Friday, March 25, 2016
X-amining X-Factor #1-70
X-Factor, at least in terms of the first seventy issues which comprise the initial iteration of the book's status quo, is a series that had to overcome some pretty significant deficiencies to succeed. While the book's sales during these issues were, likely, always safe, wedded as it was (at least in terms of publishing) to the bestselling X-Men and New Mutants books, it was born of an editorial fiat (the return of Jean Grey) which pissed off many fans (who believed, not without merit, that it trampled on the classic ending of the already-classic "Dark Phoenix Saga") and nearly drove Chris Claremont away from Marvel an entire spinoff series-early. Secondly, the initial premise of the series, which featured the originally X-Men posing as human mutant hunters and mutant freedom fighters at the same time, was positively dreadful, on several levels: it didn't make much sense, it made the main characters look like idiots for not realizing how idiotic it was, and it utterly destroyed Cyclops, turning a character who had received the closest thing to a happy ending one can get in superhero comics into a moronic cad who abandoned his wife and newborn so, essentially so he could runoff and play with his friends (and, of course, make time with his old girlfriend).
It also didn't help that, under initial writer Bob Layton and artist Jackson Guice, the early issues of the series eschewed a very conscious Silver Age vibe, going so far as to revert Beast from his blue and furry form to flesh-and-blood, the better to reflect the physical makeup of the original X-Men from the sixties (and perpetuate the mutant hunter ruse). The problem was that not only had all the characters, not just Cyclops, changed, developed, and grown up since those comics were originally published, the X-Men universe, and comics in general, had grown up and changed as well, making X-Factor in its initial goings read very differently than its contemporaries, both within the X-line and out.
That this original run of X-Factor is remembered at all (let alone with some affection) is down to one person: Louise Simonson. In the same way a young Chris Claremont took over the X-Men relaunch from Len Wein, Simonson came onto X-Factor early in its run and set about making it her own. In her very first issue, Apocalypse debuted, and in the process, Simonson took out a relatively goofy, old school super-villain (the Owl, who was Layton and Guice's original choice for the secret mastermind of the Alliance of Evil) and replaced him with a character who would go on to not only become X-Factor's chief antagonist, but arguably the second most significant X-Men villain of all time, one who would go on to dominate the 90s (the height of the X-Men's sales success), in the process receiving an entire, four-month long crossover event dedicated to himself.
Despite the ludicrousness of the "mutant hunter" premise, Simonson, a former editor, took her time dismantling it, to her credit. Coming aboard with issue #6, it wasn't until #26 that the final nail was put in the coffin of the mutant hunter's ruse. Slowly, over the course of those twenty issues, Simonson had the main characters begin to question the effectiveness of the ruse, even while building up a secret menace manipulating them from behind the scenes (PR man Cameron Hodge, who could make a pretty solid attempt at unseating Apocalypse as X-Factor's true villain, at least within the confines of these seventy issues). Seeing how broken Cyclops' character had become, Simonson turned into the skid, putting him through the psychological ringer and having him question his sanity, breaking him down further before building him back up (a process that took an additional dozen or so issues beyond #26, and the character assassination of his wife, to complete). During this stretch of issues, the series became deeply soap operatic, the interactions of the various characters more the focus than super-powered battles. Where Layton and Guice had tried for a retro aesthetic, Simonson did the opposite, pushing the team forward and consciously changing the characters: boosting Iceman's power, restoring Beast's furry form, and transforming Angel (in a long-running plot that mirrored the book's larger transformation) in the late 80s into the very 90s Archangel.
She expanded on the series' supporting cast as well, first, by picking up on cues from Layton and Guice (who introduced Rusty and Artie in the series' earliest issues) to create an entire group of young mutant charges (the New Mutants to X-Factor's X-Men), then by introducing reporter Trish Tilby and bringing back Angel's old girlfriend Candy Southern (adding to the soap opera feel). Post-"Fall of the Mutants" X-Factor's new base of operations, Ship, became a character in his own right, and later still, after the kids had left to officially join the New Mutants and start down the road towards X-Force, she added Opal Tanaka and Charlotte Jones, bringing back the soap opera feel after a stretch of issues in which the main characters were involved in a prolonged outer space adventure.
Simonson's run is far from perfect. As a writer, she certainly has her share of tics, and there are structural problems with the series (particularly in the back half). "Fall of the Mutants" establishes a new, and relatively novel, status quo for the characters, making them public, and relatively well-regarded, mutant superheroes, an idea that never really gets explored (or used as a catalyst for stories) all that much (if anything, the second iteration of the series, starting with issue #71, features the series finally, truly, embracing the idea of public mutant superheroes). The immediate aftermath of that idea gets steamrolled by the setup for "Inferno" and shortly thereafter, the book takes an eight issue jaunt into space for "Judgement War". Issues #51-59 represent the series embracing the concept of "public superheroes" the best, but that stretch is marred by inconsistent, often lackluster, art. After that, the book gets overwhelmed by the 90s: "X-Tinction Agenda", the arrival of Whilce Portacio (who certainly injects the series with some much needed artistic energy), and then setting up the relaunch via "The Muir Island Saga".
