Tuesday, May 24, 2016

TV/Movies Tie-in, Part XII: X-Factor #68 (featuring Apocalypse)




One of those off-the-rails type moments for me and the X-Men

I had a moment of pseudo-déjà vu a week or so ago.

My wife had just seen Deadpool for the first time and I was trying to explain Cable and his origin to her. I was skipping all of the Rob Liefeld stuff, because why include it. I began by just getting down to how he came to be.

And I started giggling.

And there it was: This feeling I had done something similar before that gave me this same type of reaction.

It happened decades ago.

I picked up comic buying after exiting high school. On my way to college I got sucked into buying comics as a way to tame my appetite for reading, yet not burn my eyes out when moving from course-work related study-time textbooks to leisure-related down-time novels and short stories. Comics were a way to be entertained while reading without melting my eyes. They were quick fixes I could enjoy and then get back to "the books."

About two years in I had become a big Marvel fan. It was around the time after Days of Future Past and the beginning of the Rachel Summers/Phoenix saga. I remember it very clearly. I was in my local shop picking up books when another customer came up to me and made a comment. 


The guy saw I was buying X-Men and X-Force. He had been a big X-Men fan but hadn't bought comics in a long time and he wanted to know what history he had missed, especially about Rachel/Phoenix. His last Phoenix was Jean Grey before she went all dark and planet-eat-ty.

So I started to explain the history of Rachel and the rest of the X-Men, how she had come from an alternate timeline where everyone died and she was Cyclops and Jean Grey's daughter, but they couldn't know cause it hadn't happened yet and on and on about clones and alien cosmic forces that took over people's bodies to leave them in cocoons at the bottom of the sea and…

...suddenly…

...I had to stop mid-way through and break down in a hysterical laughing fit of crazy coincidences, altered timelines, plot-trails that looped back in on themselves multiple times and other assorted nonsense.

Absurdity like this:

The X-Men's history never needed a Crisis to seem convoluted.

Trying to tell my wife Cable's backstory created the same "oh-my-god, this is so silly now that I put it end-to-end and look at the whole thing" kind of reaction.

And when you talk about Cable, you have to start here, at the middle of his story which is also actually the beginning. You have to start here and you have to include Apocalypse.



And when you talk Apocalypse, you have to start with writer Louise Simonson and X-Factor #5. The writer, the character and the book all intersected in a shared causality loop.

Bob Layton had been writing X-Factor up until issue 4, building up a set of villains to challenge the newly reformed original X-Men. However Layton and editor Bob Harris didn't see eye-to-eye on who should be pulling the strings on Layton's "Alliance of Evil". Layton wanted it to be Daredevil villain The Owl. Harris wanted something new, different. Not the Owl.

Simonson had written a fill-in story when Layton had a near miss of an X-Factor deadline. She found herself inspired by the characters and as a former editor, she brought a list of ideas to Harris in hopes Layton would use them in the series. So when Layton dropped writing X-Factor after issue 4, Harris had a go-to person waiting in the wings.

So he replaced Layton with Simonson as the writer and Simonson came up with the character Apocalypse as the new bad guy.

Now I've disparaged Mrs. Simonson's work on X-Factor in the past and I stand by those criticisms. There were definitely things I didn't like about her run. 

On the other hand, Apocalypse, Angel's transformation and the Fall of the Mutants were all really great stories! I found the issues and story threads that centered around these plotlines to rise above the general problems I mentioned. Especially with regards to the changes made to Angel. More on that another day, though.

Simonson made Apocalypse the X-Factor's main nemesis, an antagonist that is (to quote "Unbreakable") "the real threat — the brilliant and evil archenemy — who fights the hero with his mind."

And like any archenemy, he uses foot soldiers to attack our heroes while he waits in the wings like the boss of some side scrolling video game from the 80's. Simonson pulls all this off well. Bob Harris wanted a Magneto-level villain and Simonson really hit one out of the park.


THESE plotlines and story elements always worked, in ways that you would expect from the writer who won an Eagle for Power Pack. Seeing Apocalypse on the cover always got me excited for what was going to happen in that issue. If only there had been less of the junior mutant squad, dumb-Beast and the general clunky exposition here and there, I would have considered this up there with the Phoenix saga and Days of Future Past as one of the classic runs.

Sadly the mystery of Apocalypse was solved after Simonson's departure from the book and in solving it the character suffered in my opinion. Knowing who and where he came from made him a worse character. Worse in that it made him more convoluted.

