Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Uncanny X-Force #29. Written by Rick Remender (Venom, Secret Avengers) and drawn by Julian Totino Tedesco (Unthinkable, Marvel: Season One covers), it’s a comic that doesn’t glorify violence, choosing instead to explore the moral dilemmas and emotional repercussions surrounding the action.
In 2008, Marvel launched X-Force, which starred Wolverine as the leader of a covert team of X-Men assassins who sliced their way through threats to mutantkind. When Rick Remender and Jerome Opeña relaunched the title as Uncanny X-Force in 2010, the extreme action was paired with complex characterizations to create a book that was as emotionally complex as it was viscerally violent. Since the conclusion of the 18-issue epic “The Dark Angel Saga,” Opeña has left the title to begin work on Jonathan Hickman’s upcoming Marvel Now Avengers, but Remender continues to craft one of the most satisfying superhero reads each month, using the book’s hyper-violent concept to explore the moral conflicts within each member of X-Force.
No one on the team has struggled more than Betsy “Psylocke” Braddock, who has had everything she loved ripped out of her life since joining Wolverine’s squad. She’s had to kill a lover and a brother in the past year, and the death of her rebound guy Fantomex two issues ago finally pushed her over the edge. When X-Force was ambushed by the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (led by Wolverine’s son Daken and featuring an all-star line-up of X-villains), Psylocke hijacked the mind of dying mutant teleporter Gateway and sent the team into the future. In this crimeless world, Betsy Braddock rules with the help of Wolverine, Cable, and the Punisher, disposing of potential criminals before they can break the law. What happens next is concisely summarized on #29’s recap page: “Upon learning all this, Psylocke runs off and commits seppuku to prevent this future from unfolding.”
Last issue’s cliffhanger is a turning point for Psylocke’s character, the moment when the oppressive violence in her life consumes her and gets pointed inward, specifically toward her spinal cord. #29 picks up immediately after she jams the blade in her gut, her imminent death beginning to bend the fabric of this future reality. While Punisher and Cable try to stop Psylocke from killing herself, she argues the ethics of this world built on murder on fascism, resulting in a fascinating, philosophically loaded fight scene. In a piece for her Robot 6 column “The Fifth Color,” Carla Hoffman writes, “Violence is never the end in Uncanny X-Force, nor is it an answer.” This storyline is titled “The Final Execution,” a phrase that Psylocke tells herself as she tries to move the blade toward her spine, and in a way, she does die in this issue. But the solution to her problem doesn’t come because she kills herself; it comes when Betsy learns to forgive herself.
Saved from becoming a sidewalk stain by Nightcrawler, the dying Psylocke has her violent urges subdued by her future self and passes out, waking up in a shining paradise where Warren Worthington greets her. After so many issues of dreariness, the three pages of Warren and Betsy in heaven are a drastic shift, signaling the start of Betsy’s healing process. Betsy has convinced herself that she’s become as evil as the villains she fights, but Warren works to justify the violent acts that X-Force has done in the name of the greater good. Ultimately, his main argument (in both the case of Fantomex killing and cloning the boy Apocalypse and Psylocke destroying Warren’s mind) is that these acts prevented the loss of millions of lives, so why not celebrate the fact that she saved the world instead of wallowing in misery? “Life is hard enough,” Warren tells her. “Why long for sorrow?”
Action has been an essential element of superhero stories since the beginning, but the rise of gritty superheroes in the ’80s led to a shift from action to violence. More characters were getting tortured, raped, dismembered, and flat-out killed, and nowadays these violent acts are all common practice in superhero comics. That’s not to say that picking up an issue of Detective Comics guarantees a scene where someone cuts his face off and nails it to a wall, but that was the way DC chose to end the first New 52 issue of its flagship title. It’s the rare title that steps back from the action to look at the emotional ramifications of the violence, and Psylocke’s ongoing moral crisis has been a poignant look at superhero PTSD. Initially joining because Warren needed someone to psychically subdue his dark side, Psylocke has been unsure about her place on the team ever since Fantomex shot a child in the head in #4. Her investment in Warren’s health kept her on the squad, and after she wiped out her lover’s mind, she stayed on the team as penance for her actions. She’s been existing in a state of emotional decay for so long that she needs someone to make her whole again, and the angelic Warren convinces her that she needs to forgive herself and find new love.
