X-Factor Review

I’d like to share something a little different with you for this post. Normally I post about videogames, but today I’d like to talk about another artistic medium I enjoy immensely- comic books. Specifically, a run of comics done by a writer named Peter David (No, not the farther of the celery wearing Doctor).

The series in question is an X-men spin off called X-Factor, and ran from 2005 to 2008 spanning 32 issues. And to be frank it’s some of the best comic book material I have ever read. It’s up there with Transmetropolitan and Ultimates 1&2 as some of my favourite material of all time. Honestly, for a serialised comic it even manages to compete with classic graphic novels like Watchmen.

Yes, I think it’s that good.

The set up is pretty simple. Marvel had a cross over event called M-day (an event being a big development in the Marvel setting which effects every character in some way- usually resulting in crossovers and a core ‘event book’), in which an extremely powerful mutant called the Scarlet Witch driven by grief and pain decided that the world would be a better place without any mutants. The Scarlet Witch’s power was to alter reality as she saw fit. By the time she was done, there where only about 200 mutants left in the Marvel-verse.

Now, anyone with a passing interest in the X-Men is probably aware that mutants are supposed to be representative of repressed minorities and persecuted cultures- often homosexuals (unique character traits that appear at puberty for example). This is a perfectly noble endeavour in writing, but I’ve always felt the message of persecution and bigotry is somewhat diluted when the offended party often has at least one trait which lets them throw anyone who pisses them off through the nearest window.

This is the first of Peter David’s triumphs with the series- the principle antagonist is not a supremely powerful mutant survivor, or an invading alien race- it’s that element of fear, bigotry and hatred that runs through a crowd.

Following M-Day, mutants were not killed or ‘vanished’ but instead the X gene responsible for their powers was turned off, and consequently almost all mutants lost their powers. However, many still bear physical deformities of mutanthood, or are open about their former lives. So suddenly the mutant hating mob has a plethora of targets without eye lasers to vent their hate on.

This leads to many of the depowered mutants establishing a ghetto called ‘Mutant Town’. It is here than the principle protagonist of the series, Jamie Madrox chooses to establish the base of operations for a private investigative firm called X-Factor. Their principle goal is to discover what caused M-Day (the X-men have suppressed the information regarding Scarlet Witch), and to assist the population of Mutant Town any way they can.

One of the chief elements that make this run so fantastic is the characters. Each member of the team is unique, has their own quirks both big and small and every single one of them has a well fleshed out and extremely interesting development arc. Even better than that though, their interactions as a group are extremely well written and very, very genuine.

I think that is the main selling point of this series- it’s authenticity. In much the same way that Alan Moore tried to push the idea of a superhero into a real world setting with Watchmen, X-Factor tries to create the same three dimensional view of each of its characters, showing them as far more than just costumed crime fighters. They have their hopes, fears, and aspirations. They are all fundamentally good people- but the way the world has changed has put them under amazing pressure.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the team.

We will start with Jamie Madrox- the Multiple Man, and the group’s leader. Madrox’s power is simple- he can convert kinetic energy in his body into duplicates of himself, and can repeat this process ad nauseam. This power has lead to some very interesting character elements. For one thing, he is terrible at making decisions. When faced with an ‘either or’ situation, he just creates dupes to pursue both avenues. He can also reabsorb his duplicates and gain their memories and experiences. However, memory being what it is he can’t really differentiate between memories that belong to Jamie Prime, and memories that came from dupes.

So naturally he does what any sane person would do with such a power- he creates a small army of dupes and sends them off to join the army, study at universities around the world, compete in sports and develop new skills. Of course, once he reabsorbs them, this knowledge becomes his.

This is what I’m talking about- characters using their super powers in realistic ways. Superheroes don’t need to be arseholes about their power, but honestly can you see Clark Kent deciding to take a bus over flying to an appointment? Do you really think Tony Stark doesn’t use the Iron Man tech to make it to the off licence before closing time? It’s that little extra bit of attention, that demonstration of how these heroes use their powers in their daily lives that helps make X-Factor so interesting.

The issue of creating dupes to lead independent lives and then… well for lack of a better term, killing them is also raised in the series. If that version of Madrox has lived for years, doesn’t it count as its own person?

Of course it isn’t that simple. Each dupe is an element of Jamie’s psyche. The best example is in the Red Dwarf episode ‘Terraform’- each dupe is an aspect of his personality made manifest. Some are his guilt, some his motivation, some his paranoia and some are that little voice you get in the back of your head which tells you to try and fuck things up just to see what will happen… So now you can see why he has learned to be careful how many dupes he creates. Of course, when he creates the dupe, he looses that element of himself and must re build it from scratch. For some dupes (such as aggression) this is easy. For other more abstract ones though, it’s almost impossible. This idea forms the premise of probably the most interesting arc in the series.

Next team member is Theresa ‘Siryn’ Cassidy, daughter of X-Man Banshee. Her power is the same as that of her farther- an extremely powerful scream and the ability to use it fly. She can also modulate her voice to make people listening to her do whatever she wants. As a character she gets surprisingly little development until the end of the run. There’s a very important event in her life in the middle of the series (I won’t say for spoilers), but it doesn’t really go any where. She’s mainly there for other characters to play off. But even so her motivations, fears and dreams are realised and while she doesn’t develop much, she is entertaining to read about.

