Sunday, February 22, 2009

Expect the Unexpected

X-Factor has been the name of three different groups or organizations, but currently it is the name of a detective agency that deals with issues and cases regarding mutants. The current X-Factor, which spun out of the events that happened House of M and the previous success of a mini-series called "Madrox", is one of the best titles out there on the market and most definitely the best "X" title on stands right now (and there's plenty of competition from Carey's X-Men, Kyle and Yost's X-Force, First Class by Jeff Parker, etc.). While it is not a huge commercial success, it is very different from other team books. One of the tag lines of the series when it began was "X-pect the unX-pected " and Peter David, after forty issues as the sole writer of X-Factor, continues to deliver the unexpected. The series has struggled during it's run for various different reasons, which I is what I want to talk about and explore in this entry.

First of all, the most obvious shortcoming the series had is the protagonists: none of them are A-listers and probably (at least before the series started) no one's favorites characters. The leading role belongs to James Madrox, also known as Multiple Man, a character that Peter David has written before in the old X-Factor team (from the late 80's) and the aforementioned mini-series. Rounding up the team are two former teammates of Jamie, Strong Guy and Wolfsbane, a former Generation X character, Monet, two former members of X-Force, Syrin and Rictor , and an almost-original character, Layla Miller. Like I said, not exactly popular or well known characters, but Mr. David has fleshed out the personalities so much on the course of his run that it would not be weird to hear comic book readers proclaim James Madrox or Layla Miller as one of their favorite characters. Even though Multiple Man is the clear leading man of the drama that is X-Factor, every character gets the spotlight at one point or the other, where they get to shine or at least deliver some great lines. A great example of this is issue thirteen of the series, called "Re-X-amination" (they just love to use those X puns), where the whole team is psychoanalyzed by Doc Samson, and all the personalities are wonderfully showcased by Peter David, with each character having his or her own voice and personal psychosis. The fantastic character work done is complimentary to the noir aspect that title often dwells in, something not very common in mainstream comic books, and it probable lead to the title struggling to find the right audience during it's beginnings.

Another aspect where X-Factor has struggled is in the art department: if comic books were bands, X-Factor would be Spinal Tap. All jokes aside, it is incredible just how many artists this series has gone through: Ryan Sook, Dennis Calero, Ariel Olivetti, Renato Arlem, Roy Allen Martinez, Pablo Raimondi, Khoi Pham, Valentine De Landro, Scot Eaton, Larry Stroman and Nelson (no last name, apparently) have all contributed to the series. This is especially troubling when you consider that the series is only forty issues long, an average of less than 4 issues per artist (although some have repeated their art duties, and some others only contributed for only one issue). In my humble personal opinion, and not to undermine some of the great artists that have contributed to the series, Pablo Raimondi is the X-Factor artist (he also provided the art for the original Madrox mini) as he seems to have the best handle on all of the characters. I wish he could be (and I have no idea why he is not) the regular artist for the series month in-and-out, that way X-Factor could have a look as consistent as the writing. Sadly, X-Factor suffered from having what I consider to be the worst art I have ever seen in a Marvel series from the last couple of years, at the hands of Larry Stroman . I have mentioned before that I do not like to complain about art, because I have zero talent when it comes to drawing, unless it is completely detrimental to the story. Stroman's art definitely falls under that category, and I was not the only one to think so. I heard plenty of people stopped following the title when he came on board and sales numbers seem to confirm that, with issue 33, the first one he was in selling around fifty thousand copies, while subsequent issues selling around thirty-four thousand or so units.

And the final hardship that the current X-Factor series has had to suffer is something that many fans complain about, and something I have mentioned before, event fatigue. Since X-Factor is not a straight out superhero title like all others, the events tend to hinder the normal plot and character development of the series which is normally more down-to-Earth, at least in the "missions" that the team goes through. X-Factor has been affected by almost every major event in the last couple of years (with the exception of World War Hulk), and the title hits some of it's lowest points during said events. During Civil War, the team made a stand against the registration act, which put it in an awkward position, as the rest of mutants stayed outside of the events (well, for the most part). Endangered Species did not effect the title very much, as it was more of a status quo than an actual event. The real damage came from the event that affected all X-Men teams called "Messiah CompleX", which lead to X-Factor losing not one but two of it's members (and Multiple Man got a tattoo). Wolfsbane ended up joining X-Force, a good book, but one where she is extremely redundant and almost not her former self from X-Factor. Additionally, Layla Miller got stuck in an alternate dystopian future (that's comic books for you) with apparently no means back. Trying to read the title during this event without additionally reading the other titles involved in the event is almost futile, as most of the current plots take a back seat to the events involving the rest of the X-teams. I hardly doubt that this was part of Peter David's original vision for the book, and during Secret Invasion, he filled those empty roles in the form of Longshot and Darwin. Sadly, during Secret Invasion, the book also fell to the standard "Who's a skrull?" game that every other book was doing at the time.

Despite some of the misgivings and missteps that X-Factor has gone through, it is still an excellent read. The last two issues (thirty-nine and forty) have driven the title back to the original "expect the unexpected" form of storytelling, where the reader is not sure what is going to happen next. I wish I could say more about it, but Mr. David has urged readers and reviewers alike not to spoil it for anyone, and I intend to listen to him. After all, he has provided me with plenty of entertainment and I owe at least that to him. But if you are not reading X-Factor, because you stopped during the events or because of the art or you just never bothered to check it out, you are seriously missing out on one of the best titles in stands today.


  1. What is sad is that I enjoyed Larry Stroman's work on Alien Legion in the late 80s both because it was more fitting and it was actually better (much better). X-Factor is in my B-list books (the ones I get when they are on sale a year after the fact), but it is enjoyable, at least for half price. And Peter David writes these stories well for sure, even if he (inadvertently?) caused the demise of Livejournal and was a dick to my LCS owner when he came to town to give a talk.

  2. werehawk, what happened with David and your LCS owner?