If you had told me last year that Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force would soon rival the best X-Men comics ever produced, I admit, I’d have been skeptical. Prior to his arrival on the series, Remender’s work hadn’t really clicked with me. Although it was clear from the first issue that his X-Force run was going to be good, it wasn’t until issue #4, released in January this year, that people started to realise we were reading something very special indeed.
Uncanny X-Force’s year is defined, of course, by the 8-issue Dark Angel Saga. Named (in what seemed like hubris) for the Dark Phoenix Saga, it follows Angel’s descent into madness as his Apocalypse-created “Archangel” persona claws its way to the surface of his psyche. When he finally tips into world-ending megalomania, it falls to X-Force to stop him. Which they do (of course) – but not without great cost.
The story of love torn apart by power out of control may seem similar to the Dark Phoenix Saga, but even if that’s true the results are every bit as affecting and epic as the original. We have witnessed defining moments for the likes of Psylocke, Fantomex and Angel, and at the same time, we’ve been reminded of how great superhero comics can be. When I reviewed the finale of the storyline at CBR, I said the following:
Although it says “X-Force” on the cover, this is clearly Psylocke and Angel’s story. It’s love and death, as transcendent and epic as it can be. When the final blow is struck, the moment is heartbreaking, beautiful and euphoric in the way all the best death scenes are. And then it’s unexpectedly heartbreaking all over again. The final page? Nothing short of a technical masterpiece in its own right. Artist and writer in perfect unison.
There’s no part of this issue that can be called half-hearted or unsuccessful. Even praising its dialogue, its visuals, its plotting, comes across as an inadequate deconstruction. While these elements are all superb in their own right, it’s a comic that’s vastly more than the sum of its parts. When you put it down, you won’t be remembering how great Deathlok’s lines were, or the plot twist Fantomex unveils, or even how well Opena and Ribic drew every page. You’ll come away from it feeling emotionally bruised, with a hole only the next part of the story can fill.
In many ways, it’s tempting to end a review like this by claiming that the story is so good, it has transcended its genre, as if superhero comics can’t really work this well without being something else. But what are superhero comics for, if not this? They’re modern myths, playing out classical themes on a grander stage than our own world allows. Characters living, loving , and dying for our entertainment, showing us truths about our own lives.
There was one further point I didn’t find room for, though, and that’s how part of Uncanny X-Force’s success is due to the dialogue it had with its fans. It managed to be fan-servicing without compromising on its content. The Dark Angel Saga didn’t just tell a self-contained story; it was built on old ones. Remender weaved those continuty threads (the Age of Apocalypse, the Horsemen, Archangel’s various transformations, Weapon Plus…) in ways that supported and expanded the narrative, rather than limiting it.
The truth is that in superhero comics, readers want to see a little of something familiar. Something that respects the stories that came before, and ties this new one to them. After all, if we weren’t nostalgists, we probably wouldn’t be reading superhero comics at all. Perhaps this is why the San Francisco era of X-Men had such a hard time generating excitement – it’s too different, too new, too detached from everything prior to it. Remender found a way to tell a new story, supported by the framework that was already in place. And that, alongside everything else, was what made Uncanny X-Force one of the best comics of the year.