Sunday, November 11, 2012

X-Force/Cable: Messiah War

Title: X-Force/Cable: Messiah War

ISBN: 9780785131571
Price: $39.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2009
Artist: Mike Choi, Sonia Oback, Ariel Olivetti, Clayton Crain
Writer: Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost, Duane Swierczynski
Collects: The Times and Life of Lucas Bishop #1-3, X-Force/Cable: Messiah War one-shot, Cable #13-15, X-Force #14-16, X-Men: Future History - The Messiah War Sourcebook

Rating: 3.5/5

The first question is always “what happens?” Maybe this is where Messiah War is lacking, because it can be summed up too easily. Bishop teams up with Stryfe to kill Cable and Hope. That’s kind of it. Of course, Bishop doesn’t tell Stryfe about Hope or how important she is—good or evil. To gain Stryfe’s allegiance, Bishop tracks down a weakened Apocalypse and helps Stryfe kill his father…or maker. Meanwhile, Cyclops is freaking out and has Beast make time machines for X-Force so that they can go the future, retrieve Cable, and bury Bishop six feet under. When X-Force arrive in the future, they find themselves trapped in a time net…thing. There seems to be a lot going on for a seven issue story, but the one criticism I do have on the series is that it’s about one issue too long. There’s a bit of padding early in the story, especially dealing with Deadpool.

Which brings us to the writers. This goes for all three—their writing in the second half of the crossover is much stronger than the first. The consistency that was so strong in Messiah Complex got off to a rough start in War (yet there will still be a worse example) as Swierczysnki didn’t seem to understand Kyle and Yost’s style, and vice versa. By the fourth chapter, however, they begin to move as one, and for the rest of the story, that unity of storytelling is much stronger. We also get into the heads of the characters a lot more than we did in Complex or we will in Second Coming. Our three scribes move between Cable, Bishop, Stryfe, Archangel, and finally Apocalypse (though only Kyle and Yost write from his point of view, sadly) in a way that doesn’t feel unnatural. What hurts the writing most, early on, was the need to recap the events of Messiah Complex and Cable for the reader. And Kyle and Yost, who wrote the first chapter, actually take a while to do this—again, stretching time. It makes sense that they would, considering that a lot of the readers coming on would be new ones wanting the sequel to Complex, but it was a bit much.

On art, we have three of my personal favorites. Choi and Oback give us the first chapter.  There are literally a dozen examples of how great their art is, but for me, the spot that does it most is after Laura, X23, meets Hope and takes off her mask. Hope, at this point, is about 9 or 10 years old and seeing these people running around in grey and black, with masks that have red eyes. Yet when Laura takes off her mask, Hope—and the reader—see just how young Laura is. Choi and Oback capture this in such a magnificent way. X23 is really just a child who was never allowed youth or innocence. As much as Cable protects her and provides for her, is Hope that much different? By the age of ten, she had already had to survive one apocalypse (the roach people…one of the more bizarre stories to have come out of Cable),  she has about the same odds of turning into a normal teenage girl as Laura had—maybe slightly better since Laura did have all that mind control stuff. But it’s a marginal line. And yes, all of this brought on from one panel. Crain (X-Force) and Olivetti (Cable) provide art for the rest of the series. Their two very different styles can sometimes clash, but the uniqueness of each actually help. Being a shorter crossover, there is more room for variation in art than in a 13 or 14 issue crossover that hinges on being able to connect each chapter. Both artists have some amazing work in this series, especially when it comes to Apocalypse. They draw the character in much different styles, but both provide the most menacing interpretations of the character (when he gets his strength back. The downside is that Crain was certainly rushed to finish, and some of his art in the last issue and a half show it. Yet when it counts, he brings it well. In the last chapter, the full page of Apocalypse and Archangel is without a doubt one of the most breathtaking images in the entire series.

So, back to the story. Messiah War can easily be compared to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In the grand scheme of things, was the story of Saruman and the Uruk-Hai actually needed to tell the story of Frodo and the Ring? Sauron was already an extremely powerful foe, why throw in Rohan and Ents and all of that? Meat. Sweet, succulent story meat. That’s a lot of what Messiah War is—meat to the trilogy. But besides meat, there are actually more subtle—but important—aspects to this story, especially for how it works in the trilogy. Get ready for a lot of symbolism and literary criticism, folks, because that’s what Messiah War is truly asking for.

Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way. Hope, that baby from Messiah Complex hiding out in the future with Cable, is heavily tied to biblical themes. As Deadpool says, she’s the “little annoying Messiah Child.” When you’re throwing around phrases like “Messiah” and “Second Coming,” it’s a necessity to dig more into that connection. Because of this, the inclusion of Apocalypse, one of the most Christian mythology inspired characters, is essential to the story of Hope, the Messiah. Hope is literally growing up in the end times, but to actually face the embodiment of Apocalypse is quite another thing. Yet, she is ten years old, after all, and she doesn’t actually fight the big bad (though, now that Hope is an adult and Apocalypse is the main villain in Uncanny X-Force, a Hope vs Apocalypse story is a possibility and would certainly be a badass moment in X-Men history if done right).  In fact, Apocalypse is somewhat a good guy in this story…which says something about Bishop. When the most evil mutant to have ever existed is less evil than you, Bishop, you’ve lost your mind. Hell, even Stryfe was shocked by Bishop’s craziness. Anyway, back to Hope and A-Poc. What does it say that in the end, neither Cable nor X-Force could save Hope, but Apocalypse and his horseman of death had to instead?

