Friday, January 18, 2013

Recommended Reading for 1/18: X-Factor by Peter David

Comic creators don't stay with books like they did in the old days. With very few exceptions (Brian Michael Bendis on the Avengers franchise, Geoff Johns on Green Lantern. Ed Brubaker on Captain America, and Grant Morrison on the Batman titles), writers are usually on a title for one, maybe two years and then are off to different pastures. And most of those runs are big, high profile runs. But flying under the radar, in comparison anyway, is the longest run on any Marvel title right now, and possibly one of the longest in mainstream comics: Peter David's 100+ issues on X-Factor. I'll be discussing just the current run on X-Factor, by the by, not the early 90s run, not to say that wasn't a good run, but I want to stay focused, or as focused as I can be on such a sprawling series.

Peter David is one of the first comic book writers I remember recognizing by name. His over ten year run on the Incredible Hulk is one of the seminal runs of the 90s, and still the defining run on that character. His Supergirl and Young Justice were great runs, and his creator owned Fallen Angel is a title I miss. I've read most of his novels, and despite not being a huge Star Trek person, I really enjoy his New Frontier series. This is a way of saying I have a predisposition to Peter David as a writer. I will say that, with the exception of the Hulk run, X-Factor is my favorite comic series Peter David has written.

X-Factor is a team of mutants that people who aren't big X-Men fans might not know. You're not getting Wolverine, Cyclops, and Storm on the team. What this means is that these are characters who aren't necessarily safe, characters who can change, and who can die (or die as much as anyone in comics can). One of the themes I realize I touch on often is character, and how comics I really love are ones that are character driven. X-Factor is the poster child for the character driven superhero book.

While many other characters have come and gone over the course of the series, the constant has been Jaime Madrox, the Multiple Man, who mutant power is to create doubles of himself. A character Peter David wrote in his original run on X-Factor, the series that served as a prequel to this volume of X-Factor was a Madrox mini-series. In that miniseries, we see that Madrox has set himself up as a private detective, and has also sent out his dupes to learn skills and return to him, where he absorbs them and picks up these new skills and the knowledge these dupes have picked up. As a man who can create countless duplicates of himself, Madrox is a person who can be in more than one place at a time and see things from multiple points of view, both literally and figuratively. And there's where Madrox's problem is: he is so torn by all those points of view that he is often moved to complete inaction. Madrox's journey to become a bit more decisive is one of the key themes that is explored in X-Factor.

The roster of X-Factor Investigations has fluctuated between as few as six and as many as twelve members over the course of the series. The initial cast included Strong Guy and Wolfsbane, Madrox's old friends and teammates from the original X-Factor team; M, Monet St. Croix, the beautiful and conceited young mutant; Siryn, one of Madrox's exes and former member of X-Force; and Rictor, who lost his powers on M-Day, the day most mutants were depowered by Scarlet Witch,, and who starts the series off preparing to jump off a roof and kill himself. Over the years, additional people have come and gone, including Longshot, the extradimensional freedom fighter from Mojoworld; Shatterstar, another native of Mojoworld, warrior, and Rictor's lover; Darwin, the mutant who can evolve to protect himself from any situation; and briefly Havok and Polaris, two classic X-Men and members of the old X-Factor who returned from a long trip in space to be asked to ride herd on the team by Wolverine. And one other member...

The character who has proven absolutely fascinating to me is Layla Miller. Created as a sort of Mcguffin during the House of M crossover, Peter David has taken a mysterious little girl with no personality and made her an interesting woman with real pathos. Layla starts out as the girl who, "knows stuff," seemingly a precognitive ability. but when Layla is displaced into the future, and eventually calls Madrox there to help her, we learn what the nature of her knowledge and what her real power is: she knows stuff because future Layla has told past Layla all of the things that she has learned. And her power is that she can raise the dead. However, in monkey's paw fashion, there is a catch: those resurrected are brought back with no souls. Layla knows what this means, knows that people she resurrects aren't who they were before their resurrection, and must struggle with the decision of what to do with this ability when someone she cares about is lost. Her stories also play with the idea of the butterfly effect (hence her eventual codename of Butterfly), that every time she changes something she knows was destined to happen it changes the flow of events. Issue #240, "Run, Layla, Run," is a phenomenal issue that shows Layla trying to make sure the future flows as she knows it should, despite the changes that have occurred, and gives great insight into the way Layla sees every day.

While Madrox and Layla are the two characters who I find the most compelling, it's the sign of a great comic that I enjoy issues that focus on the others as well. Since this is a long term series, where these characters have had plenty of time to grow, plot threads are laid down that take long periods of time to bear fruit. And with those kind of long, character based arcs, you get a lot of time to build on the interplay between characters and see how they come together and break apart. The relationship between Rictor and Shatterstar is hilarious, as Shatterstar does not always get the way things work on Earth, but is also very real; they're not a "gay couple," they're a couple period; they go through what a lot of couples do and interact is a true manner.

