Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Missing the mark on Hawkeye in less than three pages

Hawkeye is a fun character. Amongst the Avengers he is one of the physically weakest members, yet the character is traditionally portrayed as holding a bottomless supply of bravado (if not a bottomless quiver of arrows). He's brash, cocky and often a loudmouth who disputes the authority of others. He first joined the Avengers as a hothead who would question Captain America's right to lead the team during their downtime, but over the years he developed - if not a friendship - a high regard for Cap's leadership. Over time, Hawkeye himself honed his leadership skills with the West Coast Avengers and Thunderbolts. He retained his flippant sense of humour but had become a true team player (now that he was finally the one calling the shots).

Allow me now to take you back in time to a scene from Avenging Spider-Man #4 (2012) by Zeb Wells and Greg Land:

Above you see an archery expo suddenly interrupted by Hawkeye's arrows as he ruins the expo for all the participants. Although Hawkeye's loud personality clashes with others, he tends to seek out targets which, to his mind, deserve it; in what way has this expo offended him? As an archer, why would he look down on others for practicing the same skill he enjoys?

But the worst is yet to come as a young male archer asks Hawkeye to autograph his bow.

Hawkeye: "Wha--? A compound bow? Ugh..."
Boy: "My Dad got it for me."
Hawkeye: "Has he always wished you were a girl or something?"

The line between loveable rogue and misogynistic prick needn't be crossed so easily, but by gar, Zeb Wells found a way there by page three! To put this in very simple terms: Hawkeye's characterization can be thought of as "Han Solo with a bow;" writing him as "Ken Titus with a bow" is a horrible mistake. The entire sequence rests on the idea that Hawkeye is someone who "punches down," which is neither funny nor in keeping with his past characterization.

Does Hawkeye look down on the female gender? No, not based on his relationships with formidable women such as the Black Widow, Mockingbird and Moonstone.

Is Hawkeye even someone who disparages compound bows? No, he's used them in past (one is shown in his arsenal in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition, above). In fact, since the character's 2007 resurrection he's used the compound much more frequently than at any other time in his history.

Many archers in the real world do disparage the compound bow; they (usually) find a way to do so without insulting children, fathers or the female gender. Or disrupt archery expos.

Let's tally up!

  • Characterization: 0
  • Continuity: 0
  • Gender politics: -5

Let's see... carry the one... that's going on the permanent record. Gentlemen: think about what you've done.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Kieron Dwyer on Kickstarter!

I have a lot of affection for the art of Kieron Dwyer, he being one of the best artists who collaborated on Mark Gruenwald's Captain America run. I don't see his work often, but his name always manages to perk me up a little.

It so happens that Dwyer is presently preparing a new comic book project called West Portal, which you can learn all about through its Kickstarter page. I've noticed in the past how much Dwyer's art has changed from one decade to the next - now on this project, he has a chance to demonstrate his ability to emulate artists as diverse as Alex Raymond and Jack Chick! As the feature's protagonist bounds about from one type of comic book story to another it's a fantastic opportunity for Dwyer to show off his talents.

Unfortunately, the Kickstarter hasn't received much attention. I didn't learn about this project because of promotion via other comic book sites, but simply because I happened to be browsing the Kickstarter site. If this project sounds cool to you, perhaps you can help it out? With a proved talent like Dwyer, you can be assured of a professional piece of work.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Passage to Benares: a tale of mystery and imagination

I gave eight years of my life to freelancing for Marvel Comics. My efforts manifested themselves primarily through the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe series. While working on books whose purpose is to make sense of a fictional universe, you frequently find yourself running up against gaps - information which was never given or thoroughly explained. As much as I enjoyed occasionally connecting the dots of the Marvel Universe, at times Jeff Christiansen (my usual coordinator) had to force me to resolve old mysteries from the comics in print, rather than leave them open ended.

I certainly agreed with Jeff to an extent, so far as wishing to understand the mysteries of the Marvel Universe, but I preferred to find solutions which the texts themselves offered, rather than imagine one on my own. I think that's typical of my approach to mystery in fiction - I try to obey the rules as they're set out within the fictional reality and try not to impose my own rigid standards of order upon them. For instance, the Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer did not reveal Dr. Petrie's first name. Other works named him "James," but I find myself rejecting that name - according to the "rules" of Rohmer, Petrie's first name is a mystery.

During the 1990s, my interest in old-time radio shows began to peak and I searched bookstores and libraries for all the information on them which I could muster (having no internet in those days). Finally, one trip to the bookstore paid off: a set of four cassette tapes, each one featuring two episodes of Suspense, one of my favourite old-time series! I happily bought the tapes and listened to them many times in the years which followed - I even shared them with friends! And after I shared them, I would ask them about the episode "A Passage to Benares" (September 23, 1942), one of the earliest episodes of the series. What did they think of that episode? And how did they interpret the ending? (listen for yourself by downloading the episode at archive.org)

I did not solicit their opinions because I wanted a genial discussion so much as I was simply confused and baffled by the climax of the story. I remained baffled for many years.

In "A Passage to Benares," psychologist Dr. Henry Poggioli is in Trinidad and sleeps one night in a Hindu temple. The next day, a recently-wed young lady is found dead in the temple. Because of Poggioli's background as a criminal investigator, he is invited to help solve the crime, but each clue seems to point directly at Poggioli, until finally he is arrested. In his cell, Poggioli tries desperately to recall the details of the dream he had that night in the temple, thinking it will solve the murder. When the solution at last arrives, Poggioli summons the prison turnkey and presents his solution to him: the victim was murdered by her husband's uncle, believing that if he were executed for her murder their souls would be reunited in India when they reincarnated. Much to Poggioli's surprise, his solution has already been accepted - the uncle confessed everything and was executed. Poggioli demands to know why he was kept in prison if the real murderer had been caught. The answer: "Old Hira Dass didn't confess until a month and ten days after you were hanged." FINISH.

For the better part of two decades, I have been haunted by the closing words. Did they mean Poggioli had been put to death and the turnkey was speaking to his spirit? Had Poggioli himself been reincarnated into another body? Or did the police simply announce Poggioli's faked execution in order to obtain the confession? And in any event, why was Poggioli unaware of how much time had passed since his arrest?

Eventually I learned "A Passage to Benares" appeared first as a short story by T.S. Stribling in 1926. In fact, it was one of several stories featuring Dr. Poggioli and could be found in the collection Clues of the Caribbees. Over the last week, I read the book. They're certainly unusual detective stories and not only because of their Caribbean settings - despite his psychological insights, Poggioli is a fairly ineffective detective, frequently suspecting the wrong person or unable to comprehend the true meaning of the evidence he finds. In this particular instance, he comes to the solution only after being arrested for the crime! He has little in common with the all-knowing sleuths who were his contemporaries; even today's modern psychological detectives follow the pattern of the genius detective. Poggioli was a clever sleuth, but events were always beyond his ability to master them in time.

