Studying 'X-Force' with Writer Benjamin Percy
Benjamin Percy celebrates Krakoa’s designated dirty deeds team and previews what lies ahead for these shades of grey heroes!
Warning! This article contains spoilers for X-FORCE (2019), so read on at your own risk, True Believers!
For the past two years, writer Benjamin Percy has made his home on the outskirts of Krakoa, slightly removed from the main body of the population by design and necessity. As the storyteller steering X-FORCE as well as WOLVERINE, Percy oversees an extended cast tasked with making tough decisions and practicing questionable morals in order to keep the mutant nation safe and secure.
With 25 issues of X-FORCE now on sale, it seemed the perfect opportunity to put Percy on trial for his actions carried out via Beast, Wolverine, Kid Omega and company. We spoke with the scribe about how this unique book came to be, its place in the modern X-Men mythos, and what lies ahead for the operatives of X-Force as well as their adversaries.
First off, were you approached to be the writer on X-FORCE or was it the other way around with you pitching the X-office?
Benjamin Percy: I had gotten to know [X-MEN writer and architect Jonathan] Hickman casually through a top-secret hush-hush private comics email listserv. When he was tapped to take over the X-office, we started to talk—offline—about joining forces. I signed a Marvel NDA. I read the HOUSE OF X/POWERS OF X bible/pitch (this was long before there was a script), and I thought: what a [expletive] game-changer. I was already working for Marvel at the time—but mostly as the writer of the audio drama, Wolverine: The Long Night (which was then followed by a second season titled The Lost Trail). He knew Logan was my favorite character, and we were trying to find a way to make it work. In October of 2018, he gave me a call and said, “I think you’d kill on X-FORCE.” I took this comment quite literally (if you’ve read the book, you know what I mean).
Going back to the beginning of this book, can you remember the original mission statement developed by you and the editorial team? How has that mandate shifted over the past two years?
Krakoa is a mutant nation. X-Force is its CIA. That’s how I pitched it. The black-ops unit would operate in the shadows and wrestle with morally complicated questions. This would be the dirty book, the poison book, the book that would make people uncomfortable. That was our promise, and I think we’ve made good on it.
Beast is the head of intelligence, Wolverine is the fist of field ops. They are aligned, and they are at odds—and eventually there will be a reckoning.
The mandate hasn’t shifted. But here’s what has. In the beginning, it was just me and the other writers and the editors, BSing, dreaming up ideas.
But then I was assigned an artist. Joshua Cassara. Who has become a great pal as well as a great colleague. We text every day. We recently road-tripped from LA to Vegas for some comics stuff. He’s been an integral part of this storytelling process and the X-FORCE aesthetic. We’re in this together, each trying to strenuously tell the best story possible.
How did you pick which characters made up the initial cast? Did anybody almost make the cut but just miss it?
In January of 2019 I flew out to NYC and at the Marvel mothership met Hickman and [Editor-in-Chief] CB [Cebulski] and [X-Men editor] Jordan [White] and [writers] Gerry [Duggan] and Tini [Howard] and Leah [Williams] and Vita [Ayala]. We broke story. We talked rosters. Every notable mutant had their name written on a 3x5 notecard. We spread them out on a massive boardroom table. And we horse-traded.
I knew from the beginning Beast and Wolverine were central to my story. I knew Domino had to be part of the squad. I wanted Sage in the chair at first—working the computers, commanding logistics—but building toward something more ambitious (stay tuned). I needed a smartass. I think I originally lobbied for Deadpool, but that wasn’t allowed at first (in part because he’s only sorta kinda iffily a mutant), but Kid Omega has turned out to be a killer fit.
Jean was always going to be too good for X-Force. But I really wanted that moral compass up front to show how far they were straying from their initial course.
As for Colossus, well, this is a story about spycraft and I can finally say that I wanted a mole, a traitor (though he’s of course more complicated than that). I’ve been building toward that reveal for two years now.
Forge is the Q of the operation.
And Black Tom…he’s become a favorite. Josh and I really love him. I wanted him for his skillset (as he’s tapped into the island), but I realized that someone who is constantly tapped into an organic interface like that is not only going to experience sensory overload, but will no doubt develop a kind of dissociative disorder. That’s why he always speaks either in first person plural or third person. Because he’s as much the island as himself.
