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Thursday, June 11, 2020

X-amining X-Force #50

"Target: Cable"
January 1996

In a Nutshell
Cable battles a brainwashed X-Force.

Writer: Jeph Loeb
Penciler: Adam Pollina
Inkers: LaRosa, Morales & Delperdang
Letterer: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colorist: Marie Javins & Electric Crayon
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras

X-Force is assembled by their leader, Sebastian Shaw, excited to be given their next mission: to kill Cable! Meanwhile, Cable & Domino are in New York City, tracking the last known locations of the missing X-Force. Just then, they're attacked by X-Force itself. As X-Force engages their former mentor, Tessa warns Shaw that her hold on the three members of the team whose minds have been recently manipulated is especially tenuous. Sure enough, Cable is able to use his recent experience purging Reignfire from Sunspot's mind to get inside and break Tessa's hold on him, returning him to his senses. Shatterstar manages to wound Domino, but Sunspot flies her and Cable to safety. Their respite is short-lived, however, as the rest of the team converges on them in Central Park as Shaw urges them once more to kill Cable. But Cable fights back by triggering their memories of former teammates & past adventures, showing them what they mean to each other and the team. It's enough to break Tessa's control once and for all, and Holocaust admits that while Shaw lost, he respects his actions and will stick with him, for now.

Firsts and Other Notables
A double-sized anniversary issue celebrating the series' 50th issue, this features a gatefold cardstock foil enhanced cover (as well as a variant cover drawn by X-Force co-creator Rob Liefeld). It represents the culmination of Shaw's attack on X-Force as he sends the captive & brainwashed X-Force out to kill Cable & Domino (why Shaw, who's never really interacted with Cable or any of these characters much at all, is so determined to corrupt/kill them, remains unclear). In the end, they're defeated, but Holocaust is nevertheless impressed by Shaw's methods and agrees to continue their partnership. 

Tessa notes that three members of X-Force have had their minds manipulated recently (making her control over them especially tenuous): she presumably means Sunspot (due to the whole Reignfire thing), Siryn (following her release from the Weisman Institute) and Shatterstar. (who will turn out to have his own connection to the place).

Shaw prevents Holocaut from killing a defeated Shatterstar, saying doing so will bring another "into the game" which wouldn't be in their interests; this is a reference to the Gamesmaster who, via the Weisman Institute subplot, will eventually upend Shatterstar's origin.

Along with the credits, a "special thanks" is given to "Claremont, McLeod, Liefeld & Nicieza, and all who came before"; the named creators represent the first creative teams of New Mutants & X-Force.

The Chronology Corner
This issue takes place after Cable & Domino's Genoshan adventure in Cable #26-28 and X-Force & Cable '95.

A Work in Progress
It's noted that Xavier can't detect X-Force due to psionic interference, which is either a reference to X-Man, Onslaught, or both.

Shaw, in explaining to Holocaust why he doesn't want Holocaust to just kill Cable, says that once X-Force kills its mentor, they will belong to Shaw.

Cable exploits Shatterstar's still-healing rib injury from Cable #22 to overcome him.

He is also able to get into Sunspot's mind easier than the rest thanks to having been in there recently, to expunge Reignfire.

Cable believes Sunspot's ability to speak Askani is the result of memories of Cable going into his mind during that process.

X-Force is said via caption to have been trained by both Xavier & Magneto, then molded into X-Force by Cable, but of the members present, only Sunspot was in fact trained by all three (Meltdown snuck in right after Magneto when the New Mutants were mentor-less/wards of X-Factor; Warpath & Shatterstar joined right before Cable axed the New Mutants, and Caliban & Siryn have only ever been part of X-Force).

Cable is able to break Tessa's control of X-Force by drawing on their collective memories of the New Mutants/X-Force's legacy, represented by a two-page spread featuring images of Wolfsbane, Magik, Karma, Cannonball, Rictor, Magneto, Warlock & Feral.

