Near Mint Memories: Code-Breakers – Part 2

So, its likely that this column could be my last foray into the murky waters of Comics Code Authority (CCA). As some of you know from our feverish forum discussions this whole debate started with DC’s Identity Crisis (IC) and its code-less and gratuitous violence. I won’t re-debate the past, but I will point you in the direction of my recent columns on the CCA: a) Escapism or Realism, b) Summer Crisis, and c) Codified Controversy.

This column caps off the two-part feature that began in Code-Breakers – Part 1 that looked at the Marvel books that helped change the face of the comics industry in 1971.

To recap :“The National Department of Health approached Marvel Comics in 1971 to publish a comic book on the hazards of drug use. Marvel agreed and crafted a Spider-Man tale that the CCA (Amazing Spider-Man #96) didn’t approve. The story was published anyway.”.

This week’s column looks at the first few issues of Peter Milligan’s attention-garnering issues starting from 2001’s X-Force #116.

As I wrote in an earlier column: ” In 2001, Marvel Comics stopped using the code and adopted its own rating system. This was likely sparked by the CCA‘s requested revisions to a then surging-in-popularity book, X-Force (#116), by a new indie creative team. The issue in question was published sans code and later Marvel’s new rating system was revealed.”


Out with the old & in with the new…

For those of you who don’t want to search for the hard-to-find X-Force #116-120, they are compiled as part in the X-Force: New Beginnings trade paperback. I was able to pick up that trade paperback second hand for dirt cheap in the last month.

The “new” X-Force pretty much flushed the previous incarnation of the series down the drain opting for a new, edgier, hip, and socially-relevant X-team. Its interesting that even with a future metamorphosis into X-Statix, this “bold” new vision lasted for a hiccup in comic book time.

Marvel has actually gone back to the previous super-hero rooted version of X-Force by its originating comics team. I’m not sure what that signals, but it does put to bed the Milligan eXperiment.


… out with the new & in with the old.

Can you tell which X-Force is the “new” one? The 2004 one and the one from the 1990s? Choose from the preceding and proceeding images. Hehe. Rob Liefeld is still Rob Liefeld.

I won’t say much more on Rob Liefeld’s 2004 X-Force relaunch since he is a creator that is a lightning rod for controversy and could be the subject of his own NMM column.

I’m focusing this column on the early Milligan X-Force issues (from #116) and its impact on the CCA and Marvel Comics.


Beware my… super-vomit?

2001’s X-Force 116, by writer Peter Milligan and artist Mike Allred, opens with brand new characters and a new spin on the super-hero genre.

The first few pages give readers a flashback love story about team leader Zeitgeist and how he learned he had mutant powers. He’s walking on the beach with a beautiful lady friend. They kiss. There is a stirring in his lower regions, but its not what you think. The stirring is a precursor to his mutant power! The stirring is some type of super-acid reflux that leads to…. him vomiting on his lady friend and killing her! Zeitgeist’s power is super-acidic vomit!!!! No, really. I can’t make this stuff up.

We flash to modern day where he’s now a media darling (I know that seems odd for the feared mutants of the Marvel Universe, but that’s the “spin” on the title). The “X-Force” name has been co-opted and the new team are a bunch of reality-TV mercenaries. Anyhow, after a long day of killing and maiming, we see Zeitgeist relaxing in the pleasure of the company of 2 lingerie clad models.

This is followed with a post-menage-a-trois press conference to unveil X-Force’s newest member… the Anarchist with the uncanny mutant power of…. acidic perspiration!!! He’s replacing a fallen team member that died in the line of “duty”.

And, following in the footsteps of his team leader, the Anarchist unwinds from his coming out celebration in a bath tub with… 2 lingerie clad models.

Readers then move to the rest of the team and some inner turmoil that the cameras don’t capture. The team isn’t as unified as they project with egos, drugs, and mental problems differentiating the various members. Of note is U-Go Girl the team’s teleporter who tires out easily after ‘ports and has a giant-sized superiority complex. Oh, and she’s blue… all over.

The issue ends with the team being sent on a mission by their one-armed handler, Coach who sends the ragtag group to end a hostage situation. The hostages? A boy band with striking similarities to current teen-dream-flavour N*Sync.

If you didn’t think the issue’s opening fill of sex and hints of violence would offend the CCA, what happens next sure would… and likely did.

The team is ‘ported to the hostage stand-off site and runs amok on the hostage takers. Its the type of carnage that you would see in “for mature readers” books NOT “mainstream” super-hero comics. The villains and our heroes are shredding to bits from acid-based superpowers and airship gunfire that leaves only 3 X-Forcers alive! Everyone else has had their flesh eaten to the bone or their intestines in plain sight.

