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Thursday, April 20, 2017

X-amining X-Force #18

"Ghosts in the Machine"
February 1993

In a Nutshell
Cable & Stryfe die as "X-Cutioner's Song" ends.

Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Penciler: Greg Capullo
Inker: Harry Candelario
Letterer: Chris Eliopolous
Colorist: Marie Javins
Editor: Bob Harras
The Fat Lady: Tom DeFalco

Cable confronts Stryfe on the surface of the moon, while inside Stryfe's base, Psylocke detects that Apocalypse is dying, leading Archangel to search him out. He finds Apocalypse near death, but refuses to give him a quick, dignified end. Outside, Stryfe easily overpowers Cable, but is suddenly blasted by Havok. His attack destroys Stryfe's armor and weakens his hold on Cyclops & Jean Grey, who join the fray. Enraged, Stryfe destroys his tower, filling the area with temporal and electro-magnetic energy. Cable rigs a device to his bionic arm and gives the button to Cyclops, then launches himself at Stryfe. As he does so, he begins the self-destruct sequence on his arm, then urges Cyclops to push the button. As Cable's arm begins to explode, Cyclops reluctantly does so, triggering an explosion that combines with Cable's and the energy swirling from Stryfe's tower, creating a vortex that sucks in both Cable & Stryfe. Cyclops, Jean & Havok are joined by the rest of the X-Men on the moon as Cyclops considers whether he's just sacrificed his son a second time. Meanwhile, Mr. Sinister's associate Gordon opens the canister Sinister received from Stryfe, only to discover it empty. Sinister is hardly surprised, and as he leaves, he tells Gordon to look after his cough...

Firsts and Other Notables
As the climax to "X-Cutioner's Song", both Cable & Stryfe disappear at the end of this issue, and both are considered dead moving forward. Both, of course, will return, though Cable will be back significantly sooner (in just a few months, via his solo series; he will be re-united with X-Force in issue #25). Stryfe comes back long enough to settle the issue of who is the clone and who is the original Nathan Christopher, but then returns to being dead. He'll make a couple more brief returns after that, but for the most part, this marks the end of Stryfe's tenure as a significant, recurring villain, and the high water mark of his character history.

In addition to the deaths (or "deaths", if you prefer) of Cable & Stryfe, this issue also represents the beginning of the almost-neverending Legacy Virus plotline that will weave itself through various X-books over the next couple of years, then sort of hang quietly in the background, unresolved, for a few more, before eventually getting dealt with prior to the start of Grant Morrison's run. Nothing is overtly established here, as the threat of the virus will be slowly revealed over the next few months, but in hindsight, Stryfe's declaration that his legacy is a pox on mutantkind is fairly telling.

We also see Mr. Sinister coming into contact with the virus, as his hench-scientist Gordon is coughing rather conspicuously as he opens the container Sinister received from Stryfe as payment for kidnapping Cyclops & Jean Grey (which is said here to contain Summers family material), only to discover it is empty.

Stryfe refers to Cable as "Nathan Dayspring Askani'son", which is, I believe, the first time all those names have put together in the manner in which they'll appear on the back of his trading cards going forward.

While the exact nature of the relationship between Cable & Stryfe remains, by issue's end, frustratingly unresolved, there's definite hints throughout that Stryfe is the original and Cable the clone (which is what Nicieza and/or Lobdell originally wanted to do), including Stryfe referring to Cable as a failed attempt to preserve a life (ie a flawed clone), dialogue which unfolds in front of images of Baby Nathan being taken into the future by Askani.

Stryfe also says he's watched Cable with "fraternal amusement".

The question of whether Cable/Stryfe is Nathan Christopher is also, technically, unanswered, in that it's not explicitly stated. However, as a capper to all the hints to that in previous chapters, this issue more or less confirms it without confirming, as Cyclops likens blowing up Cable & Stryfe at Cable's insistence here as letting him go a second time.

He also refers to sacrificing Cable a second time, so it's pretty clear that Cyclops, at least, believes Cable to be some form of his son, even if the story doesn't confirm that he's right for the readers.

