Friday, 7 August 2015

Essential X-Factor volume 4

Essential X-Factor volume 4 contains issues #51 to #59 & Annuals #4 to #5 plus the one-shot X-Factor: Prisoner of Love, Marvel Fanfare #50 which printed an issue prepared as a standby fill-in and the lead stories from Fantastic Four annual #23, New Mutants annual #6 and Uncanny X-Men annual #14 which, together with X-Factor annual #5, make up the "Days of Future Present" crossover. Bonus material includes Cyclops's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The regular X-Factor issues are written by Louise Simonson, bar one by Peter David, and drawn by Terry Shoemaker, Steven Carr, Andy Kubert and Jon Bogdanove. The X-Factor annuals both contain multiple stories written variously by Louise Simonson, John Byrne, Ralph Macchio, Mark Gruenwald, Peter Sanderson and Peter David, and drawn by John Byrne, Jim Fern, Mark Bagley, John Bogdanove and Dave Ross. X-Factor: Prisoner of Love is written by Jim Starlin and drawn by Jackson Guice. The Marvel Fanfare issue is written by (Mary) Jo Duffy and drawn by Joe Staton with an "Editori-Al" introduction written and drawn by Al Milgrom. The Fantastic Four annual is written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Jackson Guice, the New Mutants annual is written by Louise Simonson and drawn by Terry Shoemaker & Chris Wozniak, and the Uncanny X-Men annual is written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Arthur Adams. Inevitably, there is a separate labels post.

The list above gives some indication of how this volume doesn't actually advance the main series very much - with just nine issues from the regular title this has almost the shortest stretch of any single Essential volume. The main culprits for this state of affairs are the annuals, with each forming part of a wider crossover but the two take very different approaches. Annual #4 is from the "Atlantis Attacks" crossover which filled up no less than fourteen annuals in 1989 and tells the tale of an incredibly complicated plot involving Serpent Crowns, multiple undersea kingdoms attacking each other, a great serpent deity being resurrected, superpowered women being offered as incubators and turning the human race into serpent men. It's all rather convoluted and the X-Factor annual is rather blessed to be at the periphery of much of this, focusing upon the kidnapping of Marvel Girl whilst the Beast is reunited with his old Defenders comrade Andromeda in conflict with her father Attuma, current ruler of Atlantis but, as he discovers here, not actually the main villain in the storyline despite the title. The forgettable nature of the chapter is such that despite promises we never get to see Jean being dragged away into the sky in the regular series with Hank grabbing onto her leg. The Atlantis Attacks annuals also contained a multi-part back-up story entitled "The Saga of the Serpent Crown" which retold the whole history of the central object. Normally these chapters are excluded from Essential reprints but it's included here, briefly retelling an old Namor the Sub-Mariner adventure as he battled with an emperor of Lemuria possessed by the crown. On its own it just adds to the general confusion that these annuals create when the whole storyline isn't present. Of more interest are two other back-up strips though one seems to have landed in the annual by accident as Magneto and Doctor Doom encounter one another and recount their pasts, seemingly for the purpose of setting out just how different the two are. The other is a somewhat comedic piece entitled "Inferno Aftermath" as two FBI agents drawn to resemble the Blues Brothers and even named Jake and Elwood explore the aftermath of the events and try to find out what happened, with X-Factor winding up supplying the cover story. It's a nice little piece that addresses how the general public seems to shrug off such events but it's also a reminder of how stretched out things have been thanks to annuals, crossovers and off-world storylines all affecting the pacing as the build-up to "Inferno" began back in volume 2.