The 3 surviving members? The Anarchist, U-Go Girl, and the bulbous hovering mini-blob Doop – who happens to be the team’s videographer and has captured the carnage on tape. Oh, I see TV ratings spiking!!

Sex. Gratuitous violence. Intended-to-be-biting social commentary. This, my friends, is your brand new X-Force (circa 2001).


Deathwish-makers

So, with the previous issue killing almost all of the ‘new’ X-Force team, issue #117 begins a recruitment drive that introduces readers to yet more oddball mutants.

The first newbie is Mister Sensitive, a literally sensitive mutant with perma-goosebumps and antlers that gives him a sensory overload without his containment suit. He can be highly in tune with his surroundings and nature, etc. Oh, and his mutant powers may be driving him crazy… leading him to a daily ritual of Russian Roulette, pistol-in-hand. Dirty Harry would be proud.

The next recruit is a pink color-changing hulk of a mutant now named Bloke. He’s virtually a monster mutant with super strength and chameleon like color blending abilities. Oh, he’s also gay.

Next up? The man-wolf Vivisector.

We are then introduced to, um, Phat. An Eminem-wannabe with the power to control his skin and enlarge different parts of his body. With all the sex going on, they didn’t take his powers down the obvious road, but had him looking deformed with a large arm here, a large foot there, all doing damage to bad guys.

The newbies are rounded out by Saint Anna. She has an uncanny healing and calming abilities.

The new team, with U-Go Girl, the Anarchist and Doop are unveiled to the media at another carefully orchestrated press conference, but…. the REAL X-Force crashes the party and want their name back!

Cannonball, Meltdown, Warpath, and Domino clash with this new TV mercenaries over the team name! Sadly, the X-Force we all recognize didn’t copyright the name “X-Force”, so fists won’t solve the problem, but litigation might! A brief fight ends with another press conference and Coach announcing that Mister Sensitive is the new X-Force leader… but he has a new nom de guerre of… the Orphan now!

This decision divides the team and particularly irritates U-Go Girl who thinks she should be team lead due to her “seniority” as the only originating field operative to survive past incarnations of the team (Doop is the chronicler so not a candidate for the position… apparently).


Death Becomes Them

What follows are issues with heaps of death as even some of the newer-new members start dying on missions.

There are some interesting twists on items ripped from the headlines like 2000’s Elian Gonzalez story – the Cuban boy caught between American relatives and a Cuban father after his mother died on a raft on her journey fleeing Communist Cuba for the United States. In X-Force #118, the new X-Force goes to rescue a boy, much like Elian, from Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Although this boy is a mutant whose body may hold the key to eradicating many of the diseases that afflict humanity.

Bloke and Saint Anna die in that adventure, and even though the death scenes are still a bit graphic, they are far tamer than what readers saw at the end of issue #116.

In issue #119 and 120, Coach’s true motivations are revealed and he turns on the team. Or is he the only one left that’s true to the new team’s raison d’etre? You decide.

I won’t go into a major exploration on this as it really was issue #116 that spurred the whole CCA controversy. Suffice it to say that the series got better to the end of the trade paperback as the graphicness of the death scenes were toned down significantly and the social / media commentary became the focus of stories NOT the initial shock and sizzle approach of issue #116.


Changing Times

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Marvel dropped the CCA totally from all its books and adopted its own rating system as a result of the issue #116 debacle.

“The issue in question was published sans code and later Marvel’s new rating system was revealed. PG (Parental Guidance) and PG+ on Marvel books basically meant the book was ok for teens and older readers while no rating meant the books were all-ages ok.

However, Marvel would later have to amend its rating system as “PG” and “PG+” are trademarked by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Marvel’s new rating system still has the lack of rating as a indicator for all-ages accessibility. However, Marvel PSR (Parental Supervision Recommended) now meant the marked book was ok for those 12 years of age or older, Marvel PSR for those 15 years or older, and Parental Advisory / Explicit Content signifying 18 years or older readership suitability

While Marvel has adopted a rating system, DC has chosen to selectively use the code. Some of its books have the code, others do not and seem to be geared for older readers (unlike Marvel’s system of no rating signifying all-ages readership), while others are still labeled for mature readers.

Incidentally, for those books that still use the code, the size of the seal has significantly shrunken over the years and is barely noticeable even if its on the cover.”


Good from Bad

X-Force #116, in particular, is a great example of the “how” writing issue I’ve mentioned many times. It could and should have been told differently. Marvel agreed as well since by issue #120 the “how” of the storytelling wasn’t as graphic or gratuitous.

Regardless, X-Force #116 did lead to some positive change as Marvel become an industry leader with its own more flexible and appropriate rating system. The industry as a whole should adopt a similar approach or the CCA should evolve in that way.

Out of the “bad” that were elements of X-Force #116 an industry “good” came about.