Aug 12, 2013

Back Issue Ben: Peter Milligan and Mike Allred's X-Force/X-Statix

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

Back Issue Ben

Whenever I find the time and motivation to read X-Force/Statix again, it gets better every single time. The characters are some of the best ever created, easy to like, complex and interesting. U-Go Girl remains one of my favorite characters to this day, even though sometimes I forget that to be true. Peter Millgan’s writing was ahead of its time, nearly prescient in portraying the continued escalation of “Reality” TV that will eventually destroy our entire society, like a comet from the sky, formed of bad decisions and worse behavior. He satirized popular culture and even comic books themselves, while also managing to make a damn entertaining comic book at the same time. Mike Allred may be the most perfect comic book artist ever born, and he was never more suited for any series than this one. (When your fill-in artist is Darwyn Cooke, you must be doing something right.) His “cartoony” artwork completely matched the subversive tone of the material, making the occasional ultra-violence of the imagery all the more palatable, and even beautiful. A writer at the peak of his skills, an artist of unparalleled quality, an enjoyable premise, as well as excellent characters, X-Force is a book that you need to read.

Plus, Doop.

I’m going to try something a little different this time out. No recaps of the action or pertinent events of the series, because this is one I’m sincerely wishing and hoping that you will seek out and enjoy for yourself. Because of that lack of structure to fall back on, combined with my ineptitude as anything resembling a competent writer, this is more than likely going to be an abject failure of massive proportions (like the time Duy tried to lift weights). But if I can even convey a fraction of the love I have for this series, then it will be a success, and for that, I should be immortalized forever (some kind of Mount Rushmore type of situation would not be too much to expect).

Nothing about the human race disappoints me more than the fact that the Kardashians have a successful TV show. I think we all learn at an early age that being pretty gives you certain advantages toward being successful in life, but it used to be in static media like modeling, or maybe even pornography, if you have no other exploitable talent. Now the talentless and (allegedly) attractive need only appear on television for us to apparently watch them. An “accidentally” leaked sex tape the ticket to worldwide fortune and fame. I like TV as much as the next person, but not enough to forgo living a somewhat productive life (playing with my kids as one alternative) to watching anything on TV, because the TV must be watched. I’m sure watching other people do yardwork on television isn’t anything you’re going to regret wasting time on as you lay dying.

Peter Milligan was able to deftly parody what was, at the time, I believe a still growing industry dubbed “Reality TV,” and in many cases, what they accomplished becomes only more relevant as time goes on. Marketing, merchandising, and personal branding of a team where the members all too frequently die violently, on live TV, for the enjoyment of the masses. So that subsequently, post-death marketing and merchandising can take place. Most of the characters are worried more about their brand, and their public approval, as they are about meeting their ultimate fate. At one point, another reality show inspired in-universe by X-Force, debuts and becomes a pop culture hit, with even the members of X-Force becoming fans.

(In much the same way that scripted teen drama The O.C. had show-within-the-show "The Valley," a teen soap to which The O.C.’s own heroines were addicted, and even later in the show a reality series called "Sherman Oaks: The Real Valley." Even the meteoric rise and fall of The O.C. itself inspired MTV “reality” shows Laguna Beach and then The Hills, which subjected the universe to the curse of Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt. All of which is to say that for a time The O.C. was pretty great soap opera fluff with a healthy dose of comic book references. )

Team dynamics are explored as well, with what this reader would perceive to be many “tips of the hat” to professional sports. After all, the manager of the team at the beginning of the storyline is named “Coach.”

You have the most popular X-Force team members (both in-story and out) as the focus of the storytelling, while the rest of the characters struggle for more attention and notoriety. Internal politics, ambition for greater power and control of the team, are prevalent and frequent. When team members are killed off in battle, they are merely replaced with new ones, through a process of audition and interview.

