X-Force #1 (2008)
Writers: Craig Kyle and Christ Yost
Artist: Clayton Crain
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
Cover: Clayton Crain
By Michael David Sims
14 February 2008 — Before the Peter Milligan / Mike Allred reboot, the only time I read X-Force was when issues tied into larger events, such as "Fatal Attractions," "Phalanx Covenant," the Onslaught saga and "Operation: Zero Tolerance." Maybe it was the impossibly large guns, exaggerated bodies or silly poses, but of all the X-books Marvel was publishing, X-Force was the one which never caught my eye. Even when the series hit the road and made the Liefeld era a thing of the past, I couldn't be bothered to care. So then, why did I buy into the hype leading into this new X-Force series? And more importantly, did the first issue live up to the hype?
Before I answer that, however, allow me to say this: no matter my answer to the above questions, X-Force is a book you're either going to love or hate. There's no grey area here.
The haters will:
01. Think it's too violent.
02. Complain that it puts Wolverine in another book
03. Site that it was originally co-created by Rob Liefeld, and is therefore tainted.
04. Bitch about the team being all too similar.
05. Whine that Wolfsbane and Warpath aren't killers like Wolverine and X-23.
06. Claim that Clayton Crain's digital artwork is distracting.
07. Bemoan "another X-book."
08. Hate that Cyclops has ordered the team to cross the line.
The lovers will:
01. Claim the violence is appropriate.
02. Like seeing Wolverine in a position of authority.
03. Won't care that Liefeld once was associated with the comic.
04. See that the characters aren't all that similar.
05. Understand where Wolfsbane and Warpath are coming from.
06. Praise Clayton Crain's digital artwork for being unique.
07. Will like the different direction this X-book has taken.
08. Understand that Cyclops is tired of being reactive, and has decided to become proactive.
You see, for every point, there's an equal counterpoint with no middle ground to be found. So if you continue reading this review, no matter which side of the argument I fall on, I realize my opinion won't sway yours. It's the nature of the beast.
Back to the original questions: why did I believe the hype, and did X-Force #1 deliver?
Well, I'm one of the lovers, so obviously I think the hype was worth buying into. The two reasons I originally bought into it are also the reasons I love it: Clayton Crain and Wolverine.
Crain has been on my radar even since 2004. When Marvel first showed his Venom vs. Carnage artwork at Wizard World Chicago that year, my jaw hit the floor. Never before had I seen such lush, lively digital paintings. Hardly a Venom or Carnage fan, I found myself eagerly anticipating the four-issue miniseries starring both characters. They oozed everywhere, moved fluidly and generally looked wet — like snot. Seeing the "suits" like that made me wonder what it felt like to have them pressing against human flesh. In all of their various appearances, not once had I seen an artist make Venom or his spawn so lifelike yet alien. Mostly he looks like a guy in blue tights who occasionally shoots goop at people, but Crain's illustrations made you believe the suit was a living, constantly moving being.
Here, he's refined his craft. More than ever his characters and settings rise off the page. When a frustrated Wolverine slugs Cyclops across the jaw, you almost expect Slim to fall into your lap. As the "camera" pulls back to reveal Warpath's memorial to Caliban, the dry desert air is palatable. And when the action jumps into overdrive, you want to check yourself for blood spatter. Never before have I seen an artist render Wolverine's claws as bloodstained — and I don't mean they're dripping with blood, I mean they're downright stained with blood. Much like Crain's Venom reminded us that the suit is alive, the reddish tint he adds to Wolverine's claws is a reminder that Logan has killed countless people. It's gorgeous and frightening at the same time.
Though Wolverine is the star of the issue, X-23 is given plenty of time to shine. When she was first introduced several years ago, I must admit, I rolled my eyes. Like everyone else, I thought it was simply Wolverine with boobs. And though that's partially true, the character isn't an exact clone of her genetic benefactor — obviously. Whereas Logan was able to live a life outside of the pain and suffering caused by being a living weapon, X-23 was not. She was born (RE: cloned) and bred to kill. Her makers wanted her to know no other life, but, of course, things changed. Due to this, she's been trained to utilize her hyper-senses in amazing ways, and Crain is no slouch demonstrating that. When X-23 stealthily enters a SHIELD base, one whiff tells her all she needs to know about the preceding battle. More than being able to smell the acrid smoke that lingers, she's able to use her senses to "see" where the men stood as they led an assault on SHIELD. Crain illustrates this by rendering wispy silhouettes all around X-23 as she surveys the scene. More than the harried battle and eye-popping imagery, this one moment made me sit back to appreciate Crain's work.
