Friday, 23 January 2015

Essential X-Factor volume 3

Essential X-Factor volume 3 contains issues #36 to #50 & Annual #3 plus Uncanny X-Men #242 & #243 which form part of the "Inferno" crossover. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Mister Sinister and Madelyne Prior. All the X-Factor issues are written by Louise Simonson bar one that is both written and drawn by Kieron Dwyer whilst Chris Claremont writes the Uncanny X-Men issues. The art is by a mixture of Walter Simonson, Arthur Adams, and Paul Smith with individual issues by Dwyer, Rob Liefeld, Rich Buckler and Terry Shoemaker, who also does the main story in the annual. A back up in the annual is drawn by Tom Artis. The Uncanny X-Men issues are drawn by Marc Silvestri.

The first item in this collection is the annual and its inclusion here is a bit of a mess. It features the Beast before his furry form returned, and was originally released between issues #30 & #31. It probably should have been included in the previous volume but it's not immediately obvious where it should have been placed; a sign of the problems annuals often bring even when, as here, they're scripted by the series's regular writer. The lead story is the first part of "The Evolutionary War", a story that ran in just about all the Marvel annuals in 1988. However it's fairly easy to read this part in isolation from the rest with the separate strands of X-Factor battling agents of the High Evolutionary called the Purifiers who seek to exterminate the Subterranean race as part of cleansing the Earth before accelerated evolution whilst the Evolutionary himself is attacked by Apocalypse with a battle over their different approaches of intelligent design against natural selection as the way forward for the human race. To be frank this is a so-so X-Factor story but a very uninteresting start to a large and expensive crossover. The back up chapter detailing the history of the High Evolutionary has not been included but it's no real loss. What is included though is a short piece in which the various kids on Ship learn about the history of the X-Factor team from their earliest days in the X-Men through to their recent surge of popularity. With the exception of the Beast's form this little story comes at a very handy moment as it recaps some key points including Jean's replacement by the Phoenix and Scott's marriage to Jean's lookalike Madelyne Pryor. This is perfect timing for what comes next.

"Inferno" was the big Marvel crossover of late 1988 and X-Factor has a strong claim to be the primary title, having been building up the storylines over several issues and containing some of the key conflicts. But oddly the storyline can feel a little confused upon entering issue #36, partially because the build-up in the preceding three issues was included in volume 2, originally released almost three years earlier, but also because some of the storyline was set up in the X-Terminators limited series which isn't included here despite starring the youngsters X-Factor have rescued. Perhaps this is because X-Terminators leads more directly into New Mutants, with the former team soon merging into the latter. The two Uncanny X-Men issues plus four X-Factor issues had been previously reprinted in Essential X-Men volume 8 but some duplication with crossovers is unavoidable and here the Uncanny X-Men issues have been kept to the minimum of only those once the two teams actually meet up.

Once it gets past the general scenes of Manhattan being transformed by demons, the story reaches some of its main focuses. This is not some casual event crossover where some enemy comes from out of the blue only to get defeated and everything goes back to normal. Instead, there are several big developments and some long awaited moments. The biggest one is the first meeting between X-Factor and the X-Men, which now seems amazing considering X-Factor had by this stage been around for three years and this is no less than the third crossover between the mutant titles that both have taken part in. But the meeting isn't smooth as there's a lot of distrust between the two, in part because of X-Factor's historic role of posing as mutant hunters but also because of the presence of Scott's estranged wife Madelyne Prior, who has become the Goblin Queen.

This is very much the story of Scott and Jean and Madelyne as several years' worth of mysteries are finally addressed and further steps are taken to retroactively clean up some of the mess created when the series was launched. We now learn just what Madelyne is and how she has been just a gene substitute for Mr Sinister and a Jean substitute for Scott. The confrontation between husband and wife is ugly, with it becoming all too clear which woman Scott prefers. But this is not a popular choice with his brother Alex turning on him in fury. In real life many a divorce and/or custody case has seen the relatives of one partner/parent support the other and Alex's fury is believable as he hammers home how Scott has gone against his vows and abandoned his wife. For Jean there's a horror of once again having a replacement going mad with great power, and worse still the Phoenix force has made Madelyne even more a part of her than before. At the heart of all this is a child, called "Christopher" by his father and "Nathan" by his mother, who is to be sacrificed both for revenge on his father but also to create a bridge between Earth and the realm of Limbo.

The demon side of "Inferno" isn't as interesting, with the lead demon N'Astirh a fairly confused character though it's possible that much of his story is in parts of the crossover not included here. Nor is it too clear just what the realm of Limbo actually is, since the name has been used several times by Marvel and also has the connotations of the religious realm. All of this provides a backdrop and some nice visuals, as well as the return to the team of Warren, who adopts the name of Archangel in the epilogue issue.

But the real showdown is less about demons than about Scott's past as we discover just how much he has been manipulated over the years by Mr Sinister, right from his days in the orphanage. We get an explanation for just where Scott got his first ruby quartz spectacles that could contain his force beams but more pertinently how Madelyne was created and manipulated. Wisely the story doesn't directly retcon Scott leaving Madelyne as merely the manipulation of Mr Sinister, but he was responsible for her and Nathan Christopher's subsequent disappearance that prevented reconciliation. Instead Scott's redemption comes variously in saving his son from Madelyne and then in facing down Sinister in an act of catharsis. It's a dramatic conclusion that does its best to resolve some of the chaos and baggage caused by both Jean's death and return. The abandonment at the start of the series is simply too big a problem to resolve but otherwise there's a strong sense of resolution and closure.