Austin's Analysis
For the series' big 50th issue, Loeb & Pollina pull out all the stops for the first really big action-focused issue of their run. While there have been bits of action here and there (the fight with Mimic, Shaw & Holocaust's assault on the team last issue), this is really the first time they've showcased the full X-Force team in action since they constructed it in issue #44. And, curiously enough, it's a fight in which X-Force is forced to fight Cable & Domino - and effectively get beaten by them. Having a team fight their mentor is a time-honored narrative tradition, but it is interesting how Loeb flips the script a bit here and has the team brainwashed and trying to kill Cable (instead of the reverse). Usually, these kinds of stories end in a "the students have become the masters" kind of way, but here, it's more like "the still the master because he overcame all his students" which is, again, an interesting decision in an issue meant to celebrate fifty issues of the series about the "shoot first, ask questions later" X-team. 

Of course, Loeb stages it this way in order to have the final victory come when Cable uses the collective memories of X-Force's past adventures and teammates to snap them out of Shaw's control, which makes their "defeat" celebratory of the series' legacy in its own way, though Loeb is playing fast and loose with history here considering the vast majority of the members of this iteration of the team are New Mutants in name only (Sunspot & Meltdown are the only ones with any significant New Mutants legacy, and even then, Meltdown's doesn't go back much farther than Cable's arrival). Putting that aside, though, the attempt to use the series' legacy as a plot device is appreciated by this old New Mutants fan, at least, and seems, intentionally or not, like a culmination of the efforts made by Fabian Niceiza to establish the book as the true inheritor of the New Mutants' legacy following Rob Liefeld's very concerted efforts to distance it as much as possible from that same legacy.

But while this maybe doesn't earn its connection to the New Mutants legacy to the extent that Loeb wants it to, it does serve as a culmination of sorts to Jeph Loeb's six months as the head of his little "Cable & X-Force" sub-imprint, referencing in the course of the action here everything from the development of Warpath's powers to Shatterstar's injuries in Cable #22 to the Sunspot/Askani business and (obliquely) Siryn's time in the Weisman Institute. That lends the issue some additional feeling of it being a culmination of past events (even if it's really more the culmination of six-ish issues of buildup and not 150+), adding additional thematic weight to the proceedings. All in all, it makes for a fun, effective issue: big dumb action in which everyone gets something to do, with enough nostalgic touches creating narrative import to justify the expanded size and other "issue number divisible by 25" trappings.

Next Issue
Tomorrow, Wolverine crosses dimensions in Wolverine #97. Next week, Generation X #11 and Excalibur #93.

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  1. "Shaw, in explaining to Holocaust why he doesn't want Holocaust to just kill Cable, says that once X-Force kills its mentor, they will belong to Shaw."

    Shaw speaks a Claremontianism: "Mind. Body. And soul.".

  2. How could Shatterstar have a rib injury that has taken that long to heal when he has stuck his own swords through his stomach to hit the person behind him and he healed very quickly? Poor writing all around.

    Between not wanting to kill Cable or Shatterstar, what's the point of actually being a villain then? When you make everyone play safe, there is no actual risk or drama involved, you know how it will end. This Shaw was not in the Gamemasters overall game so why would he care if Shatterstar was killed? Wouldn't he want Cable killed? I get that he thinks the kids will be his but when has that ever worked out. He has a chance to end his enemy and doesn't. This is beyond crazy. Winning by the power of good memories is......ugh.

    Between the terrible art, lack of an actual threat and terrible writing, this series is beyond bad. This feels like it's trying to fight X-Man for worse X book right now.

    People want to slam Rob Liefeld but his art and stories actually felt important, something was going to happen, people actually lost limbs, hero's actually got mortally wounded, there was suspence, etc. This felt like something you see today in comics where there is not actual threat and the payoff is everyone is okay, no lasting problems.

