If the previous issue was the narrative cold open for X-Force’s “evil corrupted Cerebro” storyline, then X-Force #28 is the part where things slowed down a bit so that the situation can be clarified before the reader is thrown back into the action. The sinister machine can speak now, identifying itself as “Cerebrax.” Through exposition and grisly imagery in silhouette (Robert Gill continues to flex his ability to create horror), we learn that Cerebrax might be the result of Jean Grey and Wolverine pushing the machine’s capabilities during the X-Lives of Wolverine event. We also find out that Forge is only the first of Cerebrax’s several victims on Krakoa and that Cerebrax is consuming their brains like a B-movie monster and gaining their powers. Cerebrax holds the belief that if it keeps doing this, it will become a mutant. This instantly reminded me of the other piece of the X-Men’s hardware that went rogue and decided it was a mutant: Danger, the sentient form of the Danger Room from Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men who got tired of being used and “evolved” into a sexy robot. However, at the moment, these similarities between the two are only surface-level, and it seems doubtful that Cerebrax will have the same “frenemies” arc with the X-Men that Danger did.
Issue #28 continues Benjamin Percy’s approach of focusing on a select few members of the X-Force while the rest remain on the sideline until it’s their turn to be cycled in. Beast, Colossus, and Black Tom are clearly put on the backburner of this issue, but it’s alright because the story seems to promise it will get back to them. Percy knows how many characters’ narratives he can juggle simultaneously before things become too complex or stretched thin. Wolverine and Domino mostly explore the Cerebrax plot, and Percy has mastered the duo’s chemistry. In this issue, he seems to put the most effort into Kid Omega’s identity crisis, but it doesn’t feel quite as satisfying as it should.
Percy certainly has a handle on Quentin Quire’s voice (dickish and pompous, but ultimately wanting to do the right thing), but it doesn’t seem entirely clear what drives him to make the decisions he makes. It’s partially understandable, considering his current arc is centered around change and the self-discovery that comes with it. Still, it’s a bit confusing how readers are supposed to feel about him. Are his experimentations with husks a cry for help worthy of pity or an abuse of power deserving disgust? Is his attempt to warn Phoebe about Cerebrax noble or a sign that he’s developed an unhealthy interest in her post-break-up? Phoebe seems to have moved on, as she no longer speaks to Quentin as an individual and is back to doing everything in unison with the other Stepford Cuckoos (there’s no way for the reader to tell which of the sisters on the page Phoebe is, which is an interesting shorthand to show how she’s changed). Even as a noted Quentin Quire apologist, I’m not sure what to take away from all of this. As much time as the issue spends on him, it all feels like it just raises more questions than answers.
Surprisingly, Percy’s most impressive character work in these last few issues of X-Force has been with Sage. I genuinely did not expect him to take the woman with the computer-like brain and provide a nuanced depiction of someone who is hardened by life but ultimately more compassionate because of it. The way Sage opens up to Omega Red about her struggle with alcoholism to get him to confront his own issues really brings a depth to the character that I don’t think any writer since Claremont has cared enough to give her. Percy has done some genuinely additive things for Sage as a character that I think will stay with her long into the future.
Gill really brings it with the blockbuster movie-style splash pages in this issue. Moments like Cerebrax displaying holograms of its potential victims and Quentin’s “Omeganaut” husk charging at Silver Samurai have an immense weight to them that demands your full attention. Admittedly, the issue’s quieter moments do sometimes leave a little to be desired in terms of characters’ facial expressions, but the fluidity of the big scenes more than makes up for that. I’m excited to see what Gill does in the next issue, where the action will undoubtedly be kicked up a notch.
This issue will leave readers like the brain-eating machine in its pages: well-fed but hungry for more.