Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Peter David's X-Factor: 20 best moments

There are times during the doldrums of summer, when you're having a hard time concentrating on your "serious" writing, that the best way of unclogging the pipes of their lime and gunk is to compose a long, uncritical fanletter to a favorite piece of mass cultural ephemera. It's worked for me before, so let's give it another shot.

I mentioned some time ago how much I've been enjoying Jonathan Hickman's provocative soft reboot of the X-Men books, and I'm happy to see new issues finally trickling out after the COVID-19 outbreak effectively locked down DC and Marvel's release schedules for the better part of three months. This Wednesday will see the release of a new volume of X-Factor, one of my favorite X-titles. I'm very excited for it, and yes, I'm aware I'm behaving like a trained seal clapping and barking at a signal from its trainer. Marvel Comics (parent company Walt Disney Co., NYSE: DIS, market cap $215 billion) is gambling on my having enough strong positive associations with the title X-Factor that I'll buy a new book with that name, sight unseen, regardless of who's on its creative team or what it's about.

This was a bet they've already won.

On the week of the debut of X-Factor's fourth volume, I'd like to go back and look at some of the highlights of Peter David's time at the helm. After all, the X-Factor books were his babies, and his authorship is responsible for whatever clout the title wields among connoisseurs of superhero comics.

I'm not sure where David ranks in the hierarchy of mainstream comics luminaries: he's certainly no Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, but he's at least two rungs above most of the other people writing Marvel books in the nineties. While the Decimation and Utopia eras were a high-water mark for the X-serials in terms of consistently strong writing across titles, David's X-Factor stood at the top of the heap, often giving the impression that it would be more at home under DC Comics' high-middlebrow Vertigo imprint. His All-New X-Factor, launched during the X-books' "lost decade," was a short-lived high point of a generally lousy period for comic-book mutants.

That's right: David worked on three different volumes of X-Factor across three decades. Before we commence to reviewing their highlights, let's take a quick look at each series:

Volume 1: Government Mutant Team (1991–1993)

X-Factor debuted in 1986, with Bob Layton as its first writer. Basically, Marvel wanted to milk more sales out of its increasingly popular X-properties, so it launched a third serial alongside Uncanny X-Men and The New Mutants. The higher-ups also decided that the new group should consist of the original five X-Men, even if that meant bringing Jean Grey back to life, retconning the epochal Dark Phoenix Saga, and contriving a reason for Cyclops to walk out on his wife and infant son. With the release of the X-Men title in 1991 (not to be confused with the long-running Uncanny X-Men), X-Factor's members were shuffled back into the X-Men, and a new writer took over the book and brought in an entirely different roster.

That writer was Peter David. Consisting of Havok (Alex Summers), Polaris (Lorna Dane), Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane), Quicksilver (Pietro Maximoff), Strong Guy (Guido Carosella), and Multiple Man (Jamie Madrox), this "all-new, all-different" X-Factor was a government task force: "law and order" mutants whose official purpose was dealing with superpowered criminals, and whose unofficial purpose was burnishing Homo superior's public image.

David's X-Factor was an oddity. In the grim and gritty early nineties, here was a superhero comic whose cast members were more likely to spend twenty-two pages making corny jokes instead of eviscerating villains or mowing down people with giant guns. It was a book off I wrote off as "boring" at the time (hey, I was nine years old), but much later—when I was capable of appreciating such highfalutin literary devices as "character development"—it became my favorite of the X-Cutioner's Song-era X-books.

David only wrote nineteen issues (and contributed to three annuals) of nineties X-Factor. Apparently he departed in a bit of a huff because he hated being told to put his plots on the backburner so X-Factor could be involved in X-book crossover events. The series continued for another sixty issues without him, but it was never quite the same. By the time he relaunched X-Factor in the mid-aughts, David seems to have gotten over his aversion to crossovers.

Volume 3: X-Factor Investigations (2006–2013)

There was a second volume of X-Factor somewherebut it was a four-issue miniseries, Peter David didn't write it, and nobody remembers it.

But the third volume is, without a doubt, the best X-Factor book. Jamie Madrox, no longer associated with Professor Xavier or his academy, opens up a private investigation firm in Manhattan with his former teammates Guido and Rahne. They're shortly joined by Siryn (Theresa Cassidy), Rictor (Julio Richter), and M (Monet St. Croix)—and then by Butterfly (Layla Miller), Longshot, Darwin (Armando Muñoz), Shatterstar, Havok, Polaris, and, uh...Pip the Troll? I think that's everybody.