Now that I have the original text to "A Passage to Benares" I have finally read the story as the author intended it to appear. And I found that... the ending remains as cryptic as before. Well, moreso - the turnkey's response is followed by: "And the lamp went out." It's still abrupt and mysterious.

Although "A Passage to Benares" closed out the collection, Stribling went on writing Poggioli stories up 'til 1957, so I can extrapolate that Poggioli didn't die - likely the police faked his death, as I supposed. But frankly, I don't need to know the "right" way to interpret the story. For twenty years, I've been able to enjoy the tale's ending because it doesn't explain itself. It leaves room for mystery, for imagination. As I learned from toiling on the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, I don't always want there to be an answer to every question. Sometimes, it's enough to have a good question.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The great war on robot junk

Why do you hate my groin so much?
cover to Planet Comics #64 (1950)

No wonder robots hate humanity.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

RIP: James Horner

Some time ago a friend asked me if I had a copy of the score to the film Aliens. I answered in the affirmative: "Yes, I have a copy of the score to Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan." The joke (which he understood) was to note the similarities between the two scores, both written by James Horner. Evidently Horner had been in such a rush to complete Aliens on time that he recycled great swathes of Star Trek II in order to meet his deadline.

A month ago I happened to watch the film Wolfen, an unusual horror film which, for most of the run time, leads you into thinking you're watching a werewolf film (the antagonists turn out to be - 34 year old spoilers! - godlike wolf spirits). When the film would shift to show events from the viewpoint of the antagonists, I immediately recognized pieces of Khan's theme from Star Trek II; sure enough, Wolfen was a James Horner score, one which preceded Trek. I let my friend know about this.

Two days ago, my friend fired back by inviting me to listen to the score to Battle Beyond the Stars, which was Horner's second credited film score. Once again, you can hear arrangements which he later reused in Star Trek II! How neat!

James Horner died yesterday.

I cannot praise Horner's score to Star Trek II enough. Amusing as it is to hear pieces of that score in films he composed for either before or after that picture, it's such a perfect blend of music, from the bombastic opening titles to the menacing Khan/Reliant theme to the frantic combat music to the subdued closing. I consider Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan to be the finest Star Trek movie and Horner's music is an important, vital element in the makeup of that film.

I am also a tremendous fan of Avatar, which is not a fashionable thing to admit. Again, Horner delivered a terrific score there, without which I might not have enjoyed the film nearly as much. The soundtrack album to Avatar is the one of the most-frequently played scores in my house.

In addition to scoring some of my favourite movies, I was also very pleased to learn he and I were born on the same day of the year. No doubt that heightened my sense of affection for his art.

With Horner gone, who survives amongst Hollywood's great composers? Brian Tyler, Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schifrin and John Carpenter, I suppose (and a tip of the hat to Daft Punk).

Horner has joined the greats - other favourites of mine who have passed on such as Jerry Goldsmith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann and Shirley Walker.

Rest in peace, Mr. Horner; your music remains vital to me.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Reboot and "planned" fiction

I no longer watch television programs, but I'm somewhat aware of what programs are currently popular and how the stories on such series are told. Programs at present seem much concerned with continuity than they were back when I last had enough free time to spend sampling most of what was on the air (which would be circa 2001). Today's dramatic shows not only tend to feature continual character development but are more likely to explore the ramifications of one episode's events in another than the shows I knew.

Certainly, I do love continuity. Exploring continuity is part of what fascinated me about comic books and that same love for puzzling out the rules, backgrounds and backdrops of 90s television programs from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to ER kept me an interested viewer for many years. At some point, though, programs became much less episodic and show runners spoke more openly about the over-arching plots not only for a season of television but for the show's entire run; some shows which promised big mysteries with big answers stumbled because the creators didn't actually know the answers (or, sometimes, the questions): the X-Files; Lost; Battlestar Galactica. Even though there must be many factors which inhibit TV creators from keeping a firm grip on where the series' story is headed, viewers seem to expect a planned narrative from the creators. It's comforting, I suppose. Only today I saw the show runner of the new series Dark Matter declaring his show would have "a beginning, a middle, and an end." Quite a change from the days when shows were about 99.9% middle!

It seems now to be a forgone conclusion that a series should have a strong creative team with definite ideas about the program's tone, ongoing subplots, character development, themes and even the final episode might be considered before the first has aired. And now, let me talk to you about ReBoot.

Made in Canada, ReBoot began as a partnership between the USA's ABC network and Canada's YTV. Generated entirely on computers, ReBoot was itself supposedly a reality set within a computer, with various characters representing computer programs and commands. The leading character was Bob, a Guardian charged with defending the people of Mainframe from incoming games (wherein computer characters had to compete against the User) and threats such as viruses, notably the insane Hexadecimal, the always-scheming Megabyte and Megabyte's comical lackeys Hack & Slash. Bob was aided in his adventures by the wise old Phong, his love interest Dot, Dot's bratty hero-worshiping kid brother Enzo and Enzo's dog Frisket.

The first season of ReBoot is thoroughly forgettable. Between the limits of the technology which the creators were trying to master and the self-imposed limitations which ABC forced upon them, the program had noticeably thin characters, simple plots and very low stakes. Everything improved for the better in season 2, but ABC dropped them at the end of the season. After a year's hiatus the third season debuted on YTV and brought the show to a good conclusion (followed by two made-for-TV movies).

The great change which came with ReBoot's third year was not only the absence of ABC - thus, the show makers no longer had to consider the restrictive broadcast standards of US television - but a year-long storyline in which saw Bob taken off the table (having been exiled into the Web in the climax of season 2) and Enzo attempting to take his place as Guardian. However, after several episode of barely managing to keep Megabyte at bay and narrowly winning games, in the season's fourth episode Enzo lost a game (something Bob never did) and had his left eye gouged out (a level of violence ABC would never have permitted, especially against a child).

Looking at ReBoot in retrospect with all my love of continuity, part of what I admire is that the show didn't have a plan. Whatever the creators intended at the outset, they surely didn't count on the restrictions which ABC placed on them - that was something the show had to write a way around. Even then, their relationship with ABC had brought the program to wider audience than YTV could have managed, so losing ABC would have been a definite blow. And yet, for each problem the show encountered, the show runners made it seem as though it had been their plan all along. But thank goodness it wasn't!

