this book’s commentary on branding and image management. What do you think makes the Allreds a good fit for Milligan’s story, Caitlin? And this is a general question for everyone: what do you make of the Doop-centric silent issue, X-Force #123?
CR: I do want to clarify that I didn’t dislike X-Force as a whole or the metaphors in it. Part of the reason I got so caught up in what I didn’t like is because I enjoyed the book a lot. I appreciate the ebb and flow of subtlety throughout the run: Sometimes it felt like the book was smacking me in the face and other times like I had to chase it to get to the heart of the story. That back and forth kept me engaged in a way a lot of books don’t.
The Allreds’ art plays a huge role in that. As much as I love Darwyn Cooke, the issue he did on Edie actually felt awkward and distracting to me because I wanted to go back to the Allreds. Michael Allred’s layouts and panels were pretty fascinating, and I’ve always appreciated the way he uses space to tell a story just as much as characters. There’s a lot of interesting angles, that scene with Tike in the tub included, particularly when the team goes to space and the pages can go from super claustrophobic to expansive in the blink of an eye.
Of course, Laura Allred’s vibrant colors and the pop art sensibility of the overall design of the characters has a huge role to play, too. We’re talking about people that are supposed to slot into a TV and pop culture landscape that includes Paris Hilton’s bedazzled phones, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears in head-to-toe denim, and the arrival of reality TV like Big Brother and Temptation Island. The Allreds embraced all of that and ran with it, which is a huge part of making X-Force feel so timely. There’s a lot to look at on every single page and that sensory overload really contributes to impression that X-Force is about excess and performance.
I think that performative aspect is part of why all four of us have gleaned different things from reading these issues. There’s text and subtext, plus sub-subtext that may be intentional or may simply be imagined by the reader. It could honestly be that Milligan and the Allreds intended for us to read none of this into their work. It could be that we missed things that they were hinting at. X-Force is ambitious, but it leaves so many things open to interpretation in a way that’s more ethically nuanced than most books. Compared to something like Civil War (the 616 or MCU versions), I feel like there’s a lot less room to decide someone is The Worst™ or a Precious Cinnamon Roll that’s never done wrong in their lives. Everyone in X-Force is good and everyone in X-Force sucks at the exact same time.
Even after all that, we’re still left with Doop. Oliver, I know you absolutely love this character, and I can definitely understand why. He (it?) feels like a combination deus ex machina and Chekhov’s gun that flies far under the radar with the exception of his psychedelic solo adventure issue. When Edie died, I had a moment of genuinely believing that Doop was going to save her. Knowing the extent of his powers, especially the TARDIS-like nature of his expansive interior, I wondered why Doop couldn’t have just taken Tike and Guy into his belly and let Edie pilot the little ship to safety. The fact that Milligan didn’t use Doop like a green globby Aslan is fascinating to me, and left me wondering if on top of being about identity and voyeurism and fame, X-Force was also about free will versus predestination in an old-school Catholic versus Lutheran sense.
Tim, do you think we’re running the risk of reading too much into X-Force, searching for meanings or metaphors that the creators never intended? Do you think my take on Doop-as-God is taking a one-shot space-time jaunt too seriously?
TO: I don’t think it’s possible to read too much into the book, no. The value in a book often lies not just in what the book has to tell you but what you have to tell the book. This book did its job in that we’re still talking about it 15 years later. To put it bluntly, who cares what the creators intended? It’s as interesting to talk about what they didn’t intend as what they did. The book is making a conscious effort to be progressive in a few areas—race and sexuality—but has a huge blind spot for gender, and it’s a blind spot the industry still suffers from. But there has been some improvement. The book would have been completely different today. Edie would still be alive, I think.
My opinion of Doop is colored by the fact that I read Milligan’s oddball All-New Doop miniseries from a few years back, which doesn’t necessarily explain his powers in a way that would satisfy Mark Gruenwald but at least gestures in the direction of establishing consistency. Why can’t he do anything he wants? He’s an interesting fellow. I read him as slightly sinister in his earliest appearances, but it’s hard to remember a time before he was cuddly. It’s a good follow-up. Milligan returns to the concepts every few years; he did a Dead Girl limited series a few years before the Doop book. Rather than approaching them as strict continuations, problematic given the conclusion of X-Statix, he treats them like their own discrete units, with their own ideas and themes. They’re both worth reading. I hope he returns again at some point, providing he finds the right idea.
