In a Nutshell
X-Factor enters the fight against Proteus, while Freedom Force's mission ends badly.
Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Penciler: Terry Shoemaker, Steven Butler (2nd Story)
Inker: Al Milgrom, Joe Rubinstein (2nd Story)
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Colorist: Brad Vancata, Mike Thomas (2nd Story)
Assistant Editor: Suzanne Gaffney
Editor: Bob Harras
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco
1st Story: X-Factor arrives in Edinburgh, recognizing the disruption of reality being caused by Proteus and vowing to stop him. Fighting their way through the warped reality, they find Proteus holding both his mothers, Harness and Moira, captive. X-Factor attacks, but Proteus proves to now be immune to metal. He teleports X-Factor into his mind, where the combined New Warriors, X-Men and X-Force are waiting. Realizing that the emptiness inside his mind is what Proteus defines as happiness, Cyclops argues that they should give it to him, by convincing Proteus to kill himself. The group is divided, with Jean and Cable leading the argument to try and help Proteus instead of leading him to his own death. Ultimately, Proteus retrieves the heroes from his mind, and they offer him an alternative, to use the synthetic bodies created by AIM to house his form. But Proteus says this would mark him as a freak, and unwilling to live like that, chooses to leave the flawed world and go somewhere better, ending his life. In the aftermath, reality returns to normal, and the shadowy figures behind Proteus' resurrection, Gideon and Toad, call the entire affair a draw.
2nd Story: In Kuwait City, the divided Freedom Force fights back against Desert Sword. Avalanche and Crimson Commando, hurt even worse by the mines, manage to reach a helicopter for evacuation, but incoming enemy aircraft prevents them from reaching Pyro and Blob. Upon learning that Kurtzman is dead, and with Crimson Commando's condition worsening, Avalanche tells the pilot to bug out, leaving his teammates behind. Abandoned and alone, Pyro and Blob surrender to the Iraqi forces, putting an end to Freedom Force.
Firsts and Other Notables
With a government-sponsored X-Factor on the horizon, the second story in this annual marks the final appearance of Freedom Force, as Avalanche and a badly injured Crimson Commando manage to escape Kuwait, leaving behind Blob and Pyro. Crimson Commando's injuries were intended to setup a new cybernetic appearance for the character, as he was once slated to appear in Erik Larsen's version of the revamped X-Factor. Though Larsen ultimately left that project and Crimson Commando wasn't kept on as part of the new X-Factor, when he and Avalanche next appear, in X-Men Annual #2, Commando will still sport a new cybernetic look as a result of the injuries he receives here. Blob and Pyro, meanwhile, next appear as members of a new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.
Given the upcoming linewide relaunch of the X-books, this is the last X-Factor annual to feature the original team.
The shadowy figures orchestrating the events of this story are confirmed to be Toad and Gideon. Toad last appeared in the second Vision & Scarlet Witch miniseries, and his appearance here and role as a behind-the-scenes schemer is setting up a brief renaissance for the character, as he will become the leader of a new iteration of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (which is referenced in his dialogue here).
Proteus, resurrected in the previous chapter of the story, dies again this issue, choosing to end his existence than live life, as he perceives it, as a freak. His end suggests that rather than death, he may have passed on to another reality/dimension, but that never really goes anywhere. Proteus will return (and die again) during the "Necrosha" story.
This is essentially the last time until after "X-Cutioner's Song" that any of the other X-teams work alongside X-Force, which pretty much stick to their own book after this and quickly get looked down upon by the other teams due to their methods.
Midway through this issue, we get a roll call of all the characters involved, showing just how huge the cast of the story is at this point.
The third story in this annual, titled, appropriately enough, "Tribute the Third", shows Mystique dealing with the loss of Destiny (it's actually a really good story - Mystique, aboard a cruise ship, remembers a previous trip on that ship with Destiny, in which Destiny tried to get Mystique to lighten up, then predicted she eventually would. In the present, Mystique tosses Destiny's ashes overboard at the exact time Destiny's will said to do so, and the ashes get blown back into Mystique's face, making her laugh. It's surprisingly touching). Written by Peter David, it is his third (and final) "Tribute the __" story ("Tribute the First" was in X-Factor Annual #5, and featured Jean Grey visiting her grave, while "Tribute the Second" was in New Mutants Annual #6 and dealt with Ghost Doug Ramsey moving on and giving Rahne permission to do the same), though a "Tribute the Fourth", not written by David, will appear in a later X-Force annual.
Terry Shoemaker, who seemed like Louise Simonson's go-to fill-in artist during her runs on New Mutants and X-Factor, gets one last hurrah before the linewide relaunch and full Image-ization of the X-books.
The Chronology Corner
This issue is considered to take place between X-Factor #64 and #65, notably because Jean Grey specifically laments her lack of telepathy (which she regains in the subsequent story) and because Cyclops doesn't appear terribly broken up about the fate of his son (not that we'll ever really see that in the actual aftermath either). Given that the New Mutants are already X-Force, this would suggest that they abandoned the mansion shortly after the events of X-Men #273, which would provide X-Factor the opportunity to have scrambled the locks to the X-Mansion between New Mutants #100 and Annual #7, if they'd somehow learned of the New Mutants vacating it.
