Wednesday, August 29, 2007

X-Factor: Fall of the Mutants

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first volume of Essential X-Factor. It was full of the personal drama and character turmoil that made Claremont’s X-Men a compulsively readable series. However, after finishing the X-Factor segment of Fall of the Mutants, I’m decidedly disappointed with the direction of the series. There are some glimmers of hope, but right now, it’s at a very weak place.

For X-Men, Fall of the Mutants was the glorious climax of Claremont’s run, a reaffirmation of the series’ central themes and a perfect finale to the story Claremont had started telling way back in X-Men #94. It was full of really emotional moments and incredible tension, some of the best writing of his entire run. However, over in X-Factor we’ve got essentially one long, near impossible to follow action sequence tracing X-Factor’s battle against Apocalypse and their former friend Warren, now reborn as Apocalypse’s Angel of Death.

The key to Claremont’s X-Men, and its stylistic children like Joss Whedon’s Buffy, was the use of action sequences to play out emotional drama. The characters’ lives are rarely threatened in a serious way, so we need to have emotional stakes to the drama. The rebirth of Angel was an attempt to do this, but it just doesn’t play in any meaningful way. One issue is the black and white reprints, which diminish the drama of his blue transition.

However, a bigger issue is the fact that the Angel we see here has virtually no connection with the Angel from earlier in the series. He doesn’t attack the characters on an emotional level, like Dark Phoenix, he is just a villain who happens to be the guy they used to know. At the end, they manage to turn Warren back to good, but it’s done in such an easy way, there’s no emotional price. Claremont knew you need to put the characters through hell to make their victories mean anything, here we get a bunch of action scenes, then X-Factor gets a ticker tape parade. It’s not earned, and as such, it feels false.

The major problem with the series is that of the core cast, only Scott and Jean are interesting character. Beast and Iceman remain essentially blank, and Beast’s declining intelligence plot is just forced drama. It never feels real. The kids are more entertaining than that bunch, but they’re absent for the entire crossover. The whole thing is essentially a real time action sequence spread out over three issues, with no breather. It’s in those moments between the battle that you get to know the characters, when you see the people on the edge, facing death, but committed to each other. That’s what I remember from the X-Men side of Fall of the Mutants, the characters coming to terms with the fact that they are going to have to sacrifice themselves. That was the emotional part, the battle itself was almost an anticlimax.

The strength of early X-Factor was in the exploration of Scott’s conflicted feelings about Jean’s return, using the awful writing of the first few issues as a jumping off point for exploring Scott’s character. That stuff worked great, as did the material with the kids. But, most of the adult team remains frustratingly unengaging, and screentime with Beast and Iceman feels wasted.

Another issue is Walt Simonson’s art. It’s not necessarily bad, but it just doesn’t feel suited for black and white reproduction. The clear lines of a Byrne or Kirby look great in this format, but the muddle of Simonson’s art can make it difficult to distinguish between characters and determine emotion. The writing doesn’t help, with a lot of off panel dialogue and awkward panel structures.

But, the end of Fall of the Mutants does point the way to something better, Inferno. Scott sets off to find Maddy, and Jean must once again deal with her conflicted feelings about her return. Inferno was a crazy, over the top and brilliant crossover that essentially ended the golden era of the X-Men by clearing the major lingering plotlines away. It looks like Inferno picks up at the end of this book, so I could be due for a reread shortly.

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