Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Peter David's X-Factor

Last Wednesday saw the release of the first issue of the Madrox limited series, starring B-list X-character Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man. While the current deluge of X-titles has many worried about a repeat of the 90s comic book nadir, I'm pleased to report that Madrox is off to an excellent start. It's a real bright spot in Marvel's oversaturated line. That's because the miniseries is written by Peter David, who during the dark days of the 1990s turned more than a few heads with his refreshingly breezy run on X-Factor.

Back in 1991, there were only two major X-team books on the market (a more innocent time, to be sure), Uncanny X-Men and X-Factor. (For the sake of argument, my tale comes between New Mutants #100 and X-Force #1. Just go with it.) At the time, X-Factor's lineup consisted of the original X-Men: Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Archangel, and Iceman. In the big crossover "The Muir Island Saga," both the X-Men and X-Factor join forces to battle the Shadow King and his cadre of brainwashed peripheral X-characters. It's classic Claremont "X-Men vs. X-Men" brouhaha. In the end, the Shadow King is defeated, Prof. X's son Legion is put in a coma, and the X-Men and X-Factor merge into one big group of X-Men, leading into the release of Claremont and Jim Lee's X-Men #1, which perhaps one or two of you may have heard of. (X-Men #1 sold 5 million copies. FIVE MILLION. I mean, I know a lot of that was speculators, but Jesus.) This, of course, left X-Factor without a roster. Enter new writer Peter David.

In David's hands X-Factor was reimagined as a government strike team to replace the defunct Freedom Force, the group of former X-villains (Mystique, Blob, et. al) whose eventual meltdown surprised absolutely no one. (In fact, Freedom Force wasn't disbanded. They were all either killed, maimed, or captured by an Arab-themed super-group called Desert Sword. Yeah, you read that right. Trust me, it was even worse on the page.) So government liason Valerie Cooper attempts to revive the government strike team concept, only this time she doesn't compose the team of mutant felons. Of course, most of the characters from "The Muir Island Saga" went traipsing over to the X-Men (which ballooned their membership to the point where they needed two strike teams and another title), so Val's choices for membership were a grab-bag of B and C-list mutants.

The highest-tier character as far as reader recognition was the team leader, Alex Summers aka Havok. Havok had been an X-Man for some time, but lost his memory when the X-Men were forced through the Siege Perilous (one of my favorite bits of X-continuity) and wound up as a Genoshan magistrate. He was discovered by the X-Men during the X-Tinction Agenda, regained his memory, and decided to help rebuild Genosha after the mutates were liberated. That's where Val finds him when she recruits him to lead X-Factor. Havok only agrees to join after Professor Xavier convinces him that a team with government backing would be a great help to all mutantkind. That, and he discovers his ex-girlfriend has joined up.

That would be Lorna Dane, aka Polaris, the female master of magnetism. Also included are Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man (natch), and Guido Carosella, who decides, against Havok's wishes, to codename himself Strong Guy. Rounding out the team is Rahne Sinclair, aka Wolfsbane, who follows Havok to the team because she's in lurve with him. (Well, she's in love with him and she was also mentally/emotionally bonded with him back when she was turned into a mutate during X-Tinction Agenda, it's later revealed.) David's best casting coup is to bring in Pietro Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, during the first issue, and integrate him in as a team member. Quicksilver, total outspoken jerk that he is, gets all the best lines.

It was certainly an inspired line-up, and certainly one that stood out from the glossy, hip mutants popping up in X-Men and X-Force around the same time. Of course, the thing that made X-Factor so different then, and continues to make it stand out today, was that it tried to be funny while still managing to contain all the mutant action readers were used to. The first issue of the new direction, #71, centers around a running gag about a mayonnaise jar that won't open, but ends with what appears to be the brutal slaying of Madrox at the hands of an unseen gunman. (Don't worry, kids. It was a dupe.) There are plenty of pop culture references (my favorite being when some bystanders mistake Madrox as the Rocketeer), as well as some breaking of the fourth wall, a technique David would later use on Captain Marvel.

