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Friday, September 20, 2013

X-amining X-Factor #6

"Apocalypse Now!"
July 1986

In a Nutshell 
X-Factor battles Apocalypse and the Alliance of Evil. 

Writer: Louise Simonson
Penciler: Jackson Guice
Inker: Bob McLeod 
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Colorist: Petra Scotese
Editor: Bob Harras
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter

Plot 
As a crowd gathers outside Michael Nowlan's damaged motel room, the members of X-Factor regain consciousness, angry at being defeated by the Alliance and at Nowlan for turning on them. As the crowd gets restless, X-Factor is forced to sneak out the back in the face of their anti-mutant paranoia. At Apocalypse's chateau, the Alliance tries to get Nowlan to tell them about the apparent connection between X-Factor and the costumed mutants they fought, but Nowlan refuses. When the Alliance threatens Suzy, his ex-wife, he lashes out, his power supercharging the Alliance. Stinger accidentally blasts a whole in the roof, which draws the attention of Angel, leading X-Factor to investigate the chateau. Meanwhile, Apocalypse appears and places Nowlan inside a device which will regulate his power. That night, X-Factor infiltrates the chateau. Marvel Girl and Angel are met by the Alliance, while Beast discovers Nowlan only to be quickly knocked out by Apocalypse.


As Cyclops and Iceman join their teammates against the Alliance, Cyclops sees the Phoenix firebird appear around Marvel Girl. When Apocalypse enters the fray with the subdued Nowlan and Beast, Nowlan is forced to use his power to charge up the Alliance. But when Suzy is killed in the crossfire, he overpowers the machine, briefly charging up X-Factor as well before drawing his power back into himself, overloading his own body. With Nowlan useless to him, Apocalypse flees, abandoning the Alliance and telling X-Factor he'll meet them again. As the police arrive, the Alliance flees as well, leaving a dying Nowlan to tell X-Factor he kept their secret, and urge them to keep doing their good work. But as the others mourn Nowlan's passing, Cyclops worries about the Phoenix effect he saw, wondering if Jean and Phoenix could be one.

Firsts and Other Notables
Apocalypse makes his first full appearance, complete with the "A" on his belt and the weird cables connecting his elbows to his waist. It's established that his mutant ability gives him complete control of his body's molecular structure (an ability he uses in this issue like Mr. Fantastic, mainly to prevent himself from being blasted or to form his hands into hammers; later stories will expand his power a bit more). While not quite yet the villain he'll become, he's already expressing his "strong over the weak" philosophy, the defining element of his characterization.


This is Louise Simonson's first issue as regular writer of the series, and she'll remain with the series almost to the very end of this iteration of the book. Claremont's long time editor on X-Men, she will work more closely with him and help make X-Factor feel more a part of the larger X-Men universe than it currently does (though the two books will not interact directly with one another for a few more years). Jackson Guice remains as the book's regular penciller, though he will shortly depart and be replaced by Simonson's husband, Walt.  

Meanwhile, our old New Mutants buddy Bob McLeod, fills in on inks. 

During the fight with the Alliance of Evil, Cyclops sees the fiery Phoenix bird effect surrounding Jean, and the issue ends with him wondering if anyone else saw it. This kicks off a new running subplot in which we're led to question, along with Scott, whether there's still some connection between Jean and Phoenix. If memory serves, it ends up getting tied in with Simonson's efforts to get the characters out from under the X-Factor mutant hunter ruse, with this particular example standing out as an unexplained anomaly.


A Work in Progress
At one point Iceman de-ices himself, and we see his X-Factor costume for, I believe, the first time.


Marvel Girl finally expresses some reaction to having lost her telepathic abilities.


It's once again noted that Angel has superhuman eyesight.


In order to help protect X-Factor's cover, Angel puts on a little show for the cops as they arrive at Apocalypse's chateau.


Scott Summers, Husband of the Year
Cyclops breaks down again, this time to Iceman, telling him that he suspects Maddy has left him, which, like, duh.  


Young Love
At one point Marvel Girl reacts to Cyclops frustration with an ill-timed rant about how Cyclops resents her for not being Phoenix.


Jean asks Warren if Scott loved the Phoenix, as she's finally realized there must be something that is keeping Scott away from her. Warren decides its time to tell her the truth, saying its more complicated than that before getting cutoff by the evil mutants they're supposed to be sneaking up on. 


