Credits: Ben Percy writes; Robert Gill draws; Guru-eFX colors; Joe Caramagna letters; Josh Cassara and Dean White kill the hell out of the covers, the only thing worthwhile here—all else is zombified compulsion
The last time I could give Mr. Percy’s Krakoan CIA title the benefit of the doubt was probably just before the Percy-helmed pseudo-event X Lives/X Deaths of Wolverine. Since then, both X-Force and Wolverine, but particularly the former and longer-running title, have taken embarrassing nose-dives.
I might check out the nearly finished, five-part “Beast Agenda” over in Wolverine once it’s all up on MU and report back here*. But after this mid-game report on X-Force, that’s it for me—until the true end, when we can all look back and marvel at Percy’s braided-narrative masterpiece, for the shaggiest of shaggy dogs that we already know it to be.
*Impressively, it’s Wolverine’s longest arc so far, consecutively, that is—guess that qualification is necessary! But the Danger and then Kraven debacles were each a waste of four whole issues, so my hopes aren’t up. Of course, “Beast Agenda” will segue into “Weapons of X,” about which Beast dropped a real heavy hint in an issue #31 data page that will titillate only the Percy diehards. These will likely prove to be a single “epic,” for what that’s worth.
So how the heck is it that Mr. Percy, a talented horror turned science-fantasy techno-thriller novelist, has managed to gobble up so much Krakoan real estate (i.e., page space) for so damn long? Sales, dummy! Wolverine and X-Force sell like crap print-job guns given a cheap chrome finish with fake blood splatter. Honestly, I haven’t looked at sales numbers in months now, but anything with “Wolverine” in the title will always be a top seller for Marvel, and the X-Force property is typically solidly (upper) mid-tier sales-wise.
Pretty sweet gigs if you get ’em—sweeter still to hold on to them for a hot minute.
One way of doing that is by coasting. There isn’t a high demand to take real risks and make bold moves when a mediocre job that superficially hides its mediocrity by continually deploying wild ADD-like turns to the cast and plot.
By far the most positive aspects of Percy’s overall Krakoa tenure have been: 1) the rise of artist Josh Cassara on X-Force (culminating with X Lives before he moved on to his current gig with Duggan on X-Men); 2) the return of legend Adam Kubert to Wolverine (it’s just too bad the stories haven’t matched his genius, though of course it’s far from the first time); and 3) the all-too-brief Krakoan tour of another rising star, Federico Vicentini, with X Deaths and Wolverine #24-25 (before moving to Miles Morales: Spider-Man with talented new writer Cody Zigler).
Following X Lives/X Deaths, new talent Robert Gill has become X-Force’s regular artist, and while he gets top marks for consistency, I don’t find his work inspiring or even much engaging. A great story could still shine through, but here, we just see how stripped the story’s inner workings actually are—it all adds up to nothing more than a cheap toy for dour boys. Mr. Percy knows his audience, I guess. I know they are not my people, whoever they are; they’re likely half my age or younger, so why go on with this.
Well, here indeed is the most interesting takeaway:
Mr. Percy as the author of these two titles almost perfectly echoes recent Vita Ayala New Mutants antagonist Amahl Farouk under the thrall of the poisonous Shadow King—or rather his centuries-long memory of being the Shadow King’s puppet. In other words, Percy’s constant cynicism and fatalism* regarding Krakoa is akin to someone habitually reacting from a traumatized state. I have no interest in psychoanalysis here, but when Amahl’s fearmongering and that found throughout the pages of X-Force and Wolverine can be paraphrased almost identically, it’s impossible not to take note and wonder why the fictional character is sent packing for long-term therapy and the one-note writerly persona Mr. Percy developed in the X Office continues to occupy space on this island that most fans and creators don’t actually think of as utopia (outside the Percy titles, oddly enough), but rather a place to experiment with new ideas and arrangements. Over and again, Mr. Percy uses Wolverine and co. to hammer home that “nothing is forever” in order to justify not trying to seize that fleeting opportunity to do things differently for however long is possible.
Before he realizes he’s free of the Shadow King, Amahl insists that mutants must never, not for a moment, lose sight of the threat posed by humanity and be armed and ready against them (an us-vs.-them mentality)—and the entire Krakoan experiment is a coddling waste of time. It’s all strikingly similar to the throughline of Percy’s X titles.
