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X-Force and Hell in a Hand Basket

June 22, 2001

The Golden Age and Peter's Milligan Stew

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far—no wait, that’s not right.

It was the best of times, it was—no.

Okay, here’s one for ya: Once upon a time, two men collaborated on a variety of concepts and ideas. One man wrote the dialogue and devised the plots, while the other man illustrated the stories and fleshed out the plots. They told many tales and became legendary—though one of the two was ill-treated over time (but that is a tale for another time). Among their vastly entertaining creations was an odd little team of heroes known as the X-Men which did not fare well initially and after 60 or so issues became a reprint book for several years before being revived with the “New” X-Men.

I don’t typically read X-Men, X-Force, or any of the X-related comics. I am of the opinion that the best X-Men stories have already been told and consist of X-Men 94-143, G.S. X-Men 1, and X-Men annual 3. A perfect set of books, and while other issues rival this set of tales (the Paul Smith run is certainly a worthy contender), it cannot match the sheer creative genius of Claremont and Cockrum and for the majority of the run Claremont and Byrne (with Austin, natch). These stories were produced at a time when the “house of ideas” was a house that was quickly filling its rooms to capacity. Miller, Sienkiewicz, Golden, were but three of the many talented creators contributing regularly to Marvel during this time. Ideas were fresh, stories were inviting, and you could be completely ignorant of comics and just jump on in with both feet without feeling that you've just fallen into the icy North Atlantic without so much as a wetsuit.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

As stated above, I do not read X-Men. If I do choose to read X-Men, I read tales from the past—either the aforementioned run, stories from the Silver age, or Mr. Byrne’s Hidden Years (which is a subject entirely worthy of its own column, but not this week). However, for whatever reason—the alignment of the planets, the dawning of summer, the lack of calcium in non-dairy products, the start of the terrorist season, the promise of a summer of block-buster movies with no plot or story—I found myself at a comics shop—at the checkout—with no less than two recent X-related books: X-Men Unlimited 31 and X-Force 116. Being admittedly out of the loop as to the goings on in these books, I approached them as I approached my first venture into X-Men territory in 1978 (with X-Men 123 as a matter of fact) with open eyes and anticipation.

A few words about Michael Golden. I first became aware of his work in Marvel’s Micronauts series—he provided the art for the first 12 issues and the covers for the first 24 or so issues. Golden’s work stood out from the artists of that time. His understanding of design and composition, of proportion and anatomy, of shadow and light and color were unmatched. His covers were amazingly unique and easily identifiable—if not from their technical perfection then from the stylized “G” which accompanied most of the covers. While his interior art contributions are not vast, they are remarkable and stand out as some of the best comics then and now. X-Men Unlimited 31 features a cover and lead story by Golden. This is the first new interior work I’ve seen by him in several years and it certainly is a departure from his earlier work. The 12-page “Monsters” story (which he both wrote and drew) is strikingly different from his former style. The art appears to have been reproduced either from his pencils, or was created electronically. It is difficult to tell which. There is a roughness to the work that, surprisingly, is not unappealing at all. The majority of the story occurs in a vast crowd, and were Golden being paid on a per-character wage rather than a page wage, he would be able to retire on this story and move to the Greek islands. There are literally hundreds of characters drawn in the crowd scenes, amazingly rendered in color by Gina Going.

