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Friday, February 12, 2016

X-amining X-Factor #68

"Finale"
July 1991

In a Nutshell
Cyclops is forced to send his son into the future to save his life.

Plot: Jim Lee & Whilce Portacio
Script: Chris Claremont
Penciler: Whilce Portacio
Inker: Art Thibert
Letterer: Michael Heisler
Colorist: Dana Moreshead
Editor: Bob Harras
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

Plot
Face to face with the massive Apocalypse, X-Factor is attacked by the Riders of the Storm and brainwashed Inhumans Medusa and Crystal. Overpowered, they are captured, and Apocalypse gloats that he will use their power to increase his own. However, just then Black Bolt and the free Inhumans counterattack, just as Cyclops and Black Bolt had planned. However, Nathan has been infected with a virus by Apocalypse, and is dying. He instinctively pulls Jean into his mind to face an avatar of Apocalypse, and Jean proceeds to bring Cyclops in as well, who manages to defeat the avatar. Returning to the physical world, Cyclops blasts Apocalypse, destroying him, but Nathan is still dying, and Beast says there's no way to cure him in time. However, Askani declares that she can save him, by taking him with her back to the future, and Cyclops reluctantly says goodbye to his son in order to save his life. In the aftermath, the Watcher once more comments on humanity, applauding Cyclops for choosing hope over despair.

Firsts and Other Notables
Nathan Christopher, infected with a life-threatening virus by Apocalypse, is sent into the future with Askani this issue, thereby ending the relatively brief period of time in which Cyclops had an infant son.


Of course, we now know that Nathan will eventually grow up and return to this time as Cable, and this issue continues to hint at that idea pretty hard, both intentionally and in hindsight.

Most notably, the final page of the issue, which features the Watcher waxing philosophical on the nature of humanity a la the final page of "The Dark Phoenix Saga", has a cluster of weird crystal things on the bottom of the page, depicting four different images. The largest is of Nathan as a boy; the bottom two are, I believe, Professor X and Colossus, depicting happenings in the "Muir Island Saga" (they look to be drawn by Andy Kubert, who pencils X-Men #279, the chapter of that story in which Xavier battles the possessed Colossus). The final image, positioned just below Nathan, is of Cable, and seems to be there for no other reason than to link Nathan and Cable in the minds of readers. In hindsight, it almost reads like "don't be sad for Nathan, he's already back in the form of Cable!".


More indirectly, as he's dying, Nathan pulls Jean into his mind to help fight the virus (manifesting on the Astral Plane as Apocalypse), shades of the telepathic skills Cable will eventually be revealed to have, while Jean notes his raw power (with Cable later established as one of the most supremely powerful of mutants, albeit with his power held in check by the constant need to fight the virus).


The virus with which Nathan was infected is never referred to as techno-organic in this issue (it retroactively becomes that when it's established that Cable's bionics are the result of the T-O virus he was infected with here); instead, its described as basically being an advanced form of cancer, killing Nate cell-by-cell and inhibiting his body's ability to make more cells, though the art definitely depicts some kind of cybernetic effect, fitting the later retcon.

Ship remaining consciousness (represented as a little yellow ball of light) merges with Nathan this issue, in an attempt to help stave off the virus. He ends up going into the future with Nathan, where, it'll eventually be revealed, he lives on as Professor, the sentient computer system which runs Cable's orbital base of operations (which at this point had yet to be introduced). But for all intents and purposes, this marks the end of Ship.


Askani makes a point of saying that she won't be able to bring Nathan back from the future once he's cured, as she won't have enough energy to make a return trip, and she's the only one who can do it.


This is the last we'll see of Apocalypse for awhile, until he returns in "X-Cutioner's Song".

Remember the Twelve? The mutants prophesied to save/lead mutantkind, first mentioned by Master Mold back in issue #14? Well, they get another mention here, with Cable seemingly added to their ranks (we also see images of Professor X, Storm, and maybe Cannonball and Legion); Apocalypse now seems to be placing himself in opposition to the group (he claims killing Nathan will seal their fate, an idea teased last issue, and which kinda fits the later revelation that Cable is destined to defeat Apocalypse once and for all), though in issue #14. it was implied he was part of the group. I think this might be the last mention of the Twelve until the storyline finally gets resolved (poorly) in the late 90s.


