Friday, 19 April 2013

Essential X-Factor volume 1

Essential X-Factor volume 1 reprints issues #1-16 & Annual #1 of X-Factor plus Avengers #262 & Fantastic Four #286 which carried a brief crossover setting up the series, and Thor #373-374 & Power Pack #27, which tied in as parts of the "Mutant Massacre" crossover. Most of those additional series are familiar but Power Pack (which really deserves its own Essential volume at some stage) was another team book consisting of young children, initially the four Power siblings who were given powers by an alien, though in this period they had an additional member in the form of Franklin Richards. The X-Factor issues are written by Bob Layton (#1-5 & the annual) and Louise Simonson (#6-16), with artwork handled by Jackson Guice (#1-3 & #5-7), Keith Pollard (#4), Marc Silvestri (#8 & #12), Terry Shoemaker (#9), Walter Simonson (#10-11 & #13-15), David Mazzucchelli (#16) and Layton (Annual). The Avengers issue is written by Roger Stern and drawn by John Buscema, the Fantastic Four issue is credited to "You Know Who" (John Byrne, protesting at editorial interference), the Thor issues are both written by Walter Simonson and draw by Sal Buscema, and the Power Pack issue is written by Louise Simonson and drawn by Jon Bogdanove. Due to such an extensive list, the creator labels are placed in a separate post.

X-Factor marks the point at which the X-Men really began to develop into a franchise of titles, both expanding but also contracting characters inwards. By 1985 there was already one spin-off in the form of the New Mutants (which sadly seems impossible to collect in the Essential series because the artwork reportedly doesn't convert well to black & white) but otherwise the various mutants had spread out into other titles that weren't really within a local orbit - for instance the Angel and Ice-Man had been part of the brief lived Champions in the 1970s alongside the distinctly non-mutants Hercules, the Black Widow and Ghost Rider, whilst the Beast was a longrunning Avengers member. Then in the early 1980s all three were used as key parts of the New Defenders, which saw structure imposed upon the previous non-team. Similarly Dazzler had her own title but she was just as likely to encounter the Avengers or the Fantastic Four as the X-Men. But X-Factor represented a new concentration. The New Defenders was cancelled to release the three ex-X-Men, and steps were taken to bring Cyclops back to superheroing from married life and restore Marvel Girl to life in order to present a team consisting of the original X-Men.

The initial establishing crossover doesn't have a great deal of meat to it and does nothing to give a sample of what the series would be about. Ultimately all that happens is that the Avengers find a cocoon in a bay and then with the Fantastic Four they open the cocoon and discover it contains Jean Grey (Marvel Girl), and then learn that instead of having been transformed into Phoenix all those years ago, she was instead placed in the cocoon and mimicked by the Phoenix force. There's no actual conflict or wider setting up, just an awkward retcon designed to bring back a character who really shouldn't have been killed off in the first place, and it's done in such a way to meet editorial dictats. From a modern day perspective it's also surprising to find a major new X-Men spin-off title being built up in the pages of Avengers and Fantastic Four. Later on the X-Men titles would increasingly become their own world with their own crossovers and few steps outside. If the Defenders was a title whose run fell almost exactly within the limits of the Bronze Age, then X-Factor, as the book which the (by then) New Defenders was cancelled for, was a title of the early Modern Age. However the tends would develop slowly. Not included in this volume is the end of the New Defenders in which most of that team was killed off, leaving the Beast (Hank McCoy), Angel (Warren Worthington III) and Iceman (Bobby Drake) free to be used in this team.

X-Factor began as a reunion of the original five X-Men, with the same objective as the original school had, namely finding mutants and training them to control their powers. At this time Professor Xavier had left Earth for a period and the original X-Men were in alliance with Magneto, a point that alienates the original members. Consequently the only appearances of the X-Men in this volume are either in flashback or figments of Cyclops's (Scott Summers's) mind or a brief encounter between Wolverine and Power Pack in the issue of the latter's title but without any of X-Factor present. This absence allows X-Factor to stand on its own, as a sign of how all five have developed and grown over the years whether on the team, on another or on their own. However in order to reassemble all five some quite bold story moves have had to be made. As noted above the rest of the New Defenders were killed off to release three of the members, whilst a bold move was made to restore Marvel Girl to life that preserved the death of Phoenix.