Simultaneously exploited, expendable, and worshipped, the mutants of X-Force are trapped in a media cycle that they can only struggle to control. In a universe where mutants are “hated and feared” they are idolized like popstars, quantified like sports stars, at the same time that they are sent off on dangerous missions that aren’t always for the most altruistic of reasons. Their missions are just as likely to have secret, sinister government or corporate motivations, as they are to be for the betterment of mankind. As opposed to being shunned by society and the media at large for being lowly mutants, they’ve leveraged their lives and future for fame. Instead of hate and derision, they are celebrated for risking their lives on national television, and providing slaughter as entertainment. Either kill or be killed for the amusement of a live audience. After all, they’re only mutants.

Characters like Phat (an Eminem-type analog whose background may not be as rough as portrayed) and Vivisector (a well-educated werewolf) bond together in their mutual lack of media spotlight. In an effort to up their profile, they concoct a scheme to hint that they have developed feelings for each other (both characters are male) and in the process discover that they actually do have feelings for each other.

One of the replacement players, a brash young African-American character named Spike, makes a bid to join the team (himself apparently a homage to former NBA superstar Allen Iverson, driving the professional sports analogy home even more) and spends all his time antagonizing the other African-American on the team, The Anarchist, because of his upbringing.

Tike Alicar, aka The Anarchist, is one of the main characters of the series. As will be a theme with many of the characters, there is far more to him than his ambitious and brash surface personality would suggest. He initially resists the inclusion of The Spike, because, in his mind, that would make him expendable and virtually guarantee his death (because you only need one black character on any TV show).

Guy “The Orphan” Smith, the leader of the team, formerly went by the codename Mr. Sensitive. Due to both his powers (he has ultra-sensitive senses, requiring him to wear a specially designed suit to control them) and his openness toward expressing his emotions. He cares, openly, which stands in stark contrast to most of the other characters, who only care when nobody is watching. Not only is he extremely effective as a combatant, his honesty about himself eventually inspires fierce loyalty in the rest of the team, even causing them to deny offered deals (by slimy “team owner” Spike Freeman) for power or leadership in deference to Guy. Despite all that express goodness, the character still has a dark and troubled side, which manifests itself in a nightly round of Russian roulette.

Doop, the oddly shaped floating creature that serves as the cameraman for the team, is ready made for those readers that gravitate toward the offbeat and strange (like myself). Not merely a spectator on the sidelines, he uses his longtime friendship and mutual respect (retconned into the story, making it all the more absurd) with Wolverine, in a key situation to clearly show his allegiance is to the X-Force team, and not Coach or Spike Freeman. Other hints are made as to a more sinister manipulation of the team on Doop’s part, but are never explored fully.

Edie “U-Go Girl” Sawyer. What can I say about U-Go Girl that could possibly convey how much I love this character? Not much, I suspect. Like The Anarchist, she is brash and rude, openly concerned with her personal brand, and ambitious to the point of treachery. But as the layers are peeled back issue by issue, we see the person that she really is. The sacrifices she has made, and the struggles that she has endured.

Her relationship with her sister will change everything you might have believed about the character up to that point. Eventually, ambition gives way to fierce loyalty, and even love, as she develops a relationship with Guy. I miss her, and my entertainment life is that much less bright without her monthly adventures to fill my senses with joy and appreciation. (I assure you, my love of this character is only partially because of how sexy I find her, which is both creepy and inexplicable. But I’m okay with that.)

The bond and mutual respect that forms between The Orphan, Anarchist, and U-Go Girl is a beautiful thing to watch unfold, made all the more poignant by the initial selfishness of The Anarchist and U-Go Girl. These characters found each other, and we were along for the ride. It’s not a ride I’d recommend you miss out on. I find myself frequently drawn to the bonds that are formed between fictional characters, the devotion they can have for each other, the sacrifice of personal gain to the benefit of a friend or shared goal. (See Avatar: The Last Airbender for what is essentially a flawless example of this.) It makes me happy. Which makes what happens to them all the more tragic and affecting.

The series would include other team members such as Dead Girl, El Guapo, Saint Anna, Bloke, and the weirdly attractive Venus Dee Milo.

