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Friday, March 7, 2014

X-amining X-Factor #24

"Masks"
January 1988

In a Nutshell 
The first appearance of Archangel.

Writer: Louise Simonson
Penciler: Walt Simonson
Inker: Bob Wiacek
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Colorist: Petra Scotese
Editor: Bob Harras
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

Plot
After their battle with the Right, X-Factor finds themselves inside a strange ship. Apocalypse appears and welcomes them to his home. Cyclops orders an attack, but Apocalypse easily bests them, telling them of his long life and taunting them about their actions as mutant hunters. Apocalypse offers them a place at his side as he prepares to unleash his Horsemen on Manhattan. X-Factor refuses and attacks the Horsemen as Apocalypse watches. Though Caliban is quickly forgotten, X-Factor manages to best the Horsemen until Death appears.


Removing his helmet, he reveals himself to be Warren, their friend and teammate believed dead. Shocked, X-Factor is easily defeated by Death, paralyzed by his toxin-coated feathers. Later, X-Factor finds themselves restrained, forced to watch as Death leads the Horsemen out into the city to cull the weak from the strong. Just then, the forgotten Caliban suddenly appears, and Cyclops urges him to free X-Factor before Apocalypse catches him. However, Caliban apologies to Cyclops before approaching Apocalypse, asking if Apocalypse can give him power as he did Angel. Apocalypse says that he can, and Caliban swears fealty to him, as the Horsemen of Apocalypse ride out over the city. 

Firsts and Other Notables
This issue reveals that Death is the not-dead-after-all Angel, plucked from his plane by Apocalypse moments before it exploded in issue #15 and given new, metallic wings (and blue skin for some reason). The character will eventually come to be called Archangel, and this will remain his default look well into the 90s, at which point the metal wings will "molt" and his feathered wings will emerge (the blue skin remains). Then, the blue skin will go away and regular Angel returns for awhile, before it's revealed that he has the ability to transform back and forth from Angel to Archangel.


I have no idea how shocking this revelation was to readers at the time - I've only ever read this issue knowing the twist, and all the hints in previous issues make the reveal seem pretty obvious. Though, of course, I say that with the benefit of hindsight.

We also get more background on Apocalypse in this issue, and the information revealed here will functionally serve as his origin for years to come (later stories will tweak and expand on some of these details, but the general idea of Apocalypse having been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians and being obsessed with the survival of the fittest remains). This issue also gives Apocalypse a chance to monologue about his motivations and beliefs, firmly establishing his Darwinian "test mutants so that only the strongest survive" schtick. 


Caliban effectively quits X-Factor in this issue, as he pledges his allegiance to Apocalypse in exchange for power, the culmination of the "Caliban is angry about how relatively powerless he is" subplot.


In a pet peeve, the issue ends with a quote from the Book of Revelation, cited as Revelations as it so often is...


And on a personal note, I always remember this issue for being the first back issue for which I successfully bargained, at one of the first cons I ever attended (less a con, really, than a dealer show in a hotel ballroom). Being the first appearance of Archangel, it always commanded higher prices than the rest of X-Factor, and it was a gaping hole in my collection at the time. I managed to talk the dealer down from $14 to $8, which was big mean money to a fourteen year old back in the day (in hindsight, I realize most dealers at this show just want to unload product, especially of this vintage, but I was still proud at the time).

A Work in Progress
Cyclops calls out for "Plan 383", which is basically Iceman attacking first followed by Cyclops, at least based on the art.


It's established that the combination of Pestlience's plague with the drugs Beast received in issues #2-3 have resulted in his "the stronger I get the dumber I get" condition.


It's also revealed that Death's "feathers" are coated with synapse disruptor that induces paralysis. 


I Love the 80s
War threatens Cyclops, saying his next shot will take off his head. I'm not entirely sure why he's bothering to warn him...


Artistic Achievements
Walt Simonson has some fun with the layouts in this issue, constructing each page of the X-Factor/Horsemen battle such that Apocalypse is always in his own panel to the left, running nearly the entire length of the page, creating the impression that he's lording over the battle no matter where he physically is in the room, while the overlooked Caliban gets his own panel along the bottom that zooms in closer and closer with each page.


Like a Phoenix, From the Ashes
Apocalypse offers to ignite the spark within Jean, a possible reference to the Phoenix force.


Human/Mutant Relations
Apocalypse takes a dig at the book's premise, telling X-Factor their actions as mutant hunters helped fuel human/mutant prejudice.


Deeds. Know Them. And So On. 
Famine makes fun of Iceman's "know mutants by their deeds" schtick.