In X-Factor's first volume, Madrox joined the team as something of a blank slate: he'd made a few appearances over the years as a guy who hung out on Muir Island and could create duplicates of himself. David elaborated on his background and gave him some personality, but he was never the focus of attention. In the X-Factor Investigations era, Madrox gets promoted to protagonist. The series explores some of the implications of his powers, such as developing an almost pathological indecisiveness from living a life where you can split yourself into as many people as there are options, and the difficulty of keeping your head on straight when your memories are an amalgamation of some hundred or thousand versions of yourself. We also learn that each of Madrox's "dupes" possesses an exaggerated trait of his personality: he has no control over whether or not a dupe he creates will be reliable, stable, or even sane. Moreover, though he can reabsorb them if he gets close enough, he exerts no direct control over any of his dupes when they're out and about. Awkward, amusing, and horrifying situations ensue.

From its inception, the mission statement of Peter David's second run on X-Factor was "expect the unexpected." To the book's credit, it's the rare comic serial that succeeds in travelling to some seriously weird and startling places without ever losing its grounding or going off the rails. For its entire run, it keeps you guessing. And while it retains the sense of humor for which its nineties iteration was infamous, this version of David's X-Factor is a whole lot darker than the first.

All-New: Serval Industries (2014–2015)

Harrison Snow, founder and CEO of Serval Industries, puts his mind to starting a mutant superhero team. If secretive independently wealthy professors and the federal government can have mutant superhero teams, he reasons, why shouldn't a multinational corporation have one, too? He buys the name "X-Factor" from the retired Jamie Madrox and recruits Polaris, Quicksilver, Gambit (Remy LeBeau), Cypher (Doug Ramsey), Danger, and Warlock to his all-new all-new-all-different X-Factor, which Serval Industries owns lock, stock, and barrel.

This is the weird one. I rather wish All-New X-Factor had lasted more than twenty issues (which, come to think of it, is longer than David's run on the nineties X-Factor if we don't count the annuals), because it had the potential to get interesting. A proprietary supergroup controlled by the Marvel Universe equivalent of Alphabet, Inc. is a fascinating and disturbing premise, and trying to determine whether Harrison Snow was a Tony Stark or a Lex Luthor kept me turning the pages. Unfortunately, it never had the opportunity to come to any sort of climax, and to the best of my knowledge, David never substantially revisited Serval during his time with Marvel. Now that we're in Hickman's brave new X-world, it's pretty much beside the point.

Now that we all know what we're talking about, let's do one of those numbered lists everyone loves. Here come the twenty best moments of Peter David's X-Factor:

Honorable Mention: Rahne in heat (vol. 1)

Disqualified from inclusion because it never actually happened. (You can read all about it here.) It's worth giving a nod to because David was laying the groundwork for this twist almost since the beginning of his nineties run. The issue where the nature of Rahne's "problem" was supposed to be revealed was also the last script he turned in before quitting, and somebody (presumably Scott Lobdell, who inherited X-Factor from David) rewrote the scene, and that was that. I guess I can't blame Lobdell for not wanting to inherit such a weird arc and figure out how to resolve it, but I'm still curious as to where David (who specializes in weird shit) would have gone with it if he'd stayed on.

Even though it got written out of continuity before it even entered into it, this incidental quirk of Rahne's lupine biology (and its behind-the-scenes bowlderizing) comes up in volume three when Rahne is on a road trip with Lorna and Theresa:

20.) S.H.I.E.L.D. interrogates Rictor (vol. 3)

Actually, I'm not sure what needs to be said about this one. It's very, very rare that an excerpt from a superhero comic book requires no exposition, so let's just enjoy the moment.

19.) The Nasty Boys (vol. 1)

Mister Sinister's new goon squad (Ruckus, Ramrod, Hairbag, Slab, and Gorgeous George) qualifies as a "moment" because they're featured in only a few issues and are pretty much never seen again. But because they're regulars in the nineties X-Men animated series—appearing in lieu of Sinister's more established henchmen, the Marauders—people going back and reading these comics for the first time are probably surprised that the Nasty Boys aren't really a thing. At any rate, these merry scumbags are better suited for a comparatively playful book like David's X-Factor than the mass-murdering, worst-of-the-worst Marauders would have been. (I'm still not completely clear on Mr. Sinister's retconned timeline as of House of X/Powers of X, but the Nasty Boys strike me as precisely the kind of crew Hickman's malevolently flamboyant Sinister would assemble and mentor.)