*Percy’s X titles are actually good examples of cynicism and fatalism coming to the same thing—hopelessness. But what does save them from messaging just negativity is the humbling sense of duty characters like Logan (with his “bushido” ways) and even Domino convey (not, of course, Beast).
[Though one wonders why a prominent recipient of Logan’s indefatigable sense of honor must be someone so patently despicable. How long are we supposed to keep mucking about in the irony of it all?]See, when someone says to me “nothing lasts forever,” I think: “We better start having fun while we can,” meaning, “Let’s try something different, surprising, new.” To this reader at least, Ben Percy as a writer is stuck like frozen mud in a single formula, a dour persona that at times is very eloquent about his dourness and the meager charms of being the sourpuss at the party—which is almost always portrayed with heavy-handed visual and verbal gestures at dissolution and hedonism. Artist Josh Cassara’s had a hand here, and his art is stunning and very effective in establishing a gothic noir atmosphere. I love it. And the debut of the Green Lagoon—that splash page is an absolute classic (X-Force #9). But over time, the tonal insistence has worn thin, and only in the pages of Percy’s titles do we find this fixation on Green Lagoon as dive bar and site of Sage’s alcoholic dissipation (which has only recently been touched on and not well; see below). It’s also just very explicit in these books that people relaxing and having a good time in a place that feels safe are hopelessly delusional; it’s a bit much.
(Sure, we see party people in Spurrier’s Legion of X, but they’re far from seeming dissolute. Soft? Maybe. Yet that’s the point of retreating to the Altar for a time, to let your guard down and relax. Leah Williams isn’t exactly plumbing the depths of pathos with X-Terminators, but it feels like a well-earned vacation.)
It’s as if Percy has a beef with what he sees as hedonism, when it, or just people enjoying themselves, is sprinkled throughout the franchise, but in his books it’s framed as an embarrassingly delusional state that everyone on the island is suffering from—and only Logan and the mutant CIA (excepting the bloated Beast, I guess) can see through the gauche haze to the true red tooth and claw savagery of the real world.
(And why is it only in Percy’s titles that we see apparently dangerous wild beasts endemic to the island? Note that they seem scary almost always because they’re already in a death-match with Wolverine; there was that one that was stalking Beast—which frankly just seemed like commonsense pest control, before Logan swooped in.)
When you beat that drum over and again, you either sound like a Republican or someone who’s suffered too much and hasn’t found the opportunity to begin relaxing from a perpetual fight or flight state—after shaking out all those fear toxins, however long that takes. We are halfway through Percy’s Krakoa tenure, and there has been no let up in the grim, joyless relentlessness of his tonal and narrative cynicism.
Still, the Cassara covers are tops.
(Look at Forge recently: In Duggan’s X-Men, he’s thinking about the future possibilities of life on Krakoa; we got nothing even close to that when he was an X-Force cast member. Not in the least; not for one panel—although I will give a very small and brief one a generous reading; see below.)
Again, I am not talking about Percy as a person here at all but as a writer. By all accounts, he’s a great guy, which is wonderful. But the storytelling persona he’s developed for these titles isn’t. Back to an earlier nod, he is truly a talented genre novelist; his recent “space metal turns people into metahumans” series of novels is a lot of fun—highly recommended for the sf thriller set.
How does he keep enough of his comics readers engaged and not bored to tears by this stylistic monotony? Structurally, he’s all over the place, so he must be keeping followers sufficiently distracted by the novelty of a new foe every other month interspersed with a rotating rogues gallery powered by menacing suggestion rather than actually compelling and thematically relevant character work. Plus, his two titles are where to go for mindless bloodletting—so let’s not underestimate the appeal of juvenile puerility. Percy wears that badge with honor, so I’m sure he wouldn’t be offended by this charge. Maybe he even revels in such complaints.
So… moving on… For those of us who just want to keep track of Krakoan doings, what are the dirty deets from X-Force 2022 that we might hang our hats on?
Hmmm… There’s very little here with which one can try to even begin building steam from a grain of salt; except, as any seasoned reader knows, the most sublime baroque epics can be read even from rat entrails. So, what’ve we got in these hoarfrosted guts?
Quite literally: Ground up Deadpool, though somehow his head is one piece—from which a baby’s body grows, though he needs a veg body suit courtesy of Black Tom to get back in the fight with Kraven’s clone. Oh vey (And we’re talking ice bear guts here, to be fair).
