In this era of mainstream comics publishing, well-known characters and franchises are overseen by several levels of management, squeezing out the potential idea-space for stories, especially if they deviate from the dictates of Disney or Warner Bros. The truly great genre comics have thus come from the margins: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Less high-concept but still immensely enjoyable is Peter David’s (“PAD”) X-Factor, a superhero team comic featuring the margins of Marvel’s cast of mutant characters.
Just over 20 years ago, editor Bob “I Helped Ruin Marvel in the ’90s” Harras, in a rare wise decision, handed the reins of the X-Factor title over to Peter David, then making a name for himself with what would turn out to be a 12-year run on The Incredible Hulk. Previously, the X-Factor title served as a way for Marvel to market an ongoing title featuring the five original X-Men. The end of long-running X-Men writer Chris Claremont’s tenure featured his penultimate arc, The Muir Island Saga, which united the X-Factor team with the X-Men proper. PAD’s first issue of X-Factor, no. 70, is in fact a wrap-up issue, introducing future teammates Jamie Madrox, Lorna “Polaris” Dane, and Guido to each other. This first issue already displays PAD’s facility with wordplay, puns, and comedy in balance with the emotional, character-driven storytelling that makes him rank among the top of my favorite superhero writers.
The beginning of PAD’s run truly starts with issue 71, which opens with a splash page of “Strong Guy” Guido quoting the then-timely phrase, “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?” Not very many writers would use that to introduce their artistic vision to the world, and any who would, wouldn’t be able to pull it off like PAD. (Also, the dude’s superhero name is Strong Guy!) The ’90s run easily outclassed the rest of the X-Pack, featuring such “luminaries” as Scott Lobdell on Uncanny X-Men, and Rob Liefeld on X-Force. Discounting issue 70, the run is collected in X-Factor Visionaries, though the premise of a government-led mutant team hasn’t aged well (nor made much sense at the time), and it ends quite abruptly, mirroring PAD’s departure from the book. To be fair, the premise carried over from foundations set by Chris Claremont, and Harras likely conceived the premise, merely handing the reins over to David, who in slight acknowledgment of the absurdity has Guido say early on, “I ain’t a government mutie!”
One issue from the run, though, was a breakthrough for superhero comics: Issue 87 was dedicated entirely to the members of the team undergoing a therapy session with Doc Samson, The Hulk’s go-to shrink, which allowed PAD to get inside the characters’ heads as only he could. From then on, it has been clear that PAD’s strategy with his characters has been to treat the superpower sets as an extension of the characters’ personalities. Madrox makes temporary clones (“dupes”), so he is at his core an extremely indecisive and insecure person — being able to make every decision at once means you don’t have to make a single decision ever. Quicksilver can run super-fast, so he thinks everyone else is frustratingly slow and incompetent. Polaris, mistress of magnetism, is bi-polar. And so on. I highly recommend reading at least this issue. The others from the initial run, though, are not essential.
Peter David returned after ten years to the Jamie Madrox character, as well as former X-Factor teammates “Strong Guy” Guido and werewolf Rahne “Wolfsbane” Sinclair, in the 2004 mini-series Madrox: Multiple Choice (with penciler Pablo Raimondi) for Marvel’s Marvel Knights line of titles. This out-of-print mini turns the former teammates into the founders of a private detective agency and expands on Madrox’s power set: It turns out his dupes are in part manifestations of various aspects of his personality. I am just short of being such a rabid fan so as to list all of the personality types that have popped up, but off-hand I recall seeing his unrestrained libido, his self-loathing, his cowardice, his insubordination, and his inappropriate sense of humor, to name a few. The premise of the mini is that he had set several dozen dupes loose across the world to learn various skills, then recombine with “Madrox Prime” and thus impart their knowledge to him. One of these dupes is shot, returns to Madrox Prime, and recombines in the attempt to track down his killer. The series has a noir-lite tone peppered with PAD’s trademark humor, complete with femme fatale and, separately, Steve Buscemi look-alike. In order to get the most out of the second PAD X-Factor run, you need to start here, though it’s fairly pricey to get a copy even in rough shape. Fortunately for the cheap, you can read the series through Marvel’s Comics Unlimited service, provided you can stomach the sub-optimal digital comics user interface. (This is true, in fact, for all X-Factor ‘vol. 2′ issues up through last November’s 227. Owners of the print copy might find my name familiar from that issue’s letter column.)
The second volume of X-Factor spins out from that mini-series, adding Theresa “Siryn” Cassidy, HBIC Monet St. Croix, de-powered Rictor, and House of M supporting character, precocious scamp Layla Miller. The series was launched in the wake of the House of M crossover event, which “decimated” the mutant population after walking plot-device Scarlet Witch wished away most mutants’ powers. (PAD lightly and correctly pokes fun at the terminology by having his Quicksilver point out that, since 90 percent of all mutants lost their powers, the name is actually an inversion of the meaning of the word.) Consequently, the series is largely focused on that mystery–in terms of collected editions, volumes one thr-ough four have the “decimation” event as a major theme. Indeed, Miller is presented in the second or third issue as functioning in the series to prevent anyone from learning the truth about the event. That original motivation is entirely forgotten shortly thereafter, though, as the team finds out the whole damn truth by issue 8. Whoops.
In line with the slightly noir-y detective agency scheme, the team mainly uses street clothes and calls each other by their civilian names. In one funny moment in the first arc, Madrox and Siryn refer to each other by the codenames “Schizoid Man” and “Screaming Mimi,” respectively.
The second volume has been a top-notch superhero (really, detective) team comic ever since it debuted, running circles around all of the “major” X-Men books not written by Joss Whedon (who recently directed a movie that you might have seen.) Even then, I’d pick PAD’s work over Whedon’s from 2004-2008. Oddly, the numbering switched after no. 50, going back to the original volume’s, as though the numbering from the ’90s title had carried on uninterrupted. So 50 skips to 200 since X-Factor vol. 1 ended at number 149 in 1998 (*deep breath*), and we’re now waiting on issue 241 to hit stands this Wednesday, August 1st, 2012. Comics, everybody!
Notice the “xXx” stick-figures within the “X” of the title logo. This is a carry-over from the Madrox: Multiple Choice logo and of course is an indication of who the star of the comic is. However, as of issue 230, the logo changed slightly and dropped the triplets, which puts the reader’s focus from mostly Madrox to the now-football team-sized line up.
While on the topic of covers, artist David Yardin has been creating covers for the series since issue 39 (which is about Siryn and Madrox’s baby’s birth, which… doesn’t go so well), with the only exception that I am aware of being issue 200. He’s one of the best in the business, and his varied styles make tracking down single issues worth the fun and expense for me even though I have the trade paperbacks.
So that’s it for this introduction. Coming soon will be coverage of the recent issues 237 through 240, the bookends being two of my favorites in the entire series. This Wednesday will see the release of issue 241, which is the start of a five-issue arc that will wrap up most of the plot threads PAD’s been weaving over the last two or three or seven years, depending on what you count, so it has never been a better time to put the book on your pull list, especially since PAD goes out of his way to make every issue friendly to new-readers. If you need a lighter, funnier take on superheroes to balance out the usually dark palette of the genre, I doubt you will regret it.