The other stone around the neck of the series was its isolation from the rest of the X-books. It took three "crossovers" before the X-Men and X-Factor interacted directly, with both series going to increasingly-ludicrous lengths to explain how each remained ignorant of or isolated from each other. And even after that initial first contact was made and the teams reconciled in "Inferno", all three X-books remained mostly separate: the New Mutants briefly moved in with X-Factor, a status quo that would have been worth exploring further, but then they went off to Asgard, X-Factor went into space, and the X-Men returned to Australia (and, shortly thereafter, dissolution). The series definitely lost something, not only in having to waste time explaining the enforced separation but also from not being able to, at least periodically, interact with its fellow X-books.
Ultimately, the first seventy issues of X-Factor are the tale of series succeeding often in spite of itself, a series which never quite reaches the highs of contemporaneous issues of X-Men or New Mutants, but also one which never quite reaches the nadir of those respective series, one which overcame a horrible initial premises to become consistently readable and entertaining, before eventually settling in to a middling rut, casting about for a strong artistic collaborator and never quite living up to the new premise its author so painstakingly constructed.
Five Favorite Supporting Characters
The Cyclops of X-Factor's young charges, he's a bit of a milksop, but gets points for being the first, and most-tenured, of said charges. Plus, his legal troubles give the series a bit of narrative spine outside the comings and goings of the main characters, with his principled stand to not sign the Mutant Registration Act but turn himself in to military authorities in X-Factor #33 a particularly highlight. A shame he vanishes so entirely into the ether of the 90s.
So painfully 80s (especially during her X-Factor tenure), I can't deny being somewhat charmed by her nonetheless. Like Jubilee would much later, she manages to strike the right balance between being disdainful of what's going on around her without making the reader feel stupid for being less disdainful of it than her.
3. Trish Tilby
Between the presence of playboy and public mutant Warren Worthington in their midst and their roles first as mutant hunters and then as public superheroes, much of X-Factor is about the characters interaction with the media, Trish is often the focal point for that, and she works as a character because, ultimately, her purpose is the truth. She is refreshingly not anti-mutant, but also isn't willing to cover-up a story just because it paints mutants in a bad light.
I have a lot of affection for Ship, who is a thematically problematic concept (what with the whole "designed to keep out non-mutants" thing) who introduces a sci-fi bent to a group of characters that don't really need it, but I still love the idea of the X-Factor living in a giant spaceship that talks to them and makes them clothes and is pretty much the sixth member of the team despite being just, you know, a disembodied voice. Ship feels very Bronze Age, the natural evolution of something like Cerebro, before the 90s makes things too dark and serious for something like a talking space ship, and X-Factor is a decidedly Bronze Age series, so it fits.
1. Charlotte Jones
Easily the strongest of Simonson's three "love interests for the non-Cyclops men" characters. Despite being a supporting character with relatively little page time, Charlottle feels like a fully-formed character, so much more than just "Archangel's girlfriend". It's no wonder that Claremont seemingly took a shine to her (using her in Uncanny and again in his brief X-Factor run), as she reads very much like a Claremont character: a strong, decisive woman, with multiple avenues to both bring her into stories and create stories featuring her. She'll pop up in post-relaunch Uncanny a bit, but it's a shame that her heyday is limited to so few issues.
Five Favorite Covers
Despite having Walt Simonson has its regular artist for a good chunk of its existence, X-Factor has very few strong, iconic covers.
5. X-Factor #62
A bit of a cheat, since it's by Jim Lee, and he never did any interior art for the series, and it features only a few X-Factor characters on it, but nevertheless, this cover finishes off "X-Tinction Agenda" on a high note, built around the central image of Havok with some neat details (like Hodge in the foreground, and the way the orange energy burst in the background mimics the top half of the "X" in the logo).
4. X-Factor #70
A simple image from Mike Mignola, but one which conveys the tone of the contents inside and the issue's role as the epilogue to a crossover, while keeping the title characters highlighted (despite the fact that they're all but X-Men at this point).
3. X-Factor #66
Issues #65-67 are all pretty much variations on Whilce Portacio team shots, but of the three, this is my favorite, for the way it tells a bit of story, suggesting danger closing in around the characters by the way Beast, Iceman and Archangel are drawn, injects Cyclops and Marvel Girl with some emotion just from the way they're drawn, and presents a figurative representation of Apocalypse's threat, rather than just drawing in the villain looming in the background.