In the first two season, Bob served as a rather bland protagonist. He was the good guy and primarily a very goody-goody good guy at that. Although he had begun to develop a little bit of snark in season 2, he remained pretty consistently bland up until Megabyte cast him into the Web at the end of season 2. And then, because of his absence, Bob became greater than he had been; with Bob gone, Megabyte roamed Mainframe freely and the characters faced their darkest nanos. Bob's bland heroism had become something greater - the time in which he served as Mainframe's Guardian was now an ideal, a Paradise Lost. Even the comical henchmen Hack & Slash sensed their antics were out-of-place in the darker themes of season 3, leading to this observation:

Slash: "I miss Bob."
Hack: "What?! Ssh! Ssh! Are you crazy?!"
Slash: "Bob always stopped us before we could do anything really bad. Now nobody does."

Bob's exit from the series was sudden and left the cast of characters (and presumably the viewers at home) reeling. But if it had been the intent to build towards Bob's season 2 exit and late season 3 return from the beginning, it wouldn't have served his character as well. I think if the writers had known from the outset he would be the great hero who would be lost, they would have written towards that exit so consciously that it would have been telegraphed. I would now be able to look back and remark, "Ah, here's some ground being lain for Bob's departure," when I think in that instance it's much better to be watching the program in the moment and on the same page as the cast. Likewise with Enzo's eye injury, which is foreshadowed three episodes before it happens, but wasn't something his character had otherwise been building towards. Prior to Bob's exit, Bob was simply the bland protagonist and Enzo was the precocious kid; changing circumstances benefited them immensely, but if that sense of approaching darkness had been in ReBoot from the start, then there would have been less for season 3 to contrast itself against.

I wouldn't go so far as to say the blandness of season 1 makes that year any more watchable, but I think the simplicity of ReBoot's early days was used to great effect on the show. This is really how I prefer to see continuity employed - something organic which takes into account the series universe's past, rather than being hung up about the universe's future.

Am I explaining this well? Are you at least familiar enough with ReBoot to nod in understanding? Are you blinking a message to me in Morse code or do you need some Visine (free for only 99.99.99!)? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"It's bad job security for a horror comic host to get mistaken for a bum that gets killed in every issue!" Charlton Arrow #1 review

It was from following Mort Todd that I learned a new series called The Charlton Arrow had begun, revisiting old Charlton properties with a roster of great comic book talent, some of them from 1970s Charlton books. I wasn't entirely certain about buying the book until it became available on Comixology for a mere $1.99, a great price for an impulse-purchase. What's inside?

From the cover, you may have recognized the Charlton heroine Nightshade. You might also be wondering how she could appear in this book, considering she's been DC property for some 30 years. The answer comes in the lead story, "The Ghosts of Evil Past" by Paul Kupperberg & Rick Stasi. The story involves a reality-spanning villain called the Wraith who evidently received his powers from Captain Atom and sets out to cross between realities, killing every version of Captain Atom and his fellow heroes which the Wraith comes across. This leads to the cameo by Nightshade, along with the Blue Beetle, Question, Sarge Steel, Judomaster and other Charlton action heroes like Yang of the House of Yang. The alternate reality versions also include the Renee Montoya version of the Question and Rorschach! How do they pull this off? Essentially, they avoid naming anyone by name (even Yang) and obscure their appearances. Amazingly, when the true Captain Atom appears in the climax (as "Adam") he's depicted with the silver skin redesign DC themselves came up with in the 1980s (but minus the chest symbol, gloves & boots). The story is a little audacious, but it's nice to have a tribute to the Charlton super heroes who remain the best-remembered things about the defunct publisher.

The other fantastic story in this issue is "The Hosts of Horror" by Lou Mougin & Mort Todd. In this tale, all of the characters who formerly hosted Charlton's horror comics find themselves cast into limbo together and have to discover a new purpose for their lives. It's played entirely for laughs - appropriately, given most of the hosts were intended the lighten the mood of Charlton's horror books - and Todd does a bang-up job of rendering the old ghouls. It is a little distressing to note how the female horror hosts are mostly depicted as catty towards each other, but this seems to have been introduced for the story's pay-off, wherein the horror hosts decide to become reality TV stars (and catty behaviour is what's expected from women on reality TV).

The other features include a text story, "Career Girl Romances" by Larry Wilson & Joe Staton. "Love Me Never" by Michael Mitchell accurately duplicates the ugly typewritten font of old Charlton books. "The Charlton Western Round-Up" by Steven Thompson is a text piece on Charlton's publishing history, and "Spookman" by Roger McKenzie & Sandy Carruthers brings back a horror character I'd never heard of before. I was surprised to learn this was McKenzie's return to comic books after 30 years and I have to wonder what kept him away, given that he wrote some pretty great comics back in the day.

There are also pin-ups by John Byrne, Mort Todd, Javier Hernandez and Batton Lash. In fact, it was seeing Byrne & Lash were involved that first made me interested in this book (Byrne drew a Doomsday+1 pin-up!). The Todd pin-up is a two-page spread with all of the horror hosts meeting up (along with cameos by some DC & EC horror hosts).

The Charlton Arrow is, overall, affectionately nostalgic. "The Hosts of Horror" was, to me, the book's highlight. It will interesting to see how this anthology series develops and what other creators may be lured in to contribute.

The Charlton revival comics can be found on Mort Todd's site here.

You can buy Charlton Arrow #1 from Comixology here!

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Great White Intransigence

Much of the work I'm currently doing at the Grand Comics Database is cleaning up existing records which use an out-of-date term called "filler." You can understand how a "strange facts of history" page might be a filler compared to surrounding super hero and cowboy tales, but the term is so broad as to be unhelpful.

I've used the Digital Comic Museum to help identify what many of these "fillers" really are and it means I occasionally come across some interesting pages, but usually the pages are instantly forgettable. Here's a somewhat memorable page, from 1946's Sparkling Stars #10:

It's credited to "Ink Higgins" (Morris Weiss) and was one of three Fight Facts pages which appeared in that issue. This page stayed with me while others I checked over were forgotten; while many of these "filler" types contain several facts which may or may not be related, this particular page chose a single topic: legendary boxer Joe Louis. And, as you may have noted, it's not precisely laudatory.

At the time, Louis was the reigning heavyweight champion, although his service in World War II had interrupted his career trajectory and he never really regained it. Louis worked hard to promote himself not only as a good fighter but a good man - to present himself as morally unimpeachable to help counter the sex-and-booze antics of former heavyweight Jack Johnson. Why did Louis have to take so much care about his life outside the ring because of Johnson? Because he and Johnson were both African-American.