18.) Darwin's whitewashing (vol. 3)

I'm ninety percent certain this one represents some good-natured trolling of the fanbase, which is something I always appreciate.

Early in the third volume's run, X-Factor caught some flak for whitewashing Monet's skin tone. David issued a mea culpa in the letters page, though he did point out that the hue of Monet's skin was never totally consistent as she was passed from book to book and colorist to colorist over the years. He wasn't wrong, but Monet practically looked caucasian for an issue or two. (I'm more inclined to believe this was an oversight than a pernicious decision to change or downplay Monet's ethnic background.)

So when Darwin—a black mutant with the power to rapidly adapt to hazardous environments and situations—unexpectedly shows up with a pasty complexion, it's very possible that some readers were revving themselves up to write angry emails to Marvel, accusing the X-Factor team of having learned nothing from the Monet imbroglio.

But, as it turns out, this time there's an in-universe reason for Darwin's change in appearance. The fact that Monet is the one to point it out seems to substantiate my suspicion that David was deliberately pulling readers's legs. 

(Not to worry: Darwin re-melanizes before too long.)

17.) Tug-of-war with the MLF (vol. 1)

Between his introduction in the pages of The New Mutants and his apotheosis in The X-Cutioner's Song crossover, Rob Liefeld's Stryfe—the mysterious arch-nemesis to Rob Liefeld's Cable—was being billed as one of the X-books' scariest up-and-coming villains. Since he spent most of his time on the page delivering monologues, threatening his subordinates, or foreshadowing future plot points, the Mutant Liberation Front usually acted as his proxies in the field. The MLF was much more aggravatingly slippery than your usual mutant terrorist cell, relying on the android Zero to open teleportation gates to their bombing and kidnapping targets, and to instantly warp them back home when a mission went south.

When the MLF appeared in X-Factor to spring a couple of captured Nasty Boys as a favor to Mr. Sinister, David couldn't resist subjecting the grimmest and grittiest villain of the grimmest and grittiest early-nineties X-book to a pratfall. After the MLF retreats through one of Zero's portals, X-Factor reaches in before it closes, grabs hold of a bewildered Stryfe, and tries to yank him back through.

Stryfe ends up back on his side of the portal before it closes, but X-Factor succeeds in pulling off one of his gauntlets. A bit later on, as the villain executes his master plan in the pages of the X-Cutioner's Song crossover, Guido wonders aloud if the guy's going around kidnapping and assassinating X-Men because he's peeved about his stolen glove.

16.) Polaris handles Monet (vol. 3)

It's not really much of a contest: Monet St. Croix is my favorite character of the X-Factor Investigations era. That said, it's fun seeing her finally get taken down a peg.

Though she cares for her teammates much more than she'll admit, Miss St. Croix can be a temperamental diva, and very difficult to deal with. When the most powerful person in a house full of superhumans is feeling uncooperative or spiteful, there's just not a hell of a lot anyone can do about it except stay out of her way and try not to make her any angrier.

Then Lorna moves in. Lorna as in Polaris. Polaris as in Magneto's daughter, who's got Magneto's powers.

Monet discovers what her teammates have always known: pissing off someone who has no qualms about demonstrating the power gap between you and her, and whose civility towards you is dependent on her mood, kind of sucks.

15.) "I showed that two-bit copycat what-fer, didn't I?" (vol. 1)

During the New Mutants' "graduation" to the grim n' gritty X-Force in 1991, Rob Liefeld designed some new characters to fill out the new team's roster. Charter New Mutant Wolfsbane left the group in the wake of the X-Tinction Agenda crossover, but apparently Liefeld enjoyed drawing her too much to give her up. So he created Feral: she had Rahne's fur, fangs, claws, and hairstyle, a skimpier outfit, and a much nastier disposition. Even for an early-nineties antihero, Feral was a bit much. It's probably safe to say she was X-Force's least popular character.

When the law-and-order mutants of X-Factor have their first face-off against the paramilitary renegades of X-Force, Rahne (the demure Scottish lass with a case of mutant werewolfism) is the one to confront Feral (sadistic psycho killer). Rahne's former teammate Cannonball (whom Feral once mauled during a training exercise) pleads with Feral, fearing for Rahne's safety.

As it turns out, Rahne isn't the one he should be concerned about.

It's worth noting that when a team of X-Men and X-Factor members have their final showdown with X-Force in a later chapter of the X-Cutioner's Song, Feral steers well clear of Rahne.

