WRITERS: WARREN ELLIS, IAN EDGINTON
ARTISTS: WHILCE PORTACIO, ARIEL OLIVETTI, LAN MEDINA, ENRIQUE BRECCIA, JORGE LUCAS
When Warren Ellis was brought on board X-Force was, much like Generation X, a long way from former glories; under Rob Liefield (I know, but the nineties) and the workmanlike Fabien Nicieza the series had been a mega-seller after transitioning from The New Mutants but after both shuffled away it was treated with progressively less respect by Marvel. Cable, a big part of the title's success (I know, but also the nineties) gradually moved away and when Cannonball got his big promotion to the X-Men the title became increasingly forlorn under Jeph Loeb and then John Francis Moore. Even when Sam came back into the fold the readers didn't.
Once again Ellis goes for a more proactive reformatting with the group setting out to make a difference, like Generation X - though here X-Force get a lot more done. The six month gap as part of the Revolution event has seen former team leader Domino and the long-standing Dani Moonstar disappear; in their place comes Pete Wisdom. Wisdom was of course created by Ellis for Excalibur; while he was something of a cult favourite upon the writer's departure for Wildstorm the character ended up in the hands of Ben Raab, who rapidly changed his personality and wrote him out in order to facilitate a romantic reunion between Kitty Pryde and Colossus. He then later guest starred in a rather weak X-Force two-parter set in Genohsa which did leave a nice pre-existing relationship with the team to be exploited; it also gave Wisdom an eyepatch, dismissed as a prop to pick up girls in the second page of the Ellis run.
Co-writer for the series was Ian Edginton, who had at the time an eclectic CV that involved co-writing Ultraforce with Ellis for Malibu, a Blade limited series for Marvel, work for Penthouse Comix and a load of licenced bilge for Dark Horse. Combined with Ellis he created a dizzy world of secret black ops and hidden sleeper programmes for the characters; in addition to Wisdom as a worldly-wise driven consultant the team themselves were shaken up, Cannonball finally showing some sign of his gigantic experience, Meltdown's powers being made more useful, Proudstar dropping the Warpath name and unlocking new powers (courtesy of a backdoor left open by a plot involving the High Evolutionary and a year ahead of Grant Morrison coining secondary mutations) and even the deeply unpopular Jesse Bedlam doing stuff.
This new group were dropped into a story about a genetic engine left over from Cold War spook games being accidentally unleashed on San Fransisco, leading to a tight well-written action arc as X-Force try to get to the bottom of it before the entire population become angry mutants. Whilce Portacio is on art duties and brings the requisite sinews to the meatspore troopers and civilian mutations, not to mention arc nasty Niles Roman, even if his actual X-Force can look a bit odd - Sam especially suffers from some ugly close-ups. Uglier still is the death of Wisdom at the end of the opening arc, part of a stated plan by Ellis to 'salt the Earth' rather than leave the character open for abuse again, an early-career show of sentiment considering what it must to do the man to see the farce the likes of The Authority have been left as.
The second arc is part of the "Shockwaves" mini-event running across the three Counter-X titles, a flashback segment showing how the team got from their status before the Revolution event to the current state of affairs. There isn't much to X-Force's journey really beyond Wisdom turning up at their base and whisking off the bulk of the team; training sequences that illustrate his lessons and resources while also providing a bit more of the character. However, there's also some non-flashback sections as the team attends Wisdom's funeral, briefly clashes with his sister Romany (now a full-on black ops bitch rather than the tetchy amateur scholar seen previously) and reunites with Domino, who takes Wisdom's role of overseer but also needs help with a weird alien creature growing on her back (a nice gruesome visual from Portacio) and Marcus Tsung, an Asian assassin who has the mutant gene for murder. This means that he can just kill people sort-of at will, as long as they're unimportant extras. The actual takedown is somewhat weak but otherwise it's an interesting arc, despite Portacio inevitably falling off the schedule in favour of, successively, the excellent Arial Olivetti (moonlighting from X-Man), Lan Medina and Enrique Breccia.
"Rage War" is the only real straight story the new format gets, entirely shorn of both Ellis and Wisdom (though Sam's started dressing like the latter) and with Jorge Lucas on art. Lucas doesn't quite have the sinewy eye for grim detail that the previous artists did though he does conjure up a few monstrous sleeper agents and the storyline does benefit from a single penciller, even if it does look dull compared to the arc's Olivetti covers. Sadly it's about the only coherent thing as the story turns into a somewhat silly wheels-within-wheels dramarama with the motivations of Wisdom's old Russian contact Valentina Rychenko, Niles Roman, Romany Wisdom and Pete Wisdom all rapidly called into question with X-Force just staggering through confused (though characterisation remains strong) and ending up faking their own deaths, possibly just to clean the slate.
Unlike the other two Counter-X titles X-Force got a two-issue finale, named "Epitaph". Whether this was down to scheduling or because X-Force wasn't - unlike Generation X and X-Man - cancelled but instead radically overhauled as a tiresome satire by Peter Milligan I don't know but it doesn't make good use of the extra space and the overall feeling is that the arc is truncated after a deliberately paced opener followed by a jumbled flashback-told final issue with Domino seemingly as the sole survivor, Romany Wisdom apparently killed off along with the rest of X-Force (spoiler: they all got better, even Jesse) and Pete Wisdom inexplicably back alive. Like "Rage War" it's a crazy cascade of plot twists and buzzwords but still strangely likable.
While nothing lives up to the promise of opening arc "Games Without Frontiers" the Counter-X X-Force remains a solid, exciting slice of mutant action, about as dark as anything in a mainstream X-book was likely to get. Dialogue and characterisation crackle throughout and it's got the most obvious Ellis fingerprints of he three books, lots of turn of the 21st century stuff about secret levels above governments, black budget projects and the seedy underbelly of the universe. Good stuff, overall.