Who emerged as the early stars? Wolverine is the obvious choice, especially with you writing his solo book, but some of the others were a bit surprising...
Wolverine and Beast—the fist and the head—are the key players, and when it comes to my final salvo, all hell is going to break loose between them. But I’m committed to giving every character their moment in the spotlight.
Domino had hers right away—in the early issues—and she’ll get another soon. Kid Omega has had his turn, and soon things will turn for him in a surprising direction. Sage has been growing and growing as a character—and she had a big moment at the Hellfire Gala that sets the stage for her next chapter. Colossus just had his big moment—and more is coming on that front. Black Tom went on an Innerspace adventure recently, but he’ll get a one-shot of his own in the next year or so.
A common rookie perspective is, it’s a team book—give me the team! Every now and then, in emotionally or physically cathartic moments, you do exactly that. But if you give everyone on the roster an equal amount of real estate, you thin out the characterization, dilute the individuality, and create a crowded mess. You only have 20 pages, man. So I give every issue an A plot point of view, and then the B plot ties in thematically. Turnstiling the characters, I guess you could call it.
Where did you develop the idea for the Man with the Peacock Tattoo? He's been an interesting and consistent presence throughout the series as you've cycled through some other antagonists.
The mutants—a marginalized and feared group—establish a nation and declare sovereignty and become economically dominant in no time at all. You think everybody’s going to go for that? Even if nations sign the treaty, there will be those in the shadows trying to undermine Xavier’s power.
XENO (xenophobia—get it?) is the group I established, and yes, they’ve been an ongoing presence. You could say they’re my big bad, but Mikhail and Russia are just as important. They’re trying to out-science the mutants. Use labwork to beat evolution. Splice and steal powers via bio-engineering. The mask is going to come off the Man with the Peacock Tattoo soon, and people will be very surprised to learn who he actually is.
There's been some level of controversy with fans predating X-FORCE about the portrayal of Beast as not the lovable character some people are traditionally used to, but more of a shades of grey type. It seems you have leaned into this. Why do you think this Beast works for this story?
Beast is canonically sketchy. Those who say he’s lovable have only read a select few X-Men comics. If you’re the director of intelligence at the CIA (even a fantasy version of such), you’re going to be making some morally dubious decisions. He has a utilitarian code—or so he tells himself—that he’ll do whatever it takes to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number of mutants. But hubris often warps his vision, and you might notice that he’s gradually become more physically grotesque to match the troubles roiling inside him.
Will there be a reckoning? Stay tuned.
Let me just say that I knew exactly where this story would end when I began it, and that hinges on Beast.
Once you started writing Wolverine's ongoing book, did that impact what you did with him in X-FORCE?
I felt ridiculously lucky to get the mainline WOLVERINE book of course, as Logan is my favorite character in comics, but it didn’t necessarily change things about X-FORCE. The two series are synergistic. They speak to each other. You don’t have to read them both, but you’ll certainly get a richer picture of what’s happening if you do.
Kid Omega has been on an incredible character arc throughout X-FORCE thus far. Where did you want to get him and how close do you think you are?
So many people kind of loved Beast, and now they hate him. So many people hated Kid Omega, and now they kind of love him. My ambition in comics is never to do karaoke. I have no interest in aping what others did before me. I hope for a signature run. I hope to put an indelible mark on characters.
Kid Omega has grown considerably over the past two years. And his journey is far from over. Something big is waiting for him next year.
What can we expect moving into the third year of this book from all of the outstanding threads?
One of the big threads will conclude. Another one of the big threads will elevate into something even more thorny and impossible. As I mentioned before, anticipate more spotlight moments (including a Sage and Domino team-up Joshua Cassara and I are dreaming up).
The X LIVES OF WOLVERINE/X DEATHS OF WOLVERINE event—a 10-issue weekly series that launches this January—draws together the storytelling of WOLVERINE and X-FORCE into a crescendo. It’s going to lay the groundwork for the next stage of Krakoa.
But after that? We’re not taking a break. We’ll be building toward the next big catharsis, and it’s going to be called ________. Ha ha. Just you wait.
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