Louise Simonson on Angel's Transformation
"We [her and Walt] both felt that they [the original X-Men] came from a more innoncent age, and we had to make them tougher becayse the times were getting tougher...Some of the older readers and some of the women didn't like the change. It changed him from a character of light to a darker, brooding character - that good old mutant angst."

Grant, Paul J. "Poor Dead Doug, And Other Mutant Memories." Wizard: X-Men Turn Thirty July 1993: p68-69.

Teebore's Take
This issue is responsible for the introduction of two important elements to the X-Men narrative. First, after his brief confrontation with the team in issue #6 and a series of subplot vignettes in later issues, this issue puts Apocalypse center stage, clearly establishing his central mantra that conflict must be used to cull the weak from the strong, such that only the strong may survive. In this, he is Darwinism personified. Where the X-Men's conflict with Magneto gains thematic resonance from its parallels to the civil rights movement, Apocalypse here works the scientific angle of human/mutant relations, the belief that mutants are the next evolutionary step destined to supplant humanity. In this way, the issue not only develops Apocalypse as a character, but connects hom to one of the central themes of the X-Men, cementing his place in their pantheon of villains.

Second, this issue reveals that Death is the transformed and not-dead-after-all Angel. In this, we have one of the original Silver Age X-Men darkened, his carefree countenance replaced by a grim visage, his feathered wings replaced by metallic one. Though the Simonsons were merely trying amp up the power of the team, the transformation of Angel in many ways represents the rise of grim-n-gritty characters in the late 80s and into the 90s, as the traditional icons of the Silver Age are replaced or lose their polish in the interest of crafting darker and gritter stories. It's no longer enough to punch a bad guy on feathered wings, you need angst and edginess and the ability to fling little Wolverine claws at villains. Born in the wake of the popularity of Wolverine and characters like him, Angel-as-Death (soon to be Archangel) is the first post-Wolverine anti-hero in the X-books.

In these two regards, then, the ascendance of Apocalypse and the transformation of Angel, this issue becomes an important precursor of things to come. Though other single issues are worthy of consideration, and there are certainly plenty more stories to come before the calendar flips over, it could be argued that for the X-Men, for good and bad, the 90s begin right here with this issue. 

Next Issue
"Fall of the Mutants" continues as the X-Men team-up with Freedom Force in Uncanny X-Men #226, the New Mutants suffer a loss in New Mutants #60, and the Horsemen are unleashed on New York City in X-Factor #25.

21 comments:

  1. Did anyone else know that the covers to X-Factor 24-25-26 form one large montage image? As do the covers of the "Fall of the Mutants" issues of New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men? I only just learned that a couple years ago when I saw the joined covers in the Fall of the Mutants hardcover collection.

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  2. @Matt: Did anyone else know that the covers to X-Factor 24-25-26 form one large montage image?

    X-Factor I knew (from seeing the cover to Essential X-Factor #2, I believe). I didn't know the other two series' covers did as well.

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  3. "Did anyone else know that the covers to X-Factor 24-25-26 form one large montage image? As do the covers of the "Fall of the Mutants" issues of New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men?"

    X-factor, definitely. New Mutants, kind of. Uncanny, not really. Granted, I'm referring more to how well they are executed...

    "and this will remain his default look well into the 90s"

    I love how Simonson draws his new metallic wings. And hated the redesign Portacio gave them, which sadly, sticks around for a while in the 90s too.

    They do have Warren wearing some of his older costumes in the 90s for a while with the metallic wings, which I thought was a nice look.

    "In this way, the issue not only develops Apocalypse as a character, but connects hom to one of the central themes of the X-Men, cementing his place in their pantheon of villains."

    I definitely prefer this Apocalypse to the 90s idea that he was/is/will be the the supreme and ultimate X-villain.

    "Though the Simonsons were merely trying amp up the power of the team, the transformation of Angel in many ways represents the rise of grim-n-gritty characters in the late 80s and into the 90s, as the traditional icons of the Silver Age are replaced or lose their polish in the interest of crafting darker and gritter stories. It's no longer enough to punch a bad guy on feathered wings, you need angst and edginess and the ability to fling little Wolverine claws at villains."

    It does work on both levels - a power-up and an 80s grim & gritty representation. But I have to say, at least this does make Warren a much more credible opponent, with more offensive capabilities, even if he is a flying Wolverine. At least he can do more than flap around/distract opponents/airlift people out of danger...

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  4. "Observe the screen behind me, mutants!"

    Apocalypse has a slide show. That's great. I wonder if Beast had trouble following the story.

