THE MUTANT LIBERATION FRONT:
If there’s one thing I love in comics, it’s ridiculous teams of Jobber Villains.
The M.L.F. has gotta go down as one of the most ludicrously overloaded villains teams in comics. See, they were created when Rob Liefeld had just debuted on the New Mutants title in its waning years (dozens of crappy Louise Simonson issues had basically killed the book off, necessitating a reboot FAST). Before he was notorious and ultra-hated by most comic book fans, Liefeld was a breath of fresh air in a tired and drawn-out 1980s, bringing a totally unique art style (tiny feet FTW!) and sensibility to things. I can’t lie- there was an energy surrounding these books, flawed as they were, that made them much better than the more classically-good, but boring, issues that immediately preceded them. There are a thousand flaws in Liefeld’s half-assed overly-cross-hatched art style, but at least STUFF was happening. STUPID stuff mostly, but still STUFF.
The New Mutants shifted suddenly to a military-style force, as their goofy (and HORRIBLE) kiddie costumes vanished, replaced by what Liefeld thought hero designs should be- fatigues, big gloves so he didn’t have to draw wrist joints, white eyes, giant hair, etc. When Cable took over the team (they were kind of “between leaders”, as Professor X was in space, and Magneto had gone back to the dark side), they immediately started fighting his own personal villains- Liefeld was such a hit on this book that they essentially threw EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER DESIGN from his sketchpad out there, producing the Mutant Liberation Front. See, most supervillain teams (even in Mutant books) are six or seven guys strong, reasonably balanced against the superhero force. The MLF (every time I type that nowadays, I want to add an “I” in there) by contrast SEEMED like that at first, with small groups of three or four taking part in most stories… but then each group was different. And there were MORE guys hanging out in the background. Essentially, Liefeld just dumped out every concept he could think of (something he would maintain with Weapon: P.R.I.M.E., Youngblood, Brigade, et al in the years to come). I call these types of characters “Sketchpad Characters” for a reason- it often seems like there’s no thought put into them whatsoever beyond “I just drew up this guy on my sketchpad today”.
This was an era in comics REPLETE with this kind of thing- for some reason, all these super-teams sprouted up with a dozen guys with totally bizarre get-ups and looks (usually by a superstar artist, almost as a peace-offering by Marvel to keep him on board- artists were calling the shots in those days, and seemed to always get their way to placate them). Back in the old days, Villain Teams were made up of COLLECTIVES of old solo villains (The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, The Masters of Evil, The Sinister Six)- guys like The Wrecking Crew (old villain plus three Clone Buddy-type characters) were an exception. But once the Serpent Society rolled around, we all of a sudden witnessed the arrival of the Mutant Liberation Front, Weapon P.R.I.M.E., The Dark Riders and a HORRENDOUS supply of villain teams in the Image books, once the X-odus of Marvel creators happened. And as a result of this, characterization suffered- there was no room to develop all fourteen members of the MLF, so every guy got noted for his outfit, and maybe a couple got some characterization (Reaper as an amoral guy who calls people “feeb” a lot, Wildside as a Crazy Sabretooth Rip-Off, Forearm as the “Nice Guy Who Shouldn’t Be Here”, Tempo as the same but with boobs, etc.).
He even over-used the same design principles on many characters! Wildside was basically a recolored Feral, who was a recolored Wolfsbane- they all had the same giant Cone-shaped haircut! Wildside and Reaper BOTH had funny eye-patches on their skin for no apparent reason- and Deadpool and Domino, two OTHER Liefeld characters introduced at THE EXACT SAME TIME in the comics, ALSO possessed them! Only Deadpool had them right on the mask- everyone else had weird mutant-patched skin. Four freaking guys with the same funky eye-patches? Add to that the random concepts (a four-armed guy, a fat sumo, a Japanese guy in generic tights with a “Rising Sun” mask), and you had a massive 11-strong team of varying characters, organized into random mission groups.