And that's the point where this page makes me uncomfortable. After all the effort Louis placed into being a good man, people still wanted him to fail. And thus, this page does not celebrate Louis' victories, but instead questions them (essentially, "Hey you guys, Louis isn't that great!"). It points to three fights which Louis either almost lost or could have lost. That he did, in fact, win those fights seems beside the point to Weiss. Louis is barely even seen on the page, obscured by the referee in the central image and being struck in the face in the lower left (not sure what to make the ridiculously huge frame Weiss gave him either; he looks like a circus strongman, not a fighter).

Oh, and those other two Fight Facts pages Weiss drew in Sparkling Stars #10? One was of John L. Sullivan and the other of Max Baer. They were laudatory towards their subjects.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Troubles of X-Factor Part 5: X-Factor and the Trouble With Character Derailment

(I apologize for running late on this, the final installment)

Appropriately, I'm ending my look at Bob Layton's X-Factor by discussing the very concept of the series - the controversial "mutants hunting mutants" set-up, introduced at a time when Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men cast included a young woman who was traumatized at having been forced to hunt her own kind. The idea that the original five X-Men would help mutants by developing an agency to hunt mutants down seems ridiculous. But before I condemn it, let's hear the original idea, as presented to the team by their public relations advisor Cameron Hodge in X-Factor #1:

"Our organization will capitalize on human beings' distrust of mutants by posing as a mutant deterrent agency. People that suspect a mutant menace will call our toll-free number to report an incident! We will then, in the guise of a team of psychologists and scientists, investigate the subject! In reality, our true goal is to isolate and protect the people who possess the X-Factor mutation in their genetic make-up. Appropriately, the name our organization will be known by is -- X-Factor."

And what sort of people contacted X-Factor to enlist their help during the Bob Layton days?

  • - In X-Factor #1, a naval officer asked X-Factor to capture Rusty Collins, a young sailor who accidentally injured a woman with his powers; Rusty subsequently broke out of captivity when the officer tried to murder him, which is why the officer wanted someone outside the conventional authorities involved.
  • - In X-Factor #2, Carl Maddicks worried that his hired thug Tower might turn on him so he told X-Factor where to apprehend him.
  • - In X-Factor #4, Angel's former headmaster asked him to investigate student Martin Davis, who claimed to be a mutant telepath; Martin was actually a clever inventor and eavesdropper.
  • - In X-Factor #5, Susan Nowlan hired X-Factor to find her drug addict husband Michael, whose mutant gifts were being exploited by the Alliance of Evil.

From four cases, the team was sent to assist in two cases which genuinely needed their assistance. In the second case, they were patsies to a villain. In the third, they frightened a lonely boy. Great work, everybody! There are many things worth questioning about X-Factor's set-up, such as how they were able to seemingly incarcerate people they "captured." I mean, Rusty Collins broke out of prison and it was public knowledge that since issue #1 he'd been in X-Factor's custody (Frenzy came looking for him in #4 assuming she'd have to break him out of the building). How were the legal authorities satisfied with X-Factor holding their own detention facility with no access to counsel?

Of course, the bigger problem is the very idea of creating a group to hunt mutants in order to help them. Hodge presented this idea as being a clever way to defuse "the problem of mutant hysteria by turning it upon itself!" And yet, the very concept of X-Factor - as presented to the public - is one which assumes the very worst of people. Recall that at this time in Marvel's X-Men titles, mutants were facing discrimination but there were no vast experimental labs, concentration camps or even public lynchings (the latter, not since Iceman's origin, IIRC). Xavier's school - and Emma Frost's sinister Massachusetts Academy - were both below the radar, not publicly known to register mutant students.

And into this comes X-Factor, an agency marketed towards people who are already afraid of mutants and, by its very existence, assures them they should be afraid! What sort of clients did the team expect they would be led to? Their manifesto - "people that suspect a mutant menace" - should, in a best-case scenario, lead to actual mutant menaces, not people in need of help. Which is fine, I guess, if battling evil mutants is the most important thing mutants can do for one another. But what about the new, young mutants who were in need of a positive voice, someone to reassure them? What about normal humans who care deeply for a mutant friend or family member who's in trouble?

X-Factor needed to establish itself as marking different territory than the X-Men, so the idea of Angel bankrolling a corporation to improve the lot of mutants in the public was a very savvy (and 80s) idea. The idea as presented, however, was obviously doomed to failure and could have only fanned the flames of intolerance against mutants. At best, X-Factor offered mutants sanctuary in a secret hideout - but the X-Men were already doing that much! What mutants really needed at the time was a voice, rather than assuming "keep your head down" is the way things should be. Being that Warren Worthington III was publicly known to be a mutant, any journalist worth their salt could have found the link between he and X-Factor within a week if they cared to. So why bother keeping secrets from the public which would inevitably be found out?

As one of the wealthiest and best-known mutants in the USA, Angel should have made X-Factor a transparent company. A corporation out to assist mutants who needed it, running 1-800 hotlines for young mutants just like those phone services which exist for addicts or teen pregnancies. This version of X-Factor would have been provocative in a way the X-Men weren't, engaging in a direct discourse with how the public views mutants, trying to affect public perception by placing mutants before the cameras and letting them speak their piece.

Before Layton's five issues were up the cracks had begun to form; one Senator Thompson confronted Hodge in issue #3, wondering "Do any of you realize that X-Factor may be doing more harm than good?" But although Thompson returned in the annual, the subplot did not. However, Jean took a moment to reflect upon the Martin Davis incident (from the list above) during issue #5 and wondered then what effect X-Factor was having on the public. When Layton left, his successor Louise Simonson took out the butcher's knives the concept, confirming that, indeed, X-Factor was making things worse for mutants and that had been Hodge's goal all along as he secretly resented the adulation Angel had received for being a mutant. Eventually, X-Factor would come clean about who and what they were and, by the end of Fall of the Mutants, would win a major public relations victory for mutants by saving Manhattan from Apocalypse.

But the damage was done, and in retrospect, the heroes looked rather dense for ever believing in Hodge's idea. When the "mutant hunters" angle dropped off, the series no longer ran with a particular mission statement, it simply became an X-Men comic book with a different cast than Claremont's. Later on, Peter David's X-Factor would fashion a new team and mission statement for the team's name, but that's another matter.