Feral was such a love-to-hate-her character that David couldn't resist bringing her back as a ghost for a few issues of volume three. She's more of a nuisance than a threat, and serves as a source of comedy relief in a nail-biter of an arc.

14.) Larry Stroman's supernumeraries (vol. 1, vol. 3)

The first stretch of the all-new, all-different X-Factor was defined as much by Larry Stroman's expressionistic pencils as by Peter David's scripts. Stroman's return for a stint on volume three seemed inevitable, at least in retrospect. Stroman is responsible for setting a baseline for the appearances of Havok, Wolfsbane, Strong Guy, and Madrox that lasted for the better part of a decade, designed the Nasty Boys (of X-Men: The Animated Series fame), and draws one hell of an Alex Summers plasma blast. But his greatest contribution to the pages of X-Factor, as far as I'm concerned, are his surreal crowd scenes. Some examples:

13.) "We prefer the term genetically challenged." (vol. 1)

With so much of the action during X-Factor's "federal agents" era situated in Washington, DC, the government and news media are reliable butts of David's jokes. As a press conference goes balls-up, Guido goes on an impassioned rant about the implicit bigotry in the public discourse surrounding Homo superior. He declares that "mutants" is a hurtful term, and recommends an alternative:

Later on, Guido claims he only said what he said in order to keep the news cameras on him instead of on the chaos caused by a brawl between Madrox and a rogue duplicate, and doesn't expect anyone in the media will dwell on it.

"Geecee" went on to become an X-Factor running gag:

The joke fizzled out shortly after the end of David's involvement with the nineties series, and I don't believe any of the other X-books played along. Pity.

Incidentally: twenty years later, writer Rick Remender had Alex Summers saying pretty much the same thing ("The 'M' word represents everything I hate") at a press conference in the pages of Uncanny Avengers. Unlike Guido, Alex wasn't just blowing smoke. I hope I'm not the only continuity wonk who would have liked for one of Havok's teammates to remind him of the "genetically challenged" incident.

12.) Rahne & Shatterstar (vol. 3)

A prominent theme of Rahne's overall arc since her introduction in The New Mutants has been the gradual deprogramming of the toxic Christian fundamentalism drilled into her by her father, the Reverend Craig. By the time she's throwing in her lot with Madrox's private investigation firm and Wolverine's black ops squad, she's been around the block enough times that much of the old fire-and-brimstone ideology has lost its grip on her. Homosexuality, however, remains a mortal sin in her book. And when she returns to X-Factor Investigations after an extended leave of absence and discovers her old squeeze Rictor in bed with Shatterstar, she reacts much less reasonably than we'd hope.

Before too long, Rahne comes around. She reconciles with Rictor and accepts his relationship with Shatterstar. (The conversation where Rictor has to assure her she didn't "make" him gay doesn't seem quite so entirely backwards if you happen to know women whose long-term relationships ended when their boyfriends or fiances came out of the closet, and who found themselves wondering, in spite of themselves, if they were somehow responsible. This does happen.) The turning point in her relationship with Shatterstar comes after they fight off a demon together in a Manhattan chapel (not an atypical occurrence in the Marvel Universe) and share a candid, vulnerable moment together.

"I can see why you two were lovers," Shatterstar later tells Rictor. "She has a great deal of fire. Plus, she looks great naked."

"She sure d—wait, what?"

11.) Layla Miller electrocutes a hitman (vol. 3)

First appearing as a minor but important character during the House of M event, Layla Miller found her way into X-Factor's third volume and shortly became its breakout character. In the very first issue, she marches into the X-Factor Investigations office and appoints herself as its new file clerk, despite being like thirteen years old. Madrox is understandably taken aback, but is reluctant to turn Layla out when she's always right. About everything. She has a habit of predicting future events with alarming accuracy, and conveniently producing precisely the bit of information Madrox needs to turn a corner on a case. Siryn describes her as "Nostradamus reincarnated as Wednesday Addams."

In the book's third issue, a hitman shows up at X-Factor's headquarters with orders to kill Rictor and make it look like a suicide. He knocks Ric out, but notices Layla watching before he can finish the job.

Unfortunately for him, Layla's spooky knowledge of the future also includes what happens when she monkey-wrenches the shower in the upstairs bathroom and the leaking water breaks a lighting panel in the kitchen ceiling.

This is where the mystery surrounding Layla's intentions and agenda intensifies: she might be a quirky and precocious kid, but she's also dangerous. More than fifty issues later, we can still only guess whether she's truly on the up-and-up as she continues to selectively withhold knowledge from X-Factor and sabotages the plans of friends and foes alike.