Issue #40 is a minor milestone as the first ever Marvel work by Rob Liefeld. It may lack some of what would become his regular themes but it's got several features that have recurred in his work including awkward poses such as Cyclops appearing to have two left arms, the Beast walking at an angle where he's almost falling over, many characters doing strange things with their feet as though they're dancing instructors giving a frozen demonstration and numerous marks and lines on faces. Fortunately the main villain is one that it's hard to draw badly, as Nanny is just an egg with a voice and limbs. It's not the wildest piece of work but it's a style that's quite different from before and it's amazing that Liefeld went on to enjoy the sales and success that he did. He's far from the only reason the comics industry developed the way it did over the next several years (and I often feel that some of the criticisms of him are really proxies for dislike of industry developments and corporate decisions for which he was the easiest target) but it's an unfortunate development nonetheless.

"Inferno" may have forced itself into numerous other titles but the reverse is resisted here when it comes to "Acts of Vengeance" with issues #49 & #50 making it clear their primary purpose is to finish off the title's own "Judgement War" storyline and confining the crossover to two standalone pages in the former issue and a six page back up in the latter. This may be one of the earliest signs of "writing for the trade", and indeed I'm informed that the Acts of Vengeance Crossovers Omnibus edition only reprints these eight pages rather than the full issues, though here it's the crossover rather than the book's own plots that are confined to the easy to remove pages. It almost feels as though Apocalypse is expressing not only his own thoughts but those of an irritated Louise Simonson (though one could reasonably point out that she wrote all the core "Inferno" issues bar the Uncanny X-Men ones and that crossover had also intruded on an awful lot of titles). Apocalypse observes the events and comments on how some of the villains are bafflingly "out of character" and actually calls the whole thing an "absurdity" and "already a failure" as he rather bluntly declines an invitation to join the leadership of the villains' alliance. Looking at the basic premise of the crossover is probably best left to a review of a more central part of the event, but it's hard to deny that it requires some basic leaps in goals by villains. For a genocidal tyrant who seeks to advance the strongest in the human race to team up with a group including, amongst others, a New York crimelord would be a very strange move even though having its main villain in the alliance's leadership would have raised the profile of X-Factor as a series and couldn't have been more illogical than having a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi war criminal working together. Still the encounter means the Essential volume is bookended by Apocalypse engaged in both a physical and philosophical battle with the lead villain in a major crossover.

Nestled between "Inferno" and "Judgement War" is a curious two-parter which introduces Alchemy, a mutant created by the winner of a contest. As the name implies Alchemy has a Midas Touch and a curious group called Troll Associates who plan to use him to destroy the British economy by creating so much gold as to make it worthless and then return the country to the days of magic. It's odd to encounter traditional monsters engaged in economic warfare and the story is also bizarre for the way Jean insists on taking Christopher, a mere baby, on the mission with them despite the all too clear danger.

Midway through "Judgement War" the series confesses to missing its deadlines and runs a fill-in from file, complete with an extra page at the start to allow for a random flashback to completely unrelated events. We get a solo tale of Archangel as he reflects on how life is now so much more complicated and it's no longer so easy to tell good from evil, whilst a priest is running a home for young mutants but uses the "Children of Heaven" for street crime. It's a so-so piece, as most fill-ins are, but during the original publication it must have been frustrating to readers for such a long take to be stretched out even further by interruptions. (The cover dates can confuse as steps were taken to reduce them from four months ahead of publication to two, with a couple of issues cover dated "Mid" month to absorb the difference.)

As for "Judgement War" itself, there are some good ideas but the emphasis is all wrong and the storyline way too long. In the course of the story we learn the true origin of Ship and discover that the events of "Inferno" have left the personalities of both Madelyne and the Phoenix in Jean's mind. But these elements are very much side-shows in a tale of an unnamed planet full of mutants where a technologically advanced but culturally medieval society has settled into a rigid structure of castes including the Chosen, the Rejects and the Dualers, and those who reject it all, the Beginagains. X-Factor, Christopher and Ship are scattered across the various factions and find themselves caught in power struggles and burdening revolutions, whilst the Celestials are coming to judge whether or not the civilisation and world is worthy of continued existence. Frankly the planet's internal politics are boring and attempts to draw an analogy with the situation on Earth is limited. Of much more interest is the struggle within Jean as the Madelyne and Phoenix personalities struggle to assert themselves, whilst Jean gets a chance to atone for the Phoenix's greatest crime, yet this is underplayed. Overall this storyline feels stretched out of all proportion and probably could have been cut by at least two parts. This may not have resulted in an especially good "Acts of Vengeance" crossover but it would certainly have cut some of the tedium at the end of the volume.

This is another volume that mixes the strong and the weak. The best stuff is at the front with "Inferno" proving a strong resolution to a number of long running threads as well as a dramatic showdown in its own right. The rest of the volume is mixed with a number of odd moments but no especially awful moments even if the main storyline runs on for too long.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...