In the wake of his off-panel battle with the Dark Riders, Apocalypse is injured and on the brink of death. He is found by Archangel and begs for a clean death, but Archangel refuses, giving Archangel a somewhat cathartic moment that more or less puts to rest his recent angst. It's left up in the air as to whether Apocalypse survives, though he will of course be back. But this does mark the beginning of another long dry spell for the character, as he won't appear again until the run-up to "Onslaught" (in which he plays a fairly large part). Of course, that dry spell is interrupted by "Age of Apocalypse", which he obviously dominates, but technically that's an alternate Apocalypse to this one.

The final trading card of the crossover is of Stryfe.

A Work in Progress
Stryfe refers to Cyclops & Jean as the "parents of tomorrow pain".

After beating up Apocalypse off-panel between issues, the Dark Riders escape from Stryfe's moonbase. With Stryfe now dead, they will essentially work for themselves for a time, carrying out Apocalypse's "cull the weak from the strong" edict on their own.

Their escape leads Wolverine to lash out about the X-Men's various setbacks of late, as he says they are always frustratingly one step behind, and he includes Mariko (but not Silver Fox) in the list of losses.

This issue confirms that Stryfe's force field is programmed to only let in people with Summers DNA. Havok makes a great joke about how it kicked him pretty hard for not being Cyclops, which is something he's pretty good at doing himself.

Mr. Sinister & Gordon are in Nebraska, presumably at or near the orphanage he ran which housed young Cyclops.

The Grim 'n' Gritty 90s
Cable's third action figure will sport the space suit he wears in the opening of this issue.

Artistic Achievements
This issue's montage of past events swirling around Stryfe's tower are a little less random, showing things more germane to Cable/Stryfe's history, like Madelyne Pryor and Askani taking baby Nathan into the future.

Capullo draws in a great little detail, little puffs of air being released as Stryfe removes his helmet.

Austin's Analysis
And with that, "X-Cutioner's Song", really the last formally-constructed linewide crossover until "Messiah CompleX" in 2007, comes to a close. In the end, it takes off the board Cable (temporarily) and Stryfe (more or less for good) while also, it must be said, leaving much of its promises unfulfilled, as the exact relationship between Cable, Stryfe and Cyclops' son, as well as, especially, the relationship between Cable and Stryfe, remains unconfirmed. But despite all that,  this story as a whole still holds up pretty well (and I still maintain that while the question of whether Cable/Stryfe is Nathan Christopher isn't *explicitly* answered, it's pretty obvious that they are, in some way, especially by the end of this issue, with Cyclops talking about giving Cable up again and whatnot).

On the micro-level, it's well-plotted. There's a few between-issue hiccups (like Mr. Sinister going from "I want to kill Xavier!" to "I'm here to help the X-Men" between issues, or Apocalypse's somewhat chaotic movements between chapters in the story's second act), but for the most part, each chapter flows into the next, and each manages to advance the overall narrative in some way, such that no one chapter feels entirely throwaway. The twelve parts break down fairly easily into three acts (the kickoff and hunt for X-Force, taking down the MLF/Stryfe taking center stage, and the hunt for Stryfe and the conclusion), so even though the story is the long, it doesn't drag, since it's able to offer some smaller resolutions and changing circumstances along the way. And while the art isn't spectacular (Jae Lee is a love it/hate it guy, while Kubert's work is still a little rough around the edges), it is consistent, in that all four artists manage to complete all their assigned issues, and even with the more stylized Jae Lee art as an anomaly, the overall look of the story is remarkably consistent from chapter to chapter.

In terms of the bigger picture, while the story doesn't offer concrete conclusions about Cable & Stryfe in the end (the result of a last-minute editorial mandate made over the creators' heads), it does accomplish its mission of closing out the post-'91 relaunch "Image Era" of the X-books. X-Force is no longer completely isolated (and mostly aimless), Stryfe and the Mutant Liberation Front are no longer their chief foes, and though still an outlaw team, they will maintain an easier relationship with the X-Men going forward. The Blue/Gold split between the two X-Men titles will gradually fade away as a result of their mixing in this story (Colossus will feature heavily in the immediate issues of X-Men, while Gambit will soon pop up in Uncanny). Archangel's angst is more or less behind him (in part because of his interactions with Apocalypse in this chapter), while Bishop, having now helped the X-Men during a significant conflict/participated in a crossover, feels less like the new kid on the block. Only X-Factor remains mostly unchanged, but that series will soon undergo a massive change (to its detriment, unfortunately) as a direct result of this storyline.

