Friday, 22 August 2014

Essential X-Factor volume 2

Essential X-Factor volume 2 reprints issues #17-35 & Annual #2 plus Thor #378 in which Ice-Man teamed up with Thor with consequences in the main series. Bonus material includes the original character design for Archangel, the cover of the relevant issue of The Official Marvel Index to the X-Men and Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Apocalypse, his Horsemen, Archangel, Rusty Collins, Infectia, and Ship. The regular issues are all written by Louise Simonson, with Tom DeFalco plotting one, and the annual is by Mary Jo Duffy. Most of the art is by Walter Simonson with individual issues by June Brigman, Sal Buscema, Steve Lightle and Terry Shoemaker, whilst the annual is drawn by Tom Grindberg. The Thor issue is written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Sal Buscema.

This volume has a cover design unique amongst the main Essentials; only the Handbooks and Marvel Saga have anything similar. The covers from issues #24 to #26 combine to form a continuous image which is wrapped around the whole cover, albeit with a transparent dark band on the spine. One consequence is that the word "Essential" is missing from the cover, perhaps a reason why the non-reference Essentials reverted to the earlier design for another year. It's a pity as I feel this layout is especially good at showcasing the artwork whilst displaying the credits on the cover.

The non-regular issues show a few varied problems of inclusion and placing. The Thor issue contains a guest appearance by Ice-Man that sees his powers increased out of control and this is followed up directly in X-Factor. However the Thor appearance is a two-part story and only the second part is included. It would have probably been better to have either both parts or none. The annual demonstrates a problem from 1987 as the regular series has some quite tight continuity between issues since the story flows from one to the next, thus making it hard to place the annual at a clear point where the team's day out in the park and trip to the Moon can take place between issues. The fact that it's by a different creative team from the regular series doesn't help and it feels as though the only character to have any lasting changes is Quicksilver, who otherwise is completely absent from both this volume and its predecessor. Otherwise this tale of X-Factor, Franklin Richards and Quicksilver both being caught up in Maximus's latest bid for power over the Inhumans, complete with a guest cameo by Power Pack, just feels inconsequential and easy to ignore despite efforts to delve into Jean's feelings about Scott and Phoenix. Here the annual gets placed between issues #23 & #24, which doesn't reflect the original publication dates either (that would be between #20 & #21), but this is the point where X-Factor gets teleported off to Apocalypse's Ship and not exactly a time for them to all go for a walk in the park. Still I'm not sure where the best alternative place to put it actually is.

Notably absent from the volume are any of the other issues involved with "The Fall of the Mutants". This was an unusual crossover as none of the three main titles - X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants - crossover in terms of storyline but instead in terms of the theme of big status quo changes. However a number of other Marvel titles did tie in, mainly with the events shown in X-Factor and there are references here to what happens in Captain America and Power Pack. The former's absence doesn't seem to impact on the story at all and is easily explained away by dialogue and captions but the latter might have helped to show how the kids got involved and the full fate of Pestilence, both of which are a little confusing when presented on their own. Also absent is annual #3, which is the opening part of the "Evolutionary War" crossover and which clearly takes place during this volume, not just because of the time of publication and the status quo depicted but also because the crossover's final part, in Avengers #17, takes place at the same time as issue #34 and is responsible for the Beast's absence from the latter issue. With the regular series seeing storylines flow from issue to issue and numerous cliffhangers, including at the very end of the volume, it would have been quite doable to push issues #34 & #35 back to volume 3 and run the annual here, with its precise placing no more awkward than that for annual #2. This would also have the advantage of putting more of the build-up to the "Inferno" storyline into the same volume as the main events (and is the reason why volume 3 is the place to consider the X-Terminators limited series). If the Essentials are ever revived this volume and its successor would be amongst the top contenders to have the contents reshuffled, providing of course that both new editions are out at the same time and it's always possible to get all the material in just a single set of volumes (which was a problem for a while when the new editions of Essential X-Men were staggered).

As for the regular issues, this volume charts the team facing great despair, destruction and death yet rising to the challenge to the point that "The Fall of the Mutants" really should be entitled "The Rise of the Mutants", ending with the team having achieved an amazing public relations success. Their victory over Apocalypse and saving of New York is lauded by the public, with their earlier deception explained away, and not only do the team become popular heroes but so do mutants in general. Individual members face redemption and restoration, but also some very dark moments affecting not only them but those around them. The series flows well with strong developments that enhance all the main characters. A recurrent theme is friends heading over to the other side, though in one case they had been secretly plotting there all along. The smallest scale Caliban, who becomes the first rescued mutant to be promoted to the full team, but he repeatedly feels inadequate as his powers can only track mutants and cannot contribute to fights. This weakness, and the team's failure to address it in time, leads to his accepting Apocalypse's offer of power when all the others reject it. It's a very brief rise and fall, and it's surprising how little its dwelt on by the others, suggesting that perhaps Caliban may have been right.