They fought the New Mutants a couple times in their own run (rescuing, then brainwashing, half-assed New Mutant teammates Rusty and Skids, in the process), until they shifted into X-Force with issue #100. The first X-Force issue featured a four-man MILF… dammit… MLF squad. But then they utterly vanished while Big Bad Team Leader Stryfe overtook things (his face looked exactly like Cable’s, becoming a big thing) on his own. This culminated with The X-Cutioner’s Song, a major cross-over 12-parter that was my very first “Big Event” as a young comic book fan, and a HUGE part of my childhood (I am to this day incapable of really criticizing it on every level- nostalgia clouds all its flaws and I still love the crap out of it). The storyline centered entirely around Stryfe, Cable, Cyclops & Jean Grey, while Professor X was gunned down and put near-death. I’m sure it’s of questionable quality at times (Stryfe just goes ON AND ON with faux-philosophical stuff like he’s a bad anime character or something), but it’s got TONS of fights in it. TONS. Almost every issue has a massive beat-down of SOMEbody. One issue is just X-Men & X-Factor fighting X-Force! And the fight ends with ONE SIDE LOSING, not some total B.S. finish. Apocalypse wipes out a squad of X-Men. Stryfe wipes out the Dark Riders. The X-Team Coalition wipes out The MLF. It’s AWESOME.
The Mutant Liberation Front hilariously barely featured in the whole crossover, despite being the main henchman of the Big Bad of the Song. Stryfe beat up Apocalypse and stole leadership of the Dark Riders from him, and so THOSE D-League Jobbers became he main henchmen! Stryfe was ALL OVER THE PLACE, but the entirety of the MLF appearances consisted of Reaper & Forearm talking once, and then the ENTIRE TEAM getting wiped out in two issues. They lost HARD- a huge squad of X-Factor, X-Men (both Blue & Gold Strike Forces) and X-Force’s Cannonball & Boomer came into their base and kicked the entire team’s asses, only losing a few members to KOs (Quicksilver, Gambit and Rogue were knocked-out of the storyline from their injuries). That was the very end of the game for almost the entire team.
A year or so later, four of the most iconic and recognizable members (Forearm, Reaper, Wildside & Tempo) were sprung from jail by a new villain named Reignfire, and they did their own storyline. Danielle Moonstar was added to the team, along with newbie Locus (a Teleporter), giving us a “betrayal” aspect, but it turned out that Dani was working undercover (which is stupid- why the hell would S.H.I.E.L.D. think four guys were such a huge threat that they’d send a solitary X-character in missions that resulted in the maiming of HER OWN FRIENDS?). That was pretty much it for the MLF except for random apperances by random members (the last mention of the full team was during Operation: Zero Tolerance, when they were captured)- most were de-powered following “M-Day”, which ended the runs of DOZENS of aimless side characters Marvel wasn’t using anymore. That’s what happens when you make a villain team that’s just entirely too big for its own good.
An incarnation was seen in a recent modern-day X-Force issue, led by an Alternate Universe Stryfe (who was really Neena “Domino” Thurmann from that reality), consisting of Forearm, Tempo and some guy named Jon Spectre. A FOURTH version was a one-off team in a Punisher run, made up of humans using Mutant Growth Hormone to simulate powers.
The Ridiculous Roster:
WILDSIDE (Richard Gill)
-Wildside is bizarre because he seems to be a color-swap of Rob Liefeld’s version of Wolfsbane (who was also the template for later X-Force member Feral). He’s got the big triangle-shaped frizzy anti-grav haircut, the claws, the same skinny physique, etc. He’s even a violent, murdering psychopath, but more in the Bullseye “enjoys murder and causing pain” sense than Feral’s defensive “get them before they get you” mentality- pretty much a total 1990s-style villain. Constantly chatting, mouthing off, and trying to hurt people, Wildside was distinctive enough to take part in pretty much every MLF incarnation, though his teammates eventually started getting sick of him.
-Even more ’90s: He’s one of those guys whose mutant powers are essentially an afterthought to being a melee fighter. Like Cable (minor TK powers; mostly a Gun Guy and Cyborg), Shatterstar (Tiring Energy Blast via Swords; mostly a Sword Guy), Domino (Luck Powers; mainly a Gun Girl)- this happened a LOT with Liefeld characters, though other 90s writers were as guilty of it. In their rush to create newer and more bad-ass martial artists & Punisher-types, creators started glossing over the very thing that made most mutants… MUTANTS. So Wildside here was a Claw Guy like Feral, Wolverine, etc., but also had a separate mutant power- he could warp the perceptions of others’ reality, leaving them stunned and out of the fight. He only ever did it a couple times (to Siryn to hold her down, and to some cyborg guy), and in his first appearance he made his team invisible to a large group of soldiers, but that aspect of his powers was never seen again. It’s unsure how his claws and teeth came about- maybe he’s one of the first incarnations of Secondary Mutations (a silly retcon to explain White Queen being a Powerhouse- but handy to figure out guys like Nightcrawler and his dozens of powers)?
