Friday, 28 August 2015

Essential X-Factor volume 5

Essential X-Factor volume 5 contains issues #60 to #70 & Annual #6 plus the crossover issues Uncanny X-Men #270 to #272, #280 & material from Annual #15, and New Mutants #95 to #97 & material from annual #7. The regular X-Factor issues see the end of Louise Simonson's run then subsequent issues see Jim Lee & Whilce Portacio plotting and Chris Claremont scripting then Fabian Nicieza and Peter David finish off the run and write the annual stories between them. The Uncanny X-Men issues are written by Chris Claremont and Fabian Nicieza with the latter handling the annual whilst the New Mutants regular issues are written by Louise Simonson and the annual by Fabian Nicieza. The regular X-Factor issues are drawn by Jon Bogdanove and Whilce Portacio with the final by Kirk Jarvinen and the annual by Terry Shoemaker, Steven Butler and Guang Yap. The Uncanny X-Men issues are drawn by Jim Lee and Andy Kubert with the annual by Jerry DeCaire. The New Mutants issues are drawn by Rob Liefeld and Guang Yap with the annual by Kirk Jarvinen. Due to so many creators, most of the labels are in a separate post.

This volume is almost drowning in crossovers, containing material from not one, not two but three of them. It kicks off "X-Tinction Agenda", a nine-part story also told in Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants. Then the annual is part of "Kings of Pain", a crossover between the three mutant titles and also New Warriors though their annual is not represented here, with a second storyline entitled "The Killing Stroke" running across the three mutant annuals only. Finally, the end of the volume encompasses the latter half of "The Muir Island Saga" which also runs in Uncanny X-Men and contains some major developments for both titles. It's lucky that not all of the latter two crossovers have been included here as it probably made the difference between getting up to issue #70 and not, but it reflects on an unfortunate situation whereby it became increasingly hard to follow an individual series without "having" to buy lots of extra issues in order to be able to read a whole story.

And the stories they got were simply not that great. "X-Tinction Agenda" is an overlong, excessively rambling storyline that X-Factor is clearly the least essential element in spite of the villain being Cameron Hodge. It's also poorly paced, most notably when a key character is killed off in a rush at the end of the issue, and it's the first of several signs in the volume that artists rather than writers have secured control of the general plot and direction of the various series but are exercising that control rather poorly, with the result that many issues are confused and dominated by action to the detriment of the overall storytelling. As for the content, it revolves around the African island nation of Genosha that was initially devised as an allegory of apartheid South Africa but in the year that Nelson Mandela was released we get a rather more violent overthrowal of the state and its apparatus than in reality. The plot hinges on the state's practice of enslaving, brainwashing and genetically altering mutants into "mutates" to serve as slaves for the country. A mixed group from the X-Men and the New Mutants are kidnapped by the Genoshan Magistrates and taken to the island where some are converted, with the remaining team members calling in X-Factor for help to rescue them. The story is grim and brutal, though some of the resolutions are rather simplistic in their effects, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that the story would have worked better as a six parter without including X-Factor since none of the current team go through any significant changes and there isn't really anything that comes out of Hodge's involvement in the storyline that hasn't been covered before. More so than any previous crossover, "X-Tinction Agenda" marks the point at which the mutant title crossovers ceased to be either major moments in the lives of all the titles involved or else wider events that individual titles brushed past and instead became regular events telling tightly connected stories in which titles participated simply because they were part of a declared "family" of books. The mutant books weren't alone in pioneering and developing such crossovers but as one of the best-selling set of titles at the best selling comic company they were amongst the most noticeable - and profitable - and so bear a great deal of responsibility for the development of such a mechanical process that interrupted and sucked the life out of so many titles. And when it comes to the collected editions this crossover takes up almost half the entire volume so it's not something that can be simply shrugged off as just a few issues amidst a much bigger whole.