Note that Kraven’s clone offhandedly slays Jay Guthrie (aka Icarus), one of the Guthrie siblings, in X-Force #32; this kid! He already suffered a wretched murder in a Purifiers/Nimrod scheme years ago in 2006’s New X-Men #26-27 by Kyle and Yost—a dark era that was not kind to such as this gentle emo Kentuckian angel boy. Neither is Mr. Percy above a little cartoon sadism, albeit in a flip and knowing mood (characteristically, he’s a master of grimdark nostalgia with a wink and a nod; his style isn’t really grimdark).
The only redeeming content in X-Force 2022 is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment:
Forge exited X-Force with the Cerebrax debut, issue #27, before moving on, to Duggan’s X-Men Year 2, where already he’s been utilized and portrayed in a much more compelling manner than anything Percy came up with over the past handful of years. His X-Force departure is almost entirely a waste (bowing out from the title with his brains scooped out for a snack), except it’s very briefly noted that he opted to die fighting in the Arena’s Crucible ritual after Moira depowered him with his own neutralizer gun in X Deaths #4. But since Trial of Magneto introduced the Waiting Room (which is accessible to depowered mutants without experiencing death), there’s been no other mention of anyone opting for the Crucible.
Is this an error, then? No! This is Forge we’re talking about! And this is the deepest characterization that Percy has offered him in this title; it’s barely anything, and the reasoning is entirely unspoken, implicit. You just have to know his character. It’s the same reason he kept his prosthetic limbs; not because they’re cool and full of useful gadgetry (although there is that): The brilliant mutant inventor keeps these reminders of the self-inflicted tragedy in Vietnam that cost him an arm and a leg after he used his training as a mystic(!) to call down a horde of demons on the Viet Cong who had just slaughtered his company, but the price paid for unleashing this supernatural violence was his own fellow soldiers’ very souls. It was in the heat of battle, and he was spurred by the thought of avenging their deaths, but in the process, he eternally damned them. There is a lot of history to this man that we haven’t seen in years (see particularly Uncanny X-Men #227), but if you ever wonder why he spends all his time tirelessly working for the cause of Krakoa as well as punishing his body with those gym squats—look to that foundational trauma and his notorious invention for the US government(!), the neutralizer gun (UX #184-186, an absolutely classic sequence made confusing by the “Wraith War” references, since Marvel no longer has the rights to the ROM comic series).
Seriously, this is the only worthwhile panel in nine issues of X-Force, and it’s barely even there. And maybe I’m giving even this a very generous reading here—of course, otherwise, as Forge’s bow-out from the title? This is lame, lame, lame; Mr. Quad Squad, or rather this once fascinatingly complex Native American caught between two worlds in all their trauma and wonder, needs an apology.
Moving on, let’s acknowledge what we all know: Beast is ludicrously incompetent at his job as CIA chief. It’s wild to me that Xavier’s given carte blanche to someone so clearly unqualified for this position. And why, oh why is the Krakoan “CIA” so damn small? This has to be the most understaffed state security agency in the history of intelligence agencies; just saying.
Now, we won’t get hung up on quibbling little inconsistencies, but one or two pop up every other issue—and this doesn’t seem to be a problem in Percy’s novels, so… idk, these are monthly comics and the IP isn’t his, so whatever.
(A slightly trickier inconsistency is Beast arguing for the destruction of Omega Red’s backups to prevent his resurrection for all time; this ignores the existence of the Waiting Room. There’s the issue of Russia as adversary as well, but perhaps that’s out of Percy’s hands with real-world geopolitics right now; however, even before Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, Percy’s use of an actual dictatorship as vague foe in a comic book was already a bad idea—and comics history is littered with this folly, whatever the ideology, for the result is always without fail an ideological morass that dates poorly quickly.)
It’s very dissatisfying that Sage only begins to take a first step in undermining Beast’s authority in issue #27, and at that point, her biggest challenge turns out to be her alcoholism, which has been a consistent theme throughout the title but never dealt with until recently—and I can only say as someone who grew up around alcoholics, Percy does not move or impress here. Fictional treatments of addiction can come in all forms, and they don’t necessarily need to be handled with “sensitivity,” depending on what the author wants, but it’s never been clear what Percy’s intention is with this, like most of his themes, outside “poison,” yeah!
