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?

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