-Wildside led a portion of the group during Operation: Zero Tolerance, but attacked Locus (to whom he’d been attracted in an earlier arc) and was abandoned to be captured during Operation: Zero Tolerance (a failed ’90s arc). He later showed up with Reaper under the Weapon-X program and sent against Cable, who rendered the pair brain-dead when he attempted to probe their minds (a fail-safe nuked them). He was listed as De-Powered Following M-Day.
REAPER (Pantu Hurageb)
-Good ol’ Reaper here is as iconic as it gets for this team- he’s been in every incarnation thanks to his stand-outish appearance (the Liefeld Eye Circles, white skin, big Scythe) and goofy dumb-assed attitude. I swear this guy used the term “Feeb” as an insult in half a dozen issues, which I’m pretty sure is the only time in pop culture history someone did so. His power, like alot of “Sharp weapon user” guys’, brought some unfortunate issues in the he was unable to even HIT most characters, but that wasn’t even the worst of his luck. In X-Force #1, while tangling with Shatterstar (initially shown as a much worse fighter, but now bad-assed up to elite status), he ended up with his HAND chopped off. Later, in X-Factor, his leg was sliced off in a Portal accident. Then he did okay, near-crippling Quicksilver with a sneak attack during The X-Cutioner’s Song.
-But then he got his OTHER hand chopped off by Shatterstar in another fight! Then Wildside accidentally blasted him in the chest (believed to be fatal, but the next writer nixed it) because Shatterstar bluffed him! Then he got teleported into the Ultraverse for some inexplicable adventures with the Juggernaut and failed X-Villain Siena Blaze (like seriously, they wanted to cross over the two universes, and used SIENA BLAZE AND REAPER as their immigrants?). He was then brain-wiped and de-powered, just like Wildside. But unlike Wildside, he was shown post M-Day, begging on the streets with no powers. At which point Quicksilver (whose power was now to Re-Power Mutants) gave him his powers back, and Weapon-X gave him a Scythe-Arm. Very weird history for such a minor guy.
STROBE (Juliana Worthing)
-Strobe got a fair bit of play in the early MLF days in “New Mutants”, being one of the most outspoken and ready members of the squad. She melted some stuff (including Cable’s arm- curiously Cable got his ass BEAT in his debut as a character, despite his huge push), melted some bullets with her Aura, and convinced Rusty & Skids to join the MLF for mutants’ rights. Despite all this, she utterly vanished in the X-Force years, only popping up in the X-Cutioner’s Song-based swan song for the early team. The one where every MLF member pops up for two seconds to get their heat beaten in by a more established character. Strobe makes a witty remark when Rogue insists that they’re “Cleaning up” the MLF- “Then how d’you feel about a concentrated light blast?”, and drops Rogue like a sack of potatoes. Immediately thereafter, Polaris runs in and magnetically harnesses her into her own metal swimsuit, ending her threat completely. She was never seen since, and is currently depowered.
FOREARM (Michael McCain)
“Back in my younger days, during a rare bout of depression, I would occasionally wonder if there was a mutant power any DUMBER than just having wings and flapping around. Thanks for providing it, Forearm.”
-Among the most iconic members of the MLF (if you can call any member of this bunch of losers that) is Forearm, their resident powerhouse. He’s easily one of the most recognizable guys, thanks to a fairly distinctive appearance and goofy-ass name (an early character design involved a lame mask that ended up on Kamikaze), so he’s shown up in virtually every incarnation. He had the crap luck to be the Team Powerhouse when Liefeld & Nicieza were working hard to make a newly powered-up James Proudstar a Juggernaut-fighting badass, so Forearm got KO’d a lot. One issue, he’s grappling Cable from behind and Warpath just punches him across the room. The next time we see him, he gets hit by Boomer’s Time Bombs, then Psylocke just kicks him in the head. The third time, Warpath basically demolishes him off-panel, joking that he was toying with him, then “Whoops. I hit the boy too hard.” as he busts him through a wall. Not a lot of respect, he got.