The power of nostalgia had been invoked to draw the original five X-Men back together again. With the X-Men franchise running at a high which ultimately lasted for another decade without any massive misfires, X-Factor just needed to be both diferent from the X-Men and decent. But it never managed both at once.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Troubles of X-Factor Part 4: Cyclops and the Trouble With Character Assassination

As with Jean Grey, the troubles with Cyclops' character - especially as recounted in X-Factor #1 - have been hashed out again and again by comic book fandom. However, I want to do my best to place what happened to Cyclops and his relationship with Madelyne Pryor in proper context.

It's interesting that fandom doesn't hold any single creator to account for what happened to Cyclops - not Chris Claremont, the man who created Madelyne; not Bob Layton, the one who broke them up; not Louise Simonson, who assisted Claremont in delving into Madelyne's true origins. It's most interesting that the one who shoulders the blame in the eyes of fandom is Cyclops himself, as though a fictional character had true control over his character development! It really speaks to how much fans have invested in the X-Men's members, but it's certainly worked against Cyclops for the last 30 years as he's never fully crawled out from under the cloud of X-Factor #1.

Let's begin with the first perpetrator: Chris Claremont. Having killed Jean Grey in 1980, Claremont embarked on an unusual subplot for Cyclops in 1983 as the still-grieving hero met Madelyne Pryor, a woman with a remarkable resemblance to Jean Grey (or so every character claimed - Paul Smith's Madelyne looked nothing like Dave Cockrum or John Byrne's Jean; I don't believe the two ever did look alike until Marc Silvestri took over). This being comic books, naturally readers were led on to assume that Madelyne was somehow Jean Grey brought back to life, or at least someone with a connection to Jean. However, in a subversive climax, the subplot ended with all the seeming connections revealed as remarkable coincidences; Cyclops and Madelyne were wed.

Comic book readers and writers hate coincidences.

Recall that earlier in the X-Men mythos, Lorna Dane had been suggested as Magneto's daughter simply because the two had the same powers; that plot ended with the familial connection revealed as bogus, yet 30 years later Lorna would be (off-panel) made Magneto's daughter officially. When characters have similar surnames, powers or (seriously) hairstyles, regardless of what the initial creators intended, someone will assert "there are no coincidences!" and cement the connection in print.

Thus, regardless of what point Claremont intended to make with the initial Madelyne story, comicdom's disbelief in coincidence - coupled with Jean's resurrection - worked against that tale. Also working against Claremont (and more to the point, Cyclops) is comicdom's inability to allow characters to reach endings, no matter how well the ending is performed. Cyclops seemed to be set for a life of marital bliss with Madelyne, but editorial demands to have him participate in the Secret Wars crossover caused him to be spirited away during his own honeymoon. This frightened Madelyne, but she did her best to be understanding.

A year and half later, Cyclops returned to the X-Men (with a pregnant Madelyne in tow) to be present for Xavier, who appeared to be on his deathbed. This led Cyclops to be called away on two back-to-back missions, first to save the New Mutants from Asgard, then to be present at Magneto's appearance before the International Court in Europe. Thus, Cyclops was struck by three significant moments of upheaval: dealing with Xavier's departure (as he left the galaxy with the Starjammers), Magneto's ascension to head of Xavier's school and missing the birth of his son, Nathan.

In the aftermath of the birth, Madelyne noted nearly all of the X-Men who went to Asgard had called her to let her know they were in Europe - but not her own husband. She told Storm: "I understand Scott's not being here... but he should have at least let me know he cared." Although at this time the X-Men had been led by Nightcrawler (in Storm's absence since she lost her powers), Cyclops now intended to resume leadership of the X-Men, a role he hadn't officially held since Jean's death 6 years earlier. Cyclops rationalized this to Madelyne as needing to keep an eye on Magneto, although internally he felt Xavier was his true father and he should be the one to carry on said father's work. However, Storm had now returned to the team and she disputed Cyclops' bid. Despite her power loss, Storm faced Cyclops in combat and defeated him, proving true friends will kick your butt for you when you need it. Storm resumed leadership and Cyclops could then remain safely retired. Another happy ending!

One month later... X-Factor #1. Up until this point, Madelyne has remained sympathetic, never nagging or behaving shrewishly to Scott. Even as Cyclops engaged in combat with Storm, she knew that no matter how the fight ended her husband would wind up being hurt - either by losing leadership or by losing her because she intended to return to Alaska regardless. All of that, however, came from her creator, Claremont. To Bob Layton, Madelyne Pryor was an obstacle to getting the original nostalgic five X-Men back together and he worked quickly to turn readers against Madelyne, no doubt hoping they would be less troubled by Cyclops' actions, since for Scott to join X-Factor he would have to essentially abandon his wife and son - hardly a heroic decision. The first blow against Madelyne fell while the couple were at home in Alaska and Scott was distracted by a television news report about the Mutant Registration Act. Furious, Madelyne cattily yelled: "Haven't you done enough for them already? Isn't it about time they did something for themselves?" Given that she married a mutant and might have (later confirmed positively) given birth to a mutant, one would think Madelyne might share her husband's interest in mutant affairs. Heck, if she had steered him into being a political activist maybe he wouldn't have become a globe-trotting adventurer again.

Still, Madelyne dug deeper.

"You have a responsibility to your family now! I can't be the only one working on this marriage! We're supposed to be in this together, aren't we? Don't you think I know the only reason you came back to us at all is that you bombed out in your bid to lead the X-Men? Don't you think it hurts knowing that? Just like it hurts knowing why you married me in the first place! Because I reminded you of your old flame -- the late, but not forgotten Jean Grey!"


"I love you, Scott, and the X-Men don't need you! Jean is dead! I'm the one that needs you!"

It's strange that the character assassination of Cyclops would begin by bringing down his wife, but there it is. In one month, Madelyne went from a troubled but loyal partner to an ultimatum-delivering shrew. To put it in terms of tropes you would find on TV police dramas, she went from being the police captain's wife to the duty-driven detective's ex-wife. Although Layton couldn't have known it, he was grooming readers to eventually accept Madelyne's transformation into a demonic super-villainess. Later that evening, Madelyne found Scott brooding on their balcony. She began to apologize, not wanting to "lose what we have." Scott retorted, "I'm... just not exactly sure what we do have anymore." When she pressed him, he admitted he'd been thinking about Jean Grey.

The very next day, Scott received a call from the Angel, informing him that Jean was back from the dead and in New York. It should be noted that the Angel was an inactive X-Man and that Madelyne didn't know Jean was alive (and wouldn't learn this for years' worth of stories). Regardless, this was how the conversation which ended their marriage played out (presented in its entirety):

"Darling? What is it? What did Warren want?"

"He... er... needs me to meet him in New York -- today!"

"Well -- tell him you can't make it!"

"I - I can't do that, Maddy!"