    Rob wanted to distance himself from New Mutants because it wasn't selling. He wanted action, fun, strike first, etc. He showed it actually sold. By going back to the old NM style of book, the sales declined and never really pick back up again. Welcome to mediocrity, enjoy your ride.

    1. Rob wanted to distance himself from New Mutants because it wasn't selling. He wanted action, fun, strike first, etc. He showed it actually sold. By going back to the old NM style of book, the sales declined and never really pick back up again. Welcome to mediocrity, enjoy your ride.

      Where are you getting the idea that New Mutants wasn't selling before Rob Liefeld came on board?

      The last Statement of Ownership published during the Blevins era (#64) reported that the book was averaging 347,712 copies a month, with the single issue nearest the filing date listed at 392,116. That is down from the 477,295 average listed #43, but higher than the statement listed during Liefeld's run.

      The Statement of Ownership published in New Mutants #99, a year into Liefeld's tenure, listed average sales at 289,387 with the issue nearest the filing date listed as 318,102.

    2. New Mutants went from a very average book to being one of the hotest titles on the market once Rob took over. It was a Hot book in Wizard, had tons of hype, New Mutants 100 was one of the top selling issues ever and then X-Force 1 became the top selling book up until that time. Something that New Mutants would never have done without him taking over. Hey brought so much excitement to the book that it got a lot of non-New Mutant readers into it. I remember picking up books pre-Rob's run thinking it would be just as action packed and I see Blevins art as a 14 year old and I'm like, WTF is this, I have such a hard time picking up those NM issues to this day.

      I'd be curious to know what the numbers looked like for X-Force pre-AOA and post-AOA and compare it to the changes in the other X-Books and to the general market at that time. Was it a top 100 selling books and then did it continue to increase in the standings or drop as Loeb's run went on. I can't imagine that it was climbing the charts during this run.

    3. Ok, this sounds like fun (I love crunching these kinds of numbers and trends). Couple caveats: numbers are taken from, ranks are based on units sold (not dollars), and I'm generally rounding down to the closest thousand.

      Feb '92 (The month Youngblood #1/Image debuts)
      #1 X-Book X-Men #7: 215K
      #3 X-Book X-Force #9: 180K (16% less)

      X-Force is 3rd of 6 X-books. The top 3 books overall are X-Men, Uncanny and X-Force. Wolverine (#53) and X-Factor (#77) make it in the top 10 as well (Excalibur #49 is all the way down at #28). Hilarious, Cage #1 (at #4) beats Youngblood #1 (at #6).

      Jan-94 (one year before Age of Apocalypse)
      #1 X-Book X-Men #30: 285K
      #5 X-Book X-Force #32: 131K (54% less)

      X-Force is #5 of 7 regular X-books. X-Men #30 is the #1 overall comic. X-Force #32 #15 overall. Uncanny, X-Factor (issue #100) and Wolverine also beat X-Force (as well as X-Men Unlimited #4, Gambit #4 and X-Men 2099 #6)

      Dec-94 (Month before "Age of Apocalypse")
      #1 X-Book X-Men #41: 233k
      #5 X-book X-Force #43: 125K (46% less)

      #2 book overall is X-Men #41 (X-Men Alpha is #1 w/260k). X-Force #43 is 11 overall. Uncanny, Generation X, Wolverine and Rogue #2 outsell it.

      Feb '94 (Second Month of AoA)
      #1 X-Book Amazing X-Men #2: 152K
      #5 X-Book Gambit & the X-Ternals #2: 118K (22% less)

      Amazing X-Men is #1 overall. Gambit & the X-Ternals is #6 overall, beaten by the same regular X-Books (Astonishing, Weapon X, Generation X) as well as Spawn #29. Spawn and Amazing Spider-Man #400 are the only non X-books in the top 10.