So while "X-Cutioner's Song", in the end, fails to deliver the exact, long-promised answers about Cable & Stryfe, it succeeds in closing off a tumultuous chapter in the history of the X-Men, in the process laying the groundwork for the franchise's future post-Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld & While Portacio. That it does so more or less on the fly, with new or new-ish creators tackling these characters in some cases for the first time, and still manages to tell, in spite of its flaws, a cohesive, competent, and compelling story is a remarkable achievement, one which still holds up today.

Next Issue
Tomorrow: a story that does not hold up concludes in Excalibur #60. Next week, the "X-Cutioner's Song" epilogue tour begins, with Stryfe's Strike Files #1 and New Warriors #31.

Collected Editions



  1. I never really considered that questions weren't answered by this crossover. Sure, nobody outright confirms anything, but my takeway after reading this final chapter was that Stryfe was quite obviously Nathan, and Cable was a clone of him. I didn't necessarily need anyone to tie a big red bow on it by saying so.

    As I said before, this was the event that got me reading X-Men comics regularly, so for any failings it may have had, it certainly did something right for this 13/14 year-old. I would continue to read UNCANNY in the immediate aftermath until #300, then I would drop it but pick up X-MEN with #20, and eventually I would get back on board with UNCANNY as well circa "Phalanx Covenant" and continue to read both all through high school and most of college, until around 2001.

    I've felt, pretty much ever since I first read these issues, that this should've been it for Cable. He really, honestly should've died here. His story was done, the revelations made. And he just never appealed to me as he apparently did to so many others of my generation, so I had no particular attachment to him as anything other than fuel for Cyclops's angst, which is something he would've provided far better in death than in life. And this is coming from someone who generally favors the "illusion of change" in comics! But for whatever reason, in this case, I think a permanent death would have served the character and the story far, far better.

    (I feel the same way about Bishop circa "Onslaught", though it's an opinion I dind't reach until years later -- he probably should've died there after fulfilling his story purpose, especially in light of the character assassination he'd suffer in the subsequent decade -- and Bishop is one of my favorite X-Men!)

    Asking honestly -- did anybody ever do much of note with Cable for the remainder of the decade? I'm sure he had good stories, but did he ever have as high a profile and as large a role in the universe after "X-Cutioner's Song"? I don't think so, though it's possible I'm wrong since I never read CABLE or X-FORCE. But following this event, he always just felt like a secondary/background character to me, which reinforced my opinion that he should've died here.

    (Also, Cyclops having an adult son older than him is just bizarre...)

    1. But for whatever reason, in this case, I think a permanent death would have served the character and the story far, far better.

      And his mother*, but it is what it is. I always considered Nate Grey the X-Man to be a version of Cable, the little that I ever got to read him, so it's not over by a longshot as far as Marvel is concerned.

      * You know what I mean.

    2. I didn't necessarily need anyone to tie a big red bow on it by saying so.

      Nor did I, but it apparently torqued a lot of people off, because I still see it brought up occasionally.

      I've felt, pretty much ever since I first read these issues, that this should've been it for Cable.

      Yeah. I mean, I love Cable, because he represents a very specific time in comics (both for comics and for me), but this really would have made for a great ending to the character.

      (And ditto Bishop at the end of "Onslaught").

      Asking honestly -- did anybody ever do much of note with Cable for the remainder of the decade?

      The standout run of his solo series from Joe Casey and Ladronn (mostly) is pretty good, though it's one of those "generally good" runs, and not good specifically because it's about/featuring Cable. Like, they're well-crafted stories that happen to star Cable, rather than being good stories because of how they use Cable.

