(Re)Read Hickman’s X-Men: “Games Without Frontiers, War Without Tears,” Pt. 2 of 3—

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X-Force #6, 9 & 10.

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[While Dustin Weaver and Edgard Delgado are still on cover duty, issue #6 is drawn by Stephen Segovia and #9-10 by Josh Cassara; interior coloring is by Guru-eFX and Dean White]

(*This follows Part 1 from last month.)

Related:

Hickman X-Men Reading Order

Krakin’ Krakoa!

More in this series!

I. Before Diving in: The Bigger Picture A. An Odd Mix of OG X-Men

This team just can’t get a win—but apparently, that’s the point! And frankly, it’s part of what makes this title so distinctive. At first, it baffled many fans that in issue #10 Jean Grey, its second-highest profile character, calls it quits, as baffling as her presence on X-Force in the first place. But of course, the ensuing X of Swords shakes out with a new X-Men team whose very raison d’être is breaking away from Xavier and Magneto and the authoritarian nature of the QC. And while it’s easy to note that Jean’s contribution was vital to the book wherein Xavier was assassinated and then resurrected, her continued membership in Krakoa’s black ops is revealed as powerfully relevant toward the close of this most explosive of Dawn of X era story arcs, just as she decides to bail: It’s the dramatic break between the two O5 X-Men on the team* that fully brings home the complete moral collapse of the good doctor Hank McCoy, an evasive locus of corruption that spreads ruinously to those around him.

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*Sage, really the OG X-Man for those fans who know their Claremont, has yet to break with Beast though she knows his foul secrets better than any at this point. So has she been morally compromised? Well, that’s a complicated question! She seems pathologically isolated, forced by circumstances Xavier created to work with one of the most despicable citizens of Krakoa—and hey, gee whiz, doesn’t that sound an awful lot like what Xavier did to her long ago when it was just the O5 at his school, and he secretly directed her to infiltrate the Hellfire Club and become the Black King’s mistress for years (decades in publication time). She quietly stands (or sits) in the background as just as much a survivor in her own way as front-line soldiers Logan and Domino. But she’s not coping well, apparently with alcohol. And as comically unfashionable as her field outfit is in issue #10, it also speaks to her being out of touch with the world beyond the Pointe and its dimly monitor-lit rooms (and maybe her barstool at the Green Lagoon).

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B. Briefly Taking Stock of Percy’s X-Force

Now, last we checked in on this title, we looked at an intense two-issue arc focused primarily on Domino, her isolation, her trauma, and her betrayal by fellow traumatized mutant Colossus, also her erstwhile lover.

Looking back now to issue #6 and that story’s wild fallout in issues #9 and 10, we can see with clarity that sandwiching the Domino-centric narrative in the midst of Hank McCoy’s mindboggling mass atrocity (however much it was an unintended consequence of his carelessly overweening hubris) was a masterstroke on Percy’s part. This isn’t the narrative inconsistency Duggan demonstrated in awkwardly juggling his cast over on Marauders; Percy is practicing his art as a novelist, letting the juxtaposition of various plot threads speak almost as powerfully as what’s actually on the page.

The X-Force creative team has electrified the space between, from the art on the page—which we’ll look at here and there—to the arrangement of plot threads. And once you’ve read X of Swords, you can reread this dark juggernaut of a book, skip over the two X of Swords issues, and get an almost unified narrative.

Only almost, though, because it’s unclear if the Omega Red/Dracula subplot imported from the early issues of Percy’s Wolverine (and then sent back there after X-Force #15) is actually going to find a resolution soon! We might have to wait until the Winter Guard miniseries by Ryan Cady and Jan Bazaldua wraps up in December, since Dracula is one of the star antagonists there, in Russia no less. (It might also be telling that Bazaldua’s art there echoes her recent work on X-Force—although the undead enemy here is, um, plants, not vamps.)

Given that X-Force’s archnemesis has turned out to be Mikhail Rasputin, a resolution to all plot threads converging in the chilly reaches of Russia is sure to be just around the bend.

C. Marvel’s Odd Fixation with Russia

That said, between all the abovementioned titles, including Marauders and Jason Aaron’s Avengers, I think we’ve had more than enough Russia-bashing. Yes, Putin is vile, obviously, but Marvel’s Russophobia has really become strained at this point.

Seriously, isn’t this just the flipside of Republican China- and Iran-bashing? Is Russia an easier target nowadays because liberals feel the need to take a stand on a national security threat the GOP doesn’t view as such and it’s also a predominantly, er, white nation (whatever that means to Russians)? Do we really want writers going off trends in American news rather than an actual understanding of geopolitics?

For my money, I’d much rather see greater self-examination of the ills of our own society, which is also where these comics are coming from; there are plenty of human monsters here in America, yet the CIA, despite its antagonistic role in the Krakoa era, consistently comes off as more sympathetic than any Russian living in Russia, maybe barring some of the Black Widow’s not-well-known antiheroic compatriots.

D. Tropic of the Undead Veggies

Anyhow, the enemy under review here is the fictional Terre Verde, which in-universe is much worse optics for Krakoa—though it’s never spelled out directly just how so. Given that it’s a small Latin American nation, however, we need only think about the predation of colonial powers, from old Spain to the United States, that has relentlessly ravaged the Western Hemisphere for half a millennium.

Previously, Terre Verde was known for only one story, in 1971’s Fantastic Four #117-118 (50 years ago), where it was merely exoticized scene-setting for FF foe Diablo making a play at conquistador. Apparently, the nation is demographically analogous to Guatemala—being predominantly of Mayan descent.

