Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation (Reprise)

From January-March of this year, I took a look at the long, Peter-David-helmed run of what was, at that time, the current volume of X-Factor. Then in April, Marvel announced that the series would be ending with this month's X-Factor #262, and I thought to myself, "Jeez, I could have timed that better." But them's the breaks, I guess, so now that the book's final issue has been published (and there's an impending reboot in the future, I'm sure...please let it be Uncanny X-Factor) I'm going to throw up one last post in my Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation series on the handful of issues I didn't cover the first time around.
     Mostly, this just means the title's closing arc, "The End of X-Factor," since the storyline that preceded it, "Hell on Earth War," was part of my original discussion. It was only like half-completed back then, so I didn't talk about it in depth, but honestly the entire thing was sort of designed to arrive at its shocking final beat: Guido kills Tier, thus becoming King of Hell, and uses his new powers to undo everything else that happened during the story. It was legitimately surprising, and an excellent way to punctuate the slow-burning story of Guido losing his soul, but the journey there lasted for an issue or two too long, and looking back on it, all that really mattered was the ending. Well, that and one or two other character developments that played a role in "The End of X-Factor," so let's move on to that.
     The thing about "The End of X-Factor" is that it's not so much a cohesive six-issue arc as it is six standalone stories that tell us where all the members of the main cast wind up once the Hell on Earth War is over. So rather than examining it as a whole, let's break it down issue-by-issue:

X-Factor #257: A frustrating issue, especially as the first in the "arc," because most if not all of it feels like filler. During "Hell on Earth War," Jamie Madrox was transformed into a speechless, possibly mindless demon, and that change was one of the few things Guido didn't undo. At the top of this issue, Jamie is lost somewhere in Marrakesh, and Layla (his wife) plans to retrieve him. He's being held by a young boy and his uncle who believe Jamie is a djinn and therefore capable of bringing the boy's dead mother back to life. That's an interesting enough set-up, but where it leads is confusing and ultimately pointless. For one thing, Layla knows where Jamie is because apparently the Marrakesh adventure was supposed to happen, and is therefore part of Layla's "I know stuff" knowledge of the future, it's just that Jamie wasn't meant to be in his weird demon form. Except that makes no sense, because if Jamie didn't look the way he did, the little boy would have no reason to think he's a djinn, and the whole affair would never take place. So that's a head-scratching moment that never really gets explained, and is only even brought up as a lame excuse to have Layla already know who's got her husband, instead of having a few pages of her actually looking for him. Once she gets to him, the rest of the issue is filled with the kid's uncle opening a gateway to the afterlife, then the mother from it emerging as a horrible, giant monster of some kind. The boy is thrilled to have his mom back, even as such a terrifying creature, but his excitement is short-lived because she immediately grabs him, melts his flesh, and flings his bones and organs across the room. Layla and Jamie then struggle against the giant evil mom beast for a while, defeat her without much difficulty, and leave Marrakesh together. End of story, end of issue, waste of time. Essentially the only important plot point is that Layla finds Jamie. Everything else that goes down is insignificant to the larger series. The art is by Neil Edwards and Carmen Carnero, two artists similar enough that it's not always clear who is drawing which page, but also different enough that the characters will have occasionally dramatic shifts in their appearance. To be fair, this is something that happens even when Edwards or Carnero are the only penciler (see below), but it's even starker when the two artists work together, because Carnero's lines are a little heavier and straighter than Edwards'. They do have some really stellar moments, like the mother's dramatic and horrific arrival, and the panel of the son's skin falling off his face. Basically they do the ugliest bits well, but the rest of the art is wobbly and unimpressive.

