Thursday, January 18, 2007

X-Factor 1-8

After reading the first few issues of Essential X-Factor, I was none too happy, but having gone deeper into the book, I'm starting to get into it. At issue eight, I'm on the cusp of the Mutant Massacre, the first in a run of three absoultely incredible X-Men crossovers. But, until issue eight, the book has very little to do with the actual X-Men, how did it do in making its own world?

I'll still contend that X-Factor 1 is one of the most nonsensical openings for a comic that I've read. The goal of the book was clearly to reasssemble the original X-Men, logic be damned. So, we wind up with Scott, the hero of the book, leaving his wife to kick things off. That's not a particularly heroic start. I covered that in the previous post, but even after that, there's more odd stuff. Scott is basically absolved from guilt in the following issue when he tries to call Maddy and finds out that she has gone missing.

Now, he certainly still suffers from guilt, but as readers, we can't really blame him for sticking around with Jean and the crew, he doesn't know where his wife is. Of course, he could always fly back to Alaska and investigate his house. He got on a plane minutes after hearing Jean was alive, but when he finds out that Madelyne is MIA, he just angsts about it. I suppose he feels that she doesn't want him, but it's an odd turn of events nonetheless. It would have been more powerful to have Scott go up there, find the house abandoned and maybe find a forged note from her. At this point, I believe she had been attacked by Sinister's Marauders and was lying in a coma somewhere in San Francisco, so it would have been a good chance to show more of Sinister's manipulations.

I think the major change that happens over the course of these issues is in the perspective of the writer, the major change coming when Louise Simonson takes over the book. In the first few issues, I got the impression we're supposed to support Scott's choice to leave his wife, and the major issue is how he will tell Jean about his marriage, presumably leading to them getting back together. As the issues go on, we get into more angsty territory, Jean knows something is awry, no one else wants to say anything, and the naivete she had early on gradually shifts into anger and discontent. By the end of issue eight, the book is filled with angst, and that's pretty much what X-Men is about.

But, first let's track back and consider more of the early issues. There's a ridiculous storyline involving a mutant named Tower, a chance to do goofy switching between the X-Factor and X-Terminator outfits. One of the things I liked about X-Men was the lack of secret identities, and having this charade doesn't really work. The point of X-Men is that they are forced into this role through their genetic mutations, not because they wanted to be heroes. They are fighting for their people, for their lives. In the best eras of the Claremont run, the team was on the run, not fighting bad guys, just struggling to survive.

Here, the X-Factor front gives them a different set of issues, and once we get past the stage where they unequivocally follow Hodge, it's actually pretty interesting. By working for X-Factor, they're actually helping mutants, but they're creating a culture of hate. I don't know if there's a direct real life equivalent, but it has relevance for minority struggles, the need to make sacrifices to get aid from the establishment. As time passes, they recognize the flaws in the strategy and I'd imagine the Mutant Massacre will put an end to the X-Factor front once and for all.

The early issues do have some notable developments. One is the de-furring of Beast. This is symptomatic of the book's tendency towards conservatism, they want to recreate the original status quo, and a human Beast is part of that. Obviously it didn't stick, though I'm not sure how Beast gets furred again. It seems like whenever the X writers don't have a plot they decide to either turn a character blue or make them regular again. This blue-ing trend will crop up again later in the book's run.

The first four issues or so just aren't very good. The dialogue is apalling and the character motivations make little sense. But, then things get more interesting. The issue with the heroin addict who had to use heroin to stop his power presented an interesting conundrum, and admirably refused to give an easy solution. He stuck with the heroin because it was the only option for him, even though it ended up killing him.

This storyline led us to the introduction of Apocalypse. We get some hints of his actual nature, but it's pretty vague. He's not the menace he would one day become, and his design looks pretty bad 80s. I'd still contend that X-Men is best when it sticks to a more realistic universe, but Apocalypse had some good moments, despite the inauspicious start.

One of the ongoing threads I've liked is the development of Artie and Rusty. Artie's mutated giant head and huge eyes make him an instantly sympathetic character, and you can't help but feel for him when he's running out to help Rusty wearing clothes that are much too big for him. Rusty is a classic angsty teen, but he works in the book, his presence always making the older X-Men aware of their own insensitivity and self absorption. Jean and Scott seem to alternate when it comes to taking out their issues on Rusty. It was good to see Rusty get a companion his own age when Skids shows up.

I'd only seen these ancillary X-Factor characters in their crossover appearances, and didn't think much of them. They didn't catch on big with the mainstream, but Rusty has some good stuff here and I'll be curious to see this younger branch of the Factor develop.

Issue eight is the best so far. This is the first real crossover with the events of X-Men, specifically the Central Park fight from issue 208. So, we get Freedom Force appearing here, in a twisty battle, with the good bad mutants of Freedom Force doing battle with the bad good mutants of X-Factor, but who's actually doing better work for mutantkind?

Concurrently, we get the Jean/Scott angst coming to a head. She won't forgive him for lying to her and that makes things awkward for the whole team. Having personal problems converge with the major evil threats is what makes X-Men great, and this looks like a good example. Everything is in chaos as we had into the big crossover.

The writing still isn't as good as Claremont, but this was such a fantastic time in X-Men history, it's good to relive it through a different lens by reading this book. Popular opinion holds that the Dark Phoenix saga was the height of the Claremont run, but that's just not true. For me, there were two highlights, one was the Paul Smith era, which featured acutely powerful depictions of personal emotional trauma. The other was the run from roughly 205 to Fall of the Mutants, the era that has come to define the X-Men. This is when mutant/human conflict became the thematic center of the book, and the X-Men truly became outlaws, fighting for a world that hates and fears them.

I'm not sure what happens to X-Facotr at the same time, but I suppose I'll find out shortly. It's so good to be back in this universe, I love the characters, particularly at this point in their history. The X-Men universe is a vast mythology and I navigated much of it when I read the parent title, but X-Factor holds it own threads of the overall narrative and it's interesting to discover them firsthand.

I'm planning on picking up the second Essential X-Factor to read after I finish this, and I saw that Marvel put out TPBs of Claremont's New Mutants and Excalibur runs. After I finish that, I'm going to grab those and continue my journey through X-Men history. I suppose it's a journey that won't be done until I've read everything in the universe from Claremont's start to Claremont's end.


Jonn said...

I'm on the same journey myself, and at this stage now...

I agree with your appreciation of Paul Smith, a throwback to the Byrne era.. Dave Cockrum's early 80s stint was such a regression, nearly insufferable. Young John Romita Jr. is satisfactory at least. I'm really feeling Bill Sienkiewicz' New Mutants, a title I love for its glimpse of life at X-Mansion.

And yeah, early X-Factor is kinda lame.. the X-Factor concept, while interesting, doesn't really make sense. But i feel with Louise Simonson's writing (and later, Walt's art) things will get better.

Patrick said...

I actually think Paul Smith is superior to Byrne, Byrne's run had a lot of great stuff, but there's also a bunch of weak issues in there. Smith is so consistently good, finding the perfect blend of character development and story. You can see Buffy emerging out of those issues.

Romita's a bit uneven, but once he gets to the Mutant Massacre, things are pretty great, at least until the end of Fall of the Mutants. The book gets weird after that, and is not as consistent as it was before. Though, I do love Inferno for its over the top insanity.

You may have seen it already, but I review Claremont's entire run in a series of posts indexed here. I just started reading Essential X-Factor 2, so I'll be writing up that soon and I've got the Claremont Excalibur and New Mutants trades waiting on the shelf.