But by far the biggest problem is Scott's marriage to Madelyne Pryor and their son Christopher. Madelyne looked very similar to Jean and was amnesiac, resulting in speculation that she was in fact Jean, but equally she could just have been a natural look-a-like. The return of Jean throws a spanner in all this, but the way it's handled doesn't reflect well on Scott as he charges off to see his old girlfriend in spite of his wife telling him that if he does he shouldn't both coming back. This makes Scott look like an irresponsible jerk and he adds to the mess by refusing to tell Jean about his marriage, until she deduces it and forces the other three to confirm her suspicions. There is an attempt at damage control towards the end of the volume when after numerous phonecalls haven't been answered and letters returned unopened, Scott returns to the family home in Alaska, only to find the house was put up for sale the day he left and all records of Madelyne and Christopher have vanished, as though she was never there. The odd hint is dropped that perhaps somehow Madelyne could have been Jean all along but it just adds to the mystery of a messy situation. These developments come under the series's second writer, Louise Simonson, and show an early willingness to move on from the original set-up though the changes are not fully completed before this volume stops.

The original concept is that X-Factor publicly operates under the guise of being mutant hunters, accepting payment to locate and deal with mutant problems, but in reality using the operation in order to locate mutants who are unable to control their power, bring them in and give them crucial training. With the X-Men having grown from its roots and the New Mutants focusing on the schooling aspect, X-Factor carves out a niche that both continues the concepts from the earliest days but also offers a twist on it. It's further enhanced by the team adopting a second set of identities as the "X-Terminators", mutants outside the law who come to the aid of other mutants where necessary. This set-up can seem complicated, and on more than one occasion rescued mutants can't get their head round it, but in general the narrative makes it work. However trouble comes early on when the media discover that X-Factor is being financed by Warren, a publicly known mutant, leading to legal investigations of his affairs and the organisation is facing financial ruin.

Another sign of the desire to go right back to the originals is the way the Beast's mutation is reversed in issue #3 so that we now have almost the look of the originals, right down to the shape if not the design of the costumes. Wisely they don't take the remaining step and restore Iceman to his original snowman form. But then after the early change of writers the series starts to move onwards. Wisely Simonson doesn't immediately change everything overnight but instead makes a series of steady developments from the existing stories, such as using an encounter with Freedom Force, a government sanctioned incarnation of Mystique's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, to begin Warren's financial and political downfall. But the more shocking developments stem from the Mutant Massacre crossover when the Angel's wings are badly wounded and subsequently the doctors tell him they have to be amputated. He refuses but a court order declares him unable to make such a decision and his teammates are unable to stop the removal. Having seen his whole world crash about him, Warren seemingly commits suicide by taking off in a jet and then blowing it up. It's an incredibly bold step to have one of the team give up their life not to save others or halt a menace but because they feel they have nothing left to live for.

As well as the five X-Factor members, the series also steadily accumulates young mutants who stay around the base learning how to control their powers. At this point there isn't yet a New Mutants style spin-off junior team, but otherwise it does feel a little derivative. The characters are a mixture of the existing and new, with varying degrees of self-confidence and guilt, leading to several developments. Boom Boom had previously debuted in Secret Wars II, and has run away from home, spending time on the street. She is overly sure of herself and given to using her power to play pranks, to the annoyance of others. At the other end of the scale is Rusty Collins, a young naval rating whose fire powers manifested themselves when a woman made advances, burning her badly. Rusty is the first young mutant rescued by the team and both he and they go through s steep learning curve not only about his powers but also how to cope with one another. One key factor is Rusty's growing relationship with Skids, another young runaway with the power to generate a friction repelling forcefield around her, but which serves as much as a prison as protection for her. Initially joining the Morlocks, she survives the Mutant Massacre and when her fellow survivors return to the tunnels under New York she instead opts to stay with X-Factor and control her powers. The volume ends on a moment of triumph as she and Rusty both attain sufficient control to safely kiss. The other main rescuee is Artie Maddicks, the son of a geneticist who tries to find a way to undo mutation (reverting the Beast in the process). Artie can only communicate by generating images but shows bravery, spurning the potential "cure" when he sees how it has been obtained. His father gives his life to allow Artie and X-Factor to escape from the Brand Corporation. Artie's strange appearance and inability to speak disturb some of the others at first, but they come to accept him and he frequently provides crucial help to the others. His longstanding friendship with Leech begins here when the latter is one of the surviving Morlocks temporarily given shelter by X-Factor, but unlike Skids he returns to the tunnels on this occasion. The setting is rounded off by Cameron Hodge, X-Factor's Public Relations director.