10.) Old Man Doom (vol. 3)

Time travel. Sigh.

A grown-up Layla Miller pulls Madrox into [some version of] the future (say, 2080-something) where a very, very old Cyclops leads a mutant rebellion against an oppressive United States government that keeps mutants in concentration camps and sends out Sentinels to round up the rest.

Needing some technical support, Madrox and Layla seek the help of Victor Von Doom, who's apparently living in exile somewhere in Jersey. Doctor Doom has got to be at least 120 years old at this point, and he doesn't have the cybernetic enhancements that are keeping Cyclops mobile and lucid. He's a fragile, senile old man being pushed around in a wheelchair by a rusty robotic butler; his mind is so far gone that he believes he's still as strong and terrible as he was in his prime.

Watching in on Madrox's activities, a couple of the Summers Rebellion's adversaries wonder how the hell Doctor Doom is still alive. One suggests they needn't worry about what Madrox might be planning to do with Doom: the old man's mind operates at a fraction of what it used to. He's hardly dangerous anymore.

In short order, a posturing Cyclops learns that an infirm Doctor Doom with only a sliver of his intellect intact is still smarter and more dangerous than most people are on the best days of their lives.

Am I supposed to ask how Old Man Doom's presence in the 2080s is supposed to square away with what happens Doom 2099? It's not an irrelevant question, since David has Miguel O'Hara coming back to the present-day Marvel Universe in Spider-Man 2099's second volume, suggesting these versions of the future somehow mesh together. God, divergent timelines give me a headache, especially when shit from all these possible futures is somehow affecting one and the same past.

Where did Doom get that device on his hand? He made it out of scraps in the back of the van during the ride to Atlantic City. Because he was bored.

9.) "Dead man walking." (vol. 3)

The morning after a night carousing with his teammates, Madrox wakes up with a headache and a full bladder. On his way to the bathroom he meets an unabsorbed dupe, who pats him/them on the back for being such a stud. After reabsorbing him, Madrox freezes in alarm and disbelief. Then Theresa steps out into the hall.

Theresa goes into the bathroom and shuts the door. Then Monet appears.

Because of the way his dupes' memories get intercalated with his own (the alcohol probably played a part too), Madrox has no idea what actually happened. Did he sleep with Theresa while the dupe had a rendezvous with Monet? Or vice versa? Did the same dupe have sex with them both? Could there have been a second dupe who slept with one or the other, and then got reabsorbed overnight?

Naturally, Layla knows that Madrox is in deep trouble, and can't resist rubbing some salt into the wound—while being characteristically super-creepy about it.

When Theresa and Monet stop being angry with each other, their friendship begins to deepen, and Terry becomes the one person for whom Monet openly shows concern. There's a moment where Monet unintentionally says something that hurts Terry, and Monet actually seems sorry. I don't think this happens anywhere else. Like, ever.

8.) The Reverend John Maddox (vol. 3)

David's Madrox miniseries, published prior to X-Factor's third volume, establishes that Madrox sent off scores (hundreds?) of dupes into the world to acquire knowledge and skills across almost every practical discipline imaginable, which Madrox then absorbed after reintegrating his doppelgangers back into himself. Some of them take longer than others to come back. Others don't ever return to him.

One such dupe, taking the name John Maddox, becomes an Episcopal priest and decides to go on living his own life as a person independent from Madrox Prime. Years later, he persuades Madrox not to reabsorb him, though the original goes on resenting the clone for living a much happier life than he ever imagined was possible for himself.

X-Factor returns to the Reverend Maddox now and again, and his appearances are always a treat. The "fake" Maddox is as thoroughly decent a person as any genuine-article human being has ever been, and he helps Theresa and Rahne through some of the darkest periods of their lives. If I have to choose one Reverend Maddox moment for the sake of this list, let's go with his serendipitous meeting with Terry in Ireland, where he comforts her over the death of her father and the loss of her child. (Actually, come to think of it—well, never mind. We'll talk about Maddox and Rahne later.)

7.) Doc Samson & Monet (vol. 3)

When I began compiling this list, I made a rule that I could only include one of Doc Samson's therapy sessions from each volume. Otherwise, half the list would consist of "Doc Samson talks to ____."

