Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 12

 The twelfth in a group of 15 posts on X-Factor volume 3.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
It could be about any number of other things, too

Been a long time since I tackled this project, but there's one last crack to be taken at figuring out the true heart of X-Factor as a series. It may in fact be Jamie and Layla's love, but broader, grander options exist that are probably equally viable.
     It could be a sort of inevitable apocalypse narrative, wherein X-Factor are the inadvertent cause, unlikely saviors, or both. Lots of signs point in that direction, from the opening arc to the current one. Mr. Tryp accuses X-Factor of creating the dystopian future from which he hails, where humans are all but wiped out and mutants run wild in the streets, battling each other with their various powers. When Layla brings Jamie to a different but equally dismal future, he asks her what caused it and, in her typical cryptic manner, she says it was their own fault. Tier's birth involves all sorts of immortal/mystical beings coming out of the woodwork to claim him as their own, and though his exact importance isn't explained until later, we know that his life will be a significant, influential, and possibly destructive one before he is even born. And now that he is alive, his existence has sparked a war between the Marvel Universe's various Hell Lords, which certainly feels like a situation with the potential to destroy the world. Bloodbath warned X-Factor way back when that all their meddling in the world of souls and demons and such would only attract more of the same, and he was clearly not lying. Banshees and devils and wizards from alternate realities and death gods...X-Factor may be playing out of their league, and there's got to be another shoe up there somewhere that's been waiting to drop for years. Someday one threat or another is going to catch up with this mutant detective agency, and when it does, they may not be powerful or prepared enough to keep the world safe from desolation.
     As much as Peter David continues to revisit this theme of the impending end of the world as we know it, from an out-of-story, larger context point of view, it seems pretty unlikely that X-Factor would ever get to be the kind of book where something so drastic goes down. It sits in its own corner of the Marvel U, very rarely interacting with characters or events from other books, especially lately. It actually makes the "Hell on Earth War" arc a bit less believable, insofar as no other heroes (or villains) seems to have noticed the massive gathering of immortal Hell Lords. But I like that X-Factor gets to do its own thing. Had it been folded into every single mutant-based crossover event in the last seven years I might not even still be reading it. However, if we assume that X-Factor's semi-isolated status means it'll never get to REALLY result in an apocalyptic scenario, then that's probably not the central theme of the title, either.
     Of course, I hold out hope that David will get to end his impressive run with something truly, massively catastrophic taking place, I just doubt it'll happen.
     There is a way in which X-Factor acts as a quiet meta-textual commentary on team superhero books in general, though it's mostly just through David leading by example. As a social group, X-Factor is rampantly dysfunctional, and it seems like someone is always pissed off at someone else over something. Members come and go regularly, giving the team a feeling of instability. There was a consistent "core" group for the longest time, but recently Strong Guy and Banshee both left, obliterating the notion that this team had any lifetime members. Sexual/romantic problems, arguments over leadership, keeping of major secrets and the subsequent lack of trust...this is a fucked up squad with a lot to overcome internally. But X-Factor never truly lets their personal nonsense muck up their superheroics. Sometimes their in-fighting causes a few bumps in the road, but ultimately they always get the job done, and more often than not they are able to set aside their pettier differences when the time comes to step up and be the good guys.
     David's ability to find the right balance of emotional conflict and bombastic mutant superhero action is impressive, and that's what I mean when I say "leading by example." Far too often, team books either spend too much time in the thick of the action to fully develop their casts or, perhaps worse, are so focused on the characters' personal problems that too little happens in too big a space. X-Factor finds the happiest of mediums, usually infusing a little of both areas into its stories. And when it does take an issue or two to focus on the small-scale drama, it is always sure to follow up immediately with some large-scale adventure. There is enough out loud, in-story reference to this dynamic, this back-and-forth between a team at odds with itself and one working as an unified squad, that I have to believe part of it is David saying, "See, everyone? This is how you keep a team book interesting and rich without getting bogged down in the melodrama." I may just be reading that message where it doesn't exist because it is what I would say about the series, but it seems more likely that David is at least semi-aware of it. He knows that he knows what he's doing with a cast this size in a universe this crazy, and even when the details of a given narrative don't excite or interest me, David always walks the line between the huge conflicts and the tiny ones. It is arguably the most reliable aspects of the book.