    Also, I wonder if those images of his past forms are there for informative purposes only, or if they're literally selfies Apocalypse took while vacationing under his various guises.

    Okay, I'll stop now.

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  5. Here you go:
    http://bullyscomics.blogspot.com/2010/05/monday-night-murals.html

    Yes, all the "Fall Of The Mutants" covers were meant to be triptychs. And, yes, the X-FACTOR covers, clearly, work the best in that regard, with Ship as the unifying visual element.

    The UNCANNY X-MEN covers barely qualify. It's like Silvestri just didn't want to try.

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  6. @wwk5d: And hated the redesign Portacio gave them, which sadly, sticks around for a while in the 90s too.

    Yeah, I'm not much of a fan of the extra little wing pieces Portacio gives him. It's perhaps a little cheesy, but I like the idea that he can fold the wings into that big metal U on his back, and then just fling them out when he needs to fly.

    They do have Warren wearing some of his older costumes in the 90s for a while with the metallic wings, which I thought was a nice look.

    Me too.


    I definitely prefer this Apocalypse to the 90s idea that he was/is/will be the the supreme and ultimate X-villain.


    Indeed. Apocalypse works best when he's speaking to a specific element within the X-Men's thematic structure, not when he's just a generic world conquering tyrant.

    But I have to say, at least this does make Warren a much more credible opponent, with more offensive capabilities, even if he is a flying Wolverine.

    Definitely. The Simonsons were right in that, if you're going to boost any of the original X-Men's powers, Angel is the one to use. That he was also usually the most carefree of the originals just makes his "fall" and role as a symbol of the "darkening" of comics resonate that much more.

    @Anonymous: Apocalypse has a slide show. That's great. I wonder if Beast had trouble following the story.

    Haha! That's great. I've never thought of it that way, but that is totally a slideshow. Who else but Apocalypse would have the ego necessary to create a film strip of his origin just to taunt his opponents with?

    @Cerebro: The UNCANNY X-MEN covers barely qualify. It's like Silvestri just didn't want to try.

    Thanks for the link! Yeah, the Uncanny covers are pretty weak in terms of forming a single image. New Mutants, then, is slightly better but still got great, and then X-Factor is the strongest.

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  7. I've always had trouble visualizing how Archangel's wings were supposed to work, especially in his 90s depictions. I remember the animated series doing a decent job showing how they're supposed to move.

    For me, Apocalypse's themes and powers didn't suck until the body swapping thing was introduced. It didn't make sense then and it never did. One the one hand, he's really old and his body was cybernetically enhanced to make him strong and keep him alive. On the other hand, his body doesn't matter because he sheds them like skin when he finds a new host? I'm sorry, but those always seemed like mutually exclusive ideas. In his origin miniseries, his original form was grey and looked mostly like we know Apocalypse to look, sans armor. Yet, we've also seen him as a shriveled old man in a suit, and in the body of an old lady in the far future. So which is the "real" Apocalypse? If he acquires new bodies, why does he always look the same when we see him? Just stupid. I'm not sure the idea was ever fully explained, either.

    The only thing I liked about the body swapping angle was that it made Apocalypse look like a cheat. He advocated the strong surviving, but it turns out he wasn't quite as strong as he appeared to be. Not saying it's my ideal interpretation of him, but it is an interesting idea.

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  8. @Anonymous: For me, Apocalypse's themes and powers didn't suck until the body swapping thing was introduced. It didn't make sense then and it never did.

    Yeah, I've never been pretty wild about that idea, either. Like, the idea that his centuries-old body is, in the present, decayed and protected/kept alive by his armor? Fine. But the whole host body switching thing just seems like something that one writer came up with for one story, then quickly got picked up by other writers and became a "thing" without anyone really thinking it through.

    And like you said, it never really does get much in the way of explanation.

    The only thing I liked about the body swapping angle was that it made Apocalypse look like a cheat. He advocated the strong surviving, but it turns out he wasn't quite as strong as he appeared to be.

    That is the one interesting takeaway from it. I like that idea, but I'm not sure it's worth all the body switching noise we got along with it.

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  9. @Teebore

    I think the first time the body swapping thing was used was during The Adventures of Cyclops & Phoenix, which I actually sort of liked. The story could have been told without it, and it was such a weird series anyway that I think it went largely unnoticed. The story was set in the far future so I suppose it could have been written off as something Apocalypse needed to do because he was finally getting really freaking old, rather than something he had been doing all along.