X-Factor #87 (vol. 1) and X-Factor #13 (vol. 3) have a reputation as being among two of the best single issues of any mainstream superhero comic since—well, ever. Both occur after each iteration of the group goes through a particularly traumatic arc. The team's members sit down for some one-on-one psychotherapy with Doctor Leonard Samson (super-strong gamma-ray infused superhero and practicing psychiatrist), and we get to see snippets of those conversations. 

My pick from volume three's "therapy" issue is the good doctor's conversation with Monet. As I said before, she's my favorite member of X-Factor Investigations, which came a surprise even to me. On paper, Monet seems insufferable. She's the daughter of a fabulously wealthy ambassador. She's gorgeous. She's brilliant. Her mutant power is "everything:" she's got super strength, bullets bounce off her skin, she can fly, she reads minds, and can use telekinesis. She's better than everyone around her, she knows she's better than everyone around her, and she relishes reminding people that she's better than them. 

When we peer in on her chat with Doc Samson, we're not surprised to see her sitting with her feet up on the table, disinterestedly filing her nails, and talking shit about her teammates. We see a hairline crack in her armor when Samson asks her how she's taking the news of Banshee's death, but Monet closes right back up.

Monet tells Doc Samson she doesn't see any point in talking to him: she doubts he can tell her anything she doesn't already know. Besides, she knows he's already formed his opinion of her as an overbearing, stuck-up bitch. When Samson invites her to prove him wrong and tell him something that might surprise him, she confesses that she has to make a conscious decision not to kill herself. Every day of her life.

The reasons why are—complicated. They go back to the weirdness around her origin story back when she was a main character of Generation X, which you can read all about here. The long and short of it is that Monet has a lot of unresolved trauma from a long period of helpless imprisonment, and she needs to live as "M" in order to keep it from eating her alive. 

Knowing what Monet's fighting against makes it much easier to sympathize with her, even when she acts like a mean-girl primadonna. It also calls attention to the subtle language she uses to show her friends how much she actually cares about them, and how much she really communicates through what might otherwise seem like insignificant gestures and utterances.

6.) Rictor & Shatterstar (vol. 3)

When Jeph Loeb was writing for X-Force in the mid-nineties, he insinuated there might be a "thing" going on between the former New Mutant Rictor and the Mojoverse gladiator Shatterstar. Whether they were just very close friends or something else remained unsettled after Loeb left the series and both characters departed from the book. Ric and 'Star appeared sporadically in various X-comics over the next decade, and whatever might have been happening between them was never spoken of again—until X-Factor returned.

During a chat over a few beers, Madrox asks Rictor what the story is about his spending so much time with Quicksilver (who, at this point in time, has gone evil, as comic book superheroes are wont to do every now and then). They've just been talking, Ric says; Pietro's got some interesting things to say. "No big deal. It ain't like I'm sleeping with him...anymore."

Rictor was speaking in jest, but the credulous Jamie was shocked enough to do a spit-take. He apologizes for taking Ric seriously; things have been so upside-down lately that he's inclined to take anyone's crazy story at face value. An understanding Rictor cuts him some slack—and then Jamie alludes to an elephant in the room that everybody seems to have forgotten about up until now:

Speaking of superheroes' momentary lapses into villainy: a while later, a brainwashed Shatterstar appears out of the ether to assassinate John Maddox under the orders of a mysterious figure called "Cortex." As luck would have it, Guido and Rictor are paying Maddox a friendly visit to inquire about the missing Madrox Prime, and are able to fend off Shatterstar until Cortex loses his grip on Shatterstar's mind.

Putting them together on a comic book page for the first time in ten years, David cuts right to the chase with Ric and 'Star:

When Madrox finally returns to X-Factor, he doesn't understand why everyone keeps asking him if he knew about Rictor and Shatterstar. "Did anyone not know about Rictor and Shatterstar?" he asks.

Shatterstar's creator Rob Liefeld reportedly grumbled about his grim-and-gritty nineties swordsman being retroactively declared bisexual. Well, [insert obligatory joke about Liefeld drawing Shatterstar with giant shoulder pads and a goofy sparring helmet].

5.) Technarchic sexual healing (All-New)

Ah, finally: an entry from the Serval-era X-Factor, and the only one to make the list. All-New X-Factor isn't a lousy read by any standard we can reasonably apply to a superhero soap opera picture book, but for the most part it never gained quite enough traction in order to go anyplace volumes one and three hadn't already visited in some way or another. The consummation of the romantic tension between the techno-organic alien Warlock and the stupefyingly high-tech robot Danger is a shining exception.