I was re-reading the run before doing this write-up, and I've got to admit that most of the jokes fall flat. David relies a bit too much on puns, and a lot of the pop culture references were stale even then, let alone over 10 years later. However, David does come up with some amusingly ridiculous villains for the team to fight, such as the Nasty Boys and Hell's Belles, teams of mutants with ridiculous names serving as flunkies for X-villain A-listers Mr. Sinister and Cyber, respectively. These teams are so mangy, they make X-Factor's roster look star-studded by comparison, a point David has fun with. At one point Gorgeous George, one of the Nasty Boys with the power to change shape, comments, "I never should have had that third beer. Now I'll never remember how long my arms are supposed to be."

Fun stuff, certainly, but the humor angle meant David was less successful in dealing with the actual politics of the team. Guido's early insistence that mutatns be referred to as "genetically challenged" by the media wasn't particularly amusing in '91 and drops like a lead balloon now. And we never really get any insight into the actual politics of the team and their relationship to the government. Poor Val Cooper is mostly used for comic relief, but it's still pretty funny when Val tries to show the team their new government-built Danger Room, and the doorknob comes off in her hand, preventing anyone from entering. There is a nice little story where the team has to keep the Mutant Liberation Front from killing a doctor who has perfected a procedure which tells if an unborn child will be a mutant, and several team members are conflicted about the rightness of their actions. In the end, they save the doctor, but Wolfsbane destroys the research behind the procedure and Val covers for her. But that was about as serious as it got, barring a brief crossover with The Incredible Hulk, David's other book at the time. I'd talk about that in greater detail, but don't have the Hulk issue. C'est la vie.

X-Factor, despite David's objections, was dragged kicking and screaming into the massive "X-Cutioner's Song" crossover, and most of team was immediately relegated to standing in the background and making the occasional one-liner. Only Havok emerges unscathed, taking over leadership (along with Storm) of the collected X-teams in his brother's absence (Cyclops was kidnapped at the beginning of the storyline). This proved to be the beginning of the end for David's brief tenure on the title.

David still had one more trick up his sleeve: X-Factor issue 87, the issue immediately following "The X-Cutioner's Song," in which the entire team is psychoanalyzed by Hulk supporting cast member Doc Samson. And it's drawn by current Marvel EIC Joe Quesada, no less. In one issue, David cuts to the core of each character, shedding light on new aspects of their personality. Guido's power leaves him in constant agony, Madrox can't stand to be alone, Lorna has self-image issues, and Alex is constantly doubting his leadership. My favorite segemnt is with Quicksilver, who patiently explains that his arrogance stems from the simple fact that no one can think faster than he can, so he perceives himself to always be surrounded by simpletons. As he notes, "[My] life is being slowed to a crawl... by the inabilities or the inconvenient behavior of others. It's not a rational or considerate attitude to have, but there it is." Nice one. Nothing incredibly groundbreaking, sure, but it made for a refreshing change from the histrionic angst and brainless posturing going on over in X-Men and X-Force, respectively. X-Factor 87 remains the high point of David's run.

David's last few issues were fairly unremarkable. The team has a brief run-in with Random, a bizarre mutant-for-hire who seemed to have a superpower for every occasion. During Howard Mackie's later run he was revealed to have been created by the Dark Beast from Age of Apocalypse, removing any intrigue the character built-up his early appearances. Ruining Random is probably the least of Mackie's sins on X-Factor, however, so let's move on. The team had an unremarkable adventure in Genosha, (but hasn't every adventure in Genosha since "X-Tinction Agenda" been unremarkable?) and then David left the book. His successor was J.M. DeMatteis, and I can't really think of a starker contrast. DeMatteis is king angst, most famously for the Spider-Man story "Kraven's Last Hunt," in which Kraven buried Spidey alive and later blew his own brains out. True to form, DeMatteis celebrated X-Factor's 100th issue by killing off the fun-loving Multiple Man (he got better down the line). X-Factor continued to decline in quality until the aforementioned Mackie run, which remains one of the worst runs on any comic I've ever read. Oooh boy, is it bad.

Uh, anyway, even though David's stint on X-Factor was criminally brief (less than 20 issues), his playful tone and band of misfit characters stood out like a blazing sun in the X-books of the early 90's, and still contiues to be unique today. With Rob Liefeld's return to X-Force a few months ago, I despaired for the future of the X-books, but with David's return to his old cast on Madrox, I have a bit more hope.


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