The characters' powers are as irrelevant and ill-defined, as they are (I suspect) purposefully ridiculous. The Anarchist gets his power from his sweat, and that seems to give him the ability to do whatever Milligan has decided he should be able to do. The Orphan is some kind of cross between Daredevil and Wolverine. U-Go Girl can teleport, but only if she gets hopped up on accelerants first. Dead Girl is literally a dead girl.

Doop can do things, things apparently worthy of the respect of mutant badass Wolverine. (Doop’s spotlight issue in the currently running Wolverine and the X-Men series was instantly an all-time favorite of mine.)  El Guapo has a flying, sentient skateboard. Phat can expand parts of his body with blob-like fattiness.

An early mission sees the team sent to “rescue” Paco Perez (a mutant Elian Gonzalez analog) only to find out that the pharmaceutical corporations have ill intentions for his mutant healing abilities. They basically want to distill him down into the purest form possible, so that he can provide a potential plethora of possible cures and medicines for the human race. Not willing to sacrifice the life of a small boy, regardless of the good that could come from it, Guy makes a decision that only he would make. It’s a decision that would come back to haunt him on more than one occasion.

After a recruiting trip to a graveyard, in search of Dead Girl, the big three of U-Go Girl, The Orphan, and The Anarchist are visited by the spectre of death, pointing its finger at the three of them, each of them believing themselves to be the target of the ominous portent of the future.

That future would become the present while on a mission into space, where the team would face off against a space station of power-augmented former death-row inmates, courtesy of the U.S. government. Doop, Edie, Tike, and Guy would find themselves adrift in a satellite without any means of propulsion, doomed to die. Tike discovers a small craft with just enough room for two of them (including Doop) and they decide to let a roll of the dice decide their fate. Smallest number rolled gets to stay behind. Suspensefully depicted, U-Go Girl and The Orphan eventually emerge from the craft back on the space station. Only upon returning, do they learn from the others that Tike’s powers give him the ability to completely control what number he rolls on dice, as witnessed by them at a prior visit to a casino. The Anarchist, who had been the most paranoid about the possibility of death, had intentionally sacrificed himself to save his teammates.

But this would merely be a clever red herring, as The Anarchist was subsequently saved from his seemingly unavoidable fate. Shockingly, and tragically, U-Go Girl would be the one to perish during the climatic final battle aboard the space station.

Guy and Edie tearfully say their goodbyes (one of the single most heartbreaking deaths of my comic book reading career) while the rest look on.

 Based on Edie’s dying suggestion, the team would eventually rename itself as X-Statix (the comic would also relaunch with a new #1 using that very name). As X-Statix begins, the team is in shambles, all trying to deal with and recover from the death of Edie in their own ways.

A later storyline planned to return Princess Diana from the dead as a mutant. Complaints would prompt Marvel to change the character and storyline to avoid further controversy. The X-Statix series would end like all great underappreciated series do, because of low sales. The closing storyline would revolve around a conflict against The Avengers, satirizing the superhero team crossover.

A Dead Girl mini-series would serve as the last use of the characters, by having some fun with the revolving door of death and resurrection that is so prevalent in superhero comics.

I don’t pretend to be smart enough to know what Milligan’s intentions were for the series. I suspect he might have wanted to explore the depravity and lack of redeeming social value of reality television, popstar idolization, and the mass media coverage of it. Maybe he just wanted to make fun of pop culture, or the entire genre of superheroes itself. Whatever the case, he was successful at all those things while also creating characters that were, at least for this reader, characters I cared about. Maybe I’m not supposed to care about them. It could be that thinking a satirical character is complex and moving is showing a decided lack of awareness of the joke of it all. But I don’t care. Milligan, again and again, gave me characters that lived and breathed.

And then he killed them.

You can buy Milligan and Allred's X-Force/X-Statix here:


Seth said...

I totally sympathize with the U-Go Girl crush. An insanely interesting, appealing, and attractive character. Allred's women have always been a cut above, but the writing injects something above and beyond Madman's female characters.

Manolis Vamvounis said...

awesome take on the book. :)

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