2. X-Factor #25
The covers to the series' three "Fall of the Mutants" tie-ins form one large image, but while the third portion of that image in #26 is a pretty standard team shot showcasing the group's new uniforms, the other two pieces are standout covers on their own. This one showcases the barbarity of Apocalypse while featuring his Horsemen rushing off to action, all while Ship looms large in the background, threatening the city itself. Rarely does the title of a crossover plastered over the logo work so well with the cover image itself: it's called "Fall of the Mutants" and there's the title mutants right there, fallen.
1. X-Factor #24
There's arguably no bigger event in the first seventy issues of X-Factor than the transformation of Angel into Archangel, and that reveal gets center stage in this cover. But it goes above and beyond by being more than just a pinup image of the character's newest look. Archangel flying right at the reader grabs immediate attention, but then the background comes into focus, as we see the rest of X-Factor restrained, adding another layer of intrigue to get readers to pick up the book and read past the cover.
Five Favorite Stories
5. "Mutant Massacre" - X-Factor #9-#10
Technically, X-Factor's contribution to the first annual X-crossover doesn't start until issue #10 and runs through issue #12, but issues #9 and #10 are the highlights of this series' contributions. #9 features a three way fight between X-Factor, Rusty & Skids, and Freedom Force, all the while setting up the upcoming massacre of the Morlocks and indirectly crossing over with Uncanny X-Men #210, a dense, "shit hits the fan" kind of issue that also benefits from some early Marc Silvestri art. Issue #10 is the debut of Walt Simonson, and he immediately makes his mark via brutal depictions of the Marauders' attack on the Morlocks, culminating in their savage beating of Angel, one of the most iconic moments of the entire X-narrative, which starts the character on the road towards becoming Archangel
4. "Judgement War" - X-Factor #43-50
I can't begrudge anyone who doesn't like this story, but I also can't deny my (admittedly questionable) love for it. It runs too long, takes the title characters to far afield from their usual surroundings and completely kills any momentum in terms of their ongoing status quo and supporting cast, but I really appreciate the way Simonson and artist Paul Smith manage to create such a richly detailed world and so many new characters, a world which, while ridiculously far away from Earth, still offers some thematic resonance for the series as a whole. And though it's not as sharp as his earlier work on Uncanny X-Men and suffers (as most art does) under Al Milgrom's inks, a big heaping helping of Paul Smith artwork is always appreciated, as he strikes the right balance between the barbarian and sci-fi stylings of the alien world, making the whole thing look a bit like an X-Factor/Masters of the Universe crossover.
3. "For All the World to See" - X-Factor #33
A standalone issue that nevertheless builds off and sets up the issues prior to and following it, it is, like issue #9, a dense story. The centerpiece is Beast's return to blue, furry and erudite form, reversing the transformation he underwent in issue #3 and bringing to a close the "more Beast uses his strength, the dumber he gets" subplot of the previous dozen or so issues. It also brings to an end the "Mutant Registration Act" subplot, as X-Factor registers, and moves Rusty's character arc forward, as he refuses to register but does surrender to naval authorities. Finally, it features the return of Hodge (thought dead in New Mutants #62), setting up his showdown with Archangel in #34 (which in turn leads to Archangel rejoining the team for good), and becomes the first X-book to start teasing the upcoming "Inferno" crossover.
2. The Return of Apocalypse - X-Factor #65-#68
With his first two issues essentially an Iceman solo story, this four part story represents the only comprehensive X-Factor story drawn by Whilce Portacio, who reinvigorated the series' artistic energy after a series of issues featuring inconsistent and/or workmanlike artwork (or the heavy, pouty lips of Jon Bogdanove). It's also plotted by him and Jim Lee, so the overarching story is a bit of mess, but Chris Claremont's script does its best to smooth things over. With the final two issues of this iteration of the series handed over to "The Muir Island Saga", this is the last hurrah for the original X-Factor, and appropriately enough, it features Apocalypse, their biggest villain, as his machinations lead to Cyclops being forced to give up his son to save the boy's life. An obvious deck-clearing exercise for the upcoming relaunch, Claremont nevertheless wrings all the pathos he can out of the event, scripting issue #68 from Cyclops' perspective, thus giving his son, and this version of X-Factor, a proper goodbye.
1. "Fall of the Mutants" - X-Factor #24-26
Of the three X-books which led the "Fall of the Mutants" crossover, arguably no series made the event feel bigger and more momentous than X-Factor. It serves as the reveal of Archangel, cements Apocalypse as a force to be reckoned with as he unleashes his Horsemen on New York City, ends, once and for all, the titles characters' ill-conceived mutant hunter ruse (literally smashing their old headquarters to pieces in the process) while introducing new costumes for the characters and a new status quo for the series as X-Factor is embraced by the public, becoming the first mutants to publicly act as superheroes, a kind of mutant Avengers, all gloriously drawn by Walt Simonson. It is, simply, the culmination of Louise Simonson's efforts to rehabilitate the series after its misguided early issues, and while the series won't quite manage to live up to what's established here, it nevertheless stands as the apex of the series in its first seventy issues.