Thursday, December 15, 2011

X-Force 18 - A Review

In the early 1980s, Chris Claremont and John Byrne wrote and drew the Dark Pheonix Saga, one of the best super hero stories ever made. It was an epic story where worlds literally lived and died. While it was amazing and still holds up today, it had a significant downside in that people kept trying to replicate its success. The problem with this wasn’t solely that subsequent creative teams weren’t up to the task, it was that the X-Men are not a team that lends themselves to epic stories. As a metaphor for civil rights, X-Men stories typically work better as character studies and real world parallels, not universe spanning epics that involve the destruction of planets. Still, creative team after creative team has tried epic, cosmic stories and more often than not, they fail completely.

Finally, though, we have an exception.

The Dark Angel Saga’s name itself intentionally invokes the memory of the Dark Phoenix saga with not only the name, but with a founding X-Man, in this case Angel, going evil.

However, unlike stories like Onslaught, this uses both past continuity as well as well integrated new ideas and concepts to achieve a plausibly epic story. For instance, the history of Apocalypse has always been a mismash and the character has always been a half realized idea in a bad costume. In this book, Remender has wisely cherry picked from his history, recasting him as a Celestial imperative, the latest of which is Archangel. Instead of overly complicating the story or serving as mere fan service, the incorporation of the Age of Apocalypse enhances the point and casts things on a suitably epic context. When Archangel threatens to remake the world in his image, we don’t have to imagine what he’s trying to do, the return of that timeline lets us see exactly what he’s planning.

So we have a conflict that neatly combines the book’s remit of being a gritty black ops X-book with a cosmic conflict.

The trick with these books is not the build up however, but sticking the landing. And the final issue of this completely nails it. It incorporates elements that have been building since issue 1 of this series as well as decades old continuity. And unlike some epic books, it does not sacrifice character moments for the story. This book’s portrayal of Archangel and Psylocke’s relationship is far more affecting and convincing than anything published about them previously. Deathlok’s combination of logic and emotion is not only refreshing after 20 years of robots failing to understand emotions, but also a natural path for the character as reintroduced by Jason Aaron. And Fantomex emerges from this book as not only a viable character who can be written by people not named Morrison, but one of the more complex characters in a superhero universe.

But at the end of the day, strip away the stakes and the characterization, and we have a story about a good guy gone bad, and any story about that rests on the hero paying for his sins. Though the end of the book leaves a bit of wiggle room, the conclusion of this feels suitably tragic, with a satisfying pay off.

Remender, Opena, and Ribic are doing amazing work on this book. They are mixing gripping stories with amazing art, great characterization, and insane ideas with a skill worthy of Grant Morrison. This is easily one of the best superhero books being published and the best X-book by a long shot. If you like super heroes, the X-Men, or just good comics, you should be reading this.

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