X-Factor #258: First of all, the same art team draws this issue, and basically the same thoughts I had above apply. Although I think this issue may just be Edwards for the first half and Carnero for the second. That (or the opposite) might be true with #257, too, but it's not as evident to me if that's so. This issue, Rahne's hair changes completely when she flashes back to her time in the arctic, and never changes back when we return to the present, which makes me think that's where the division occurs. Her wolf form looks skinnier and furrier starting with the flashback, too. So the separation of labor is more obvious here, but the two artists still go well together, and the consistency of Jay Leisten on inks and Matt Milla on colors must help that tremendously. In terms of where it leaves its central character, this is my favorite chapter in "The End of X-Factor." Rahne becoming a deacon makes sense; she's returning to her religion after the other major cause in her life—superheroism—hurt her one time too many when her son died. And she and Reverend John Maddox have always worked well together, so seeing them get one more chance to interact and connecting them to one another for at least the immediate future are both things I support. I'd quite like to see David write a mini-series focusing on the pair of them, actually. However, there wasn't really that much of Rahne and Maddox, because there was a needless sequence of her lost in the snow and hallucinating that an attacking polar bear was Tier's father Hrim Hari. Then Guido shows up (the guy who sent her to the arctic to begin with) and prattles a bit stiffly about why he can't bring Tier back but also won't kill Rahne before teleporting her to Maddox's church. That's all just as much empty filler as the issue that came before, especially the hallucination scene, which is admittedly only two pages, but that's 10% of the story and the page that follows is just a polar bear knocking Rahne on her ass, so it's not exactly a beefy script. It is a great conclusion for Rahne, and a surprisingly hopeful one considering how hard David's run has always been on her, so I hope she gets to keep this status quo for a while because I think she needs a good rest.

X-Factor #259: At once the thinnest and most complicated plot of all, this could really have been a one- or two-paragraph thing explaining that Shatterstar and Longshot are one another's fathers due to some time travel wackiness. It's predictable and unexpected both, because "Maybe they are father and son," is certainly an option everyone who read this series must have considered of at one point or another, so the real answer was close but still different. If you guessed the exact truth, my hat's off to you, because it really never occurred to me. However, all the Mojoworld stuff is too rushed to get invested in, and too inconsequential. That part of the book is drawn out when it comes to why it's there, which is so that Rictor can learn half of the Shatterstar-Longshot story, yet each individual scene feels too quick. And then Shatterstar's explanation of the other half of his and Longshot's relationship takes just long enough for him to barely get it all out before the issue ends. That makes the last couple pages feel weird, since the issue doesn't hit a natural closing point so much as it manages to get all of the necessary information out under the wire and then calls it a day. Also, it doesn't really give Rictor, Shatterstar, or Longshot solid wrap-up stories. It answers a question that has loomed over this title for a while, yes, but it's old information being revealed to someone who was unaware, not new developments. Rictor and Shatterstar escape Mojoworld and the past, and we know what they're going to do next (drop off baby Shatterstar in the future) but then what? What's next for them? What are their lives going to be like in the present day, whenever they get back there? These are the questions addressed by the rest of "The End of X-Factor," but the goal of this specific issue seems to be different than the others. It's David officially solving an old mystery, but that's where its efforts and accomplishments pretty much end. I suppose that makes it successful, but light. This is also Carmen Carnero's last issue as artist, and she draws the whole thing, but there's not a dramatic difference. People look a little more like themselves, but there are still some moments where their faces shift awkwardly. Again, it's the same inker and colorist, so they help give the title visual uniformity. Leisten's inks never get in the way of the pencils or make things overly dark, but they are firm, marking the borders between things clearly. And the panel borders are very strong, helped in part by Carnero's tendency to leave ample white space between panels. Milla's coloring is smooth, and where they work best here is with the bright screens and sci-fi tech of Mojoworld. He also does fire very well, making it bright white in the middle to display its intensity. Like it has been before (and will be for the rest of the arc) the artwork is good enough to tell the story but not especially powerful, memorable, or steady.

X-Factor #260: Here we have a teaser for the next volume of X-Factor, preceded by Polaris having a drunken nervous breakdown. Polaris has never been my favorite, nor is she someone with whom I'm especially familiar, but I liked her a lot in this issue as the petulant mutant hitting rock bottom. She made me laugh but also made me nervous, and it gave her some depth of character I think she's always lacked (at least the few times I've seen her in the past). Her fight with Quicksilver I could take or leave, but it wasn't bad for a minor superpowered spat between distant siblings. I do loathe this kind of ending, where it's all about the promise of a continuing story in some other book. But we all knew X-Factor wasn't going away for good, and if David is still going to be the writer of whatever new form it takes, I'm excited to see this damaged, self-destructive take on Polaris be further developed. She's the only character who seems to be carrying over into that series (based on this arc, anyway) so having her start from her lowest point could be cool, if it's done well. I'm not sure it's handled expertly by David in this opening gambit, but she's at least consistent in her total disregard for anyone's safety, including her own, and has the forced and depressing sense of humor that often comes with that kind of bottoming out. Her smiles and jokes are all insincere and hollow, which is human and familiar, and definitely the most evocative she's ever been for me as a character. I like X-Factor #260 for giving me that, though it maybe takes too long doing it, and certainly ends obnoxiously. Neil Edwards fully takes over penciling duties, and will be the only penciler from here until the end of the run, inked by Leisten and colored by Milla, and their art is similar for all three of the final issues. Edwards can do big, important moments well. Images that take up most or all of a page are well-chosen in terms of how important they are for the story, and far more detailed than the smaller panels. The characters' emotions are more layered in these places, too, where in the rest of any given issue the acting is flatter. Intense anger or happiness tend to lead to misshapen mouths, stretched uncomfortably far in one direction or another. There is, however, always total readability, with straightforward layouts and bold lines. And some of the large panels really kick ass, so every issue has some bits that really pop. Speaking of pop, Milla's work is classic superhero comics, brash and shiny and fun, which is what this book wants. Even at its saddest, X-Factor is a blast, with space for humor and humanity, so the colors have to be ready to brighten anytime. Really what Milla does well is to carefully choose the right group of colors for every panel. He has a wide-ranging palette, and uses it with intelligence. This is not the best artistic team in the title's long life, but they bring it home respectably.

