One of the perks of having spent far too much money on accumulating an impressive (I think) collection of X-Family comics is that whenever I’m in the mood to read something random there’s probably an issue I either haven’t read at all or at least haven’t in so long that it once again seems new. A few days ago I decided to pull a couple random issues of the original X-Force just before the Phalanx Covenant and give them a look. One of them was issue 37.
Besides my initial comment on how ridiculously thin Cannonball’s flight jacket seems to be (even the padding is paper thin, according to that rip), I realized that this lone issue of X-Force was a good demonstration on some of the details of the mid-90’s X-Men books (or the major comic companies in general, really) that have since been forgotten and swept over.
So that’s what we’ll be talking about today.
X-Force #37 is an odd little issue written in which Cannonball and Boom-Boom (called ‘Boomer’ at this point, though unfortunately lacking an Okie sidekick named ‘Sooner’), while visiting Sam’s family in Kentucky, sit around a campfire with the sort-of villain group the Externals learning their back stories. Now you may be wondering why these immortal mutants would be coming to someone like Cannonball and telling stories, and that’s where I’m going to delve into 1994 X-Force.
As I’ve said so many times before, the X-Men of the early 90’s had become an editorial-mandated wasteland of subpar stories and quickly launched, then dropped plot devices. The so-called “X-Odus” that saw the departure of Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio and Rob Liefeld from X-Men, Uncanny X-Men and X-Force had left a creative vacuum in the books, itself not long after their skyrocket to fame had bumped out both Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson who had spent the 80’s building the cash cow that was the X-Men line.
But one book that actually benefited from the change was X-Force. With Liefeld’s departure, writing duties fell exclusively to Fabian Nicieza who had been scripting the book since Simonson had departed its predecessor New Mutants. And god bless him for that, because he at least tried to make some sense of Liefeld’s plot and art (though it was a hopeless task in many issues). With control of the team, Nicieza went back to the team’s roots as New Mutants by pulling Sunspot and Rictor back onto the team while focusing on Cannonball as the team’s leader, rather than Cable who served as more of a mentor (when he was around). And in Nicieza’s X-Force, Cannonball was a really big deal.
The changing of the guard in the X-Books wasn’t just a creator switch, but also an attempt to freshen up the rogue’s gallery of the entire line. In very short order, the likes of Magneto, Apocalypse, the Hellfire Club and the Reavers were killed off and replaced by new, hip villains like the Upstarts. Well, more like attempted to be replaced by these new characters, but no one really took the time in the X-Books to actually establish villains, and thus the X-Line spent a lot of time facing randomly tossed together threats, or simply sitting around the house talking until someone bothered to attack.
For X-Force, the new threats were the rather horrible Mutant Liberation Front (featuring the amazing likes of Forearm and Thumbelina) and the sinister Externals. The Externals were supposed to be a shady group like the Hellfire Club, but not young cats like the Upstarts, who were also established as a shady group like the Hellfire Club. The Externals were immortal mutants who used their longevity to their advantage through business practices. Or something.
The problem with the Externals is that they never did anything outside of trying to recruit a new member who was supposed to be a big deal. Kind of like how the Upstarts were supposed to be getting points for doing things, but never actually did anything (and nothing ever came of their contest). This new member was initially believed to be Sunspot, but the death and resurrection of Cannonball (care of Sauron) showed them that the podunk kid from Cantuck was their actual goal.
Cannonball’s status as an External was supposed to be a big deal. A forgotten plot point is that this status was supposed to be Cable’s entire reason for coming into the past to begin with, back when he was just a mysterious robot soldier rather than the son of Cyclops and Madelyne Pryor. But a truce was established between the Externals and Cannonball where he would not bother them and they would not bother him. And thus they faded out, save for a couple of interactions for various reasons.
This issue was one such interaction, this time believing Cannonball would be some kind of help against the still-new threat of the Legacy Virus. As age-old mutants, the various Externals were especially susceptible to the virus and after the deaths of Nicodemus and Burke they followed up on the precognitive Burke’s vision and came to Cannonball seeking hope. According to the dialogue of the issue…
We don’t know how, or why– –or even what role you truly will play– –but within you — or perhaps one close to you, lies the key to curing this accursed Legacy Virus!!
And at that point Absalom (the guy on the cover) has the flare up that’s supposed to precede the virus’s final killing, though he manages to survive. And that’s the end of that.
Not just the issue, mind you, but the entire plot point. You see, this is an entire issue made to establish back stories of the Externals as well as lay ground for a possible means of knocking out the virus and thus telling what made Cannonball so darn special. None of this was ever followed up on. Not even slightly.
Nicieza left the title following the X-Books’ foray into the Age of Apocalypse the following year. When the line came back to normal, Cannonball was pulled from X-Force over to the X-Men books where he was transformed from experienced leader into bumbling rookie at the hands of Scott Lobdell. Nicieza only lasted four issues of X-Men, none of which had him touching Cannonball whom he had spent so much time establishing.
The Externals reappeared in X-Force during Jeph Loeb’s tenure to be quickly and unceremoniously killed off by one of their own, longtime villain Selene. There was no precedence for Selene killing the other Externals, nor any explanation as to why she hadn’t done so before. But Jeph Loeb does these sorts of things, so off they went with little fanfare. It’s not like anyone was going to miss the likes of Gideon, Absalom and Crule.
The Legacy Virus itself became extraordinarily watered down once they started running out of mutants to kill with it. Sure, the likes of Multiple Man, Illyana Rasputin, Mastermind and the Psylocke double Revanche had all succumbed, but by the time Pyro and Moira MacTaggert caught it, the virus was hard to see as even fatal. Even Absalom, who was seemingly on death’s door, was seemingly fine and dandy until he was murdered by Selene.
But this issue showed a small sign of what could have been. The Externals fearing death for the first time was actually an interesting direction to take, and being able to kill the otherwise immortal mutants was a way to prove the virus was something serious instead of just quickly killing off a handful of noteworthy characters. The Legacy Virus should not have been a pandemic as it was initially used, but rather something that rarely popped up as a huge deal. Cancer, it’s obvious real-life counterpart, is a huge threat to humanity but it’s not like every four people you know has it. But when it does hit someone close, it’s a huge deal. That’s what the Legacy Virus should have been done with, but it’s initial overuse made it too big too fast to the point that it had to be watered down and thus lost its edge.
And Cannonball? He never got back to that point he was at in Nicieza’s X-Force. He got close in Zeb Wells’ relaunch of New Mutants, but he got shoved from the book when Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning took over, his leadership role going to Dani Moonstar. The issue that saw the Externals killed off (X-Force #54) had Selene tell X-Force that Cannonball wasn’t an External and to ask Cable how he had seemingly died and come back to life. They never did and thus it remains one of those things that the dorky continuity-junky fans (like me) still wonder about even 16 years later.
And this is what I think of when I read a long-forgotten issue of X-Force on a sunny Sunday afternoon.