Inhumans Medusa (Black Bolt's wife) and Crystal both appear briefly in this story, as brainwashed thralls of Apocalypse, though Crystal also appeared in issue #67 amongst the free Inhumans (I guess she got captured and brainwashed between issues). She will shortly join the Avengers (the issue which leads to her joining the team is on sale the same time as this issue).


The narrative captions in this issue are written in the first person, from Cyclops' perspective, thus allowing Claremont to add some depth to what is, essentially, an issue-long fight scene.

In a nice bit of metacommentary, Cyclops notes that while villains and some heroes seem to die and come back, only the innocent truly die. Indeed, in comics, the Uncle Bens and Sharon Kellys of the world stay dead, while nearly every hero or villain who dies eventually comes back.

This is, effectively, the final traditional issue of this iteration of X-Factor. Portacio is on hand for next issue, but that one is in service to the larger "Muir Island Saga" story and is more concerned with moving X-Factor back to the X-Men, now that their base and supporting cast is gone, with issue #70 serving as an epilogue to that story, written by incoming series writer Peter David, and barely featuring any of this iteration's team members.

A Work in Progress
Cyclops says that he's realized the purpose of X-Factor is to protect people like his son from people like Apocalypse.

Apocalypse declares that the reason he's always fought to separate the weak from the strong is so that he can absorb the energy of the strong to increase his own power and become a celestial menace. This could be an attempt by Claremont to move forward the idea that Apocalypse is somehow connected to the Celestials (since Ship is from them as well). Then again, since Simonson is well out the door at this point, it could also just be Claremont trying to add some more gravitas to Apocalypse. Either way, it never really goes anywhere.


Cyclops notes that unlike in previous battles, Apocalypse isn't shapeshifting in this one, another idea which doesn't really payoff (unless the implication is supposed to be that this means Apocalypse is weaker, and thus more vulnerable to Cyclop's ultimately-successful approach of "blast him really hard").

Askani explains her "kinsmen" comment to have a more general meaning, basically a "well, we're ALL children of the Earth, right?" kind of thing.


Claremontisms
Askani refers to her family as "me and mine", while Apocalypse refers to himself as "a body".

Like a Phoenix, From the Ashes
In addition to the Watcher's appearance on the final page, Cyclops is brought into Nate's mind to help battle Apocalypse, and he references the time he fought a similar psychic duel for the life of Jean in "Dark Phoenix".


Teebore's Take
I really like this issue. I say that up front because, try as I might, it's hard for me to be objective about it. Being a huge Cyclops and Cable fan, I read this issue a ton as a kid, and it always felt meaningful to me, moreso than the other issues around it (and being published at the time I was reading it). Of course, reading it now, I realize that was intentional: tasked with clearing the deck in anticipation of the new direction of the series, this story accomplishes that goal. Ship is gone, Cyclops' son is gone, Jean's telepathy is back (sort of), and some measure of finality on the subject of X-Factor and Apocalypse is provided. But the creators involved (I tend to give the credit to Claremont, but Lee and Portacio, as plotters, deserve some too) manage to turn what could have been a very mercenary, by-the-numbers story ("oh, and get rid of the baby, too! Can't have our heroes being family men!") into something more than that.

The allusions to "Dark Phoenix Saga", begun last issue but doubled down in this issue, with Cyclops' sacrifice of Nathan Christopher compared to Jean's sacrifice in X-Men #137, as well as a final page soliloquy from the Watcher on the wonders of humanity are, objectively, a pretty cheap source of drama. Claremont has certainly been dinged in the past for mining one of his greatest hits in order to inject some gravitas into a lesser story, and he's shameless about doing it here. But I'll be damned if it still somehow doesn't work, and that by the time Cyclops is once again forced to stand by and watch someone that he loves be taken from him before his eyes, I don't get a little verklempt.

But in addition to all the angst involving Nathan, Claremont (and I'm more inclined to credit him solo here, as most of this comes through via narration and dialogue) also manages to turn this story into a sort of thesis statement on X-Factor's existence up to this point. On the very first page, he rightly hangs a lampshade on the notion of Apocalyps being X-Factor's Magneto: he was there (almost) from the beginning, nearly destroyed the team by transforming Warren into Archangel, and has now handed them their greatest loss in infecting Nathan and forcing Cyclops to give him up. There's a lot of other stories between his scattered appearances, but one could read X-Factor as the story of the conflict between X-Factor and Apocalypse, something this story, and particularly this issue, codifies (and, though no good villain stays dead, it's clear that Claremont intended this to be something of a final word on Apocalypse at the time).