Human/Mutant Relations
The crowd gathering outside the hotel following X-Factor's battle with the Alliance has a heated discussion about what to do about all the mutants inside. 


Now Cyclops has jumped on the "X-Factor is doing more harm than good" bandwagon, saying it's fueling paranoia about mutants (though his reaction is a bit overkill).


It's in the Mail
This issue has a TWO page letters page, with plenty of letters complaining about Scott's characterization and the flawed premise behind the mutant hunter ruse, with the expected corresponding responses handwaving away most of the concerns, though there is some indication of Simonson's impending work to dismantle the mutant hunter premise.

Louise Simonson on being assigned X-Factor
"Bob Layton was writing the book and Bob Harris asked me to do a fill-in because he thought Layton was not going to get his plot in on time. I turned my plot in and it so happened that Layton did get his plot in on time, so Harris didn't use my story. Oh well, whatever, I got paid for it! A few issues later, Layton decided to leave the book and I honestly do not know why. I don't know if it was his, [Jim] Shooter's, or Harras' choice. Bob asked me to take over the book and I think it was partly because he liked my fill-in and partly because Chris [Claremont] was my friend. I think someone finally realized that splitting up the X-Men and fostering a hostile relationship between the creators was a really bad idea. I believe I was brought on at least in part, because everyone knew that I could and would work with Chris. Also, my first story was very soap opera-y and I think Bob liked that."

DeFalco, Tom. Comic Creators on X-Men. London: Titan Books, 2006. p143-144

Bob Harras on choosing Louise Simonson

"I wanted to make some sort of connection with the main X-books and I knew that Chris was very comfortable with Louise. I figured he would be much more amenable to the X-Factor book if someone that he was happy with was writing it. Also, 'Weezy' was a former editor of X-Men, so I thought she would give the book the right flavor."

DeFalco, Tom. Comic Creators on X-Men. London: Titan Books, 2006. p173

Teebore's Take
Louise Simonson comes aboard, and immediately introduces a new caliber of villain while amping up the soap operatics. Apocalypse, making his first full appearance, still doesn't do a whole lot in this story, but there's enough of a shade of the character he'll become to make his appearance fun, and even a half-formed Apocalypse is better than more Stinger or Tower at this point. Meanwhile, the personal angst gets dialed up significantly, and though Layton certainly toyed with this stuff in his run (by re-introducing the Warren/Jean relationship and pretending Scott wasn't a jerk for trying to turn his situation into some terrible love triangle), Simonson really puts it front and center.

The end result is near-histrionic and almost child-like (with both Scott and Jean throwing what can only be described as hissy fits multiple times), something that will continue to plague Simonson throughout her run, and almost laughably ill-timed in the context of the story (something the characters acknowledge). But there's at least a sense that Simonson is trying to air this stuff out in order to move it along, to make subplot plot, so to speak. While none of these various interpersonal conflicts will be resolved anytime soon, they will at least stop spinning their wheels and move forward, and that's something. Simonson's debut then isn't that marked an improvement over the average Layton issue, especially since it's wrapping up a story he started, but there's some glimmer that the series is at least moving in the right direction.  

Next Issue
The conflict widens in Uncanny X-Men #208, the New Mutants reunite in New Mutants #38 and the cracks start to show in X-Factor #7. 

10 comments:

  1. I bought this book for 50 cents a few weeks ago and was anxious to see what you'd write in your review. I grew up knowing Apocalypse as this omnipotent character who had pulled so many strings in the characters' lives and was more a God than Mutant. I had wanted to buy this book for years and finally jumped on the chance when I could find a copy for less than $20.

    And man, there are still some rough edges this series needs worked out. Apocalypse just comes off as a standard villain, flexing some muscle but not showing any hint of what he's capable of. Had his characterization continued this way he'd probably be forgotten by now, just like the other members of the Alliance of Evil.

    The Archangel saga in issues 23 and 24 are, to me, when his true potential is realized. These issues still stand to me as the best stories (In terms of impact) the book will ever see, save perhaps Nathan being sent into the future (Because we know later on that he'll become Cable). Warren becoming the Angel of Death definitely adds another layer of dimension to the book and helps push the characters to more interesting depths, thankfully dropping a lot of the corny Silver Age characterization they were stuck with for decades.