    It was brought back with the Twelve, of course, and it's been downhill from there. Since then, he's hopped bodies, become a disembodied spirit, been resurrected through Cable's techno organic virus via retcon, been resurrected as a child, killed, then brought back as a clone of said child. It's a mess.

    Throw in his hibernation pits, and recent "revelations" like Clan Akkaba and all their BS as well as the idea that the Celestials "lent" him his future technology... Poor Poccy has had a rough decade or so. Oddly enough, Sinister also has been put through the wringer in the last few years. These are great villains that don't require this kind of backstory, but writers are constantly trying to add new angles. Since both characters are centuries old, they're also constantly getting saddled with being connected to the formation of modern characters and other cornerstones of MU history. And of course, they all had a hand in making Wolverine what he is today.

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  10. For me, Apocalypse's themes and powers didn't suck until the body swapping thing was introduced.

    Most definitely. I remember being really disappointed when they revealed that he's a shriveled old man inside a robotic body. I don't think you were ever supposed to think his "shell" wasn't his real body before that. And he's much more bad ass if he actually embodies his beliefs. Honestly, I think once you've done Age of Apocalypse, you've said pretty much all there is to say about the character and it benefited from being done really well. Since then he just hasn't been the same.

    Speaking of back stories, is anyone else reading Origin II? Now apparently Wolverine, Sabretooth and Mr. Sinister all knew each other in 1907. I'm actually enjoying the series (Adam Kubert art definitely helps). But I'm having to kind of overlook Sinister getting inserted into ANOTHER character's history.

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  11. I absolutely loved the slide show bit and absolutely felt robbed by there being only two pics of Apocalypse's former looks even if there was four gods mentioned. And yes, that is some first class villainy to show the helpless heroes a set of holiday slides and replace holiday with lengthy history of, well, first class villainy.

    This change in A's looks brought forward at his first major outing actually voids you guys' complaints about the body swapping as a later character plant, because some sort of swapping has to have been taking place. Unless it was pinned on some shape-shifting ability at the time (?).

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  12. I always thought he was shape-shifting into his previous aliases while the slideshow was playing behind him.

    Also, given how his body contorts and alters his shape during parts of this storyline...it is kind of weird to it being retconned into a person in a suit...

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  13. Or perhaps A wasn't really changing into anything or even showing a slide show but W. Simonson gracefully visualized the story A was telling for the reader's benefit. Perhaps in "real" life A was assaulting the X-Factor with a mere CC-like wall of text but as L. Simonson is no CC her hubby chose to help her sell it to us pictorially.

    Anyway, I take it as a personal insult that a character for whom some pains were taken to him not be the Owl is later retconned to be an old frail geezer in robot suit: Silvermane.

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  14. I always thought he was shape-shifting into his previous aliases while the slideshow was playing behind him.

    Yeah, this is what I thought, too. Isn't one of his powers established as having complete control over the molecules in his body or something along those lines?

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  15. @Anonymous: The story was set in the far future so I suppose it could have been written off as something Apocalypse needed to do because he was finally getting really freaking old, rather than something he had been doing all along.

    Yeah, that's how I took it, until it got brought back for "The Twelve" (making it just one of many issues I had with "The Twelve) and became a thing from there on out.

    @Jeff: I'm actually enjoying the series (Adam Kubert art definitely helps). But I'm having to kind of overlook Sinister getting inserted into ANOTHER character's history.

    I'm right there with you: enjoying it, but having to get past the idea of shoehorning Mr. Sinister into Wolverine's backstory. I like Mr. Sinister the long-lived behind-the-scenes manipulator, but he's already done that a lot, and I take this as just another thing Wolverine is usurping from Cyclops. :)

    @Teemu: Unless it was pinned on some shape-shifting ability at the time (?).

    Yeah, as wwk5d and Jeff mentioned, at this point Apocalypse was said to have complete control over his molecules, which, at the time, usually manifested as him turning his hands into hammers or some such, but also essentially gave him a shapeshifting ability.

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  16. Bobby: "Where the heck are we?"
    Hank: "An' how'd we get here?"
    Jean: "Some kind of instantaneous transport. Teleportation, maybe."

    Nice guess, Jean, seeing as how "instantaneous transport" is pretty much the definition of "teleportation".

    It's ridiculous how offhand the exposition about Hank's condition is. Right before the panel you reprint in which Apocalypse susses it out, Pestilence says that Hank should be dead from his touch and rather randomly asks if "anyone else [has] been tamperin' with [him], recent-like" instead of making a more natural suggestion like, say, Hank's inherent mutant physiology. The explanation itself isn't bad, just the way a couple of characters (one of them an age-old biochemical mutant mastermind) just spring an information download on us in the midst of fight-scene patter.