"Scott Summers! If you walk out that door -- don't bother coming back!"

"I'm -- sorry, Maddy! I have to go!"

Cyclops was reunited with Jean, but simply seeing her alive drove him to the brink of mental collapse, unable to reconcile his never-forgotten love for her with his devotion to Madelyne and his son. In fact, he wound up wandering around the pier where the Phoenix first appeared and when Beast and Iceman found him, he poured out his heart about Jean and Madelyne. Proving themselves inferior friends to Storm, the duo encouraged him: "We have a second chance -- all of us -- to do something beneficial! Like it was in the old days -- the five of us -- together!" He still wasn't completely convinced, but carried on for Jean's sake. "Look -- if not for anything else, do it because I want you to be with me, okay?" Jean asked. "That's the only reason I'm still here, Jean!" Scott answered.

And sure enough, with the blessings of nostalgia the X-Factor team came together and by going on their first adventure (saving Rusty Collins) Cyclops found his footing in adventure. This would remain a touchstone for some time, as Cyclops would range from non-verbal to shell-shocked while out of costume but confident and capable while in combat. Layton pushed that in the audience's faces as best as he could in the first issue with Cyclops saving the entire team at one point and thinking: "Jean -- all of my friends -- would be dead by now if I hadn't come with them! If I wasn't here... I would have lost her again! And the boy, Rusty, would have died without a chance for a decent life! Of the group, only I have the power to save us now! Finally, I realize what I need to do and -- we will be free!!" For a man who at the time must have still been under thirty years old, under Layton's pen Cyclops certainly read like a man suffering his mid-life crisis.

Despite his breakthrough in the climax of X-Factor #1, Cyclops remained a wet blanket through Layton's work. In the second issue, Angel took Cyclops to task for not contacting Madelyne or telling Jean about his wife. Scott finally dug up the courage to call Madelyne, only to find she had disconnected the phone, evidently literally meaning it when she told him "don't bother coming back." Madelyne & Nathan couuld have been part of X-Factor's ongoing supporting cast, but it would have pushed back against the nostalgic get-the-band-back-together voice of the series. And so Cyclops would angst for the rest of Layton's run, until succeeding author Louise Simonson finally pushed things forward by having Jean learn of Madelyne, sent Cyclops back to Alaska and finally had Cyclops suffer the mental collapse which Layton seemed to have foreshadowed (and seriously, X-Factor #18, where Cyclops went crazy? hands-down my favourite issue of the series).

At the same time, Claremont adopted Madelyne back into the pages of Uncanny X-Men, with Cyclops' abandonment of her proving a good justification to turn the X-Men team against X-Factor (especially Scott's brother, Havok) and all of that came to a boil in 1989's Inferno crossover. Of course, it was during Inferno that Madelyne became a true, full-on villain and was forever redefined as Jean Grey's clone (in retrospect, Cyclops should have looked up her friends from high school before marrying her). Madelyne died in Inferno, leaving Scott & Jean to care for baby Nathan (until editorial demanded he be written out of Scott's life for the second time).

Cyclops has been made to do plenty of disagreeable things outside of his marriage to Madelyne: he built a mutant isolationist empire, threatened to assassinate politicians, created a personal hit squad, murdered his father figure and tolerated Emma Frost's fake British accent. Yet for many fans, his original sin was leaving his wife and child to return to Jean Grey - never mind that he and Jean weren't a couple (not until Fall of the Mutants, two years into X-Factor's run), never mind that Madelyne had behaved like an ogre with her ultimatums and cutting off access. Heroes overcome obstacles. Heroes find solutions. Heroes do the right thing. If Cyclops couldn't stand up for his family, how could anyone expect him to stand up for a world of strangers?

Tomorrow: X-Factor.

(An aside: re-reading Uncanny X-Men #201 for this post, I was really struck by the scene where Rachel Summers first met baby Nathan and vowed to protect him. Reflecting on all that Rachel & Nathan have been through over the years, it is heartwarming to see their siblings-by-another-mother relationship, from Rachel racing into the events of Inferno to try and save him to the fully-grown Cable journeying to the end of time to rescue her! Perhaps I'm projecting my own relationship with my older sister upon them, but I really like Rachel & Nathan.)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Troubles of X-Factor Part 3: Jean Grey and the Trouble With Character Resurrection

If you've been around comic book internet sites as long as I have, you probably aren't very interested in yet another discussion of the resurrection of Jean Grey. I can hear that sigh rising up in your throat. Yet another complaint about how Jean's resurrection diminished the Dark Phoenix Saga and overall cheapened the concept of death in comic books. You've probably already written my essay in your head, so what's left for me to do?

The means by which Jean returned to the dead have become particularly notorious over the years for being "too complicated." I'm not sure they are, not compared to some of the ridiculous ways characters have been resurrected. Heck, in 1970 X-Men fans accepted the explanation of how Professor X came back from the dead and it was nuts. Following Jean, Iron Fist went through an extremely complex resurrection but no one gives grief to Iron Fist over it. No, comic book fandom holds the resurrection of Jean Grey with a little contempt and that's really what they mean when they call her return "too complicated." Xavier & Iron Fist's deaths simply weren't considered great stories - unlike the Dark Phoenix Saga. Sure, comic book characters died and came back from time to time - but never before had it happened to a story which was so greatly admired.

Still, the demands of nostalgia brought Jean back - back to a world which had changed in her absence. Although Bob Layton's X-Factor was hep to get the original five X-Men back together and ignore Uncanny X-Men & New Mutants for as long as humanly possible, and although Beast quickly returned to his 60s personality, while Angel found himself attracted to Jean again (a dropped bit from the 60s), time had moved on. Cyclops was cut off from Jean (for reasons I'll dig into tomorrow). Jean heard from Reed Richards that in her absence, the X-Men had begun working with her old enemy Magneto (Reed evidently never thought to mention he'd also worked with Magneto during Secret Wars, where the X-Men/Magneto alliance originated; nor did Jean think to ask Storm as a friend to explain the alliance to her - or even tell Storm she'd returned!) and anti-mutant hysteria seemed much stronger than before. Jean's determination to make the world a better place for mutants is what ignited the concept of X-Factor.

There's something about super hero resurrections which inevitably invites comparison to Christianity. As in the death of Jesus, when a popular hero is dead characters enter into that twilight of the soul and angst, "With Captain America/Iron Man/Reed Richards/Gilgamesh dead, how can we carry on in their absence?" Then a year later Captain America/Iron Man/Reed Richards/Gilgamesh's second coming arrives with the promise that the super heroes' world is going to get better. Even though - let's face it - that's really up to the whims of the writers and editors. If the only hero left on Marvel's Earth were Captain Ultra I'm sure everything would still work out.