-He was believed killed in a Super-Fighter Tournament in a Wolverine storyline (his neck was snapped by Anaconda) centered around Mr. X, but the next writer forgot about it and there he was (either they lacked Wikipedia, or -as usual- the writer didn’t bother to check), hopping around with the MLF. He got a teensy bit of character development in later years, being seen as the most level-headed, non-crazy MLF member, but it never really got dealt with. He’s currently on the De-Powered List following M-Day. It’s entirely possible we’ve seen the last of him, but if there’s a next guy who needs a legion of scrubs to get beaten up, we could very well spot this four-armed mook again.
SUMO (Jun Tenta)
-Ah, Sumo. Liefeld was clearly just throwing whatever stupid idea he had at the page, here. A big fat guy who pretty much fit the name perfectly, he had some “Mass Shifting” powers that led him to stomp and sit on people, but couldn’t take a hit as well as he could dish ’em out. He was so silly that he actually got killed off in a Cable Limited Series, being one-shotted by Nate as the M.L.F. showed up. They immediately bailed, leaving their silliest member’s corpse lying on the ground. And here’s the funny thing: he was NEVER MENTIONED AGAIN. Nobody ever went “Hey, remember that Sumo guy? Sucks that he died, eh?” or nothin’- just dead and gone. Silly character. And apparently named after the late John Tenta, aka “Earthquake” of the World Wrestling Federation (who was, in fact, a Sumo wrestler in Japan).
Behold: The only female mutant who DIDN’T get six feet of leg and double-D boobs on a svelte, muscular figure as part of her Secondary Mutations!
THUMBELINA (Kristina Suggs/Anderson)
-Thumbelina is very much a non-combatant on the M.L.F., tending to take care of things back at the base, acting as Stryfe’s assistant. She’s got almost no showings on the battlefield to her name, does a whole lot of whining, and gets made fun of by most of the team. She pretty much just ran in, shrank down, and fixed a bomb one time. Next appearance she actually punched out a guard. Next time, she was frozen solid by Iceman casually. She semi-recently showed up aiding X-Force against a reborn MLF (this’d be the “Domino-As-Stryfe” version), but this goofy chick (seriously- an ultra-short plumper of a purple-haired girl in a bright purple outfit? What was Liefeld even THINKING?) doesn’t get a whole lot of play.
Liefeldian anatomy at it’s finest. I suppose he’s giving equal gender treatments by making the spines bend impossibly on women AND men, so that’s something…
KAMIKAZE (Real Name Unknown)
-Kamikaze was bad, even for this team, mainly by virtue of having absolutely no personality, great feats (he fought Cannonball once, showed up in X-Force #1 and wasn’t even seen in the melee that followed, then died in X-Cutioner’s Song), or cool, unique powers. He basically flew at people and set off an explosion on contact. And yeah, he was so bad that he was one of the ONLY fatalities in the aforementioned crossover, as he snuck up behind Archangel while he was fighting Forearm, and ended up getting his head sliced off ACCIDENTALLY when Warren turned around. And the rest of his team pretty much forgot he ever existed, as he was NEVER BROUGHT UP AGAIN (Iceman was all “we’re gonna talk LATER, Warren ol’ buddy”, but they NEVER DID). Kind of fitting, as his costume was as generic as he was- a visor mask (just like Dragoness, his teammate! Because there’s NO design Liefeld won’t copy, even if it’s his own!) and a white unitard with a Rising Sun on it.
I gotta say, this is probably the best design out of the whole M.L.F. My brother was obsessed with this guy’s look back in the day.
-Zero is one of the more iconic and long-lasting M.L.F. members, owing to his unique appearance. What’s funny is that it’s so SIMPLE: Just a guy in a completely white suit, with two “0”s on it. But that simplisity makes him stand out in stark contrast to his goofy team-mates, with their fat bodies, Eye Circles, pouches, claws attached to gloves, spikey hair, etc. That reason has allowed him to outlast his entire team, showing up in books as different as Deadpool, Excalibur, etc., as Stryfe’s former Unspeaking Android Servant who suddenly gained autonomy and sentience post-Stryfe death. He got exploded anyways, though. Turns out he was originally an android designed by Apocalypse for the Nullifying of his threats, but got reprogrammed and Muted by Stryfe, then stuff happened and he turned good, or something.