(Speaking of: Sevyr Blackmore, Arakkii pirate of the acid fluids—ooh, yeah, he’s pure “poison!” Really? This is Percy’s second addition to Arakko following Solem? Is he actually supposed to be compelling, or are we just looking at more sophomore shenanigans with a nostalgic yen for ’90s rad bad vibes? Yeeaah.)
That Beast knowingly pushed Sage further into her alcoholism (explicitly acknowledge in issue #34) is just eyeroll inducing at this point. Beast’s reputation is now far worse than almost any non-Nazi-themed villain. Surely, he is beyond redemption no matter what ingenious fantasy solution some future creator devises. Never mind his frigging “prison moons” (issues #34-35), very reminiscent here to Nazis and other ghouls experimenting in varieties of sadistic body horror.
Shall we go on to a giddily drunken Sage introducing Omega Red to the Danger-Room-like Shadow Room that can be used privately to indulge his most sadistic fantasies as a coping mechanism for his addiction?
Obviously, Sage’s plan to use Omega Red as a secret weapon/double agent against Mikhail Rasputin isn’t going to work out with Mikhail’s brother and sleeper agent Colossus on the Council.
Colossus is back in X-Force soon, meaning Percy’s Mikhail/Chronicler plot with him will likely wrap sometime in the next year or two; his time in Immortal X-Men was the most passive he or any X-Man has ever been in an ongoing X book—weird. He was just a secret camera back to Russia, I guess. That said, Piotr does say in an issue #27 data page that the more Russian mutants on the island the better for Krakoa geopolitically in relation to Russia, and several issues later, he gets his wish when Red ferries back a shipload of mutant asylum seekers from Russia. Is this part of Mikhail’s plot? Probably.
How’s any of this different from what the Marauders have already been doing for years now and why is Beast upset about this one instance out of what must surely be an ongoing process? Only Percy knows. Krakoa’s already shown far more outreach to humanity than Beast’s disingenuous attempt in X-Force #30.
For newer readers, note that Beast’s on-off relationship with Abigail Brand started in the early 2000s with Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men run, where she debuted. But never has whatever they have going on with one another been so ick.
As for Cerebrax… Nope!
Quentin Quire? Nope!
Logan suddenly distrusting Krakoa in the wake of Quentin’s disappearance? Nope!
Percy has done nothing in X-Force to make Quentin Quire interesting. He’s potentially compelling, but certainly not here. He disappears after taking out Cerebrax, seemingly dead and un-resurrectable. Boo-hoo (He must be the only omega obsessed with being the “omega of omegas,” which, embarrassingly for him, seems to completely misunderstand what being an omega means).
(After all, somebody somewhere is the omega of lame. One omega cannot out-omega another; the point is that there’s only one omega–or merely strictly equally capable omegas, I guess–for each category of ability.)
The Cuckoos are written as vapid teen girls more interested in parties than taking anything seriously, which is ludicrously out of character for them. The notion that they’d ignore a warning from Jean is nonsensical. Percy is incapable of writing with any interest from a younger perspective. His teen characters are simply flat and without interest (and that includes Quentin, despite Percy’s half-baked efforts there).
Having absorbed Polaris’ powers, Cerebrax contorts Wolvie’s adamantium Magneto-style à la X-Men #25 (1992), albeit without leaching it all off. Both the earlier incident and this one belie the fact that this metal is supposed to be, by definition, indestructible—here, we see its structural integrity radically warped (i.e., destroyed).
Kraven’s clone for four issues? Nope!
Deadpool’s head on a stick? Nope!
A decade from now, X-Force 2022 will be a black hole most Marvel and/or mutant heads pass over, and Percy seems to understand that whatever his original plans for both series, this is now their fate as he coasts to the finish line. Before last year, he had already established Beast as reprehensible; recent issues have merely become fodder for a litany of further crimes.
All the same, Wolverine must be one of the toughest titles to write for because almost everything about Logan’s character is so rigidly set—and Percy’s solution has been to double down on his sourpuss nature, which means he’ll be that much harder to work with for any future writer wanting to try a different tack. So, the Wolverine we have now is too terminally himself, an immortal cussed Sisyphus.
So much for reading into the ice bear’s rimey entrails. Don’t be masochists, kids—drop these titles while you’re ahead; forget the sunk-cost fallacy and be kind to yourself and your wallet!
NEXT: Check back with the last issue of X-Force sometime next year, after it’s all up on Marvel Unlimited.