Additionally, Claremont attempts to give Cyclops something of a character arc here (and complete the redemption of the character destroyed by the early issues of this series), suggesting that X-Factor has been about Cyclops coming to terms with his place and role within Xavier's dream, and accepting that a normal life isn't in the cards from him, going from the hideous man-child of the misguided Layton/Guice days, who left his wife and child to play with his friends, to the angsty Cyclops of Simonson, believing Xavier trained him to be nothing more than a soldier, to the more measured Cyclops of this story, who realizes that, ultimately, the goal of X-Factor and of Xavier is simply to help those who cannot help themselves, and that he's at peace with that being his life. If X-Factor is the story of the title characters' ongoing battle with Apocalypse, it may also be about Cyclops accepting his role, not as a student of Xavier's or a solider in his army, but as a hero.

Again, this issue is far from perfect: the plotting is wonky (Apocalypse is defeated when Cyclops just blasts him really, really, hard), the Inhumans continue to not really add anything to the proceedings, and the art is messy, unfocused, and occasionally at odds with the scripting, with characters just dropping in and out at random. But for the conclusion to a story whose main purpose was to make the characters more palatable for their upcoming back-to-basics roles, it's far better than it has any right to be. On paper, "Cyclops sends his son, infected with a cyber virus by an eternal shape-changing mutant, into the future with a strange woman" is patently ludicrous. But as he's done for much of his fifteen years writing about the X-Men, Claremont manages to drill down past the more out-there trappings of the genre to lay bare the heart of the story: a father saving his son's life, but at the cost of experiencing that life with him.

Next Issue
Next week: Excalibur: Possession, and a pair of Wolverine issues, as the series goes bi-weekly again, #41 and #42.

Collected Edition

16 comments:

  1. The one thing I didn't understand was the Apocalypse avatar in Nathan's mind. Is the avatar really Apocalypse or just Nathan giving a mental interpretation of his infection?

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    1. Yeah, it's really ambiguous. I initially read it as being a manifestation of the virus, but it's easy to make an argument either way.

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  2. Apocalypse is defeated when Cyclops just blasts him really, really, hard

    Inferno Mr. Sinister says hi. I find it quite nice and questionable on intentiousness resonance that in Inferno he gets his son back and goes separate ways with the X-Men, and here he loses his son on the eve of getting back to the X-Men.

    a father saving his son's life, but at the cost of experiencing that life with him.

    The moment of the two planning an assault together in X-Tinction Agenda just got a little more heartwarming. :)

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    1. Good catch on getting back the son vs. giving up the son. I also like the fact that X-Factor essentially begins and ends with Cyclops giving up his son.

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    2. And he left the X-Men in #201 right after having the son. This here is probably the most horrible case of putting the toys back into the shelf for the new creating team/book revamp.

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  3. Claremont has certainly been dinged in the past for mining one of his greatest hits in order to inject some gravitas into a lesser story, and he's shameless about doing it here.

    It's the Blue Side of the Moon, and it's the son of his and nearly the woman he once believed having lost there. Let the man have it. The lack of gravitas is only there because Nathan has been written by a lesser writer in the meantime. Had it been CC it would be totally Rachelriffic here now.

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    1. Askani explains her "kinsmen" comment to have a more general meaning, basically a "well, we're ALL children of the Earth, right?" kind of thing.

      "I'm sorry, did I? I meant your brother, Alex." I love how everyone walk to Cyclops and just lie to his face. Except Maddy, who punches it.

      A horrible thought came to me: what if she didn't get the kid back to the future but just disintegrated him there on the spot with her lightshow to give him (and everyone) a merciful painless death? They're used to doing that snikt of thing a lot in Rachel's lineage, you know. It was supposed to be a one-way ticket and they expected the whole node to be overturned by Askani's trip in the previous issue.

      And then one of the Maximoff brats usurps his identity.

      Apocalypse now seems to be placing himself in opposition to the group

      Oh you Heart of Darkness. :)

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    2. @Teemu: Hey, Thomas & William Maximoff as Cable and Stryfe is my original theory;) And Askani didn't disintegrate young Nathan, she gets him to the future where he goes on to become the time-traveller who starts off as Rama-Tut and later Immortus, Master of Limbo, in memory of his mother Madelyne;)

      @Anonymous: The dialogue implied that Apocalypse had been a servant of the Celestials and intended to take the power of the most powerful mutants on Earth so he could challenge them.

