Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 8

The eighth in a group of like 12-15 posts on X-Factor volume 3.

Dying Gets the Girl
X-Factor #224.1-232

Peter David is the only writer I've read who has actually used a ".1" issue to do what Marvel says they're supposed to do. Namely, introduce new readers to the book with a fresh story while still providing something for old fans to enjoy. Though a bit obvious in its execution, X-Factor #224.1 finds an in-story reason for Madrox to explain the names and powers of his entire team, includes a huge and hilarious fight scene, and ends on a cliffhanger that leads directly into the next arc. Everyone gets a minute in the spotlight, but Jamie and Layla are the real stars of the issue, which is fitting since they are basically the stars of the series as a whole. I admire David's skill in finding the balance between introductory exposition and beats of new plot advancement, and it's not a line I've seen other writers walk so well in these .1 issues. Far more commonplace to just have a disconnected one-shot story, which David also delivers, but with threads connecting it to the title's past and future both.
     Then we get the arc about the team battling Bloodbath, a demon who drains people's souls and carries a big-ass sword. He's a weird villain, speaking in a lot of movie jargon at first but dropping that later in favor of more traditional trash talk. I don't have any major complaints about him as an antagonist, it's just that he's a bit off-kilter. His rage seems genuine, but he also appears to enjoy himself, reveling in the violence of a fight he feels he can't lose. That attitude isn't easy to get right and keep consistent, and I think David wavers a few times in his depiction of Bloodbath, making him either too nasty or too jolly for a panel here and there.
     But that's not the point of this story, anyway. Bloodbath is a means to an end, or I guess a means to two different ends. Firstly, he puts it out in the open for all to hear that Layla brought Guido back from the dead without a soul. Madrox already had his suspicions, but he was the only member of the team who even knew Layla had that power. Even Guido himself discovers his lack of soul for the first time when Bloodbath brings it up, and the consequences of that are an ongoing problem even in the current issues. The rest of X-Factor have their own reactions to this astounding news, but all of that is overshadowed by the other major shake-up Bloodbath brings about: the death of Madrox Prime.
     Jumping into the deceased body of one of Madrox's duplicates, Bloodbath stabs the real deal through the chest with his sword. It is so sudden and unexpected, not just for X-Factor, but for the reader, too. The details of Bloodbath's powers were unknown at that point, so there was no way to predict that a dupe's corpse could be weaponized against its creator. And Madrox has always been the central focus of this book, its most frequent narrator and star. Killing him off, even as temporarily as this, is a bold move, and the Bloodbath story arc is primarily about reaching that point. From there, all that's left is for Layla to somewhat over-simplistically exorcise the demonic murderer so the next storyline can begin.
     "They Keep Killing Madrox" is also a narrative that's more about the destination than the journey for me. Don't get me wrong, the journey is a blast, but watching Madrox bounce from one alternate reality to another every time he dies can only hold my interest for so long before growing tired as a concept. David paces it well, though, never leaving Jamie in any one place for longer than an issue or two. This isn't an arc that wants to explore the ins and outs of the various elseworlds it visits. If anything, the exploration is that of Madrox as a character, watching him roll with the punches even when he has less than no idea how or why any of this is happening. As a man who's used to feeling like he is in over his head, he can sure handle himself when that's actually the case. So we see his humor and quick thinking in the face of several terrifying parallel worlds, and enjoyable as that is, it is mostly an exercise in patience for him, Layla, and the reader alike. We all know he'll get home eventually, and the anticipation is what pushes everything forward.
     When he does return to his own reality, he and Layla finally sleep together, amplifying their slow-growing romance and making them a full-fledged couple. This is a long, long time coming, and an extremely enjoyable moment when it arrives. With this love connection as well as Wolverine adding Havok and Polaris to the team as Jamie's supposed replacements, it is the finale of this arc that contains all the best and most important stuff. Characters from the other worlds who were introduced along the way will pop up again later, but even that is not as interesting or good as what happens here. And while the solution to getting Madrox home is a bit easy/cheap (magic saves the day), the payoff of his return overshadows it right away. I'm not sure any means of getting him back to his own body would've been any more logical than having Dr. Strange cast a spell, and I appreciate how quickly that method works to bring us to the ending.
     Both of these arcs are very brief and fast-moving, racing toward their snappy yet satisfying conclusions. This speed helps boost the action and comedy alike, neither of which are in short order in these issues. And the discovery about Guido, the death and return of Madrox, and the addition of two new teammates are all significant shifts that continue to shape and warp the team even now. So as quick and light a read as they are, the fallout from these stories lasts.
     The same could be said about the next batch of issues, most of which focus on setting up things that won't be resolved until later. And it will be said, but not until Part 9.

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