Probably the hardest hitter in the team is Monet St. Croix, also known as M. She can fly, has super strength and also limited telepathy. Her background is that of a spoiled rich brat, who is with X-Factor more for the kicks than any real sense of duty. Think ‘Common People’ by Pulp (or William Shatner if you’re psychotic) and you won’t go far wrong. However, as the story progresses she is exposed to the real nature of the world beyond the gilded walls of her own lifestyle, and while she never really looses her brat like persona she comes to care about more than just herself. It’s her development that I enjoy the most as it’s the most subtle. She goes from constant put downs and abuse directed at her team members, to just the occasionally snarky remark or backhanded compliment as reality starts to set in.

Lending some Scottish flair to the group is Rhane ‘Wolfsbane’ Sinclair. She’s a werewolf- that’s pretty much her power. Her arc is similar to that of Beast- a battle against an animal inside her. As she says “I don’t know if I’m a woman that turns into an animal, of an animal that turns into a woman.” Rahne is also deeply religious and a devout Catholic- a fact that plays a big role later in the series what the mutant persecution gains religious backing.

The resident bruiser is Guido ‘Strong Guy’ Carosella. Guido’s arc is hard to describe without giving away spoilers, but it’s mainly focused on two ideas. The first is that sometimes you behave in ways beyond your control, and the second is the need to balance penance for said actions, with the acceptance that not everything you did was your fault. Guido is also an example of the beautiful subtlety of Peter David’s writing. Small hints are dropped before Guido’s ‘big moment’ which in retrospect are somewhat obvious.

The final character is easily the most interesting with the exception of Madrox. A depowered mutant by the name of Julio Esteban Rictor. Ten points if you can guess what his power was- and no, being Spanish is not a superpower.

Rictor's arc is about loss. His power to create earthquakes went beyond just simple muscle flexing- he was attuned to the planet and could feel the entire processes of its existence from the trees of the rainforests leeching water, to the shifting of tectonic plates, to life moving across its surface. And now the poor bastard just has the normal five senses like the rest of us. Over the course of the series Rictor has to overcome this loss, and is even tempted with the possibility of having his powers restored. Of course, the cost of doing so is great.

What makes Rictor so interesting is again Peter David’s skillful writing. Rictor is traumatised, spiteful and bitter but he is also a good person trying to do what is right. He lashes out at his friends, is overly cruel to his enemies and has a tendency to mope, but he remains pro active and is there when people need him. He’s trying to deal with his loss, trying to get on with his life, but he just finds it too hard sometimes. This is far better than most comic book writing where he’d either be a whining emo pissant or a paragon of ‘getting over it’. Again we come back to the authenticity that makes the series so great.

Despite all this praise though, the run does have it’s low points- most of them right towards the end. The penultimate arc is a cross over with the ‘Messiah Complex’ story arc that tied into all mutant related titles published at the time.

Frankly, it’s fucking terrible.

The thing that pisses me off is that X-Factor was a ‘street level’ story- it wasn’t about Doctor Doom trying to take over the world, or Galactus trying to eat it. It was about a group of people trying to find out the reasons behind the most traumatic event of their lives and their culture, while dealing with the massive phobic backlash against them. Now they’re up against a nationwide militant group of priests with access to better equipment than the US army, and Madrox is travelling through time. It’s a horrendously jarring disconnect from the stark realism of the first part of the run, and it has no place at all in this sort of story.

To make matters worse the Messiah Complex story itself was utter, utter shit. Well to be fair I haven’t read the whole thing, but what I’ve seen in X-Factor and X-Force turned my stomach. The thing that nailed the coffin shut for me was the characterization of Cyclops and Professor X.

Now, let’s be fair. Cyclops isn’t often depicted as a very nice man. But there’s a huge difference between a guy who engages in a psychic extramarital affair with a former supervillian, and a guy who explicitly orders, authorises and creates a team of mutants with the express purpose of murdering threats, who also have full licence to break the law and even torture people for the sake of their goal. And when Xavier finds out about this Cyclops emotionally blackmails the poor bastard into essentially giving him full control of the X-Men. And Xavier, a highly moral and extremely driven individual- lets it happen.

I could go on for a thousand words about the travesty, hypocrisy and sheer utter stupidity of a brain dead writer who thinks murder is ‘edgy’. I think the scene that sticks with me most is Wolverine heating his claw with a blowtorch so that he can carve off a man’s face to torture him. You can make this stuff work in the hands of a skilled writer, but it’s obvious that the bits of Messiah Complex I read were done by a fool with his head stuck in the Rob Liefeld school of comic design. Violence with no message.

Suffice to say the penultimate story arc of X-Factor is a terrible mess; you also need to read other titles to get the full story as the narrative is interlaced, oh and the entire thing is the complete opposite of what made the story so great to begin with.

The final arc is a desperate attempt to recover from the massive haymaker to the plot that was Messiah Complex. It claws back some joy in the form of more character development, but it’s sadly obvious that the series has jumped the shark and what was a glorious tale peters out into a very definite, if unsatisfying end.

Still, even allowing for the terrible interference from Messiah Complex, X-Factor is a really, really good story with some fantastic characters and great development. The art work is always well done and the way characters play off each other is extremely organic. It’s well paced, exciting and action packed with some great drama moments and well executed comedy relief. If you’re into comic books, or you’re looking to get started, you could certainly do a lot worse than this run of X-Factor.

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