After joining the team and recovering from a temporary memory-wipe, Danger feels she's somehow missing something. Her supercomputer brain determines that the solution is to get laid, and she proceeds to proposition her teammates, one by one.

Warlock has a tremendous crush on Danger, but she mistakes his flustered hesitation as disinterest. She moves on to Warlock's "selfsoulfriend" from the New Mutants, Doug Ramsey, coming into his bedroom while he's sleeping, and—uh, well, let's just say he enjoys himself after he wakes up enough to realize what he said "yes" to. (It's anyone's guess as to how Danger makes her simulated human genitals not feel like a steel vice.)

Knowing Warlock would be devastated if he found out, Doug begs Danger not to tell Warlock what happened, but she isn't a very good liar.

Warlock forgives Doug, of course (theirs is the purest and strongest friendship in the whole Marvel Universe), but Danger still feels incomplete. Her mood gets even worse after she's able to save the team from a rampaging Egyptian death god by virtue of not having a soul to drain. Danger is cold, sure, but she doesn't like to think of herself as a mere object—a status which her victory over Ammit appeared to confirm.

In the last issue of All-New X-Factor, Warlock finally musters his courage and comes to Danger's rescue:

After standing around and staring for half a minute, everyone agrees it's probably a good time to go get lunch.

4.) Sean's birth (vol. 3)

Peter David lobs a lot of curveballs throughout X-Factor's second volume ("expect the unexpected"), but none compare to this. To my recollection, the only other issue of a comic book serial to bring my lower jaw so close to the floor was Shade, the Changing Man #50.

Siryn's pregnancy appears to clarify that she had sex with Madrox Prime, while Monet was bedded by a dupe. After all, a duplicate isn't capable of impregnating someone—as far as Jamie or anyone else knows.

Carrying the baby and coping with all its typical effects on her body is onerous for Terry, and the birth becomes a horror show: she's a woman whose raised voice is a weapon of mass destruction, and she's in labor. By the time her baby's umbilical cord is cut, the hospital probably doesn't have one window left intact in its frame.

Jamie agrees the boy should be named Sean, in honor of Terry's deceased father. When he enters the recovery room and holds his son for the first time...

Surprise! Looks like Terry got knocked up by a dupe after all. As soon as Jamie makes contact with Sean, his body begins to automatically absorb the infant dupe, and he can't make it stop. In a matter of moments, the baby's gone.

The aftermath is even worse. Theresa tells Jamie she'll kill him if she ever sees him again, and she means it. Nobody follows Jamie out of the building when he leaves. Things don't get better for either of them for a very long time. A lot of bad shit happens to people in X-comics, but seldom do such events hit so hard as they do here.

3.) Doc Samson & Quicksilver (vol. 1)

Come to think of it, my "Doc Samson" pick from X-Factor's first volume has a lot in common with the one from the third. The mutant¹ super-speedster Quicksilver plays pretty much the same role in the first team's interpersonal dynamic as Monet does in the second team's. Pietro is the abrasive and arrogant individualist who routinely prompts the reader to wonder why the hell he continues to stick around when he seems to hold all his teammates in such contempt.

Doc Samson reports having heard from Val Cooper (X-Factor's government liason) that Quicksilver suffers from PMS: Pietro Maximoff Syndrome. Its symptoms are said to include brusqueness, unreasonable impatience, an inflated ego, and acting like a complete jerk to everyone for no reason whatsoever.

While accepting Samson's invitation to have a go at a jigsaw puzzle that's been stumping him for a while, Quicksilver owns up to being a jerk—but tries to make Samson appreciate what it's like living in a state of perpetual velocitization, where everyone else in the world is always doing things a hundred times slower than you'd like them to.

This is my single favorite scene from David's first run on X-Factor, and I'm content to let it speak for itself.

2.) Jamie & Layla's happy ending (vol. 3)

How unusual: X-books end all the time, but they very seldom conclude when they do. Usually the final issue of a given series wraps up the latest arc, ties up any dangling plot threads as best as its author can, and goes out with a group shot and a note of anticipation for its cast's involvement in future mutant superhero adventures. The X-Men's battle for justice in a world that fears and hates them is a never-ending et cetera, et cetera.

But the X-Factor Investigations era ends with Madrox and Layla literally telling Theresa that they're done. It's over. They're good.

After averting a hell-on-earth doomsday scenario, X-Factor's members are scattered across the world, individually deciding to go their own way since their boss Madrox is unaccounted for. When he finally resurfaces and gets his bearings, Madrox says he's paid his dues. From now on he's going to leave the mutant superheroics to the Cyclopses and Wolverines of the world, settle in at his old family farm with Layla, and raise their child together. (This time we're certain she's not pregnant with a duplicate-baby.)