But Jean - for all the work done to get her back into circulation - had returned to a Marvel Universe which didn't need her. Madelyne Pryor was Cyclops' new love interest and Cyke seemed much the better for it; Rachel Summers was in the midst of an ongoing plot which seemed to point towards an idea beyond the limits of the Dark Phoenix Saga, rather than retreading old ground; and Jean Grey herself, although ostensibly still going by the codename "Marvel Girl," seemed to have aged well beyond the years of "girlhood" ("Marvel Girl" would appear infrequently during the total run of X-Factor; when Jean then rejoined the X-Men it became clear there that she had no codename and, except for attempts to turn her into Phoenix, she hasn't had one since).

Jean's return excused bringing the original five X-Men back together, but Jean had little else to offer, especially in the Layton issues where she was strangely unconcerned about any of her old friends and family beyond the old team. She did bring a lot of friction between her and her old friends, but that potential would need Louise Simonson & Chris Claremont to explore it further. "People thought I was dead; now I'm back" isn't a hook which draws readers in - we're not likely to have been in that situation ourselves (barring any unfortunate clerical errors). At best, Jean's issue is "why did things change while I was gone?" Which, is decent enough baggage for a person to carry - enough to make me empathize, but not sympathize.

(I am now going to compliment Wonder Man; ready your fainting couch)

An advantage which Wonder Man's resurrection in 1976 holds over Jean's is that while both characters carried around trauma from their time spent in un-life and developed friction with people who had moved on during their absences, Wonder Man was for several years afraid of dying because of his experiences and that fear of death is something which is actually rather rational amidst the sort of life and death struggles super heroes are placed in. I sympathized with Wonder Man's baggage.

Jean Grey's resurrection and its "complications" predicted what would soon become a complaint directed at the entire X-Men franchise: "it's too complicated." By the end of the decade, Madelyne Pryor's true origin and Mr. Sinister would rewrite the book on exposition. The subsequent decade would see competing time travel stories with Cable, Bishop and the Askani; the Onslaught crossover would sour the very idea of super hero crossovers for years to come; Magneto would be replaced by Joseph; Colossus would turn evil, Marrow would turn good, Gambit would turn useless and somewhere in there is a garbled story about Sunspot being Reignfire.* The X-Men comic books may not have been any more complicated than any other super hero "family" of titles, pound for pound. However, the believed importance of Jean Grey's death and fandom's complicated reaction to her complicated return would give them a reputation - one which persists to this day.

Tomorrow: Cyclops.

*= also: Externals, Silver Fox, bone claws, Crimson Dawn, Tolliver, Apocalypse, Stryfe, Domino, Copycat, Maverick, Thieves Guild, Douglock, Phalanx, Upstarts, Blaquesmith, Age of Apocalypse, Monet St. Croix, Shatterstar...

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Troubles of X-Factor Part 2: The Beast and the Trouble With Character Regression

By 1972 the X-Men had more-or-less dropped out of comic books, but the newfound interest in horror/super hero hybrid tales led to a solo series featuring the Beast which began in Amazing Adventures #11. Although he had lasted the sixties with his large hands + large feet "apelike" appearance, the newly-reimagined Beast now sported a permanent coat of fur (initially gray but quickly changed to blue). The Beast's solo adventures didn't last very long, but his new appearance caught on as he soon joined the Avengers and his newfound high-spirited attitude and sharp quips made him one of the most beloved members of the team's 70s incarnation; from there, he skipped and bounced into the "New" Defenders and then into the pages of Bob Layton's X-Factor.

By the third issue of X-Factor, the Beast had been changed out of his fur coat and back to his "apelike" appearance, with his spiked hair being the sole memento of the previous 14 years worth of stories. Changing the Beast into a more human visual held certain value to the series as X-Factor were meant to be disguised as humans hunting mutants, a role which the Beast couldn't play so long as his fur marked him publicly as a mutant.

Bringing the Beast out of his fur was no mean feat; Layton didst implore the Gods of Continuity and yea, he didst offer to invoke the plot of Amazing Adventures #11 by bringing back unto the sacred pages one Carl Maddicks, the very scientist responsible for the Beast's transformation. The Gods of Continuity didst thunder in their rage, noting that Maddicks had perished in that same issue, but behold, Layton didst kill Maddicks again by the end of X-Factor #3 and his blood offering didst atone for all continuity shenanigans.

But beyond the series' need for a quasi-human Beast, why did this change come about? In one word: nostalgia. X-Factor was, after all, a series designed to bring the original five X-Men back together. Jean Grey's resurrection was one part of the formula; presumably the cancellation of New Defenders (to free up Angel, Beast & Iceman) was another; undoubtedly Claremont wrote Cyclops out of Uncanny X-Men to likewise oblige them. But not only did Layton bring the "classic" five together again, artist Jackson Guice redesigned them into visuals which intentionally evoked the designs of the Neal Adams era. Setting Beast back into his "classic" appearance fit right in with the series' intent.

Strangely, however, the Beast's regression actually began prior to his transformation! In X-Factor #2, there's a scene where the Beast and Iceman went to visit Beast's old flame Vera Cantor (his frequent girlfriend of the 1960s). Much to Beast's surprise, the previously-conservative Vera now sported a "with-it" hairdo with a partially shaved head and enjoyed listening to Elvis Costello. However, the intended humour of the scene was drawn from Beast's discomfort at her interests. Layton wrote him there as being very "square." His Beast had the same loquaciousness and large vocabulary which Stan Lee had originated, yet somehow Beast's fun-loving, wild-living ladies' man persona from the Avengers had mysteriously vanished. Before the Beast's physical appearance had changed one iota, Layton was already turning back the clock on the Beast's personality.

As I meditated upon the Beast's regression to his 60s identity, I became startled to think of how unusual this was in 1986. Nowadays characters frequently go back to wearing old costumes, dredging up long-abandoned personalities, reactivate long-lost powers and so forth. And yet, in that "quantify and qualify" period of the 80s which I mentioned in part 1, there was a feeling that Marvel's characters were progressing into something else. Yet after the Beast's character regression I began to realize many other characters followed him:

  • Hank Pym retired from being a super hero in 1983; resumed being Giant-Man in 1993 and over the next decade revisited his three other identities.
  • The Wasp became the Avengers' leader in 1982; by the mid-1990s she had shed her leadership qualities and become a secondary, more submissive character - as well as getting back together with Pym.
  • Hawkeye got married in 1983 and became a stalwart Avengers leader in 1984; lost all of that by 1989.
  • Morbius cured of being a living vampire in 1981; back at it in 1990.
  • Vision & the Scarlet Witch happily married in 1975 after a long courtship and a lengthy origin for the Vision; by 1989 the marriage, origin and their children were excised.
  • Thor grew a beard, lost his father and saw Asgard cut off from Earth during Walter Simonson's famous run; all of this was done away with by the very next writer.
  • Spider-Man adopted a new black costume with much fanfare in 1984; put it away (after a period of switching between it and his original duds) in 1988 in favour of his "classic" appearance.