Mystique's appearance in "Tribute the Third" occurs between her appearances in X-Men #255 and New Mutants #87, and could be reasonably assumed to be the explanation for her absence from Freedom Force circa Avengers #312 (when Blob, Pyro and Avalance attack the Avengers and Mystique is said to be off dealing with Destiny's death).
A Work in Progress
In the opening splash page, each character gets a caption listing their real name and codename, though Jean is just "Jean Grey".
Representatives of America (Captain America), the UK (Captain Britain) and Russia (the Red Guardian) confer with X-Factor.
Iceman appears to be wearing his inhibitor belt this issue.
Moira's clothes have changed between the last chapter of the story and this one.
Proteus' allergy to metal, which led to his destruction in X-Men #128, is no longer in effect, forcing the heroes to come up with an alternative to defeat him.
Legion erroneously refers to his telepathic persona as "Jemali"; he's actually Jemail (though that could just be a typo).
Shatterstar, illustrating X-Force's ethos, says that all that matters is the ends, not the means.
In an odd panel at the end of the issue, we see the image of Shadow King hovering over Moira, which I assume means either that he's taken full control over the Muir Island X-Men again, or else that his influence is what led to Moira being okay with Proteus killing himself.
The Cable Guy
To the shock of everyone present, Cable argues vehemently against convincing Proteus to commit suicide, with Beast specifically referencing the "open hand" approach (which will later be used in discussions about X-Force post-"X-Cutioner's Song"). While in hindsight this reads as, perhaps, Cable reacting to the circumstances of his childhood, at the time I suspect it was simply a means to inject a strong opposition voice in the most surprising way possible, adding some depth to Cable's character in the process.
Well, this is where things get ugly. The last thing "Kings of Pain" needs is more characters, but these annual stories require four parts and for the X-books, that means four teams, so we have X-Factor added to the mix. Their involvement in the story is organic enough (and it even takes advantage of the team's' rarely-invoked status as the "public" mutant group to do so), and given that they're the stars of this chapter's book, they understandably get most of the spotlight (so much so that, by the end, the climax of the story involves them, Moira and Cable, with almost everyone else literally just standing around watching; it was fun to see the New Warriors hanging out with X-Force, but I hope no New Warriors-only fans hung around for this). All of which is fine. But it's really hard to get too excited about a story that ends with the heroes arguing over whether or not they should convince the villain, a villain who is, at least in part, an abused teenage boy, to commit suicide, and that wants the audience to be rooting for the pro-suicide side. Proteus is a massive threat, yes, and defeating him would be hard, but that just seems out of character, at least for 1991.
After Proteus is defeated, we get a few pages tying up the stories' earlier threads: the involvement of the "hiding behind a shell company" AIM, some dialogue teasing future appearances by Harness (she never appears again) and the reveal that the shadowy chess players behind all this are Toad and Gideon, who did it all for...reasons. All of which just serves as a reminder of just how padded and unnecessary so much of this story was, from the various "fake hirings" and dummy corporations of the first two chapters, to the numerous misunderstanding fights, to the shadowy figures being mysterious just for the sake of mystery. Four chapters is at least one chapter too many for this plot, and that's even before accounting for the fact that each chapter is double-sized (making this story, in terms of page count, essentially eight parts long, which is just ridiculous).
There are some silver linings to it: at a time when the X-books, on the whole, are poised to wipe the slate clean and, at least for awhile, actively work against or simply ignore much of their history (especially their recent history), it's fun to see some old vestiges of that history again, and this story stands as a sort of last hurrah for some of Louise Simonson's work, things like the Alliance of Evil, Artie, Leech & Taki, the Muir Island X-Men (and, of course, Freedom Force), at least in their original, familiar forms. There's also some genuine novelty and entertainment in the idea of bringing back Proteus, a character who is considered one of the X-Men's best villains on the strength of one story. Had "the return of Proteus" become a recurring thing, this would suffer all the more for it. But as one (or two) off thing, it gets to benefit from the novelty of it.
Of course, none of that is enough to save a story that is overly long, contains too many misunderstanding fights, and is crammed to the gills with characters who quickly grow unnecessary to the plot as soon as their central chapter of the story passes by (and, in the case of the New Warriors, are never really necessary at all), all of which is depicted (with the exception of Mark Bagley) via some pretty unexciting art. Between the scope of the story, the return of a classic X-villain, and the discussions of child abuse and suicide, it seems like Nicieza was swinging for the fences with this story, but in the end, it is, at best, a slow dribbler up the middle.
(A few words on the Freedom Force story that unfolded in the three X-book annuals, which is probably the best thing about these annuals. Between the sudden death of Super Sabre, the injuries to Crimson Commando, and the general sense of the team being in over their heads against Desert Sword, it's surprisingly gritty (in a good way) and bleak, and serves as an effective sendoff for a group of characters who are tied pretty strongly to the aesthetic of the X-books in the late 80s. The upcoming changes across the line won't allow for the continued existence of Freedom Force, and while at least some of the characters will find other places within the narrative, it's nevertheless appreciated that Freedom Force as a whole received some kind of formal sendoff).
Next week: She-Hulk #26, Excalibur #38 and Wolverine #40.