      May '94 (First Month back from AoA)
      #1 X-Book X-Men #42: 235k
      #5 X-Book X-Force #44: 145K (38% less)

      X-Force is 5th of now nine X-books. X-Men #42 is #2 overall, beaten by Spawn #32. X-Force #44 is 9th overall, beaten by the Uncanny/Wolverine/Gen X trio and X-Men: Prime, as well as Gen 13 #2 and Sovereign Seven #1).

      Sep-96 (Next month w/combined sales numbers thanks to the Heroes World debacle)
      #1 X-Book Uncanny #338: 203k
      #6 X-Book X-Force #60: 126K (38% less)

      Uncanny is now the #1 X-book (likely thanks to Joe Mad), but this month, it's #5 overall, beaten by the four "Heroes Reborn" #1 issues. X-Force falls to #18 overall, and gets beaten by X-Man #21 (by about 5K) to become the sixth X-book (the two main X-books, Gen X and Wolverine still top it). There's also XSE #1, Magneto #1 and X-Men '96 in the top 18 (plus Hulk #447, Spawn #54 and Curse of the Spawn #1). Excalibur #102 is the lowest selling regular X-book with 102K.

    4. All in all, I'm really surprised at X-Force's consistency: always in the middle of the pack, always selling right around ~40% less on average than the top X-book (be it Uncanny or Adjectiveless). Certainly, there's a drop off from the heady pre-Image, pre-speculator bubble burst days of 1992, but there's also WAY more books (X and otherwise) in '94-96, so while the overall sales in terms of numbers went down, the market share is roughly the same (from an eye ball test, at least). And while X-Force certainly shed some sales in the time from the start of Loeb's run at #44 and #60 (a time in which the entire industry was imploding & Marvel was on the verge of bankruptcy while dicking around with distributors), it wasn't hemorrhaging readers, staying roughly consistent in relation to the other X-books and maintaining its percentage of the #1 X-Book's sales.

      Was Loeb's X-Force a sales juggernaut? No. But it wasn't a flop, and consistently outsold the more critically-acclaimed (and well-regarded today) Warren Ellis run of Excalibur. Was it selling less than it sold when Liefeld was on the book? Of course. But it was doing that long before Jeph Loeb came aboard. Liefeld (and Lee) sold in huge numbers; the entire history of X-Force can be viewed as one long, slow, descent from the highs of the pre-Image days to something more down-to-earth. And while, alternately, X-Men and Uncanny managed to retain some of their Lee-driven highs in the decade, they did so on the backs of artists like Kubert & Madureira. If Madureira had been put on X-Force in 1996, it would probably would've become the top X-book regardless of who was writing it.

      Really, it just underscores how much the X-books were a life preserver for Marvel at a time when the entire industry was collapsing in on itself: regardless of creative team/relative quality, the X-books stayed at or near the top of the sales charts. Certainly, there's some variance within the line, and the two "main" books were consistently at the top, but at the same time, even the lowliest X-Book was still pretty much a guaranteed top 20 finisher, at least, in this era.

    5. How could Shatterstar have a rib injury that has taken that long to heal when he has stuck his own swords through his stomach to hit the person behind him and he healed very quickly?

      I wasn't terribly clear in my write-up; it's less that he's still injured as Cable is just specifically targeting that spot since it was recently injured.

      Between not wanting to kill Cable or Shatterstar, what's the point of actually being a villain then?

      I don't think villains need to kill to be villains (in fact, the insistence on having villains generate an increasingly large body count is one of my problems with comics today, for varied reasons that aren't worth getting into here). They fundamentally can't; it'd break the conventions of the genre, in which the hero has to live to fight another day (and sell another issue). Think back to Magneto putting the X-Men in baby chairs instead of just killing them outright. Logically, he should just eliminate the X-Men once they are at his mercy, but that's not how comics work, and we accept that, just like we accept that radioactive spiders bestow superpowers and not cancer.