The story is essentially about Rogue, though it may very well be about all of us. Walking through this crowd with Jean Gray, Rogue makes contact with an evil presence. This presence is so evil that it consumes her and she is forced to flee the crowd by flying up into the air at which point Rogue states: “The press—the weight!—o’ humanity was stripped away—physically an’ mentally—replaced by images of horror!” These images include a Christ figure on a crucifix, six young girls pointing and laughing, a pigeon whose right wing has been removed, a crime scene in which a victim is lying on the floor covered in a white sheet, an empty chair, a graduation photo covered in blood, a photo of a young child smiling—the glass of the picture frame is shattered, and an image of a woman lying back shown from the neck up. The montage is beautiful albeit a bit weak on portraying images that I consider overall horrific. Rogue then returns to the crowd, smashing up several vehicles. She then flies up to and through a window, crashing in on a disturbing scene involving a very naked very overweight white man and a young black child gagged and bound to a bed with ropes. The man holds a camcorder in one hand and a rather large knife in the other and he is towering over the boy when Rogue appears. She proceeds to slam him through a wall and give him a good whatfor before the madness passes. This cautionary tale reminds us that although Rogue stopped one child molester/murderer(?) “The monsters are still out there” and they could be any one of us! Clearly the age of optimism is over—if it ever existed. And although Jean “telepathically mind-wiped everyone nearby” to their presence—and as David Letterman might say, if you’ve ever been telepathically mind-wiped you know how painful that can be—I have to wonder about the havoc Rogue caused on the street—the destruction and all. It’s one thing to erase someone’s memory, but how the heck do you repair a station wagon that had a meat-delivery truck thrown on it? "Uh, boss, listen, I'm sorry I'm late for work, but a meat truck fell on my car, and I'm blimied if I can remember how it happened!" Anyway, it’s a little quibble of mine so indulge me. I guess the most disturbing aspect of this story has to be the image of the perv and his various array of video cassettes, scissors, and other devices. Interestingly, he does appear to be an I-Mac user—his is orange by the way and perhaps Golden is making a commentary about the sexual deviancies of Mac users, but somehow I doubt it. While I won’t argue that Rogue ultimately saves the day, I have to question the subject matter Golden has chosen to portray. I won’t say that this type of story shouldn’t be told, or that it is in any way wrong, it’s just this: There was a time in the age of comics when you would read a story and then want to read it again, and again, and again. Typically, these are the comics you see offered on e-bay for outrageous prices. They are older and they have rolled and tattered spines from having been read a multitude of times. Why? Because the stories were fun and entertaining. This story is neither. It is provocative, it is intriguing, but does it warrant further reads? Not likely.

The second story in this issue is written and drawn by Brian Stelefreeze and it spotlights Cyclops as he walks home carrying a cane he’d just purchased for his pal Nightcrawler. Cyclops runs afoul of a street gang, who, thinking Scott is blind, want to see underneath his visor to determine if his eyes are “all black, ‘cept for da color parts” or if “dey just all white out an’ stuff.” This colorful social commentary reminds us that gangs really do function well as a unit, perhaps more so than the average family functions in today’s society. Their persistency at obtaining closure is worthy of the ant that struggles and struggles with what to us is the smallest fragment of bread crumb. Sorry. To return: They hit Scott with a snowball and his visor falls off. While scrambling to regain his visor, Scott is assaulted at knifepoint by a thug who insists that Scott open his eyes. Scott blinks and the ensuing optic blast knocks the thug on his ass. Scott is quickly surrounded by several thugs and, using the training he’s learned by his various X buddies, manages to defeat the gang with his eyes closed. This is a clever, fun tale—though we both know that in reality it wouldn’t have gone down like this. But that’s okay. It’s escapism and shows that whomever coined the phrase “I can beat you with my eyes closed” may have had some secret training in the danger room. But I wonder why the thugs never even considered just taking the cane away from Scott? Or his cool visor? I guess this is why I never belonged to a gang. I just didn’t have my priorities straight.

In our final story, a character who I don’t know or care about—X-Man—rescues a girl named Kiza—who I don’t know or care about—from the clutches of Lord Yaru—who (say it with me now) I don’t know or care about. Ultimately, Kiza turns into a gold statue and is given to a duo of robe-wearing, bald-headed boys on an island who stare gapingly. The only thing worse than the story is its coloring. The tale reads like filler, is filler, and should have been used as paper filler a rabbit cage. I am outraged that trees were destroyed for the production of this tale. One-dimensionality at its finest.