DRAGONESS (Tamara Kurtz)
-Dragoness was little-seen compared to most of the MLF. at first, showing up only in a Singapore… sorry, MADRIPOOR storyline in the late New Mutants years, hitting on Cannonball and squaring off with Sunfire for a while. Defeated, she vanished until the X-mop-up of the MLF., where the poor girl got TRIPLE-TEAMED by the “Messed-Up Hair Express” of Storm, Polaris and Rogue, which didn’t really go well for her at all. I mean, seriously, all THREE of them? She didn’t show up again until years later (eventually joining Reignfire’s version of the team), and surprisingly popped up in recent X-Men stories, still with her powers (unlike the vast majority of her team, who were now conveniently de-powered), and living on Utopia. She is not seen after leading a brief attempt at rebellion.
Is that REALLY tight spandex, or did she just paint her skin?
LOCUS (Rayna Piper)
-Locus is a later addition to the Mutant Liberation Front, debuting in the “Reignfire” arc, kidnapping Henry Peter Gyrich and generally being as homicidal as Wildside (the two immediately hit it off, of course). She excercised all of the NASTIEST feats & extras involved with Teleporter characters, slicing limbs and halves of people off, and had a “hook” in that she could only go to places where she’d been before, or where her Teleporting victim had been before (so she needed to go undercover as a pizza girl to get into Gyrich’s home, for example). She was utilized to write Sunspot out of the series for a few years (I stopped reading comics before he returned, which was quite a few issues after this point), as an errant Psychic Arrow from Moonstar (doing a pointless “I’m an undercover agent… so it’s time to beat my friends’ heads in and act like I’m evil, just so I can bring down this elite cadre of four loser villains and their boss” thing) put her powers out of whack, teleporting them both to the far end of the galaxy.
-She returned, did some stuff (abandoning her team after being slapped by Wildside), then left. She came back, inexplicably black now (after being a white blonde in her first appearance), and teleported to Latveria with X-Force member Skids in tow. Then she died- being murdered by Sabretooth to spite the new Weapon X Program, who was attempting to recruit her. After that initial arc, there was really nothing making her interesting, you see. I kind of liked the concept of her powers (Teleporters, especially “Slice off a limb” ones, can be game-breakers in comics unless handled VERY carefully, but there was enough “fluff” to it to make it interesting), but her costume and personality were dime-a-dozen, so she’s not really missed.
REIGNFIRE (Roberto da Costa)
-Reignfire is a great example of why the X-teams never get any cool new villains. He burst onto the scene post-X-Cutioner’s Song, looking like an energy-wielding Big Bad-type guy, renewing the Mutant Liberation Front and hunting down Henry Peter Gyrich. Cool enough, though at least one fan who wrote it was convinced his similarity to Exodus (it was THAT era of comics, where “Long haired guy with cape and glowing eyes” was the a dominant villain trend) was more than a coincidence. There were hints that he was more than just some random guy, and it was revealed before long that he was Roberto DaCosta, aka Sunspot, who had then been missing since the Reignfire/MLF (vs) X-Force melee. Fabian Nicieza had wrote it implying that this was DaCosta’s future self who’d been teleported away and turned bad. A later writer miffed that, turning him into a genetic clone based off of some Celestial tech for no apparent reason, creating a whole new mess of continuity headaches which resulted in the character being casually killed off by a Celestial Golem while inside one of their ships. So this “Coulda Been” Big Bad was turned into a nobody sacrificial villain who hasn’t appeared since.
TEMPO (Heather Tucker)
-Tempo (a member of the Mutant Liberation Front who later appeared as an Acolyte) has one of the more unusual powers in all of comics (I can’t think of many others at all who possess it): Time Control. Not Travel or anything like that- she can slow people down or speed them up (like her teammates). She’s also got one of my least-favourite power types: the Flying For No Reason power. I mean, how the heck does a TIME CONTROLLER fly? At least some people fire energy behind them, or have cosmic or gravity-based powers. This one just makes no sense. Her costume is awful as all hell, being an obvious Liefeld Bargain Basement Special. It’s just a yellow unitard with a bucket helmet that AIM goons would be ashamed to appear in.