The following year saw a shift in policy to running multiple shorter crossovers in related annuals, with the three mutant titles and Fantastic Four all tied together for the "Days of Future Present" storyline, a sequel to the well-known X-Men storyline "Days of Future Past". This storyline proved a mess at the time with the X-Factor annual numbered "Part Two" and the New Mutants annual "Part Three", and they were released in that order, but the contents were inverted such that the New Mutants annual comes first. This volume places the annuals in narrative order but the cover numbering continues to confuse. The story itself involves another time traveller from the dark future of the Sentinels, an adult Franklin Richards. Franklin wanders through the locations of his childhood memories from the alternate timeline, at times reshaping them to match his childhood happiness. Meanwhile the present is attacked by new villain Ahab, the master of the mutant hunting "Hounds" from that dark future. Elsewhere Rachel Summers is drawn into the action, encountering Franklin whom she thought had died in her own time and also having her first meeting with Jean Grey, the woman she recognises as her mother. With four different team books involved there are a heck of a lot of characters running around without the greatest of introductions and the story is primarily focused on Franklin and Rachel, with their parents getting only a partial connection. A major point left completely unaddressed is just who Rachel's mother actually is - when she was introduced her mother was unambiguously the Jean Grey with the powers of Phoenix in the alternate timeline but since then Jean and Phoenix in the regular timeline have been retconned into separate entities and it's thus unclear which is actually Rachel's mother. Jean now having both Phoenix and Madelyne's memories inside her does not help with the confusion. Overall this isn't the greatest crossover for X-Factor with such a key first meeting bungled and swamped by everything going on around it. The only back-up feature in the annual is a character piece focusing upon Jean as she visits Phoenix's grave and tries to reconcile her multiple identities, with the help of an elderly survivor of the Holocaust. It's a good little character moment that serves to cut through much of the quagmire on this.

Also focusing on characterisation is the prestige one-shot X-Factor: Prisoner of Love, since there's frankly not much else going on in it. This over-expensive special sees the Beast go to rescue a pretty young woman called Synthia Naip and end up in her apartment where he has weird dreams and finds out she is an alien and needs protecting from the mysterious "Dark One" who has killed the rest of her race. It's slow, dull, over expensive and the art suffers from both an obsession with drawing pretty women and such bizarre renditions of Hank that at times I had to check just who he was meant to be. The whole thing is rather random and dull, feeling like it was just churned out to get Starlin and Guice's name on the cover. It's definitely something that could have been left aside.

More worthy of inclusion is Marvel Fanfare #50 which contains, according to Al Milgrom's special intro, an issue prepared as a fill-in for the regular series but used here instead. It's been structure to be easy to adjust for use at any point with the main section taking place in flashback when the Angel was assumed dead and a former female acquaintance hires Arcade to kill Iceman and the Beast as punishment for X-Factor's anti-mutant campaign. Her motivations are more personal when it turns out she has a son with angel wings - and claims Warren is the father. In the present day Warren tells the truth about the woman and the boy. As a fill-in that could potentially be called up at any point in the title's run it has to be flexible but it turns into Hank and Bobby asking Warren about something that's been on their minds for quite a while since his return. Still it holds its own and deserves to at last have been included with the regular series.

Warren is also the main focus of the regular series issues which see X-Factor return to Earth and deal with a succession of external and internal problems, starting with Warren finding himself getting ever more out of control and lashing out at all around him at random and making for especially vicious fights with first Sabretooth and then Caliban as the former X-Factor member turned Apocalypse's horseman finally comes into conflict with his former teammates. Then Warren and the others face the vampiric Ravens, including Crimson, Coral and Azure, who infect him with a poison that drives him mad and into different personas at night and day, with his night self becoming an especially vicious vigilante, before the Ravens seek to transform him permanently into one of them. It's not all darkness as he steadily befriends police officer Charlotte Jones and by the end of the volume things are steadily growing between them.

Meanwhile Scott and Jean have their dinner interrupted by an attack by giant roaches led by the old X-Men foe the Locust, but it's not enough to prevent Scott going on to propose to Jean, a proposal she declines as she is still struggling with the multiple memories inside her from Phoenix and Madelyne. Bobby also finds a degree of happiness as he befriends a young woman called Opal Tanaka, but first has to deal with the misunderstanding Mole who seeks to protect her. Hank's relationship with Trish Tilby is on the rocks due to her reporting of a number of incidents that show mutants in an unfortunate life and the tensions just keep on growing. Old flame Vera Trantor turns up when she's manipulated by Mesmero on the commission of Infectia as part of a bigger plan.

These nine regular issues cover a curious period in the title's history when the team are publicly known popular heroes but instead of showing the overall effects of this we get instead a concentration on the individual characters and little indication as to how their status is helping the cause of mutants in general. The story of Archangel's steady rehumanisation is the main focus but at times it feels as if that's the only thing of significance going on with the ongoing Scott and Jean plotlines rather fizzling out whilst the other stories all feel a bit inconsequential.

Overall this volume feels a mess because there's relatively little meat to the regular issues and so much additional material that doesn't really add much to the ongoing series. Annuals and crossovers can both slow things down and here we have both at the same time, taking up such a significant chunk of the series. This is a volume very much treading water.

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