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    3. @Nathan, all Summerses seem to become Richardses in the future. ;)

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  4. The dialogue about the Celestials confused me- I thought Apocalypse was claiming that he WAS a Celestial- he does refer to mutants as "you mutants", implying that he isn't one.
    Likewise with the Twelve- I thought he was claiming to be draining the lifeforces of the Twelve into him.

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    1. Technically he spoke of "celestial pantheon", which may not need to refer to the Celestians specifically but rather on the sort of cosmic "gods" that Thanos will about nowish be imprisoning in Infinity Gauntlet elsewehere. One of them were the Stranger, who had had his own shenanigans with the people of X in the early issues of X-Men. And there was Chronos too, who you'd expect to be facing when going against "time itself".

      It's like Poc was really channeling Thanos here a bit, which I don't really like. His point of the survival of the strongest was a good new angle for a villain; his now wanting to use the Strong only for his own purposes renders all his previous dogmatic utterings as deliberate BS. Would love to see him go against the cosmic gods with his mutant-suck powers right after the Thanos debacle though; they would probably have just enough patience to blast him off with one Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of single shot.

      "You mutants" being uttered specifically when Askani shows up would hint her "we share the same Earth" being knowingly given BS and that she's one of the mutantkind. I expect Apocalypse would know.

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    2. Moreover, "rebel Celestial prisoned on Earth" is a plot long loved by the Simonsons, one of whom was writing Apocalypse from the get-go, which was solved, in short order, a year or so back in the pages of the other Simonson's FF #339-340.

      Still pains me that they didn't get to do it on a Havok&Polaris LS, though it was Claremont's other plot that rendered it undoable at time. It's possible though that he's using the leftover bits of that plot here now.

      Quite ironical that Havok and Polaris would right now be on the verge of getting (almost) their own title where their Celestial plot could truly be taking place, hadn't it be done by now elsewhere and L. Simonson be thrown out of the X-Factor book.

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    3. Yeah, Apocalypse's meaning is all terribly vague. You can take "celestial" to mean, specifically, the Celestials (capital C), but "celestial menace" could also just mean a more vague, cosmic level threat.

      It's tough, because this idea never really gets followed up on anywhere, so there's no additional context to lend meaning to it either way. We're just left with the text, which is vague.

      I agree that shifting Apocalypse from "survival of the fittest" to "generic cosmic menace" is a loss, though the idea of him being an imprisoned (or former servant of the) Celestial who has adopted a "survival of the fittest" mentality is intriguing. Nevertheless, thankfully, most of this gets ignored; by the time Apocalypse returns in "X-Cutioner's Song", he spouting his usual MO again, and it never entirely goes away, even while there's plenty of stories about him seeking more power for himself (like "The Twelve"). Heck, "Age of Apocalypse" is all built around the idea of world where his maxim reigns supreme.

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  5. >> The final image, positioned just below Nathan, is of Cable, and seems to be there for no other reason than to link Nathan and Cable in the minds of readers. In hindsight, it almost reads like "don't be sad for Nathan, he's already back in the form of Cable!".

    I wonder when Marvel, actually, decided that Nathan Summers and Cable would be one-and-the-same? Yeah, there was that hint on the last page (something I, admittedly, didn't pick up on right away). At this point, I think we were, still, a good two years away from getting official confirmation that Cable was, in fact, Nathan.

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  6. // The narrative captions in this issue are written in the first person, from Cyclops' perspective //

    We get no indication/confirmation that it’s him narrating until Pg. 5, though. As the team leader Scott’s the best guess, sure, and probably most readers’ default POV identification character when the whole team’s together, but on Pg. 2 there’s a caption quoting Nietzsche placed right next to Hank’s face which pulled me in that direction. I ruled out Bobby on principle and Warren on Pg. 4 when his name was mentioned.

    Plus, Claremont — or maybe Harras, rewriting, if that was known to happen on this issue, because it doesn’t seem like Claremont — misuses “erstwhile” on Pg. 8; while the word is often thought to mean “esteemed” it actually means “former”.

    You can definitely tell when the script is papering over some oddities in Lee & Portacio’s drawn-straight-from-the-plot art, such as why Apocalypse is presented so differently.

    This has been An Editor Looks at X-Factor #68.

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  7. I read Jason’s analysis of this story, by the way, and got a nice laugh when someone unintentionally omitted the word “fan” in his comment so that it reads thusly: “Let me just say, as a Cyclops, I've always appreciated this arc…”

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