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.

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