Throughout the volume the team face a variety of different foes, as well as the more general menace of anti-mutant prejudice - a fear and hatred that the team at times fuels with the adverts they run for their covering service. There are more specific foes including several renegade mutants. By far the most significant foe introduced in these pages is Apocalypse. In his first storyline he uses a team called the Alliance of Evil, made up of mutants Tower, Frenzy, Timeshadow and Stinger, and then seeks to boost their powers. Towards the end of the volume, in a protracted subplot, he's shown recruiting three other mutants to be parts of his Horsemen of the Apocalypse and again working to enhance them as part of his overall scheme, but this volume ends before we can see it enacted. However it's clear he's a force to be reckoned with, both physically and through his schemes, and he provides the team with an interesting original archenemy. Elsewhere the team encounter Freedom Force, formerly the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants under Mystique but now working for the government and their members include the second Spider-Woman as well as Destiny, the Blob, Pyro, Avalanche and Spiral. There are some smaller scale foes as well, such as the Vanisher, who has now become a Fagin figure behind young street criminals, and later the Morlock Masque, who can use his powers to alter others' faces. The Mutant Massacre brings the team into conflict with the Marauders, of whom Sabretooth is the best known member seen, and others include Scalphunter, Harpoon, Arclight, Vertigo, Blockbuster, Prism and Scrambler. Human foes also occur, such as Carl Maddicks, Artie's father who seeks a cure for mutation and uses the Beast as a guinea pig to find it. A trip to the Soviet Union (one of the more dated references along with some of the clothes, particularly Boom Boom's) sees the team face off against the Crimson Dynamo and Doppelganger, a mutant who can copy not only other mutants' forms but also their powers. Later in Alaska, Cyclops is alone and has to face down a damaged Master Mold, the leading Sentinel.

The big storyline in this volume is the Mutant Massacre, which was the first of the grand crossovers in the various mutant titles. As the X-Men and X-Factor were still being kept apart at this stage, the storyline basically runs in two distinct strands and so the X-Men and New Mutants issues are not included here. (Nor is the Daredevil issue but that's somewhat standalone from the rest.) Instead we get a tightly written crossover with Thor and Power Pack, not least because Louise Simonson wrote Power Pack as well and her husband Walter wrote (and drew) Thor. It's an odd collection of titles but overall the story holds together well, with all heroes contributing to events. Neither title has been remotely reached in the Essentials yet - the latest Thor volume only gets up to #247 whilst Power Pack hasn't been touched yet. Overall the story is very down beat, with many Morlocks slaughtered and the Angel almost crucified. One particularly nasty moment comes when Power Pack finds Leech's adoptive mother dead and subsequently have to break the news to him. Leech's traumatic reaction is moving, as is its effect on Cyclops as he wonders about how the loss of a parent affects children, such as his own son. This leads him to make his return to Alaska to try to put his family back together, only to open up a new mystery.

Overall this volume shows a series that starts off with one premise of being the return of the original X-Men doing similar work to Professor Xavier albeit through a different method, but then starts to shift away from that with the writing out of the Angel and the increased prominence given to the rescued mutants as the time expands, whilst the overall cover organisation appears to be heading for a financial crash and the team may be forced out into the open as mutants. It's an interesting transition without any sudden changes of direction within the series. However in order to set up the series in the first place some major changes had to be introduced to release Cyclops and bring back Marvel Girl, and both of these are rather jarring, whilst the wiping out of the Defenders was also a rather sudden move. X-Factor may have launched around Marvel's twenty-fifth anniversary but I'm not convinced that reuniting the original X-Men was an absolutely necessary move at the time and this does feel like a spin-off series created for the sake of it; the first sign of the rampant explosion of X-titles that swamped the market in later years. To the series's credit it takes the arrangement and does its best with it, and does its best to establish its own identity, but it doesn't yet stand out as justifying the changes made to bring it about.

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