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[Fantastic Four #117 by Archie Goodwin, John Buscema, and Joe Sinnott]

For Beast, it’s ultimately little more than a playground for his “dark orchestra.” As Percy said from launch, this book is “poison” (cited from the memory of a 2020 episode of Marvel’s Pull List podcast), and it’s indeed all so poisonously delightful under Percy’s masterful stewardship of these dark materials. X-Force is here to stare vertiginously into the abyssal eye of the dark art of—nation-building. (So that dull-seeming subject isn’t just about taking civics class and building public institutions after all!) The bottom line is that this title is essential for the believability of this new era. And Terre Verde is Krakoa’s first serious collateral casualty, the basic litmus test for any world power.

So let’s acknowledge the full import of what Beast has done: It was his own hand, not his “orchestra,” that, however, hm, inadvertently, committed mass manslaughter, responsible for countless civilian deaths, presumably many of them native peoples. Why is this schmuck still breathing? Why isn’t he in the Pit? Why would Xavier insist on the total erasure of Destiny but not the worst mass killer among the X-Men? We all know all nations, including our own, do not apply their laws, much less their norms, impartially (i.e., Hank is a favored son; Sabretooth is trash.)

However, it was only in my recent close readthrough of issue #10 that I realized, when Jean merges and channels Sage and Black Tom’s powers to “stage a coup” against the monstrously transformed mad-scientist Muerte Verde that Beast might not have actually committed genocide—“just” an extremely horrific atrocity against at least many thousands of innocents. For at the end of the arc, against Jean’s suggestion that “Maybe they can be free now,” we see naked Terre Verdean bodies, shorn of their telefloronic captivity, which might in fact be still-living people, albeit unconscious or super groggy. I’m very hopeful this is the case, really for their sake, not Beast’s.

And yet, does anyone think the mad scientists behind telefloronics had anything better in store for their own fellow citizens? They most certainly did not. They were the worst sort of elitists going by both their motives and the broader assumed context of exploitative elites of Western descent across the Americas (including the US no less than Latin America—probably more so). Now I can’t say what Percy’s intention is in terms of Terre Verdean worldbuilding, but I’m not going to buy the notion that nonindigenous elites would sincerely embrace the pre-Columbian past on behalf of the people of Terre Verde.

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[also from FF 117; apparently, Terre Verde transitioned away from military rule at some point, but we’ve been given no reason to believe the “peasants” hold any power]

That said, I’m surprised by the fact that no other readers or critics have questioned the wisdom of Percy describing this fictional society’s indigenous culture with nominal references to the Mayans and Olmecs* while painting the fictive Terre Verdean offshoot, if that’s what it was supposed to be, in the pulpiest terms possible. Based on what we find in issue #10, a reader might not think the Spanish Catholic conquest was such a bad thing for stamping out such a luridly morbid society. But it’s entirely made up for shock value. After all, did the elite telefloronic terrorists really need a mythopoeic backstory to justify their horrors? Well, if nothing else, I suppose it parallels real-world elites creating ideological justifications by pandering to a contrived sentimental mythologization of “folk culture,” the nativist glorification of the “Volk.”

Maybe that’s a lot of mental gymnastics to justify Percy’s choices here—because he sure gave no clues as to why he framed indigenous Terre Verdean culture in the most lurid terms possible. Perhaps there will be some reveal of a buried chthonic deity from Lovecraftian prehistory somewhere down the line?

(*All Percy’s references to the Olmecs are also entirely fictionalized; the native-sounding words aren’t real, nor is there evidence of an Olmec writing system. Further, Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of the moon and fertility, though central to Diablo’s conceit in Fantastic Four #117-118 isn’t brought up at all in X-Force, and she certainly wouldn’t fit in at all with the morbid mythology devised by Percy for this particular story.)

II. “I like to think of X-Force as a dark orchestra” – X-Force #6: “Intelligence” A. Tonight, in the Moral Jungle

We open near the end of the first leg of the Terre Verdean tragedy before stepping back to the day before for the middle third of the issue and finally returning for the climax of the straightforward balletic violence cut short in this first scene—followed by a fantastically horrific twist at the very end, tragic and comic simultaneously (without being tragicomedy).

The three-person “Delta Force,” along with Jean in a field captain position, has been sent to Terre Verde on a take-no-prisoners wet-works op—though it’s immediately clear their foe isn’t human. But ultimately, even now, the humanness or alienness of the Terre Verdean enemy remains ambiguous. (For they are still out there, even if the whole nation isn’t merged with or transmogrified by telefloronic programming.)

Whatever the case, through Beast’s inner monologue, we get the most lyrical framing of the field team yet:

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This beautiful but rather arrogant interpretation of Beast’s team might remind you of Xavier’s description back in issue #4, which was a bit more poetic—not to mention ironic: Jean, Beast, and Sage were Athena and the CIA while Logan, Dom, and Quentin were their Delta Force Hercules. (Also, it’s been a real treat seeing Segovia hitting his peak with Hellions after his first take on the Krakoa era here, a good substitute for Cassara.)

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With Jean gone come X of Swords, Athena’s wisdom was half-lobotomized, leaving Sage as the other half of that damaged virtue standing alone against Beast’s self-destructively parasitic hubris. Herculean madness might be what’s needed to excise that parasite and keep the nation from losing its way, at least in this book. Across Krakoa’s upper echelons, however, hollowed-out consciences hold sway over what could be paradise. (Of course, drama will always trump utopia—which is always someone else’s dystopia anyway.)

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But isn’t Beast really just channeling Xavier’s paternalism throughout?

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His reverie continues: “Like a father chasing after his toddlers, forestalling every steep drop and sharp edge and choking hazard.” Again, one would think he’s appointed himself to his own Quiet Council; in fact, Beast has more unchallenged power on his own than any other Krakoan but for the Autumn seats. (See also the penultimate page of this issue for further confirmation on this in Beast’s own words.)

B…

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