X Marks the Spot: Only it’s the Spot of a Leper

Recipe for “retooling” an otherwise stale comic book company: Hire one of the competition’s better editors, secure writers and artists from the competition, give assignments to said writers and artists that are high-profile, and eliminate the Comics Code so that the creators have the freedom to bring a sense of maturity to their work. The cover of X-Force brazenly states “HEY KIDS! LOOK, NO CODE!” in the box that for decades featured the Comics Code icon. Nothing like being subtle. Without further ado, a short play:

HELL IN A HANDBASKET (a one-act play)


The World
A Hand Basket

Act I

World: Where are we going?
Hand Basket: To Hell, get in.

The end.

X-Force by Milligan and Allred: I read their first issue—116—based largely in part on my affection toward Mike Allred’s pretty illustrations. As you know if you’ve seen his work on Madman or The Atomics, he draws with a clean, usually continuous line weight that gives his work a simple, almost coloring-bookish style, but one that is rendered with detail and technical acumen. The concept behind X-Force is intriguing: Mutants have been accepted by the mainstream public, they are celebrity super-heroes who are mostly interested in being well marketed by management. The super-heroism they perform, when they perform it, is done solely for their image and to keep the public interested in them. Issue 116 deals a lot between the conflict between the team’s leader—Axel (Zeitgeist) and their newest recruit, a tough-talking black man named Tike (The Anarchist). The “mature” themes writer Milligan showcases include: 1. Axel watching videos of himself just before engaging in group sex with two models, 2. Tike being interviewed by a female reporter while he and two women enjoy a naked hot tub, and 3. numerous scenes of violent death; i.e., sex and violence. The book his high on body counts and low on intellect with numerous ideas mentioned—e.g., team power struggles, satire, and commentary on the nation’s present-day style-over-substance cultural mentality—but it’s all one-dimensional, clichéd, and uninspiring. Not even Allred’s drawings can do much more than give the reader a reason to keep turning the page to see what he’s drawn next. Milligan’s stories were once hard edged and exciting—Shade, The Eaters, Bix Barton, The Extremist, Skreemer, Face, Enigma (quite possibly his magnum opus. His present work is but a shadow of its former self, and while he hasn’t lost his edge at telling a story in first-person narrative, this book is so very unappealing to all but die-hard fans of the creators, it becomes its own paradox: As a jumping point for new readers, I fear the only logical choice is to jump off and try something else. Better still, read Skreemer and see what Milligan can do when he tries.

The Law is a Ass and Why You Should Reading it

If you’ve never read Bob Ingersol’s column (http://www.wfcomics.com/law/.) you, to coin nothing, do not know what you are missing. But I will tell you this: You owe it to yourself as a comics fan to read The Law is a Ass. Bob, a practicing lawyer and writer who resides in Ohio, does us all a service by explaining/deconstructing situations in comics—usually involved around legal cases written haphazardly by novice (though sometimes experienced) writers who have been too lazy to verify the legal accuracy of their stories or scenarios (though equal blame could, and perhaps should, be given to the editors of the stories under Bob’s microscope). Bob is a terrific person and a skilled writer whose wit is only matched by his knowledge of the law. His columns, which also appear in The Comics Buyer’s Guide are a joy to read and more damn insightful than I can properly state given my own limitations as a writer.

Altercations: Update

The slow, lumbering behemoth that is the graphic novel Altercations continues to proceed like, um, a slow, lumbering behemoth. Two chapters are finished: 1960s: The Fab Fore, and 1970s: The Fall of the Republic. I have begun illustrating a new chapter: The Strongest Woman in the World. It features gal crime fighters, Nazi super-villains, and the New York skyline. More details and a few finished pages will be posted to this site in weeks ahead.

Next: The difference between shock value for story content and shock value for lack of a good story.

Comments are always welcome. Write to: David
to voice your opinion.

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