Wolfsbane left the group briefly to be a member of X-Force, and came back broken by the deeds she had done and pregnant. She is shown going through a whole cycle of grief and acceptance, in a heartbreaking series of stories. When Siryn also gets pregnant after a drunken night with Madrox, well I don't want to give away the twist if you've not read the issues, and I know Peter David wouldn't want me to either, but the result is something that leaves you with your jaw on the floor and your heart broken for this fictional character.

I mention those two story arcs together not just because of the obvious similar pregnancy content, but because their resolutions involved a favorite occasional X-Factor supporting character: the Reverend John Maddox. Maddox is one of Madrox's wayward dupes, one who was sent to learn about faith and religion. But Maddox met a woman, fell in love with her and with his role as an Episcopal minister, and decided to not return. When Madrox went to reclaim him, the two fought and eventually Madrox let him go to live his life. He meets with both Siryn and Wolfsbane at their darkest hours, as well as Madrox when he is near the end of his own rope, and serves as the voice of a higher power, a voice of reason and compassion. Peter David never preaches through Maddox, but he speaks with a faith and a belief in the good of humanity, and a worldwise knowledge that makes him both confessor and confidant.

X-Factor is also a great example of a series that makes lemonade out of the lemons of major crossovers. The series was originally pitched as a crime/detective story set in the New York neighborhood of Mutant Town, where the city's mutant population was moving, but right before the series was supposed to launch, those mutants lost their powers. OK, instead the team will work to help depowered mutants in Mutant Town. "Civil War" comes along and the series uses it to make Madrox a hero of the people. "Messiah Complex" tosses all the mutant teams together and Layla Miller disappears for a while into the future to come back as an adult. "Secret Invasion" introduces Longshot and Darwin to the team. While many comics take those crossovers and does the crossover as a story removed from the daily flow of the book, Peter David uses them to help forward his own plans and get some more exposure for the comic, all while not losing the fact that this is an X-Factor story.

While X-Factor has moved through various arcs and eras, it always seems like Peter David is moving towards something that he has had planned all along. Characters who haven't appeared in dozens of issues pop back up and it seems perfectly logical. Damian Tryp, a time traveling mutant with a variety of powers, was the team's initial nemesis; he returns and it fits the story perfectly. Agamemnon, a supporting character from the Hulk, enters into the hunt for Wolsbane's baby and it doesn't seem out of left field. Pip the Troll, a cosmic character, former member of the Infinity Watch and supporting character to Adam Warlock, becomes the team's receptionist and you don't blink. Peter David is a writer who knows what he's doing, knows how to craft a story, and that craftsmanship shows. Not every arc is world shattering, and there are plenty of simple fun one off stories, but every issue counts and advances a plot. The new story that just began, "Hell on Earth War," is something that all these disparate elements have seemingly been building towards for years, and it all fits together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle.

I usually spend a little time at the end of these recommendations talking about art, which is not my strong suit I admit, and it's much harder to do with this title. X-Factor has had a lot of artists over the course of the years, and few have stuck around for a long time. Currently, Leonard Kirk, Peter David's collaborator from Supergirl, is the mostly regular penciler, and I'm a big fan of his work. Other artists have included Ryan Sook, Larry Stroman, Pablo Raimondi, Valentine de Landro, and Paul Davidson. All are good artists, some are great, and you'll be happy to see any of those names on the artist's credits.

Now two final notes. First, the thing I think I haven't really mentioned is just how funny X-Factor is. Peter David is a master of the pun that's so bad it's good, the pop culture zinger in the same style as Joss Whedon, and the situation comedy joke in the superhero world.There's always a bit of tongue planted in cheek, and the tension is often broken by one member or another of the team cracking wise.

On a far more serious not, I mentioned once earlier that Peter David recently suffered a stroke. He is recovering well, according to updates on his website from his wife, Kathleen, but as I'm sure any American knows, health care ain't cheap. If you want to help him out, check out this post on to see what you can do. As I said, I've read a lot of Peter David's novels, both Star Trek and his fantasy and sci-fi ones, and they're great. I bought the whole slew of e-books available to help out. It only cost me about seventeen bucks, and having skimmed the first one that grabbed my eye, trust me it was money well spent, and it's for a good cause. Let's help out a writer who has brought a lot of great comics and books out by doing what we'd do anyway: reading More of his work.

There are a whopping seventeen X-Factor trades out there now, with two more already solicited. There are also issues collected in the trade of the X-title crossover Messiah Complex. The Madrox mini-series is also available in trade. The issues from Peter David's original run on X-Factor were collected in four trades under the banner X-Factor Visionaries: Peter David, but are currently out of print. Issue #250, the first part of The Hell on Earth War, was released this past Wednesday.

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