      Beyond that. he played a fairly big role in "The Twelve", but I have issues with that story. The CABLE/DEADPOOL team-up book is pretty great (probably my favorite use of Deadpool), but that's partially due to some of the meta stuff, and partially due to the fact that it was one of the few books at the time that seemed willing to acknowledge/use past events/continuity.

      And of course, he played a pretty big role in Messiah Complex/raising & protecting Hope/Second Coming, but that importance is somewhat negated by the fact that the whole Hope plotline just kind of fizzled out.

      So I guess I'm both confirming & refuting your point.

      (Also, Cyclops having an adult son older than him is just bizarre...)

      It is, but in that wonderful "only in comics!" kind of way. :)

    3. (Also, Cyclops having an adult son older than him is just bizarre...)

      It is, but in that wonderful "only in comics!" kind of way. :)

      Of course, Rachel is probably not that much younger than Scott is early 20's vs late 20's.

  2. When was it established that Cable's robot parts are actually TO virus? Assuming it was before this, how could Cable be anything but the real McCoy (pun not intended)? He still has the TO virus, while Stryfe as a clone wouldn't have any manifestations of that disease.

    1. The "Cable's part are a result of the TO virus" came later - possibly even in the story that established who was the clone and who was the original (CABLE #6-8), in part as justification for Cable being the original.

      Here, I think the idea is that Stryfe is the original and Cable the clone, who lived a harder life and got fitted out with bionic parts along the way.

      The whole "self-destruct Cable's arm" thing also doesn't really work if the arm is just metal because of the TO virus (which is true of all the other "bionic" things we've seen Cable's arm do, prior to the TO retcon).

    2. It WAS Cable 6-8 that establishes that Cable's bionic parts are a result of the technovirus. And it must have been a very last minute decision since Cable 5 hinges on Cable using a "plasma charge" from inside his arm and a computer in his arm.

    3. It's funny because after he reunited with X-Force (X-Force #26), he was still treated like a cyborg ("I never knew he had so many mechanical parts.")

    4. Cable is so terminatoresquely metallic here in the end, so it would appear like Cable was rather meant as a built android copy of Nathan with borrowed brainwaves inserted into him like Simon Williams' was into Vision, than a clone. The clone idea should feel pretty damn redundant at this point, considering that the previous crossover playing with the matters at hand was about Madelyne being a clone and reacting badly to it. Though, Stryfe being the real deal would fit to the thematics: also the clone can choose to be the good guy. Which would be welcome variation to how usually the 'clone=evil' has been such and easy out.

    5. Of course there is the alternative reading that young Billy is half android because daddy was a synthetizoid, and the villanious young Tommy releases the mutant legacy plague because of the abandonment as a baby by the self-proclaimed leader of all mutantkind and his at-time evil redheaded daughter, and Scott and Jean are merely substitutes because Mags is presumed dead and I don't know what Scarlet Witch is up to at this time.

      Note how there is no Summers-Grey genetic material in the canister in the end, and how Polaris of all people was brought to witness it going down. ;)

      And then Mags will wake up from his post X-Men #3 slumber coincidentally just as a great magic storm breaks out to purge his grandchildren.

    6. Actually... what I think happened was that once Wanda around the "Darker than Scarlet" storyline magiced young Thomas and William away to become adult Stryfe and Cable for NM #86-87, she also was subconsciously aware that Magneto, with his surprising villanious turn would inevitably drift into a conflict with the heroes that he would not survive, and also magiced portions of Magneto's being into the twins for safekeeping (not Mephisto's, so). This is why one became the cackling commander of a half-bit mutant terrorist faction and the other one came to live on an orbital base when not tutoring Xavier's students when the previous headmaster became unavailable.

      It is of note that we see little Nathan the first time in UXM #201 in literally the next panel after Magneto promised to Xavier to take care of his students in #200. Also notice how in the last page of X-MEN #16 the villain Magneto's face is right next to Stryfe's helmeted head, and again in this issue in the two-page splash the spectre villain Magneto is hovering right above the Stryfe's face panel while above that the very UXM #1 -like spectre Cyclops et al are attacking towards Stryfe like they were Magneto on the cover of that issue (and again, of adjectiveless X-MEN #1).

