Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas 2015: X-Factor #27






And a Beastly retarded Christmas to you, too.



I have a love-hate relationship to the X-Factor book. X-Factor was born out of Marvel’s need to rape the X-Men franchise for everything it could. 

Not content to be busting the charts with the Uncanny X-Men book, Marvel decided back in 1986 to launch a new series using the original five X-Men. The five created by Stan Lee way, way back in 1963. Most of these characters had drifted off from the title after Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus and crew joined in 1975. Maybe it was more like they were pushed so far out of the spotlight it was hard to get one panel per issue. 



Where had they wandered off too? Beast slummed with the Avengers for a bit. Angel and Iceman joined the Los Angeles superhero team the Champions before hooking back up with Beast as part of the short-lived team of Defenders. Cyclops had proven to have a bit more tenacity, hanging on as leader of the X-Men until losing the title to Storm. He then settled down with a hot redhead of questionable parentage.

  

Marvel’s enormous problem in “getting the band back together” was the fifth teammate. Jean Grey a/k/a Marvel Girl a/k/a Phoenix had been killed in one of the most dramatic storylines to come out at that time. 



Her “Dark Pheonix Saga” swan-song was one of my first trade paperback collections and a treasured memory among hard core fans. Dilemma of dilemmas! What should a sales-hungry corporate entity do?



Enter several comic writer heroes of mine to tarnish the memories of X-fans everywhere. Writer Kurt Busiek came up with a brilliant idea for bringing Jean (you guessed it) BACK TO LIFE. Sort of. His ploy was a simple one that hadn’t been used since the days of movie serials – that of misdirection. See Jean was never killed. Many issues before her death, she had been replaced by a powerful cosmic force, her body hidden in a egg-like cocoon at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. This cosmic force impersonated Jean until she/it was blasted to smithereens on Earth’s moon. Busiek relayed his ideas to scribes Roger Stern and John Byrne who played out the saga of Jean’s awakening in the Avengers and Fantastic Four books. Ta-daa! Instant history eraser.



This signaled one of the worst trends present in comics today: character death followed shortly by resurrection. I can’t count the number of heroes who have bit the big one only to come back hale and hardy less than a year later. So far we’ve had a full Lazarus executed by Superman, Superboy, Green Lantern, Flash (make that two different Flashes), a Robin, Thor, an entire group of X-Men, Hawkeye, Jean Grey (again), the original Bucky and a host of nameless others. When I originally wrote this in 2009 waiting in the morgue were the recently deceased Batman and the autopsied body of Captain America. Must be a lot of money in killing people off, because comic book companies can’t get enough. So strike one against X-Factor is that it created a trend in murderous sensationalism without a care for how it affects the fans, the character or the stories being told. And to me story trumps exploitation every time.



In truth I enjoyed the launch of X-Factor more than I should have. They were not new characters to me, but they weren’t “my” X-Men. I came on board after Giant-Sized X-Men 1, so Cyclops and Jean were the only two characters I knew as part of any X-troop. Beast I knew from George Perez’s Avengers and I knew Iceman from the “Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends” show. So there was no waxing nostalgic about the regrouping of this first set of X-chaps. Yet Bob Layton’s words and Jackson Guice’s unique pencils won me over. I collected and loved every issue. Until issue number 6.



Issue 6 saw Layton leave the book as writer. In his place stepped long-time editor and comic book legend Louise Simonson. And while I admire Simonson’s skills at creating interesting new characters, her run on X-Factor provided one of the longest string of “nails on a chalkboard” scripting experiences I’ve ever encountered.



For those of you (I see you in the back there) who don’t know who Louise Simonson is, I’ll run the numbers by you. Louise is the lady who created the pre-teen hero squad “Power Pack” (much beloved by yours truly), the villain Apocalypse, co-created Cable with Ron (perspective impaired) Liefield, co-created Steel during the death of Superman arc and was an editor for comics back when I was still in diapers. Her writing credits are the aforementioned Power Pack, consecutive stints on New Mutants and X-Factor and a long run on Superman: The Man of Steel. She also managed to snare one of the most talented comic illustrators around as her husband, the magnificent Walt Simonson. Oh, and she’s very beautiful. Stunning, in fact.