When Betsy wakes, she finds herself face-to-face with her future self, who continues the healing process that Warren began. Psylocke’s last big piece of guilt concerns her relationship with Fantomex, who was killed shortly after sleeping with her. Psylocke is unwilling to confront her true feelings for the dead man, but future Betsy convinces her that the love was real but dangerous. Fantomex’s death was the best thing that could happen to her, but that’s probably because it leads her into the arms of an unexpected suitor. When X-Force is sent back to the past at the end of the issue, future Betsy and Wolverine share a passionate kiss, planting the seeds for the next great X-romance. Psylocke has anchored this title since the end of “The Dark Angel Saga,” but Remender has stated in interviews that “The Final Execution” would put more focus on Wolverine (because he really needs it), and putting Logan and Betsy in a relationship is the most natural way to keep both characters in the spotlight. And Betsy really needs a boyfriend that can’t die right now.
Psylocke is this book’s most compelling character, but Deadpool has become an integral part of the team, providing comic relief to help ease the constant tension. The first half of #29 is nonstop drama, broken for the first time when Psylocke elbows Deadpool and he tells her, “No—not the face.” Deadpool is completely detached from the emotional stakes of his X-Force missions, and Remender uses him to comment on the overbearing grimness of the story. When Punisher tells Deadpool to kill the kid Apocalypse and Wolverine and Archangel’s sons, Deadpool replies, “Kill this kid! Kill that kid! Bang bang! Pow! Take that, Webster! Hasta la vista, Beaver! Look out, cute kid from Jerry Maguire!” He then uses his thumbs to move the corners of Punisher’s mouth into a makeshift smile and offers him some advice, “You need to lighten up, grumpy Gus sourpuss.” Deadpool goes on to talk about how much he hates the Punisher’s entire shtick and tells Nightcrawler to stop bitching about how awful the Age of Apocalypse was, with a brief tangent as he ponders the name of the cola that they only sell in all those depressing places.
Remender’s Deadpool is as hilarious as he is deadly, and having a psychotic mercenary on the team provides a contrast to Psylocke in how violence affects different people. Remender also provides a brief teaser for Deadpool’s upcoming Marvel NOW series written by Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan (who worked with Remender on the Image miniseries The Last Christmas), with future Hank Pym reminding Punisher not to kill Deadpool because of “that thing with zombie Nixon.” If Deadpool is written in the same way as his Uncanny X-Force character, his new series should be a delightful helping of irreverent comic violence.
Remender is joined by his Venom #13.1 artist Julian Totino Tedesco for this two-part future story, and he’s primed to be Marvel’s next superstar artist based on his work in these two issues. Any Uncanny X-Force artist needs to be able to draw dynamic action sequences, and the opening fight between Psylocke, Punisher, and Cable is smoothly choreographed and quickly paced to capture the short time limit of Psylocke’s life. After that first brawl, the book takes a break from the action, giving Tedesco the opportunity to show his skill at capturing emotional talking-heads moments. The highlight of the issue is Warren and Betsy’s conversation, a visually magnificent scene that puts the devastated Betsy in an environment that is the polar opposite of her dark emotional state. As Warren flies through paradise with Betsy in his arms, the brightness of the artwork lightens the tone of the story and makes its easy to see how Betsy would be inspired to keep living.
Uncanny X-Force has gone through multiple artists, but Dean White’s coloring has given the book visual cohesion and, in many cases, elevated the artists’ original linework. The art of Mike McKone and Billy Tan has never looked better than when colored by White, and his rich palette adds depth to the pencils while seamlessly adjusting to reflect the tonal shifts in Remender’s story. The opening pages are awash in contrary hues of warm orange and icy blue, capturing the tension of the situation through color. When Betsy meets Warren, the heavy shadows of the early scenes disappear in the heavenly setting, and White uses soft greens, yellows, and blues to emphasize the sense of harmony in this environment. Betsy awakes to a world that is just as dark as before, but she’s able to move forward because she finally sees some beauty after a nonstop stream of ugliness. That sense of hope is something the character has desperately needed, and it will be exciting to see how that motivates Psylocke to become more like her future self as Remender moves on to the next stage of Betsy’s evolution.