      Even if Stryfe and Cable are supposed to be time-travellers, they are solidly in this time now and there is no reason why there should be time-flux energies unleashed at their demise. No, that happens because the anomaly caused by Wanda's retroactive magic unwounds now. The Stryfe-bit that was part of Magneto moves on to revive the dead Magneto from the wreck of Avalon, but Cable's insistence that he is his own man, or possibly all the iron fitted into his body, prevent the part of Magneto that is in him to do the same (and he possibly magically fuses into Nathan Christopher who is in the future somewhere, or has retroactively been a part of him since #201 because of Wanda's magic or whatever).

      This totally explains why we have seen the last of the majestic Magneto of Claremont's, and why he next returns as the cackling villain.

  3. also, I've never heard anyone having problems with Jae Lee's art. I've always been under the impression he was a relatively respected artist, if not a bit quirky for mainstream stuff- a bit like Mike Mignola.

    1. I may be letting commenter Matt's disdain for it color my perception, but I feel like there's people out there who don't like Jae Lee's art either for being too Sienkiewicz-ian (because there are people, like Matt, who don't like Sienkiewicz's NEW MUTANTS-era style) and/or for being too pin-up-y (ie it's all static shots with little movement panel-to-panel).

      Personally, I like it, both for its Sienkiewicz influence, and for how dark & moody it often is, but I also can't deny that, at least in these three issues, it does lack somewhat in storytelling ability.

    2. On the subject of Askani, while she was later revealed to be named after a rebellion founded in the future by Rachel Grey, Chris Claremont stated over a decade ago on Comixfan that it was never his intention for Rachel to evolve into "Mother Askani".

      So let's look at the original details he provided:
      In X-Factor #67, it is revealed that a time-travel mishap turned Askani into pure energy, and she's only going to live long enough to complete her mission of rescuing young Nathan Summers (known as "Lord Nathan" in her future) from Apocalypse and taking him to the future to cure him from the T-O virus.

      While she refers to young Nathan as "little brother", her additional reference to "our father" when talking to him would seem to rule her out as connected to Rachel since Uncanny X-Men Annual #14, also penned by Claremont, ruled out Scott as Rachel's father;) Might this instead suggest that Askani is a future child of Scott's with Jean, given she has psionic powers what with her psychic knife and Phoenix symbol at the centre of her forehead.

      However, she also refers to "The Chosen's family" instead of her own, implying she is not related.

      If you check closely, you'll recall she is also not red-haired like Jean or Rachel but more auburn.

      She also refers to Nathan's father being savaged by Apocalypse in her future's past, yet in our timeline Scott was savaged by Mister Sinister.

      She also uses phrases like "praise the light" and "merciful bright lady", terms known to be regularly used by Ororo, not Rachel.

      So who did he intend this character from this side-reality to be?

    3. In #68, Askani's explanation to using word "kinsman" is: "We share the same world. My line, as yours, claims the heritage of "Homo sapiens". In that small sense, we are all family." This may obviously be a convenient lie/half-truth.

      A little bit earlier she questions herself: "If only our rescans of this era -- of this moment -- were more precise. Is this the path of history that leads to the Armageddon that condemns my future?"

    4. Adler: Chris Claremont stated over a decade ago on Comixfan that it was never his intention for Rachel to evolve into "Mother Askani".

      Of course not. The Askani and that whole future timeline weren't his idea.

      His endgame for Rachel was for her to become Kitty's wife.

      While she refers to young Nathan as "little brother", her additional reference to "our father" when talking to him would seem to rule her out as connected to Rachel since Uncanny X-Men Annual #14, also penned by Claremont, ruled out Scott as Rachel's father;)

      Claremont's intent was for Rachel to be the daughter of Jean and the Phoenix force. This is why, in his mid-2000s run on Uncanny, she had no cross-time counterparts.