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  2. Apocalypse! And what a chatty fellow he was. He fits right in with this book's Silver Age goofiness. I remember finding it hilarious when Apocalypse thanks the team for the battle during his retreat only for Cyclops to basically ask, "WTF, man?" In retrospect, I always thought it was strange that Apocalypse would bother with bozos like the Alliance of Evil. Not sure how long he was supposed to have been awake for at this point, maybe he was still tired and groggy from a centuries long sleep.

    Question about the Jean / Phoenix thing. Was this subplot ever resolved in this book? I remember bird shaped flames and questions about the Phoenix hovering around Jean for many, many years after this, and I never understood why. It's like every now and again, a completely different writer in a completely different run would make some passing reference to it, then nothing. It showed up as far ahead as the Seagle / Kelly run on UXM in the late 90's, before Jean finally DID become Phoenix again in Morrison's run. Obviously, none of this was part of a larger plan, and story wise, it almost kind of works (happy coincidence). But did any of this "Is Jean becoming Phoenix again?" crap in any of these books ever get a payoff? Did anyone ever offer a reason for it, or was it just a stock mystery subplot?

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  3. @Ian: Apocalypse just comes off as a standard villain, flexing some muscle but not showing any hint of what he's capable of.

    It's hindsight talking, granted, but I do think there's a glimmer of what he'll become even in this issue: the 'strong must survive' dictum is there, and there's a sense that he's above the petty squabbling going on between X-Factor and the Alliance, which is consistent with his later characterization. It's not much, but it's there.

    Warren becoming the Angel of Death definitely adds another layer of dimension to the book and helps push the characters to more interesting depths, thankfully dropping a lot of the corny Silver Age characterization they were stuck with for decades.

    Of all three series, I really think "Fall of the Mutants" benefited X-Factor the most. Love or hate Archangel, it shook up the book, and FoM really marks the end of the X-Factor mutant hunter ruse, and it's the story that, as you said, cements Apocalypse as a villain to be reckoned with.

    @Dan: In retrospect, I always thought it was strange that Apocalypse would bother with bozos like the Alliance of Evil.

    Yeah, it becomes a lot more clear when you realize he was slotted in at the last minute in favor of the Owl, since the Alliance does seem like the kind of bozos the Owl would partner with.

    Apocalypse will certainly develop a history of using flunkies, from his various Horsemen to the Dark Riders, so it's not totally out of place that he's working with the Alliance, just the caliber.

    Question about the Jean / Phoenix thing. Was this subplot ever resolved in this book?

    My recollection on this is a little hazy, but I seem to recall that all the various Phoenix images/hints that pop up in the next ten issues or so end up being revealed as part of Hodge's ongoing attempts to manipulate/discredit/destroy X-Factor. Basically, he's using computers to create holograms and whatnot to confuse Cyclops and sow doubt (because this is the 80s and computers are magic).

    The one place this doesn't work, of course, is this issue, since there's no way Hodge, even retroactively, could be causing that Phoenix effect in the middle of a fight a continent away, so I think this initial instance stands unexplained in the context of the book. But I could be wrong. We'll have to see.

    As to the other repeated instances of Jean-as-Phoenix hints (of which there are indeed many), I can't speak to them all, but the ones in the Seagle/Kelly run were very deliberate and part of an intended larger story that ultimately got dropped when they left the books. You can read more about it here.

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  4. @Teebore

    My recollection on this is a little hazy, but I seem to recall that all the various Phoenix images/hints that pop up in the next ten issues or so end up being revealed as part of Hodge's ongoing attempts to manipulate/discredit/destroy X-Factor. Basically, he's using computers to create holograms and whatnot to confuse Cyclops and sow doubt (because this is the 80s and computers are magic).

    That's kind of awesome. It's a good thing Mastermind never had a computer; no telling what kind of horrors could have been unleashed.

    The one place this doesn't work, of course, is this issue, since there's no way Hodge, even retroactively, could be causing that Phoenix effect in the middle of a fight a continent away, so I think this initial instance stands unexplained in the context of the book. But I could be wrong. We'll have to see.

    Was Hodge known, behind the scenes, to be evil at this point?

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  5. The art is still somewhat pedestrian, but some of the poses in your scans are at least a little more dynamic than we've seen to date.

    "At Apocalypse's chateau..."

    A caption you don't read nearly often enough. Mainly because a chateau seems more Mr. Sinister's style.

    Ian -- "I bought this book for 50 cents a few weeks ago..."

    50 cents! 1993-94 Matt just did a spit-take upon reading that this issue would ever cost so little.

