Krakoa – the new nation that Charles Xavier announced to the world in House of X #1 – was a fresh start for mutantkind. It heralded an era of mutant sovereignty and a unification of purpose that had never existed before among those with an X-gene. It’s a brand new world, but there are some things that no amount of mutant solidarity can change. In X-Force Vol. 1 – which collects the first twelve issues by writer Benjamin Percy; artists Joshua Cassara, Stephen Segovia, and Jan Bazaldua; and colorists Dean White, Guru-eFX, and Rachelle Rosenberg – it becomes clear that mutantkind will always be hated and feared, and will always need a group willing to take sometimes unsavory action to protect their own. But is the brutality inherent in the nature of X-Force truly worth the cost?
A Necessary Evil?
X-Force is the epitome of the idea that sometimes, bad things must be done for the right reasons. Since the team’s inception, X-Force has operated as the black ops arm of the fight for mutant survival, gradually taking on increasingly morally-questionable missions throughout its history. To be assigned to an iteration of X-Force is to do things that are not spoken of in the light of day. Preemptive strikes and the murder of baby Apocalypses (Apocali?) have become par for the course of X-Force membership. Right from the jump, Benjamin Percy’s X-Force highlights the continued need for such a team even in the relative paradise of Krakoa, at a time when mutantkind holds the most collective power it has ever enjoyed.
Threats begin to emerge on various fronts in response to the new mutant nation, and one in particular has an immediate devastating, and potentially catastrophic, impact on the fledgling society. Issue #1 ends with the assassination of Charles Xavier and the destruction of the Cerebro helmet the former Professor X has made so fashionable as of late (Don’t worry, he gets better!). As is revealed early in this first volume, an anti-mutant group calling themselves XENO is responsible for the attack. They have a very particular philosophy – that humanity can speed up its own evolution through extreme body modification and the splicing of forcibly-taken mutant DNA with their own. XENO’s grotesque methods – mutilating a captive Domino and grafting pieces of her onto the bodies of a strike team – allow them to infiltrate Krakoa’s security and nearly put an end to Krakoa before it has even begun. It is a horrendous series of events that requires an uncompromising response, and after Xavier’s successful resurrection, the Quiet Council takes its cue from the darkest side of human geopolitical history by authorizing the creation of X-Force as Krakoa’s own version of the C.I.A. Their mandate? Keep Krakoa safe by any means necessary.
What follows is the establishment of an intelligence arm and strike team responsible for any and all “deniable operations” that are deemed to serve Krakoa’s interests. And while it becomes clear throughout these first dozen issues that extinguishing the threat XENO poses is absolutely in Krakoa’s interest, it is equally clear that doing so will come at a very high cost to the mutants on the team’s roster. On mission after mission, the strike team – predominantly Wolverine, Quentin Quire, and Domino – faces the worst mutantkind’s enemies have to offer. Over and over, they endure dismemberment, torture, and death (particularly Kid Omega, who, in what feels like a commentary on the character’s less than stellar reputation, gets killed more than once and becomes increasingly resentful of that fact).
Even in the era of resurrection, it’s a heavy burden to bear for the cause of mutant sovereignty. It begs the question: Can Krakoa’s leaders truly claim the high ground over humanity when they’re willing to put a select few through unspeakable, repeated trauma? Where is the line that turns a militaristic team justifiably acting in the interest of national defense into an example of a country exploiting true believers no matter the cost?
By Any Means Necessary
Those questions have always followed X-Force as a concept, but they hold so much more import with the weight of a nation behind them. In this era, the embodiment of that question – “how far is too far?”- is Hank McCoy, the no longer bouncing, authoritarian blue Beast. The good doctor takes on the responsibility of head of Krakoan intelligence and all too easily begins pushing ethical boundaries. What begins with soliciting Forge for textiles crafted of sound-absorbent stone to then be sold to high-powered governments – and superhero teams – all over the world escalates to having Colossus publicly arrested in what he terms “the traitor’s parade” to interrogate him about his brother, Mikhail. It’s a betrayal of his team and his professed friends that would have once been unconscionable to the old Henry.
But all that is small potatoes compared to his greatest mistake. It’s Beast’s actions against the South American country of Terra Verde that epitomize the evils that can be perpetrated when a group – or even just one man – gives themselves permission to use any and all avenues to achieve what they believe is right. You see, Terra Verde has put all its resources into developing “telefloronics,” plant-based technology that responds to neural commands. But Krakoa’s similar technology has made Terra Verde’s obsolete, destabilizing the country and fomenting a rebellion that X-Force steps in to quell, in the process capturing the rebellion’s leader, the president’s son.
In the aftermath, in an effort to head off what he perceives as an existential threat to Krakoa, Beast secretly alters the code of the telefloronics that bonded with the young man so that they erase all neural activity in the host’s brain, then sends him back to his father. That’s when the unforeseen consequences come in to wreak havoc – the telefloronics take the First Son over entirely and spread throughout the country, bonding with and subsuming the entire population of Terra Verde. And just like that, Beast has effectively committed genocide, all the while certain that he was right, that he was justified in order to protect Krakoa, even if things went a tad off the rails. It’s a rationalization that would make the Age of Apocalypse’s Dark Beast proud.
Operating (and Reveling) in the Shadows
It’s probably no surprise if I tell you that a book that puts most of its characters through extreme pain and suffering while taking another prominent “hero” and leading him very directly down a path full of atrocities, can be a bit of a tough read. My first time reading X-Force soon after its release, it pulled me in with a roster of some of my personal favorites and a fun take on Sage (a character I knew little about before this era). But I came out of my second reading a little more lukewarm on the book as a whole.
Benjamin Percy seems to really enjoy putting this X-Force roster through the ringer to see what comes out the other side – it’s no wonder he was given the reins of the Wolverine solo book as well. Of course, the brutality and violence has always been one of the draws of a series starring X-Force – after all, it’s the team of the mutants with claws and guns and metal arms! – but this book is dark. In addition to Beast breaking bad and your standard “Wolverine gets shredded by automatic weapon fire,” most of the key players come out very, very “scathed.” Domino’s entire reason for joining the team stems from being kidnapped and having half her skin and one eye removed. Sad Colossus is all over the second half of this first volume. And as I mentioned earlier, Quentin Quire gets killed multiple times in multiple brutal ways and, to my horror, I even started feeling bad for him! The various artists rise admirably to the tone Percy is going for – depictions of blood, guts, exposed musculature, and squelching viscera abound. This is some heavy, heavy stuff, especially compared to the more adventurous vibes of several of the other books coming out of the X-Office in the Krakoan age.
I guess stories about a black ops team aren’t exactly supposed to make you feel good. But X-Force could stand to dial down the brutality – or at least save more of it for folks who actually deserve it instead of heaping so much on innocent Terra Verdeans and (I can’t believe I’m about to write these words) poor Quentin Quire.