      It was all part of a series of retcons he began implementing in the mid-80s in response to the launch of X-Factor, specifically Bob Layton having Cyclops walk out on Madelyne. That "completely destroyed" Scott's character for him, and he set about dismantling Scott and Jean's relationship however the editors would let him, including retroactively. Hence, the retcons in the Classic X-Men back-up stories that Jean was as intensely attracted to Logan as he was to her and that she left the X-Men in issue #94 for fear of giving in and cheating on Scott. Hence, his intent that Rachel not be Scott's biological daughter, even of the Scott of an alternate timeline. Hence, his intent, had he not left the franchise in 1991, for Jean to leave Scott for Logan.

      Claremont was a die-hard Scott-Madelyne shipper, and I don't think he ever got over X-Factor #1.

      So who did he intend [Askani] to be?

      I doubt he had any intentions for her. Claremont was just a scripter on that storyline. The plot and character introductions were from Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio. By that point, Lee and Bob Harras had already decided that Cable was baby Nathan back from the future, and this arc was set up for all that.


  4. Even with chapters coming out on a weekly basis, this crossover was painfully tedious to follow when it was first released. That alone is the biggest indicator of its lack of substance. Tearing through all 12 issues in an afternoon lessens the impact of so much dead space and wheel-spinning, but it's still very much there.

    But, as I've said before, these recaps have reminded me that the creative teams weren't treating X-Cutioner's Song as a bold move in a new direction. Those stories came later; this crossover was really just cleaning up a half-baked mess left behind by people who abruptly flew the coop. In that respect, they did a pretty good job.

    Speaking of those who flew the coop... look, no one needs any new excuses to rip on Liefeld's crappy art. But if anyone wants a great example of how it really was Liefeld's artistic skills (or lack thereof) that were the problem, as opposed to his over-the-top style, take a look at that drawing of Cable in his spacesuit above. The armor is just as impractical, the accoutrements are just as silly, and the gun is just as ridiculous as anything Mr 501 Jeans ever drew... but Capullo almost makes it work simply by being an accomplished artist. The armor is nuts, but it's generally proportionate. The gadgets are dumb, but they look like real objects. The gun is ludicrously oversized, but Capullo gives it real heft and dimension. You can almost see Cable straining to hoist it into the frame.

  5. Man, these reviews make me want to go back and re-read the entire storyline again. I always dug the random issues I had as a kid, and it sounds like they still hold up. I love anything Apocalypse-related, which this storyline has tons of. And I love it for taking such one-dimensional goofy characters as Cable and Stryfe (As they were originally introduced) and actually fleshing them out and making them more than just a dude with guns and pouches and a megalomaniacal psycho.

    I started reading X-Men shortly after this crossover (Around issue 300), but I always seem to remember Cable explicitly being Cyclops' son. Doing some research, it looks like it wasn't truly revealed until Cable's solo series in 1994. I wonder if at the time people just put 2 and 2 together and said Cable was Cyclops' son and that was that. It also explains why, to my memory, Cable wasn't mentioned as being a Summers in his early appearances in the X-Men cartoon.

    I also have to say it was cool to have X-Men Gold/Blue starring in their own respective books, but it was really limiting. If, say, Cyclops showed up in Uncanny then he really just felt like a guest-star on his own team. It also prevented some unique team ups that we'd see in a few years, where characters would be grouped together based on powers and skills for certain missions rather than just having the Blue Team or Gold Team all go out because they're a team.


  6. I actually like how the questions of (1) whether Cable or Stryfe is the original and (2) whether said original is/was truly Nathan Summers aren’t explicitly answered, the latter precisely because it’s so strongly implied without being confirmed. Maybe there’s actually something to be said for last-minute editorial mandates overruling creators’ endings on the X-Titles? For me this last chapter was the most engaging of the bunch by a fairly wide margin (once again marred by Eliopoulos’ appallingly injudicious usage of outlined display lettering within dialogue balloons). Which may be due in large part to how the cast of heroes here is pulled tight to almost exclusively longtime, core X-Men characters — there’s just Havok and Polaris from the new X-Factor team and, besides Cable himself, just Cannonball of the original New Mutants from X-Force — and how it boils down to yet another instance of Grey-Summers Family self-sacrifice on the moon.


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