But for all my love of her work on PowerPack, I find myself equally repulsed by her style on X-Factor. The plotting never quite hit a groove with me. With the exception of the introduction of the mega-villain Apocalypse and the few issues of the Fall of the Mutants crossover, there isn’t much to recommend her run. The characters were subject to drastic changes that neither made them more interesting in the current storyline nor created any kind of lasting dramatic tension. But the art routinely rose to the level of fantabulous, so I picked them up anyway.



Issue 27 was a Christmas issue. I can remember buying it off the rack as one of my weekly pulls back in 1988. The book was one of those must-haves for me because I was such a die-hard Walt Simonson pencils fan. It clearly wasn’t his best work, but anything he did ranked higher on my list than 80% of the artists out there. Plus the core group of characters included my favorite mutant (Cyclops) as well as a couple of my second tier contenders (Beast, Iceman). Yet still there was something that kept the book from ringing my bells. Yes, I found the group of young mutants “rescued” by X-Factor annoying and without any standout, neato cool powers. (pfft, pyrokinesis is so yesterday’s news.). But this was not enough to dim my outlook on the title as a whole. More troubling was the character plotting, which amounted to heaping on piles of personal trials and tribulations while reducing each of the principals to levels of angst worthy of acne-faced teenagers a week before the senior prom. That still wasn’t the major issue though. What bothered me most was Louise’s writing.



What was so bad? It’s like several small issues that happen to be personal pet peeves of mine. Let’s start with the first one: pointless exposition breaking the “show, not tell” rule. An example from page 2 is below. X-Factor (and their young mutant sidekicks/students) have arrived at the top of the damaged Empire State Building, site of their latest battle with Apocalypse. The plan is to use this as an opportunity for some much needed image damage control. They’ve invited the press to the unveiling of their gift to New York for causing so much trouble, a gift that after a bit of thought seems to be the most retardedly stupid stunt since WKRP threw live Turkeys from a helicopter. But more on that in just a bit.



 

It’s a scant two years and three months into the book’s run, yet only now have Jean and Scott started really becoming romantically involved again. Even after Scott’s abandoning of his wife and child for her. He subsequently  went back to find she had disappeared and all records of her existence gone as a way to prove he was still a hero and not just a deadbeat dad with superpowers. So he’s basically been moping around for 26 issues. Now with Scott’s wife and child pronounced dead and gone, he’s going to rekindle his romance with Jean. Good for him.

 

Simonson (the writer) has an excellent opportunity to show Jean and Scott’s budding feelings, but instead has the annoying mutant trainees tell us what the sweetheart duo’s status is instead. It is offensive and aggravating to be spoon feed information like this. Consider this dialogue strike one. Not only is it bad storytelling but it has the added effect of making us wish the youthful charges had less speaking parts, even the mute one.



So after the X-kids exposition, we get strike number two in the very next panel. It happens many, many times in the book. See…if you can…pick it…out:





What? Did every character graduate from the William Shatner school of public speaking? Why all the pregnant pauses? It would be funny if it didn’t occur once every four or five frames. Some character becomes confused and suddenly…every word…is too much…effort to…spit out. Bones,…I’ll…need a moment…to compose…myself. Not a good sign when we haven’t hit page three and I’ve already started to detect the suck meter rising.



And speaking of suck meters, the problem they saddled poor Beast with was a mind-numbingly stupid one. Literally. Beast was always the big-brain scientist of the X-men. Hell, of the Avengers too. Multiple PHD’s, scientific accolades, a real-life Poindexter. It was one of the very neatest aspects of the character that he would be, as Stan Lee put it, “the most articulate, eloquent, and well-read of the X-Men to contrast with his brutish exterior.” Yet Simonson (again, the writer) decided to infect poor Henry “Beast” McCoy with a virus in the prior issue that not only made him sub-normal in intellect, but would permanently rob him of mental capacity each time he used his prodigious strength.



I am going to admit that I have no insider knowledge and this may have been editorial's idea. But I’m going to go on record for stating that I think the true reason for “dumbing down” the Beast was due in large part to cover up a deficiency in Simonson’s ability to write in the voice of that character. In fact, I find a majority of Simonson’s characters in this book speaking in very simplistic terms and are essentially interchangeable with the exception of costume and power set. Which is so sad, because her Power Pack brood were written so well. 

Anyway, the idea to change him to “retardo” Beast is itself retarded, and, like his ailment, gets worse the more often it is used.