      The problem with Shaw's actions in this arc isn't that he won't just kill X-Force for whatever convoluted reason (the Gamesmaster, wanting to own them "mind body and soul"), it's that it never establishes *why* Shaw is even bothering with X-Force at all. The closest motivation we get is "to stick it to Xavier", but it's not like Shaw has tons of personal history with Professor X, or that X-Force is closer to Xavier than any of the X-Men (or any other spinoff team). Shaw's an industrialist who wants money/power, none of this has anything to do with that. If he wants revenge on Shinobi for "killing" him, sure, fine, but again, Cable & X-Force have nothing to do with that.

      Not every villain needs a personal motivation to fight a hero, but when the villain's entire plan is to attack/control a hero, there needs to be a reason for it (vs. X-Force just fighting Shaw to stop him building Sentinels or whatever).

    6. Was Shaw's motivation just to prove to Holocaust that he was strong and he should stick with him. Holocaust came from a world where they would have killed without thinking, so if he's being told not too, I don't imagine that shows Shaw as strong unless he can prove his other motivations are worth keeping them alive and since we aren't really given that motivation, it doesn't really work.

      As you mentioned, he's a businessman that is looking to grow his power. I guess having these kids under his control is one way to do that but really, there has to be better ways and use of his time.

      I love the numbers breakdown. It's crazy to see those numbers dropping in all X-Books as the 90's went on and you are right, the X books kept Marvel going at this time. I wonder how many people just bought because they didn't want to break up their run but actually read the books. I actually bought many books for years without reading them because I was a collector and the runs were important to me. Until I snapped out of that, I picked things like this up and didn't even enjoy it but continued to buy it hoping it would return to what it was. It wasn't until around the road trip in X-Force where I completely dropped it, yet they were hyping it like crazy at that time.

      Excalibur as the lowest selling X Book does not surprise me, it needed the X instead of Ex to make it a higher selling book. I didn't start picking it up until around issue 70 because it started connecting more with the regular X Books and I stayed on until Warren's run and stopped somewhere in there, I didn't care for his writing at the time or the terrible art.

      Crazy to see X-Man beat X-Force, that book is just so bad.

    7. There's definitely completists buoying the sales of all the X-books here. I mean, I bought all this stuff at the time and read it all. Some of it I liked, some of it I didn't, but I kept buying it. Heck, I bought all of X-Man even though it was only ever "not terrible" at best.

      The continued existence of X-Man in this era has to be attributed to the perfect storm of circumstances surrounding when it was published. It was an X-book, and in the mid to late 90s that guaranteed it Y amount of sales, regardless of content/quality. At the same time, the industry was so gutted and sales so low, that the value of Y was still higher than a lot of other stuff. And so it soldiered on. Sure, it sucked, but Marvel had no motivation to cancel it when it was still consistently selling above the (seriously lowered) cancellation level.

    8. New Mutants went from a very average book to being one of the hotest titles on the market once Rob took over. It was a Hot book in Wizard, had tons of hype, New Mutants 100 was one of the top selling issues ever and then X-Force 1 became the top selling book up until that time. Something that New Mutants would never have done without him taking over.

      I recognize that Liefeld brought hype to the title, and I'm not disputing that. I am not disputing either that sales increased under Liefeld -- especially at the very end, with the one-two punch of the uber-hyped #100 anniversary final issue and X-Force #1 -- but it's not true that the New Mutants "wasn't selling" or was "very average." Sales stats from the 80s and early-90s are sparse, but the few Statements of Ownership and distributors' lists we have show that book was a hit. It was in the top 20 every month before Liefeld's arrival. That makes it the weakest of the X-line, and also weaker than it was earlier in the Simonson/Blevins era (when it was regularly in the top 10), but a consistent hit nonetheless.

      I am admittedly not a Liefeld fan, but I don't think it takes anything away from his accomplishments to recognize that the book was already successful when he came on and that he made it more successful.

    9. I think Shaw wants to isolate the genetic quirk that made the X-Force mutants and then "custom build" -- through genetic engineering -- mutants at will.


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