...And so forth. It seems as though no character can achieve escape velocity from their own past, not when nostalgia is concerned (or the need to make a buck from a character; no corporation can afford to leave a potentially profitable property on hiatus indefinitely). Beast's own teammate Angel would be resdesigned by Walter Simonson in later X-Factor issues to be a Horseman of Apocalypse, granting him blue skin and metal wings. By 1994 he was back in his Neal Adams costume; by 1996 his feathered wings were back; in 2002 his blue skin went away; then in 2008 he went through his Horseman of Apocalypse story and appearance all over again! Comic book characters seem cursed to constantly revisit their pasts - which is why you should never allow yourself to get too bent out of shape about their present-day condition. Everything new will be made old - that is the promise of nostalgia and that's what Beast's transformation portended.

Tomorrow: Jean Grey.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Troubles of X-Factor Part 1: Introduction

At the time Marvel Comics launched their X-Men spin-off series X-Factor in early 1986, it was only the third true X-Men ongoing series, joining the X-Men themselves and the New Mutants (Classic X-Men, Dazzler and Alpha Flight were spin-offs, but almost completely divorced from the present-day tales of the X-Men). However, what truly set X-Factor apart at its inception was the lack of writer Chris Claremont. Indeed, the series was initially edited by a different department at Marvel, making its home first with Mike Carlin, then switching to Bob Harras with its second issue, while Claremont's Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants were edited by Ann Nocenti.

At the time Claremont's 15+ year run on the X-Men began in 1975 he was writing various horror, kung fu and other super hero tales at Marvel. As the X-Men quickly gathered steam, their stories were increasingly all that he wrote. The phenomenal success of the X-Men in the 1980s naturally resulted in various attempts by Marvel to milk his formula for other titles. Dazzler debuted in the X-Men to increase interest in her own title; Alpha Flight's guest appearances in X-Men led to actual demand for a series of their own. Even the "New Defenders" team comprised of inactive X-Men Angel, Beast & Iceman could be seen as an attempt to capture some of Claremont's reflected glory.

When the New Mutants spin-off came about in 1983, it was under Claremont's pen (and the same editorial office as Uncanny X-Men: Louise Simonson & Ann Nocenti). As this book was cast with characters who shared the same home as the X-Men and would frequently appear in the background of each other's stories, it was only natural for Claremont to seek fidelity between the two books (they also shared plots occasionally - it was, after all, Claremont). However, Claremont somehow lost control of his story in 1986 when X-Factor encroached on his territory, via writer Bob Layton.

I don't know what went on behind-the-scenes of X-Factor, but one supposes there must be tales of anger, heartbreak and vendettas. After all, Carlin left after issue #1; Layton himself left after issue #5 (and the first annual); Claremont's former editor Louise Simonson then stepped in and wrote X-Factor 'til Claremont himself likewise left the X-Men in 1991. At the time of its launch, X-Factor promised to bring back the original five X-Men: Cyclops, Angel, Beast, Iceman & Marvel Girl - this despite the fact that Jean Grey had died in the climax of Claremont's "Dark Phoenix Saga" storyline, widely-considered the zenith of his X-Men stories.

Claremont's "All-New, All-Different" X-Men had proved there was life yet in the X-Men concept, which had previously been a mostly-unremarkable Marvel property, one which went into hibernation through most of the early 1970s. The new cast of characters Claremont wrote caught on with readers in a way the original five simply had not. Of course, Claremont had retained their mentor Professor X, and Cyclops was an important part of the team. Jean Grey too, of course, played a major role in his series. Beast & Angel would also occasionally drop into Claremont's stories. Strangely, only Iceman seemed to receive the (ahem) cold shoulder from Claremont, playing his only major role in Claremont's X-Men for a single issue (Uncanny X-Men #146) and otherwise only appearing in stories where cast reunions (and later, crossovers) demanded his presence. Even when Claremont returned to the X-Men franchise in the 21st century, he showed little interest in Iceman.

But at the time, it seemed natural for the original X-Men to gradually fade away. In the two months prior to X-Factor's launch, Claremont even wrote Xavier and Cyclops out of the series (though I wonder if Cyclops' removal was dictated by the needs of X-Factor). The X-Men had proved that although their cast had remained virtually intact for all of the 1960s, they didn't have to be perpetually defined by the same faces like the Fantastic Four were - they could develop a rotating cast of characters such as that of the Avengers. They were still heroes to a world which hated and feared them; they still lived in secret at Xavier's Westchester County manor; this was even a time when the X-Men would often do normal things around normal people such as playing arcade games and watching movies - just as the original five X-Men had gone to beatnik cafes and dance clubs.

Layton's X-Factor ended before it could truly explore its ideas and Louise Simonson worked swiftly to bring the series closer to Claremont's vision. And yet, some of the problems which arose from those mere five issues have plagued the X-Men ever since. In those days, creators didn't simply ignore a deeply damaging series and move on (for instance, Ian Edginton turned X-Force into terrorist bombers, but since no one has referenced that story since publication, none of the characters were ruined by it). In the 1980s there were a lot of efforts by fans-turned-pros to quantify and qualify Marvel's fictional reality (the most notable being the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe). Tying up lingering details of another writer's book was virtually a holy cause; if any series concluded with a single plot left unresolved, you could almost bet it would find closure somewhere (often in a book where Mark Gruenwald's name appeared). Especially in a series as young as X-Factor, there was no way to brush off the damage which had been done, only to pay the book's ideas at the bare minimum the lip service of homage before writing the most troubling problems out.

Over the next four days I'd like to ponder what I view as the four greatest problems about Bob Layton's X-Factor. I possess no inside information as to what went on behind-the-scenes, I'm simply interested in examining the impact decisions made there have had on the last 30 years of X-Men comic books. The four I wish to speak about are:

  • Wednesday The Beast and the trouble with character regression
  • Thursday Jean Grey and the trouble with character resurrection
  • Friday Cyclops and the trouble with character assassination
  • Saturday X-Factor and the trouble with character derailment

Enjoy, won't you?