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  6. @Dan: Was Hodge known, behind the scenes, to be evil at this point?

    Good question; I'm not sure. I am fairly certain that Layton never intended him to be anything more than what he presented: an old friend of Warren's and a PR man.

    Ultimately, Simonson essentially uses him as the means to get X-Factor out from the mutant hunter ruse and (somewhat) repudiate their perpetuation of it, but I don't know if she came onto the book with that idea in mind, or came up with it after coming board (the hints that become obvious in retrospect don't really start until after "Mutant Massacre", if I recall correctly).

    @Matt: A caption you don't read nearly often enough.

    I tried to work it in as often as possible for just that reason. :)

    50 cents! 1993-94 Matt just did a spit-take upon reading that this issue would ever cost so little.

    Right? My past self had a similar reaction.

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  7. @Matt and Teebore:

    I shat bricks, too, I've never seen this issue for less than $20 online. I went to a comic shop where they had boxes and boxes of unindexed comics without prices. I found this issue in there (Along with tons of other X-Factors) and had to have it. I asked the guy behind the counter if the books were for sale, and he goes "The owner still has to price them, but I can sell it for, like, 50 cents." I also got some old X-Men annuals, as well. Not too bad, if I don't say so myself.

    I've also gotten Uncanny #115 for 25 cents at a flea market and a few Steranko Nick Furies for $1 each at a used book store (And don't get me started about what I've found at Goodwill). Sometimes it pays to buy comics from people who don't know about them, or who are just looking to get rid of them.

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  8. I love how everything comes to a head by, like, Page 3: Jean's loss of her telepathic abilities, Scott's lack of honesty, Warren's terrible idea for X-Factor. Weezie sure cut to the chase.

    // At one point Iceman de-ices himself, and we see his X-Factor costume for, I believe, the first time. //

    It's similar to the one he wore during his Champions stint (and maybe his Defenders stint, too), just as Angel's melds the X-Factor design with his familiar "solo" uniform. What I never understood is why in the heck Bobby doesn't wear a mask with his costume so that he can be incognito when not iced up. There was a time he crossed paths with Spider-Man while in college around the Champions era, in one of Spidey's own titles or Marvel Team-Up, and he got knocked out, so Spidey webbed him up a domino mask.

    I know that Louise Simonson has her detractors, and I'm far from her biggest fan as a writer, and I've liked some of Bob Layton's other stuff, but oh, man — just the opening page of this issue is head and shoulders above what's come before in terms of a basic hook. No argument that we get melodramatic, "comicbooky" dialogue; still, I'll take what passed for average, professional work at the time — even as it was quickly becoming outdated in terms of the explosion of innovative, askance, deconstructionist takes on the superhero genre — over the painful first handful of issues.

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  9. @Ian: Sometimes it pays to buy comics from people who don't know about them, or who are just looking to get rid of them.

    Definitely. Sometimes though, I've encountered the opposite problem: people who don't know about comics pricing them WAY too high, because they assume all old comics are worth tons of money.

    I've seen it a lot in antique stores with owners who, I presume, don't know or can't be bothered to look up what their comics are worth, so everything gets slapped with the same price tag.

    It's great if you find a $50 book for $15, but blows if you just want the $3 book they have priced at $15.

    @Blam: What I never understood is why in the heck Bobby doesn't wear a mask with his costume so that he can be incognito when not iced up.

    Me too. Especially since I've always gotten the impression that being iced up wouldn't disguise his features that much.

    Then again, how often is he shown not wearing much of anything beneath his ice? I suppose we should be thankful he's got at least something on...

    No argument that we get melodramatic, "comicbooky" dialogue; still, I'll take what passed for average, professional work at the time — even as it was quickly becoming outdated in terms of the explosion of innovative, askance, deconstructionist takes on the superhero genre — over the painful first handful of issues.

    Definitely. It's amazing how good "professional, industry-standard" work looks compared to what came before.

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  10. @Dan Lichtenberg:I remember finding it hilarious when Apocalypse thanks the team for the battle during his retreat only for Cyclops to basically ask, "WTF, man?"

    "Great battle guys, thanks all around. See you all in a few weeks!"

    "In retrospect, I always thought it was strange that Apocalypse would bother with bozos like the Alliance of Evil. Not sure how long he was supposed to have been awake for at this point, maybe he was still tired and groggy from a centuries long sleep."

    Oh man, you just made me laugh way more than I should have.

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