So who was Apocalypse? The various creative teams have done their level best to give him an impressive backstory. He holds the title of being one of the oldest mutants (if not THE oldest).  As a villain, he has really taken the term "survival of the fittest" to heart. He believes in testing mutants until only the strongest survive. For a while he seemed obsessed with the prophetic idea of The Twelve, a group of the most powerful mutants on Earth who would defeat him. This prophecy supposedly came from the future recorded history of the mutant seer Destiny, which in fact was ACTUALLY a lie concocted by future Apocalypse. Seems Future Apocalypse somehow told his past version to gather these twelve super-mutants to steal their energy but Past Apocalypse had to LIE about why he was doing it because…

You know what? I'm having that same kind of giggly feeling again.

You can't condense down any X-Person's history. It is all a messy ball of twine that you can never find the beginning to.

All you can do is pick at it a little where you currently find yourself and see what that unravels. And where we are now is X-Factor #68, with Apocalypse having kidnapped Cyclops' infant son, Nathan Christopher Summers. Sadly this was the best that any of the writers of this age of Marvel comics could come up. That poor kid had the same thing done to him during the Inferno crossover series.




Pocy is trying to rejuvenate his aged body, as he must every so often, using the infant's mutant power. X-Factor arrive at the Inhuman's hidden city of Attilian to find it completely under the villain's control even though he is giant-sized, unmoving and strapped into a huge machine. A-Poc is looking more like a Jack Kirby "source wall" fixture than a threat as we open the book.

We get some thick-layered exposition out of our "bad boy as wall covering" and then we are off to the races. The plot here is care of Whilce Portacio and Jim Lee, both of whom I only knew of as excellent pencilers when I first encountered this book way back in 1991. Handling the words and stuff is veteran X-scribe Chris Clairmont. Portacio does double duty here by also handling pencils. Inking chores go to Art Thibert.

Portacio's pencils always seemed very busy to me. His characters were fluid and panel layouts inventive, if a bit full. My first encounter with his work was the original Punisher series and those dark, line-filled drawings worked in that gritty context. Here I would like something a bit cleaner, as the X-Men stuff should be more light-hearted superhero fluff. That's a minor quibble, as his pal's Jim Lee's work also has that same effect on me. Both artists tend toward darker panels and pages with more detailed line art. The detail work is fine, but given the cluttered panel design, I find the subtly of much of the drawings drowned out. Jim Lee's style is more standardized with regard to the panel boards and I like it much better.



Take this sequence of monologuing over some stills of the Twelve: there is nothing wrong with the individual frames, but the clutter and arrangement tend to push too much at the audience. It is overload. Which is a shame, because Portacio's skill at drawing individual scenes is exceptional.

So yeah "…blah-blah-BLAAH…Infant son, Nathan Christopher!"

*Cue fight sequence.
In pops Apocalypse's "gang of expendable third string characters of the moment", The Riders of the Storm. No nods to Jim Morrison. And a chaotic melee ensues.



I'm torn by this. There is so much action going on in this scene that it looks cluttered. I appreciate Portacio's skill but I think he misses the mark with this book. It doesn't help that he tries his own variation on the "Kirby Krakle" only to have it backfire. Good Krakle pushes the figures to the forefront of the frame. Something here about the execution between penciller and inker creates far too much motion and mess. And it doesn't help that the colorist threw in a competing color scheme that blends in with a few of the villain's clothing elements. Most of the action panels in this book are this kind of messy and I really wish they weren't.

The end result of all this is that the ex-X-Men are knocked out by the brainwashed Inhumans helping Apocalypse and shoved into giant test tubes. We are treated to some of Clairmont's traditional overwriting as Cyclops talks about his son.



Times like these, I can almost see him doing a good job writing Cap America. And again we have so many overlapping frames that the flow of the page becomes extremely busy and overdone. It's like someone's scrapbook exploded. I appreciate the skill involved in the individual elements, just wish there was a "less is more" vibe that was struck.

So Nathan Christopher Summers is about to be drained along with the X-Factor peeps. Nat is a special, one of Apocalypse's Twelve most powerful mutants. He is the son of Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor, a woman Scott met and married while Jean was "dead". However Madelyne Pryor turned out to be a clone of Jean Grey created by the villain Mr. Sinster JUST so Scott would mate with her and produce a powerful mutant offspring.