As cliche and undescriptive as it is to say of a story's resolution that it felt "earned," I can't think of any other way to characterize the conclusion of Jamie and Layla's shared arc. Again, that might be because there are so few similar endings to which it can be compared. The commercial considerations of adventure comic serials are a strong disincentive against allowing a popular man-of-action character who's appeared in numerous series over the decades to end his latest volume by announcing his retirement. To a jaded comic book fan, this is a far more surprising conclusion to Madrox's adventures than killing him off or turning him evil would have been.

If Peter David hoped Marvel would allow this to be the last word, he was kidding himself. I'm not sure which was a bigger "fuck you" to X-Factor's readers: the editors' giving the go-ahead to writers Charles Soule and Jeff Lemire to sacrifice Madrox to the M-Pox in one of the worst storylines of one of the worst decades for X-comics, or Matthew Rosenberg's bringing him back in the gratuitously convoluted Multiple Man miniseries, in which an incongruously bitchy Layla Miller appears on all of two pages, and their son gets shot in the head.

Phooey on them all.

1.) Rahne's happy ending (vol. 3)

Owing to the structure of X-Factor's narrative machinery, the happily-ever-after resolution to Jamie and Layla's arc delivers the most impact of the characters' individual swan-song issues. But David's conclusion to Rahne's story makes me the happiest because this woman was long overdue for a fucking break.

Let's review Rahne's biography. She had a toxic religious upbringing. Her Christian zealot of a dad tried to kill her when her mutant power first manifested. Her teen crush died in her arms after taking a bullet intended for her. She had her body and mind mucked with during her enslavement in Genosha. Her adopted mother was killed by Mystique.² She was captured and tortured by the Purifiers. She killed and ate her father in a post-hypnotic fugue state. She gave birth to a lupine demigod whom she rejected as a demon in a fit of terror, and just after tracking him down and accepting him as her son, she watched as he was murdered by one of her former teammates. Jamie and Layla earned their happy ending, but nobody deserved one as much as Rahne. 

Rahne's second meeting with the Reverend John Maddox should have been her retirement from the Marvel Universe. She accepted an opportunity to walk away from a life of perpetual violence and danger, re-embrace and dedicate herself to the faith that had never stopped being her touchstone, and work with somebody who preaches and practices a far more gracious strain of Christianity than her fundamentalist ogre of a father. This was Rahne's invitation to her perfect life.

If Marvel's editors had any respect for the character, they should have declared her permanently off-limits after this, or at least held her in moratorium until House of X/Powers of X. To this I will only add that Matthew Rosenberg was the worst writer of X-comics since Chuck Austen, and his New Mutants: Dead Souls miniseries and stint on Uncanny X-Men were abominations.

Well! There you have it.

Thanks for reading, and we'll hopefully return to our usual blocks of esoteric, pseudo-intellectual gibberish very soon.

1. Yeah, yeah, he was retconned to be a human artificially given mutant powers so he and his sister could appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I know, I know. Comic books are silly, but the spat between Disney and Fox over the film rights to Marvel's mutant characters was flat-out stupid.

2. Well, as far anyone but Professor Xavier and Magneto knows. I wonder if Hickman has any plans for Rahne to sniff out Moira in her secret sanctuary on Krakoa.


  1. Ah, glad your still ok, its fine to bring up some fun stuff with so much bleak stuff going on in the world these days.

    Mostly, I just wonder if everyone in X-Factor will be full cult along with all the other X -men and if it will stay that way, depends on how this acid trip all ends for the mutants though. Ah well in the meanwhile hope your book editing is going well.

    1. Man, I can't even conceive of a return to the pre-Krakoa baseline, and I doubt there's much appetite for it. The last decade was an object lesson in how stale the old status quo had grown. I'm hoping this sticks for a good long while, because they've finally got new stories to tell.

      I can appreciate why some people are put off by the tribal/cultish aspects of the new mutant nation, but I'm usually only bothered when a non-Hickman writer has an X-person talking about humans the way college-aged Tumblr people used to snark about "cishets." I still think that part of what we're seeing here is a fictional unpacking of some of the implications of the radical separatism that some folks are advocating in the real world. It's probably impossible to build an identitarian society that's not insular, chauvinistic, and/or resentful of outsiders. But at the same time, its members probably have a higher happiness quotient than us atomized members of civil society.