Something’s shifted during Rick Remender’s hitherto 9-issue run on Uncanny X-Force. What scriptwriting guru and developer of the Story system, Robert McKee might refer to as a slide from complication to complexity.
Complication is easy to understand. It’s every James Bond movie ever. Big budgets, massive sets, exotic locations, gorgeous actors, new information consistently driving the plot forward to exciting and exacting new moments. No depth. Complexity is the opposite. It is storytelling executed and many levels. The protagonists’ inner struggle is writ large in the moment of an outer struggle. Complexity is about character and depth. Complication is about events.
Not that there’s been any lack of complication thus far in Remender’s Uncanny X-Force. Issues one thru four, ‘The Apocalypse Solution’, has been almost non-stop action. From rescuing the team’s “operative” (Deadpool) from a techno-occult group in the Sahara, to facing off against Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen on the moon, pulse-pounding adrenaline pacing has not been in short supply.
The truly unique thing though, has been how much Remender has been able to resurrect Jaws. Not the actual story itself, not the shark terrorizing a small fishing community. But the timbre of that movie. The pitch and the pacing. The meaningful parts of emotional connection. Like the dinner scene between Roy Schneider’s character and his young son. The dinner scene that reminded us all what was at risk and what that shark was threatening.
As readers of Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, we’ve been thru the mill often enough. Deadpool feeding bits of his own self-regenerating flesh to Archangel to overcome the effects of Apocalypse’s Pestilence Horseman. The Deathlok troopers’ destruction of Fantomex’s house and museum, with his mother in it. And Fantomex’s assassination of Apocalypse, with the latter being resurrected as a child.
There’s been a fine balance between character-development, and plot-driven pacing. But these were the major, multi-issue arcs so far, ‘The Apocalypse Solution’ followed quickly by ‘Deathlok Nation’. There has been a thorough working through of story mechanics in these, themes abound. A conceptual structure has emerged, a kind of a Grand Threat which the team has been positioned against, in the form of AI and cybernetics.
But a third of Remender’s run thus far have been standalones. Single-issue stories which have given Remender the opportunity to craft some of the finest character-inspired stories since Marvel’s ‘Civil War’. Much earlier on, ‘Five Point One’ (published during the ‘Deathlok Nation’ arc) saw Remender’s X-Force tie-in with the general Marvel_Point_One event. Following on, back-to-back, from ‘Deathlok Nation’ these past few months has been ‘Unintended Consequences’, then ‘High Art’.
‘Five Point One’ has felt hurried now matter how many time’s I’ve reread it. And ‘High Art’ felt too slow. But that’s not the real story here. The real story his how Remender has managed to avoid the malicious obedience that sometimes evolves when a visionary writer opts in to work on a flagship property.
Not having 30 years of reading X-books under my belt, I’m not completely familiar with the Reavers, the villainous cohort appearing in ‘Five Point One’, neither with their evolving history since their first appearance. And the ‘Point One’ event was meant as an introduction for new readers. A kind of plug-&-play version of every Marvel mainstream continuity book currently on the publisher’s catalog.
For Remender to throw a piece of ancient history into the middle of this issue’s plot seems like missing the point. Similarly, ‘High Art’ seems both a solo performance from Wolverine (especially since it was Wolverine who insisted on this new X-Force being a team), on a revenge mission for Magneto (with Wolverine again insisting that X-Force is not a revenge squad, and Archangel insisting on the team’s independence) seems to deflate expectations.
But these kind of narrow readings miss the point of Remender’s vision. ‘Five Point One’ has done nothing but demonstrate how superficial past history is to the workings of the team. The Reavers are nothing worth googling for; just another threat that needs to be put down. The craft of the story lies in Betsy unlearning to enjoy the work of killing. The Reavers are just set dressing for that internal struggle.
Similarly, ‘High Art’ illustrates clearly how broken the idea of Wolverine lone wolfing it is. Wolverine doesn’t function the way he should. And there’s every indication that in backing Magneto’s play, Wolverine has damaged something about the inner workings of the team. With ‘High Art’ Remender has begun to play against expectations, and begun to play the reader directly. From here on in, it’s samurai poker between writer and audience. And I couldn’t be more excited and neither could you.
Remender’s Uncanny X-Force reads like no other superhero book ever. It’s the story of an author writing himself into a literary canon. Don’t pick it up, this is not for you. This is not a book in competition with Brightest Day or Invincible Iron Man or even the frenetic pace of Batman Incorporated. This is something else. This is the story of ordinary valor, of psyches teetering on the edge. This is Faulkner, or Jim Thompson. It’s the Conan O’Brien we’ll never get to see.
And it’s worth reading, owning.