Madelyne disappeared for a time that coincided with Jean Grey's reappearance. When she finally resurfaced, Madelyne became an evil magic-using demon-sorceress who tried to sacrifice Nathan so she could open a portal to hell. She didn't succeed and Scott took over care of his son, which this being a comic book meant he would talk about the kid once every six issues or so. Otherwise the infant was nowhere to be seen.

So this poor child has been through this once already and is about to be killed AGAIN only this time it is a giant mutant statue instead of his own scantily-clad, demon-loving mother. Kid is gonna grow up with a complex for sure.

And while we are at it, I don't know whose job it is to put in the eyeballs, but someone give these people pupils please?



The other Inhumans arrive and free X-Factor, defeat the Riders of the Storm and then we get everyone zapping Apocalypse, so that gets him all riled up. Still too weak to do much, he just sits there an lets them take potshots at him. And in the bottom panels we start the ball rolling down the hill to crazytown as we have this chick from the future who has come back to do something but because every future has messed up record keeping, she doesn't really know what. What she does know is that one of these guys is "the Chosen" and the rest are his family.
So it's Nathan, obviously.

Even if she doesn't know what exactly she's supposed to do, she does know enough to stop the beast from getting flash-fried while trying to remove Nat from all the "Cables" that are holding him. (look at me with my subtle hints.)




Somehow saving him doesn't kill her outright and she identifies herself as an Askani and states she's dying. Well, okay. That's an oversimplification. What she says is "Nomenclature. Askani. Task-trade warrior! My physicality undergoing terminal discorporation." Which is Clairmont trying to use all the words in the dictionary in this issue while making up a few new ones too.

Whatever, future-chick. How's things going with our main bad guy? Looks like he's firing energy blasts while taking a beating. Also, Apocalypse has always had a random grab bag of whatever powers needed at the time. Beyond the power to change his own shape, I don't think he had anything else, yet here he is going all Iron Man.

Also note that Black Bolt is using his voice on him. And his voice is coming out like halitosis. Look at those stink lines.




While everyone else ties it on with A-Poc, Beast, Jean and the future-chick check out Nathan. What they find is that he is turning to circuitry and it has already taken one eye and one arm…hmm? Just like Cable's eye and arm…. Not only that A-Poc is still doing something to him to drain his life force making THIS sub-plot necessary.




Jean feels an affinity with the tyke and the next thing you know she's looking like a Lenox crystal action figure while gallivanting around in his mind full of Disney reject characters. Apocalypse is in there too and soon Cyclops joins them, just in time to stab the bad guy in the crystal torso.


I will say this: Portacio's panel layouts sure do keep a guy doing scans of them on his toes. Every page is full of busy little boxes angled and moving and bubble-boardered. It's a hard thing to admit, but I find myself wanting to post whole pages just so I don't have to figure out where to cut an image.

Anyway, this leads to Cyc power blasting Apoc in the really, really real world and "Boom-boom, you know – out go the lights!"


Simply stunning. This is the Portacio I want to see. Clear imagery that is bold and decisive and powerful. Thankfully the rest of the issue tones things down. The story becomes more intimate and the frenetic look of the panel design resigns itself to standard comic panels again. I get what Portacio is trying to do with all the movement and busy structure, but I'm going on record here as saying this standard structure looks better to me. It showcases his style without distracting from it.

Storywise, Nat isn't doing too well. The struggle has left him near death.




So Cyclops turns to the Askani woman who agrees to take Nathan with her to the future where her future tech can keep the techno-virus at bay until he is of an age where he can fight it with his telekinetic powers. 

And again these are some pretty powerful scenes that are well executed.



The Askani lady was a bit incorrect, however. Later on Scott and Jean did get to raise Nathing by inhabiting the bodies of Askani in the future and taking care of Nathan in not one but TWO different Cyclops and Phoenix mini-series. BUT this was much later, after he had returned from the future as the full grown Cable character.

And to those of you who read my Deadpool article, you know that there was no way all this was plotted or even thought up by Marvel way back when.

As for the villain of this and X-Men Apocalypse? He got better, of course, and continues to this day to be a threat to the X-folk. So much so that he's got his own feature film where he will turn good guys against good guys once more. Seems like a trend for 2016. 

And we owe a HUGE tip of the hat to writer Louise Simonson for the creation of an iconic bad guy. Thank you greatly, Louise!

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