The fifth in a group of like 12-15* posts on X-Factor volume 3.
Right away, this opens with two of my favorite issues, both centered around Multiple Man Jamie Madrox, and the consequences of his self-replicating powers. First up is "Multiple Birth" about the birth and death of Sean Madrox, Jamie's child with Theresa Cassidy (Siryn), who is absorbed by Multiple Man as soon as they make contact because it turns out a duplicate was really the father. This does not go over well with Theresa. Or Madrox. Or anyone, really. Then in "Slings & Arrows" Madrox visits recurring character John Maddox, another duplicate who has his own life established as a priest, husband, and father. Of course, his child can't actually be his because Jamie would've absorbed the kid when they met some time earlier, a fact John is already aware of and seems to be dealing with healthily. It's a stark contrast to Madrox, who is completely broken by the loss of his son, feeling responsible and powerless at once. For most of the issue, Maddox seems like the perfect person to help pick up the pieces. He's been there for Madrox in the past during times of crisis and seems to bring out---and maybe even be a physical representation of---the best in him. Their conversation is open and honest, and though Madrox is claiming to be on the verge of suicide, it's easy to believe that this priest who is a stabler, happier version of the same guy has the ability to pull his maker from the ledge.
And then Layla Miller comes back as a full-grown woman on the last page of X-Factor #40 and I smack myself in the head for not seeing it coming. No one has ever saved Madrox from himself like Layla, and her being absent from the title is well worth her return coming at such a pitch perfect moment.
It might even be too on the nose, but I don't care, because I think ultimately this series is really about Jamie and Layla's romance more than any other single throughline. That'll probably be its own post down the line, but the hypothesis gains some serious support from the fact that her coming back and stopping him from blowing his brains out sets off a ten-issue trip to the future that coincides with what's happening to the rest of X-Factor in the present. It's probably the biggest-scale story arc of the series to date (if you don't count the only-just-beginning "Hell on Earth War" because who knows for sure but that seems huge). And though it's not flawless, it is high-quality entertainment with a whole lot of satisfying answers to some of the title's bigger questions, some inventive futuristic world-building, and the violent-then-romantic-then-hilarious entrance of my favorite character, Shatterstar.
The present-tense story introduces a villain named Cortex, who can mentally control multiple people at once. I'm not always wild about mind-control stories, but I like that, for this one, Peter David always tells the audience exactly who Cortex is in charge of, so there's no weak twists where suddenly someone turns out to have been one of the bad guy's mental puppets all along. Cortex himself is a pain in the ass, and I've always thought the reveal that he is the other Madrox dupe who got sent to the future during Messiah Complex was sort of bungled (mostly artistically). But the narrative surrounding his fights with X-Factor is a great one, and he makes a formidable if not especially pleasant foe.
I could spend all afternoon trying and failing to come up with a single-sentence synopsis of this story, but instead I'll promise to aim for brevity in the following paragraph: Layla brings Madrox to the future so he can help a small band of mutant rebels, led by an elderly Scott Summers, figure out why their glitch-proof system lost track of one of their members, Hecat'e. The answer to that mystery ends up being that Cortex was hired in the future to go back in time and kill Hecat'e's mother, a task X-Factor keeps him from pulling off just long enough for Madrox to get a senile Dr. Doom to pull Cortex out of our present and into their future. Even once that happens, Cortex has to be properly defeated, there is Doom's double-cross to deal with, and the man who hired Cortex in the first place, Anthony Falcone, shows up with some of the biggest and scariest sentinels ever to try and wipe out the Summers Rebellion once and for all. It's a lot of balls to have in the air, but Peter David never lets one drop, and the ending of X-Factor #50 not only ties a bow on all that but also finally shows us why Layla Miller knows so much goddamn stuff. The assumption was always that knowing stuff was her mutant power, but David gives her a far more compelling one---bringing dead things back to life at the cost of their souls---and weaves a classic time paradox into the already rich tapestry of her character to explain her knowledge of things to come. Turns out that grown-up Layla from the future stuck a chip or something with all that information into the brain of her childhood self once she got back to the present. It's a head-scratcher, and I know that kind of impossible time travel infinite loop story isn't for everyone, but I eat it up. And this is an especially good one, because it was so long in the making and careful in the telling.
I think of this arc as a return to form from the book's earliest days, when all the small stories tied to a single larger problem and Layla kept stealing the show. It's good and important that the series diverged from that for a time, expanding its cast and enriching their history. But when it comes back in such force here, it clicks. Loudly. And it's a landmark story in other ways, like including the 50th issue, which is also the last issue before Marvel pulled one of their classic "Let's make all numbering totally meaningless!" moves by adding together ALL the issues from the different X-Factor volumes and then counting from there for the current series. So the issue following X-Factor #50 is X-Factor #200. Dumb, but it didn't hurt anything. I'll start there next time.
*It has become apparent that this project is going to be larger than anticipated. 12-15 is as much a best guess now as 8-12 was originally. Could be more. Whatever, numbering is meaningless (see above).