Loss of innocence.  In the fourth chapter of Messiah War, Swierczynski shows Hope’s innocence right before it’s crushed. Hope is trapped in a force field by Stryfe and looking up at the guy who just beat the crap out of Cable and X-Force. Bishop uses the opportunity to finally kill her, and releases a nanite cloud to distract Stryfe. When the force field breaks and Stryfe keels over, the first thing Hope does is reach out to him and ask if he’s okay. This is last time we will see an innocent Hope.  Messiah War is the story where Hope loses that belief that Cable will always be there for her, that there is clear good and clear evil, and that the X-Men are some angelic force watching over her. Her first meeting with the X-Men should have been a joyous occasion, or she would have probably believed.  Instead she is greeted by all six of Wolverine’s claws. Instead of seeing her father relieved to see X-Force, he’s troubled and a little more than pissed off.  Even worse, with an entire team there to “protect” her, she still gets captured by Stryfe, watches as Warpath is tortured, and witnesses Stryfe completely kick X-Force’s collective ass three times. Suddenly that notion of “these people will keep me safe” isn’t ringing as true anymore. There’s also the inclusion of Stryfe himself, a clone of Cable. Stryfe tries to use Hope as a host body, and as noted before, tortures Warpath with a lot of joy in from of the little girl. When Hope finally sees Stryfe’s face, she is rightfully confused. She’s thinks it’s her father coming to save her and pretending to be the bad guy. Of course, it isn’t long until she figures out that Stryfe is most definitely not Cable, but the psychological damage has been done. She has now seen an evil version of her father, and much of Cable after this series shows Hope at odds with Cable. Teenage rebellion is bad enough, but having to look at the same face as the guy who was going to kill and possess you? Well, it might add a bit of fuel to that fire.

Yet, while her meeting with the X-Men—even though X23 tells her they are not X-Men—wasn’t the best she could have hoped for, it still made them real people and not stories Cable would tell her to keep her spirits up. This was her reference point to the X-Men. Now she knows that yes, there are a lot of people who want to keep her safe and are willing to die for her. She might be nine years old, but she understands that now. This will be even more important in Second Coming, when quite a few people die for her. It also showed her that there is another time, another place, where they could go where they don’t have to eat fried rats or boil their water to drink it. And it’s a place where she could have friends (sure, she finds her first love in the next Cable arc, but she’s still in hiding and can only talk to him) like Laura and Elixir, the two youngest X-Force members whom, along with James, she calls out for right before pushing away from Cable mid time-jump (that was unwise). The meeting with X-Force created a fantasy world for her of what the present day would be like, another important aspect that comes up in Second Coming.

And then there’s the ending. Cable and Hope become separated in time, and the X-Force are left having to complete the mission that Cyclops literally ripped them from. In the beginning of the crossover, when they arrive in the future, X23 marks a big X on a scrap piece of metal, marking where they landed. At the end, the entire team—exposed to the future for too long (Beast and the X-club had to make these time machines in a short amount of time, and they were imperfect, giving X-Force only 20-something hours to complete their mission…they go over this limit by a lot) are dying. It ends with X23 crawling to that mark, to return to the present at exactly the right spot to complete the mission. Endangered Species ended with the burial of a mutant-kind; Messiah Complex ended with the death of a dream; Messiah War ends with the fact that the X-Men must continue to struggle, but more importantly, to fight on. This is the closest thing to hope that they’re going to get for now.

A few more notes before I wrap up. First is the set itself. The hardcover is 39.99…and the crossover is only 7 issues. Granted, it also includes The Times and Life of Lucas Bishop as well as Wasteland Blues, the two issues of Cable that took place before Messiah War. Those two issues are worth having. It’s a good story and this is a great place for it. It’s the first time we actually get into Hope’s head, as Cable is passed out from dehydration. Times and Life…sure, this might justify the price, but it’s nothing but a three issue mini to recap Bishop’s life and, worst of all, it’s some of the most appalling art I have ever seen in comics. Ever. Every character looks more like an amorphous blob and it’s not the first time I’ve used that criticism for this artist. He did the same thing in Peter David’s X-Factor for a couple of issues. I don’t even want to name him, it’s so bad.

And despite that I like Swiercynski’s work (he seems to be a writer people appreciate in retrospect), I think he missed a big opportunity. The last we see of Apocalypse and Styfe is Apocalypse turning his “mistake,” as he calls Stryfe, into his new host body. The only place we could have followed up on this is in Cable, being that it was in this specific timeline. Yet two years into the future, there is no mention of Apocalypse at all. He could have been a new major villain in Cable, besides Bishop. Apocalypse did tell Cable that he would one day return for Hope. If only we actually got that story.

But that’s just a small complaint. Messiah War, though not as good as Messiah Complex, is still a great crossover  for all of its character and crisis development. And next week is the end of the trilogy, Second Coming. Will it live up to Messiah Complex, simply be on par with Messiah War, or will it crash and burn? We’ll find out soon!

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