A couple weeks ago, a perturbed Sridhar Pappu offered me a free copy of X-Force #7. I didn’t understand why he didn’t want it. An X-Force reboot? With the team led by Wolverine? OK, maybe Wolverine — X-Men, New Avenger, crusader in his own numerous books — is overexposed. Was that it? "It’s too dark for me," Sridhar explained. Too dark?
I admit not to having cared about X-Force since Rob Liefeld left to found Image when I was 10. Even back then the comic didn’t make sense because of Liefeld’s unimpressive writerly capabilities. What did this Cable-led team of New Mutants really do that differentiated themselves from the X-Men? If a quick Wikipedia-ing is to be trusted, that central question didn’t get answered during the book’s original run.
Ten issues into the X-Force reboot and it’s clear that this is no longer a comic book in search of a rationale. The new world that the X-Men inhabit is bleak. There are fewer than 200 mutants left alive, and seemingly none being born, and so the human race has the opportunity to actually eliminate the mutant population. (In the Dark Reign one-shot, Norman Osborne tells Emma Frost about proposals for mutant concentration camps.) With the potential for X-Men activities to catalyze human counterreactions that could plausibly lead to the end of mutantkind, Cyclops assembles a mutant special-operations team, led in the field by Wolverine, for missions that require plausible deniability by the X-Men. Specifically, the murder of anti-mutant human extremists. Sridhar’s original judgment proved spot-on.
There are a couple of things that make the book worthwhile. First, many treatments of Wolverine run into the PG-13 problem: the character is actually the worst killing-machine ever, since you rarely see on-panel what happens when the adamantium claws run through a dude. Suffice it to say that this isn’t a problem for X-Force. Similarly, the team consists of the least mentally stable X-Men: Warpath (apparently traumatized by the death of his brother), Wolfsbane (traumatized by her abuse by her religious-fanatic father), Archangel (traumatized by Apocalypse) and X-23 (traumatized by being a clone of Weapon X). If the point of the team is to operate in the mutant version of Dick Cheney’s Dark Side, these are characters who really want to go there.
And that leads to the most interesting part of the book. A team of ethically-dubious mutants targeting humans who threaten mutantkind has existed before: Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Wolverine is constantly reminding Cyclops that he’s crossing a line, and Cyclops appears only superficially bothered by it. The classic Days Of Future Past storyline shows what happens when mutants target anti-mutant politicians: a dystopian future of concentration camps and rule by Sentinels. X-Force, under the command of Cyclops, is very nearly there already. It used to be that the X-Men registered a moral objection to Magneto’s tactics. But now the difference between Cyclops and Magneto looks more like the tenuous one between the Irgun and the Stern Gang. Apparently the story being told — and it’s an interesting one — is that when the end of mutantkind is on the horizon, Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, finds his vindication. No wonder Sridhar thinks the comic is too dark.