-Her characterization was more interesting: she was established as the only member of her team with morals (warning Dr. Tucker- presumably due to a shared last name?- at a clinic that did mutant fetus testing about an MLF attack, trying to keep Wildside from killing Peter Gyrich, etc.), leading to constant struggles. Finally, in an X-Force arc, she betrayed the team and joined X-Force temporarily, leaving to find a normal life. Of course, the next writer forgot that, and placed her casually with the group again. Modern times saw her join the Acolytes for some reason, but she again turned to the side of good, and she currently lives on Utopia. Oh, and she talked like a Southern Belle (think Rogue) at first, but dropped that as soon as Liefeld was gone from Marvel and Fabian Nicieza took over her characterization.
Fun test: try drawing that helmet from the side.
STRYFE (Nathan Summers’ Clone)
-Stryfe was initially just some generic Powersuited villain at the helm of the M.L.F. in the New Mutants book, but became some kind of proto Big Bad once Rob Liefeld left and the remaining writers were left with a big event to write after the Image X-odus. Their idea: The most convoluted backstory in HISTORY, featuring Cyclops’ son being sent into the future, cloned by the Askani, the clone being kidnapped & raised by Apocalypse while the original was made the cybernetic Cable, and then both of them going back in time, leaving Stryfe here with a series of mental complexes, the least of which was a tendency to ramble on faux-poetically for pages and pages of whiney exposition (that part of “The X-Cutioner’s Song” doesn’t age so well).
-What’s funny is that he COULD HAVE been a huge success as a villain. The only problem was, his big peak story was also his LAST major story, as he DIED at the end of it. Sure, he gave us the Legacy Virus (aka “How do we write off all these damn useless mutant hangers-on?” Idea #1), and big stuff came about BECAUSE of the storyline, but this was basically the last we saw of him for years. He turned up in the afterlife once, got resurrected and died once (turning good in the process of a sacrifice, according to Wikipedia), and now he’s apparently back again as a villain. So except for the X-Cutioner’s Song & Legacy Virus, he’s got nothing.
-Though re-reading Stryfe’s old stuff, I get the impression that Fabian Nicieza was just doing “Claremont Lite” work on him. Claremont had a wordiness to his style, but Nicieza was just rambling on and on, and unlike Claremont, didn’t actually have much to say. So Stryfe’s dialogue came off as shallow and pretentious- that the arc was twelve issues long only made this worse. From my X-Cutioner’s Song reviews:
-Stryfe is one of the bigger “ohhhhh…” moments for me. I always wondered why he never got a big resurrection or anything, being a mega-villain in this story, setting off the Legacy Virus, and more. Well it turns out that he’s pretty damn awful. His dialogue is a combination of whining and Poor Man’s Claremont wordiness. He comes off like a whiny baby because he was abandoned years ago, and he’s so powerful, and all he ever does is talk to Zero or insult Scott & Jean… it’s tiresome. He really doesn’t get to do anything regarding any of the other heroes until the very end. And all of the villains are pretty bad, too- this would be Fabian Nicieza’s major failing as a writer. His heroes are pretty good, and tend to interact well… but the baddies are just prone to “Monologuing” at length for pages upon pages, and it’s all “filler”. They’re basically the Bray Wyatt of comics, to use a wrestling comparison.
-In another comic, Stryfe beats up Apocalypse for five pages, crying the whole time about how he was an “abandoned child!”, calling Poccy “Father of PAIN, son of the MORNING FIRE!” and then saying “Yes, master of the timestream, destroyer of my past AND my future- it is *I*”. Reading stuff like this reminds me of when I was first reading these books, thinking Fabian Nicieza was some kind of Claremontian Wizard of Words because of how he made these guys talk… but the years have not been kind. This stuff just REEKS of late Grade School faux-philosophical ramblings, and is easily Fabe’s biggest weakness as a writer. Look through his X-Force or X-Men stuff long enough, and you’ll find all of his baddies talk like Neil Gaiman wannabes, or like effete rich boys.
And that does it for the ridiculous, goofy, yet beautifully-stupid Mutant Liberation Front! Now a completely forgotten goon squad of nobodies, there was half a good idea stuck in with some of them!