I like the idea that excess is somehow baked into the series’ premise. In 2016 it’s impossible to be shocked anymore. The celebrity culture lampooned here is the very early 2000s ultra-gloss that gave us Paris Hilton. That world now seems crude given the way celebrities market themselves today, as human embodiments of their own extraordinarily well-designed brands. The book works against itself here by virtue of Allreds’ skill. Michael Allred draws so well and the book looks so nice that it doesn’t completely gel with the abrasive, occasionally discordant, and often ugly subject matter. I can’t imagine the book being drawn by anyone else, though. The Allreds use the discrepancy well, I think, and it lends the book a strange documentary feel—to return to Doop and his ever-present metaphor video camera. You get the feeling that if the team got to pick who drew their comic, it’d probably look a bit more like the original X-Force #1: This isn’t how they see themselves but how the world sees them, and that’s the crucial difference.
We’ve said a lot so far and it feels like we haven’t scratched the surface yet. It’s an interesting comic. It’s as interesting for the ways it doesn’t work, the ways in which is remains an artifact clearly of its time and place, as the ways in which it does. It’s a gorgeous book to look at. It will not be remembered as an all-time defining run, and not the first work either the writer or the artists should be remembered for, but I think its place in critical opinion is fairly secure. It’s a historically important book that does a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong, but is rarely uninteresting. It’s executed with such a sublime degree of craft that the reader wants to forgive its lapses. It holds up. Do you agree?
SH: I don’t think it does. As I said earlier, it was clear to me why Oliver originally chose this run for us to talk about; it’s pretty compelling, and a whole lot better looking, than most other superhero comics. And you can see why it’s earned the critical love that it has, particularly when you look at the era it comes out of—that early 2000s era of Marvel, where the company seemed intent on really shaking things up with New X-Men, The Ultimates, Daredevil, Alias—and the fact that it was a reaction to the ’90s, a time that has unfairly earned this reputation as a stagnant, dull, dumb period. But even the very best superhero comics of all time barely really hold my interest for much longer than it takes to read them, and X-Force is far from the best. Unfortunately, it feels constrained by the same things that every other superhero comics does, which is this need to fit certain parameters, repeat certain rhythms, and hit certain beats.
Oliver, in his response to my first question, touches on a number of key things that I think are absolutely worth noting, and I think we’re coming from a similar place when it comes to reading the way the book figures race. There are obviously differences in how we each read certain moments or characters, but it’s not because we’re starting in different places. Rather, Oliver is far more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Milligan and Allred. So for him, what I read as inattention, or an attempt to both benefit from and subvert preconceptions, Oliver sees as being more thoughtfully employed. At the heart of this is really how both of us understand the superhero genre.
I think it would be fair to describe Oliver as a superhero fan, or at least someone who regularly enjoys superhero comics, but the opposite is true of me. More and more I find myself loathing superheroes, both for what they are and for what they cannot be. And the result of that general distaste for the genre itself is that I have no interest in overlooking, forgiving, or giving the benefit of the doubt to these things. For that reason, the things that Oliver, and I think most readers, found smart or funny or moving about this book, I found unsatisfying, cloying, and necessarily shallow. It reads as slow and uneven and boring, particularly when compared to Milligan’s other work like Rogan Gosh or Shade The Changing Man. He overwrites here, too, which prevents Allred’s tremendous and endearing line art from really flexing its muscles. And so, no, I don’t think this book holds up well at all.
Ultimately, Peter Milligan and Michael Allred’s X-Force feels very much like the Hawkweye or Vision of its day; that is, it’s the “good” Marvel comic, one that—simply because it looks different from its peers and has assumed the patina of non-superhero comics—functions to give readers something they can defend as “for adults.” Except for (I know you thought I forgot) that Doop issue, because getting to watch Allred draw psychedelic horrors unencumbered by text or conventional narrative concerns is legitimately pretty great.