While we have hitched a ride on the old retard train, this next story development is a doosy. First we barely evade coma territory while the X-juniors prattle on about what each of their powers are to the assembled media. (Yeah, we get it. You have lame, forgettable powers and will be killed off by Marvel management within 5-10 years. Shutup and sit down.) Then the reporters get a treat as Iceman uses his raging, out-of-control mutation to create this:





That’s the top of the Empire State Building, of which the antenna was knocked off in the fight with ‘pock-a-lips. And Iceman has just crafted a giant ice sculpture of a Christmas tree to take its place. An enormous solid block of ice, easily weighing more than the (mostly hollow) antenna that was there. Is there anyone but me that sees anything wrong with this? Because if X-Factor wants to gain positive publicity, I’m not sure that running around undermining the structural safety of populated office buildings is the way to do it. In fact, I’m sure it’s not. Post 9-11 we tend to call individuals who do that “terrorists.”



Yet there it stands: a monument to bad ideas.



Page five also holds the third dialogue strike too, and that is the “random crowd noise.” Again this is mostly an issue of the show-not-tell rule being violated, but it seems amplified by the facelessness of the speakers. When you are in a crowd of random people and something happens, does everyone feel the need to vocalize every detail that they see? No! Real people don’t talk like that. It’s reserved for people in badly written dinner theater shows. Oh, and apparently in Simonson’s X-Factor comics as well.



This third dialogue strike should have done it for me. I mean if I can’t make it to page six of a 30 page book, I really need to give that title up. Sadly, I plugged on through Simonson’s run and into Whilce Portacio’s. I have no shame when it comes to Walt Simonson’s work. How I got by ham-fisted dramatic scenes like this one, where Scott finds out his wife is alive then dead again from a local TV broadcast, I’ll never know. Must have had lower standards back then or something.





Good heavens! It gets WORSE! Now Jean is even thinking in fits and starts. It’s enough to make ME tear up.





That awful scripting. This angst stuff played much better in the 80’s than it does now, but even for that era, this work was over the top. In story terms all of Cyclops issues with his un-dead…er, NON-dead wife who now just became dead again makes Jean realize that in the past two years worth of issues she never once called her own parents to say “Hey, I’m not dead anymore.” O-boy! What kind of numbskull comes back from being deceased and FORGETS TO TELL THEIR CLOSEST NEXT-OF-KIN that they are alive?





Anyway, the annoying X-prepubes eat up several pages, first talking about how sad that a children’s hospital got damaged in the fight, then discussing how cool Apocalypse’s high-tech sentient Ship is now that it’s to be their new home, and finally discussing what to do with all the gifts that are arriving from grateful city dwellers. Everyone can see for a mile away where this is going. In the spirit of Chirstmas the kids will give their presents to the needy boys and girls. The only hold out on giving them away is the feisty, bitchy and selfish teenage girl “Boom-Boom.” She is also the only one of the five that’s allowed any personality. While you might think that would make her interesting in some way, the truth is it just makes you wish she’d be killed by one of Iceman’s badly planned decorations.



Anyway, back to Jean…





She shows up on her parents door after being declared dead and she’s worried because she didn’t pick them up any Christmas presents? Really? Is everybody in this book mentally challenged? Seriously, this is trying even my patience. This is just not how normal people act. Or mutants for that matter. Hell, it’s not how emotionless Vulcans act. 

They are happy to see her of course and welcome Jean back with open arms.

 

When Jean returns to the kids, she finds them delivering the presents. There’s a brief scuffle with two guys that want to rob them because they are pulling a sleigh full of presents around but this is a one page fight tacked on because there isn’t a single bit of conflict going on in the book. Sometimes that can be interesting. Say in something like “The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man.” But here it’s just boring.


 

Walt’s art works as much magic as it can to redeem the story, but by now we are numb and senseless. Nice Santa-Beast though.





And we end with The Four Horsemen and Apocalypse ominously toasting the fact that X-Factor has his ship.  Note how un-Ivan Oozey he looks.

For more Apocalypse fun (and perhaps a more balanced look at Mrs Simonsons' contributions) check out my review of X-Factor #68 and a twisted history lesson about the A-man himself.


With that, I hope that everyone has a very merry (if Crapbox-free) Christmas. Now let me go dig under the tree and see if I can find any more Kid's Stuff toys.

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