It's been a long time since I revisited X-Force, the prototypical 1990s extreme alternative to the classic X-Men book (I own at least three copies of issue #1--still in the polybags, where they will eventually appreciate enough to earn back their cover price, I hope). With artwork by Rob Liefeld, the book became an instant hit, and has since gone through several team and creative line-up changes over the years. Recently, it was announced that writer Rick Remender would helm a new iteration--called Uncanny X-Force--and I admit that fandom quickly took over and overshadowed any dated baggage the book may have held.
Remender's creator-owned Sci-Fi comic, Fear Agent (see also our Omni spotlight on the series), is a must-read and I knew he'd bring his unique voice and eye to an otherwise rote concept. This new X-Force is still on the extreme side--their mission is to handle the jobs that are too dirty for the X-Men, and they do their world-saving in secret, of course, because X-Men team leader Cyclops would not approve of their wetwork policy. The team is comprised of Angel, who can now shuffle between his feathery-winged persona and his ghoulish, knives-for-wings Archangel alter-ego, Psylocke, who, despite having one of the most convoluted back-stories in comics (she is a purple-haired British ninja) is generally the least interesting character on any roster, Deadpool (a mercenary with multiple personalities), the Grant Morrison-created Fantomex, who sports a faux French accent and a nervous system that lives outside his body, and Wolverine.
Despite all of the opportunities for the new X-Force comic to be a moody, broody, bloody mess, it ends up being one of the funniest and smartest superhero books on the shelves. The first volume, The Apocalypse Solution, sees the team investigating rumors of a reincarnated Apocalypse, the unfortunately-faced, perennial X-Men villain who apparently died some time ago but is now back in the spirit of a small boy. Remender clearly has the most fun whenever Fantomex is on the page (when asked why the loner accepted the invitation to join, Fantomex states, "The money. Naturally."), and his team-up with Wolverine is classic buddy-cop comics, ending with a piggyback into battle.
Frequent Remender collaborator Jerome Opena illustrates the first volume, and the script allows for no pulled punches in the panels. The team faces The Final Horsemen and suffers pestilence and plagues in graphic detail: boils and pustules rupture while Wolverine is nearly cleaved in half by an axe-wielding avatar of War. It's surprising how much leeway Remender and Opena have in Uncanny X-Force's content, especially the bitter, upsetting ending that takes the X-team to a thematic place few writers and artists ever attempt, twisting the preceding chapters' gallows humor into foreshadowing.
This type of storytelling cannot sustain, lest it wallow too long in pity and eventual parody, and Remender wisely shifts the narrative in the second volume, Deathlok Nation, where the team runs afoul of cybernetic versions of themselves from the future who are intent on destroying the past before--well, it's best to enjoy it for the humor that Remender infuses into the convoluted plot. Once again, Fantomex is center-stage, picking up a long-discarded thread from Grant Morrison's run on New X-Men. When he is ambushed at home with his mother(!), Fantomex nabs a nearby curtain and wraps it around the face of an assailant ("A current face scarf. Very avant garde. Very fashion forward."). He escapes and jumps off a cliff with a surprise visit from a D-list hero who wields Captain America's shield and offers to use it mid-air to break their landing. "Oh good," Fantomex quips. "That sliver of metal should cushion our fall nicely."
Remender also excels in using X-Force as a character study. He shows teammates dealing with emotions following the previous volume's ending, adding depth to the generally one-dimensional Deadpool and giving even Psylocke a sympathetic personality during a conference with her brother, Captain Britain. The only disappointment is Angel, who never really breaks out of the personality he's maintained since the late 1980s: a tortured soul, crippled with indecision akin to Hamlet. Series cover artist Esad Ribic graces the interiors of Volume Two with his pencils, and it's a clean contrast to Opena's gritty, sketchy style. Matthew Wilson's colors are crisp, bringing Ribic's lines to the front and adding personality to the backgrounds. And as shocking as the first volume was, it's the ending to Deathlok Nation that will cement Remender's run as a favorite. The final narrative box is too good to spoil with a quote here, but it turns everything on its head and sets the future of the title in question--a perfect cliffhanger finish.
While I've long citedX-Factor as the best X-Men comic in the market, Uncanny X-Force has made short work of its contemporaries. It's consistently surprising, humorous (Wolverine: "I'm a Molson man."), and unafraid to challenge what an X-comic can be--even within familiar tropes (time travelling robots!). While I hope Rick Remender eventually returns to finish Fear Agent's final arc, his Uncanny X-Force is, to paraphrase Wolverine, the best there is at what it does: telling great X-Men stories.
P.S. For fans who prefer a more classic approach to X-men, be sure to catch Emma Frost, Gambit, Wolverine (again), and Storm as they team up with Spider-Man in X-Men:With Great Power. Chris Bachalo's artwork invigorates any story, and this new collection delivers a nostalgic ride to complement his flashy pencils.