When I reviewed Northlanders #1 I wrote, "As we turn the page the violence that's inherent to a Viking story begins. Death fills the seas just as blood permeates the air, leaving a red haze over the green and amber sky. A lesser colorist wouldn't have thought to add this touch." As I praised Dave McCaig's coloring skills in that review, I must do the same here with Crain's. More than the stains on Wolverine's claws, the colors in X-Force #1 tell a story. Logan gazes at the Colorado horizon as the sun sets. Moments later Cyclops orders the reinstatement of X-Force, signifying the death of Xavier's peaceful dream. The SHIELD facility is cold, grim and haunting, so it's hardly surprising when a heartless attack leaves over a dozen men dead. The same can be said about the Purifiers' stronghold: cold, grim, haunting. When Wolverine's team attacks the Purifiers, the chilly air is replaced by fear, brutality and blood. What was once grey with hints of icy blue turns a rusty reddish-brown as "blood permeates the air." Subtlety is a lost art form, especially in violent action comics, but Clayton Crain layers it throughout his pages. It's amazing to see such beautiful storytelling in such a vicious comic.
The other reason I bought into the hype, as noted before, was Wolverine.
Say what you will about his overexposure. I won't disagree. But the reason I saw his appearance in X-Force differently is because his role is not the same. Instead of being the loose canon who fights alone to avenge the innocent, or a teammate who's nearly impossible to control, here he's the leader. A reluctant leader at that. In the past we've seen Logan take characters under his wing (e.g. Kitty Pryde, Jubilee, Armor), but a leadership role is relatively new to the old-timer. It's one thing to train or guide an individual; it's something else to be responsible for a crew, a mission, a dream and a species. We've seen Wolverine accept tough assignments before, but this one will be his toughest. If he lets his "berserker rage" overcome him, any member of X-Force could perish as the mission crumbles. This is how I want to see Wolverine: not as the overconfident lone wolf, but as the uneasy leader.
That writers Craig Kyle and Christ Yost are able to pull that off is amazing. It isn't easy to make us see a character in a new light while keeping him consistent with his longstanding personality. Throughout the issue Logan refuses to lead the team, telling everyone from Cyclops to Wolfsbane that killing isn't something he does easily — and he doesn't want to see any member of his team walk that road. When they refuse to listen to him, "Fine. Your lives," is his response. It's a wonderful moment that shows what a harsh mentor he can be. Logan honestly cares for these people, but if they want to toss their lives right out the window, there's nothing he can do about it.
When it comes to the killing, Wolverine and X-23 have been here before. But this is new territory for Warpath. He's doing so out of rage for what the Purifiers have done to mutants — especially his friend Caliban. Though he takes lives in this first issue, it unsettles him. His remorse will clearly resurface in later issues. Over in X-Factor, when the team is uneasy, they can chat with psychiatrist Doc Samson. X-Force is a different book, however. The team's existence is unknown to the rest of the disbanded X-Men, so there's no way the members can reveal their fears and anxieties with Samson, leaving Warpath without a vent. With no outlet, eventually he's going to crack under the pressure of a guilty conscious. If handled well — and I believe Kyle and Yost have a grasp on things — the breaking of Warpath will be a character-defining moment. And it's character moments more than action I look forward to the most.
Again, no matter what I say about X-Force #1, you're going to be adamant in your stance; either you agree that the book has personality and has shucked its previous skin, or you're going to dismiss it for the violence and inclusion of Wolfsbane and Warpath. Me, I can't wait to see how the cliffhanger is resolved, and the return of a certain villain is simply icing on the cake. X-Force #1 is a visually stunning comic book that shines a new light on an old character. For that, I can't praise it enough.