    Of course, as you show, the same holds true for Cyclops' guess of "synapse disruptors" and, before that, Weezie having him tell us that War is "surrounded by a telekinetic inhibitor field and mirrored to reflect my optic blasts" since Walt doesn't show it.

    I like the layout of the battle as it unfolds to an extent but the ball gets dropped. While Apocalypse is integrated into the main action after his running commentary, the Caliban sequence just ends shortly thereafter. Maybe that's because he runs away to reappear later, vanishing from the action as Apocalypse joins it; at the very least I wanted at least one panel after the increasing close-ups on Caliban in which we see he's gone, I guess, to put a point on it.

    The more this "know us/them by our/their deeds" stuff goes on, the more it stands out as a useless blanket statement, rather than "let's just stop painting an entire group/species with a broad brush and judge its members on their own individual actions" — perhaps Bobby's initial point, and one that I think Rusty incorporates into his Central Park statement, but one whose finesse is dropped as its parroted.

    It's amusing how literal the "edginess" was manifested in characters like the transformed Angel/Archangel.

    Why is Archangel's outfit so different from the other Horsemen's? Especially odd if not ironic is that they have his old costume colors.

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  17. @Anonymous: // Apocalypse has a slide show. That's great. I wonder if Beast had trouble following the story. //

    First and most importantly, points for the humor, but second, I got the impression from their placement in front of the tableaux (and because the word balloons were coming from them) that the busts of Apocalypse in his Egyptian and Aztec forms were actually him there in the room changing his appearance to match the narrative.

    Yet another exclamation I don't understand, though, is Jean saying "He's a shape-shifter" before we see Apocalypse do any shape-shifting. So the issue starts out with her being redundant in observing that they were probably teleported by a teleporter because that is that thing which teleports and quickly progresses to her and Scott giving us information on their opponents' weaponry that is circumstantially suspect in its articulateness at best if not plucked from thin air. Then Pestilence tees up Apocalypse for a theory on Hank's new situation because, hey, at least tossing it out offhand like that is better than the letters page I guess.

    Also, I just realized now that I've never known what if any powers Apocalypse had outside of manipulating things and rewriting the timeline / creating alternate realities.

    @wwk5d: // I always thought he was shape-shifting into his previous aliases while the slideshow was playing behind him. //

    Geez; I just said that 2½ days after you did. Please try to keep up.

    @Teebore: // Who else but Apocalypse would have the ego necessary to create a film strip of his origin just to taunt his opponents with? //

    Mister Sinister? I'm only guessing, but honestly all I've ever really known about him and Apocalypse 'til now, in very broad strokes, was that they manipulated things, cloned people and/or gave them powers, and were just generally retroactively responsible for, like, everything anyone needed them to be responsible for in X-history. Sinister is the one who looks like Colossus in an armored Vegas-showgirl outfit; Apocalypse is the one who looks like a mashup of Darkseid and Darth Vader with his helmet off, also in armor, because the '90s are coming.

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  18. @Teebore: Who else but Apocalypse would have the ego necessary to create a film strip of his origin just to taunt his opponents with?

    Stryfe. And not only does what he wear instantiously forgive Mr. Sinister and Apocalypse everything regarding their dress sense or the lack of it, this issue sits Apocalypse right there in with those two other usual suspects by having his most feral henchman attack him at what technically almost is the villain's first appearance. Did A by any chance happen to suffocate Warren in the course of the issue for it, because it's like a mandatory convention really I feel?

    Can't remember, did they actually have Stryfe's history in the form of a slide show at the finale of the X-Cutioner's Song... where 40 % of the original X-Factor was, again, handily tied up for receiving one?

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  19. "it could be argued that for the X-Men, for good and bad, the 90s begin right here with this issue."

    Mind blown. Cap doffed.

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  20. The 90s start with this cross-over, certainly. Liefeld wasn't the first fellow to take a bunch of Xavier's mutant students away ftom the Westchester setting and turn them into a proactive vigilante group planning to take down their enemies in the shadows.

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  21. From Teebore:

    It's no longer enough to punch a bad guy on feathered wings, you need angst and edginess and the ability to fling little Wolverine claws at villains. Born in the wake of the popularity of Wolverine and characters like him, Angel-as-Death (soon to be Archangel) is the first post-Wolverine anti-hero in the X-books.

    What makes this particularly amusing is that this happen to the character that resented Wolverine the most. As Bart Simpson would say, "The ironing is delicious."

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