X-Factor #261: I like Monet a lot as a foil for the rest of the cast, and Darwin had the best powers so I was always glad to have him around, but as whole people neither one of them ever did it for me. So even though this is an ok issue, and their hook-up is a long time coming, I care the least about this story. This is not because David did any less or worse work with Darwin or Monet than other characters, but her cold cooler-than-thou attitude and his jumbled sense of identity didn't resonate for me as strongly as the other characters' quirks and flaws. Monet's death hurt less for me than Guido becoming a villain (and a jerk-off) or Jamie absorbing his and Theresa's son. That's just me, but it's all I've got. From a story standpoint, this issue is well-structured, opening with Darwin so furiously determined to get rid of his death powers that he charges blind into an unknown situation with his giant gun drawn, and ending with him choosing to keep those powers and contentedly snuggling Monet. It's a tight arc for the character, and aligns 100% with what we've seen from him before. As for Monet, her return from death seems to have been as damaging as Guido's, so that does not at all bode well for her future. These ae characters I'd like to see more of, even with David as writer, but in a situation where they aren't as overshadowed by people I connect with more. Actually, they're the strongest candidates to join Polaris is the forthcoming reboot, assuming that reboot is targeted at me, specifically. It's like the three most fucked up members of the old cast, the saddest and most broken. Guido could be their nemesis. But now this is just fanfic. Let me finish by saying that Darwin and Monet have more than earned the tiny bit of pleasure they find in one another's arms, and even if I didn't love them, I never hated them, so I'm glad there was some sweetness mixed in with the bitterness of their final story.

X-Factor #262: My favorite thing about this issue is that Theresa comes back, paying off on the promise she made to Jamie back when she left the book to be a full-time goddess that he could pray to her for help. I'm just glad David got to do that before the series wrapped, because the work he did with her before her departure and the story of her choosing godhood was all excellent stuff. So yay for that. Mr. Tryp showing up one last time didn't seem totally necessary (and speaking of, why didn't the Isolationist ever get to do anything again? He was brought back in the lead up to "Hell on Earth War" and then flat out disappeared. I wasn't eager to see more of him, but it's even worse to have him teased and then dropped entirely). Tryp's conversation with Layla exists only so that we can be told why the cops are showing up a few pages later, and also so David can quickly and fumblingly kill Tryp off. Once he's out of the way, though, the whole issue runs smoothly and works very well. Layla is at the end of her rope, in over her head for the first time in her life, basically, and it's nice to see her hang onto her strength and resolve even when she has no idea what to do. Also her love for Jamie, which is what saves them both in the end, what finally gets through to his demon brain and gets him to pray to Theresa. Layla is pregnant, and that's an important and exciting enough event that even Mephisto's magic can't keep Jamie from getting to be part of it. It's sappy, even saccharine, but Jamie and Layla have always been a romantic comedy couple living in a superhero comic, so this is just right for them. Of all the things that David does to put away all the toys he's been playing with for the last seven years, having Layla and Jamie retire and move to his old family farm to raise a family is the one I'd be most upset to see another writer overturn. Let them be, let them have this. It's what this book has been building to since jump street. "The End of X-Factor" is a rocky ride at best, but this last chapter feels inevitable, and is therefore the perfect way to finish things.

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