     But "being an exemplary team book" doesn't exactly qualify as the unifying theme of a series. It's true of X-Factor, but it is more of an external observation about one of the title's strengths, not an examination of what it's all about. There's probably not a one-word answer to that question, but if I had to pick one, it'd be "choice."
     The first scene of the first issue establishes the theme of choice. Rictor is literally standing on a ledge, deciding whether or not losing his powers means he should end his own life. Madrox, unable to make a confident call about how to handle the situation and save his friend, sends a duplicate to do it for him instead. And in doing so, he has an internal monologue about how making choices is always hard for him because he can always see all the angles. He's the Multiple Man, and even with a team to lead, it's incredibly difficult for him to pick a path and stick to it. Rictor's choice is, naturally, to live, to join up with a team of his old friends in spite of his lack of metahuman abilities. But it is not something he resolves to do quickly or easily, and the reader feels the incredible heft of his decision as a result of his uncertainty. This scene is, arguably, the thesis statement for all the 100+ issues that have followed.
     Layla's whole character is based on choice, and the idea of what happens if we make the wrong one in a given situation. She sees the future as it is "supposed" to be, and when she decides to bring Guido back to life, an act she knows is counter to this "correct" timeline, it has dire consequences that continue to matter today. But she does it to take some control of her own life, to make a call that she feels belongs to her and not the universe at large. It's a definitive moment for her, for Guido, and for the team as a whole, centered on this idea of choice.
     Before her time with X-Factor, Monet St. Croix was mentally controlled and transformed by her brother into the being known as Penance. Because of that experience, free will and self-control are two of the most important things in the world to Monet, and we've seen how viciously angry she becomes if someone tries to take her mental wheel. So while it doesn't come up as often with her as it does with Layla, choice is still a thematically significant word for Monet.
     Rahne and Darwin and Theresa all choose to leave the team, Rahne more than once, in an effort to learn about themselves and/or lead lives they might find more fulfilling. Guido chooses to leave the team and join the forces of evil after discovering he has no soul and then being shot down by Monet. Pip forces himself onto the team even when they say he's unwanted. And so on. My point is, in general, lineup changes to X-Factor are not a result of outside forces shaping the team. It is almost always the decision of the teammate in question to either sign on or walk away, and it is never made lightly. Even Havok, who is sort of inserted into the leadership role by Wolverine when Madrox appears to be dead, ultimately admits to himself that he is a poor fit and chooses to move on to other things. Nobody gets kicked off, and nobody dies (for good). They are all there, and they all leave, strictly by choice.
     Yeah, ok, all narrative fiction is, to some degree, going to revolve around the choices made by the characters. But X-Factor pounds on that particular drum more often than most, from characters like Madrox and Layla whose very power sets affect their decision-making, to big arcs like "Breaking Points" where the only real throughline is watching team members choose to resign. At the very least, it is one of the major themes of this title, if not the single biggest and most important.
      But X-Factor is an ongoing book, so trying to decide what it is truly about might be pointless at this stage. Until David's time at the helm ends, there will be new information and characters and problems introduced regularly, each one deepening and further complicating any discussion about the series' central theme. I've given it the old college try here, and I think any of the options I've presented could be argued more fully and convincingly if one cared to make the case. For me, Jamie and Layla's romance will always be the focus, but I know that everything I've discussed above is at least as important.
     Peter David is the only creator I've mentioned by name thus far in The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation, because up to now I have been talking only about the story. And David has been a steady creative voice, whereas his collaborators have changed numerous times over the years. However, to ignore these collaborators entirely would be a pretty dick move on my part, so give me some time to back through all the issues and make absolutely certain nobody gets excluded, and there'll be two posts on the artists of X-Factor as soon as I can tap them out. It'll definitely be this month. I'm determined to lay this undertaking to rest by then.

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