What is heavily dwelt on is the Angel's return. Having been rescued at the last minute by Apocalypse, Warren is now transformed into Death, the fourth Horseman of Apocalypse, despite not actually riding a horse. Warren is full of hatred from the circumstances of his downfall and so now armed with his new metal wings and leading War, Famine and Pestilence he is a force to be reckoned with, upping the tension no end. However he sees the consequences of his actions when it appears that Ice-Man has been killed and so Death turns on Apocalypse then flies off, staying his distance because he still feels abandoned by X-Factor and instead seeking his revenge upon the true author of his downfall, Cameron Hodge.

X-Factor's publicity director has already been causing the team problems with his campaign stirring up anti-mutant hatred, but it soon becomes clear he has an ulterior agenda. In the course of his aims he forced through the court order that amputated Warren's original wings then persuaded his old university roommate to leave all his money to X-Factor - with Hodge in control. It all goes on "the Right", an organisation Hodge has set up to destroy mutants, complete with some silly looking but deadly battlesuits. Hodge's motivations are rooted in class based superiority, believing himself to be part of the real homo superior, but there's also a hint in his conversation with the demon N'Astirh that his attitude to Warren is more complex. He talks of his private contempt for Warren even before the latter grew his wings, with a product of old money being scorned by that of even older money, but it's hinted that Hodge's feelings towards Warren are more complex and began in admiration, and also that his kidnapping and killing of Candy Southern may be to prevent anyone else being happy with Warren. Whilst the general idea of the team's business support having his own agenda works, some of the detail is offensive. Today it would be impossible to present a bigoted organisation under such a blunt name as "the Right" and rightly so but I don't know if anyone made a public fuss at the time about such a gratuitous swipe. The spurned homosexual theme is far more subtle but it does drift into a rather cliched theme that really should be avoided. Fortunately issue #34 ends with Warren decapitating Hodge, bringing closure.

The previous issue brings another form of closure as the Beast comes full circle. During the battle with Apocalypse's Horsemen, a touch by Pestilence causes Hank's mind to deteriorate whenever he uses his strength and over subsequent issues he steadily regresses. However new foe Infectia, who has the ability to rearrange people's bodies into monsters known as "Anti-Bodies", accidentally kisses the Beast and causes a chain reaction which restores Hank's mind but in his furry form. It has been less than three years since he lost the fur and next issue captions suggest this was not a popular move, so we see one further step in undoing some of the early set-up.

Not all the developments are reversionary, with Ice-Man suffering from his powers being so enhanced that he has difficulty controlling them and eventually has to resort to using one of the Right's restraining devices. Before then his main source o help has been the young mutant Leech, who now joins the other rescued mutants full time. Also added to the line-up is Rictor, a young mutant with the power to cause earthquakes. Ice-Man oscillates between being light-hearted around the children to showing a much more serious side when circumstances dictate it, slowly growing up. The younger mutants are at times sidelined but they're shown steadily developing control of their powers and proving their worth on the occasions they go into battle, especially when fighting the Xartans, aliens from the early days of Thor now impersonating the Avengers or, on a lesser level, dealing with gangs. Otherwise they settle into life aboard Ship, their new living headquarters, though show independence when they opt to take the Christmas gifts that have been showered on the team and donate them to children in hospital. Towards of the volume another status quo shift is foreshadowed with the announcement that the young mutants will be sent to regular schools to get mainstream education, not something they are looking forward to.

Meanwhile Cyclops and Marvel Girl are rekindling their relationship, with Jean coming to terms with the fact she has to compete with the memory of not one but two women who were identical to her, whilst Scott has accepted that his wife and son are dead when he gets the shock news that Madelyn had been alive all the time only to die with the X-Men, but Christopher is still alive. This leads into the big storyline at the end of the volume as Scott tries to find Christopher, eventually succeeding at the orphanage he grew up in only to clash with both demons and Nanny, a walking, talking metal egg who kidnaps children and has their parents murdered. The storyline isn't fully resolved in the volume but there's clearly a lot more building up. Unfortunately Nanny herself is too comical a foe to take seriously, even if her Orphan Maker sidekick has the horror of being one of the kidnapped children.

Although "the Fall of the Mutants" propels X-Factor and mutants in general to great public acclaim, there are dark clouds on the horizon with the passage of a Mutant Registration Act requiring all mutants to register their powers, but the response by team members is nuanced. Elsewhere it leads to increased tensions and fears. Meanwhile something almost magical is happening with everyday things coming to life in New York whilst the demon N'Astirh is plotting and seeking multiple allies. It all serves as a strong cliffhanger to carry things forward.

There are some individual elements in this volume that are silly or offensive, but in general it shows the series at full force, never resting but instead building things up and continuing to make this a very different series from the other X-Men books. The main cast are put through a tough set of situations but rise to the challenge and come out triumphant.

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