The annuals show an alternative way to do crossovers. The "Kings of Pain" storyline ran in the lead stories of the annuals for X-Factor and also New Mutants, New Warriors and Uncanny X-Men but only the X-Factor chapter is included here, (this isn't the only way to collect it though - both Essential X-Men volume 11 and New Warriors Classic volume 2 contain all four chapters) as this is the point at which the team get involved in the main storyline. X-Factor arrive in Scotland to find that Proteus has returned, fused with an energy absorbing mutant and is now converting Edinburgh into a strange computer mathematics environment of structure and order. Together with the New Mutants, New Warriors and the "Muir Islander" X-Men, X-Factor have to find a way to persuade Proteus to stop, one way or the other, whilst from afar both Aim and the Toad & Gideon - the self-proclaimed "Kings of Pain" - have been manipulating events. It's a so-so annual story but with only the X-Factor portion included here it doesn't take up too much space needlessly. Also included are a few other stories from the New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men annuals. A three-parter, with the concluding chapter in the X-Factor annual, entitled "The Killing Stroke" sees the rump of Freedom Force - the Blob, Pyro, Avalanche, the Crimson Commando and Super Sabre - on a mission in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation, with orders to either extract a German scientist or prevent the Iraqis finding him. However it goes badly wrong when they encounter "Desert Sword", a group of Middle-Eastern heroes including the Arabian Knight, Black Raazer and new characters Aminedi the Invisible One, Sirocco and the Veil, and Freedom Force is further depleted. Another back up in the X-Factor annual sees Mystique coming to terms with Destiny's death and taking a cruise to scatter her ashes. The oddest inclusion is a short story from the New Mutants annual in which former X-Terminators members Leech, Artie and Taki meet an eccentric old woman who resembles Leech's late adoptive mother, whilst a mob assembles outside. It's a nice character piece but it has no particular reason to be included here. All in all the annual material here is forgettable but there isn't too much space taken up with stories from non-X-Factor issues and so it's not as bad an offender as the "X-Tinction Agenda".

Over in the regular series there's a real sense of a protracted winding down with a variety of elements brought to the fore and wrapped up prior to a crossover covering the final two issues. Louise Simonson's final storyline in issues #63 & #64 was the very first X-Factor story I ever read when I was lent these issues back in 1991. Today it still holds up well as it focuses upon Iceman's girlfriend Opal when she's kidnapped by the Cyburai, cyborg warriors working for her natural grandfather, Lord Tatsu'o, and taken to Japan where she is expected to marry a warrior and provide an heir. Bobby heads off to rescue her with the help of Jean and Mariko. It's a good intense personal story, particularly the scenes involving the warrior Hiro, and it answers various questions about Opal, but it's not the most exciting storyline for the series's longest running writer to go out on. In a way that should have been the next storyline, a four parter that sees the return of Apocalypse as he seeks to reclaim Ship. The early issues also contain extracts from "the Apocalypse Manifesto", single page profiles of each team-member with in character comments by their greatest foe. The story shows its age in the names of Apocalypse's new henchmen, Foxbat, Tusk, Gauntlet, Psynapse, Hard-Drive and Barrage, collectively known as the Dark Riders, but it gives a good exit for Ship and also a team-up with the Inhumans in a showdown on the Moon. However it's let down by introducing a mystery woman called Askani who declares baby Nathan Christopher to be both "the Chosen" and kin, as part of attempts to save her timeline. The story ends with Nathan being infected with a techno virus and taken off to the future. Children have always been problematic in long-running comic series and Nathan has not really aged at all during the run of this series so it's a neat way to remove the problem but it also has the consequence of once more wrenching Scott away from another family member.

The final two issues form the penultimate chapter and epilogue to "The Muir Island Saga" which sees X-Factor and the various groupings of X-Men reunited in battle against the Shadow King, with Professor Xavier returning and reuniting with his original students for the first time since this series began. It's a strong reunion that has clear repercussions but it's also very clearly an X-Men story that X-Factor have wandered into midway through and explanations for those who haven't read the earlier parts are somewhat lacking. The story sees the original X-Men return to the team but the final issue of the volume and indeed of the original incarnation of the team just doesn't feel like an appropriate wrap up issue with too much emphasis on Xavier and Legion or Rogue and Mystique rather than on the actual X-Factor members. As a result X-Factor dissolves itself into the older team in a blink and you'll miss it moment and the final page of this book is more concerned about what to do with so many X-Men. This is a real letdown as X-Factor deserved a much stronger ending on its own merits. Instead it goes out with a whimper, playing second fiddle to another team which is what it's done for much of this volume.

This is frankly the worst of the five Essential X-Factor volumes, largely because the regular series is swamped by all the crossovers and the original is wound up rather suddenly without a proper final issue. There are some good moments when the series is allowed to do its own thing but otherwise this volume shows how crossovers and franchises were starting to take over regular series in the early 1990s and it wasn't for the best. Nor was the increased dominance by the artists, often putting more emphasis on individual images than the overall storytelling and the results here show poor pacing and rushed critical moments. It's a disappointing end to the original incarnation of a series that had managed to rise beyond its roots as an awkwardly forced reunion book and often offer something much more spectacular.

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