Tuesday, July 27, 2010

X-Factor 65-68

[Jason Powell continues his look at every issue of Claremont's X-Men run. He continues to rehearse his musical in New York City, and would probably love it if, instead of buying a ticket because you do not live in New York, you just sent him some cash in an envelope.]

“Endgame” (Parts 1-4)

The summer and fall of 1991 saw a full-scale overhaul of the “X” franchise, overseen by editor Bob Harras. The New Mutants was discontinued with issue 100, to be replaced with X-Force. Meanwhile, the five original Silver Age X-Men were moved out of the X-Factor series, rejoining the parent team, whose adventures would now be chronicled in a pair of series – the long-running original, Uncanny X-Men, and a brand-new comic, simply titled X-Men (which actually was the official title of the Silver Age series, at first; the adjective wasn’t added until the Claremont/Byrne run). The void left in X-Factor was filled with a new team of “B-list” mutants, to be written with characteristic quirk by Peter David.

These sorts of reshuffles are actually SOP at Marvel now, particularly with the mutant comics. At the time, though, this was something rather novel. It truly did feel like the start of a new era – and, with Chris Claremont’s departure three months in to the new status quo, it very much was.

Before this new beginning took place, however, the various X-titles had to supply some endings. The story running through X-Factor 65-68, appropriately titled “Endgame,” is clearly designed to bring some closure to the first unofficial volume of X-Factor, just before the “Muir Island” crossover that would spin the characters back into the parent title. Plotted by Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio (the latter of whom also supplies pencils), the story is successful in all the important ways: There is a “final” showdown with Apocalypse, the major villain of the series; we are shown the death of a major character and the loss of another; and Cyclops, whose unheroic actions are – in fact – the very foundation of the X-Factor series – is finally given a reasonably convincing redemption.

Also noteworthy about the plot are its deliberate resonances with the twin-crown storylines of the X-franchise, “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past.” Thirty years old now, these two stories still influence the X-franchise more than any others. Back in 1991, when they were barely over a decade old, their influence rang that much louder. Only logical then that the scripter of both those classics should be called in to supply the text for “Endgame.”

If Chris Claremont was at all bored by working from someone else’s plot – particularly one that drew so much from his own, decade-old works – it doesn’t show at all in the finished product. The story reads beautifully, and is littered throughout with characteristic touches that seem very much the writer’s own. The montage in Part One, with each member of the team spending time with his romantic partner (Scott and Jean being each other’s, of course) is very much in keeping with Claremont’s style, for example. In particular the bit with the Beast, as he watches reporter Trish Tilby covering the Iraq War (that’s the 1991 iteration, for all you young’uns) appears to be informed by Claremont’s own personal life. “That’s a war out there,” Hank says, “So be careful.” (One of Claremont’s best friends at the time was a woman who works as a war correspondent.)

I recall reading some idiot online saying that Claremont would have been “better off writing romance novels” instead of X-Men, but such a suggestion stupidly ignores Claremont’s affinity for fantasy and sci-fi. In this story – particularly the first two chapters – the author seems particularly inspired by Portacio’s love for images of complex and esoteric technology. This results in some of the writer’s finest ever sci-fi poetry, e.g. the Beast’s climactic, frantic commands to the team’s sentient Ship at the end of issue 66: “Access please, ship … to all core memory and systems nexii. …. Strike that routing … no use to us … hold it, reference that file again! Try a sidereal shunt … There, Ship! Hold and lock that circuit structure! … Systems initialized, Ship! Enable and execute – NOW!”

Meanwhile, if Lee and Portacio’s desire was for Claremont’s text to add to the resonances with the material that inspired them, they certainly had no cause for disappointment. Claremont’s assured mastery of the X-Men’s storied past – “Dark Phoenix” and “Days” in particular – lets him create some brilliant allusions, the most striking being Scott’s narration during the final, astral-plane sequence: “Once, a long time ago, I fought on the astral plane to save [Jean]. That duel, I lost.” Then, as his sword strikes through the heart of Apocalypse’s psychic avatar -- “This one, I won’t!” The result is exactly as desired. “Endgame” reads as the triumphant capstone to a truly epic myth.

As for the rehabilitation of Cyclops, one cannot turn an entirely blind eye to the commercial considerations at work: It is such a cheat to have Cyclops give his infant son up to a nebulous future-timeline. Granted, it’s a clever way to bring the series full circle, given that X-Factor began with Scott’s abandonment of Nathan. But ultimately this is the creators giving Scott a “get out of jail free” card, freeing him up to be a commercially viable superhero again while absolving him of all guilt.

Here, too, it’s up to Claremont to cover the façade with his text. And here, too, it works, as the writer is canny enough to give Scott’s interior monologue the appropriate sense of guilt, and an acknowledgement of his failures. There is lovely pathos in his line referring to him, Jean and Nathan as “the family I’ve always dreamed of. The one I know I’ll never have.” In context, this is not self-pity on the character’s part. Rather, it is a gentle acceptance that through his own failures, he has lost his chance to achieve that particular dream; he must accept that and move on. This feeds directly into his final narration, wherein he tells us that his “ghosts [have been] put finally to rest.”

One last brilliant turn occurs in the final page of the “Endgame” four-parter, as Lee and Portacio bring in The Watcher – again, to strike a resonance with “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” Claremont, shrewdly aware of what’s required, provides a lovely Greek-chorus-style epilogue, which perfectly dovetails with Oatu’s epilogue from Uncanny 137. It is an ingenious bookend, and a worthy companion to arguably the finest single issue of Claremont’s entire run.

Although not plotted by him nor contained in Uncanny X-Men itself, “Endgame” is – title and all – a genuinely moving capstone to his 17 years of writing these characters. But it wasn’t quite over yet …


Peter Farago said...

There's no way around it, these issues are kinda strange. Out of nowhere, a new artist, a new plotter, and a new scripter - there's a subtle break with the X-Factor we'd been reading up to this point.

The voices Claremont gives to the X-Factor characters are subtly at odds with Simonson's characterization in the preceding issues - his Scott is more of a self-righteous asshole than Simonson's brooding angst prince. He's right back to his Byrne-era mode on page 2 of #65, chiding his friends for their lack of teamwork. Simonson wrote the five of them as a group of seasoned professionals who worked together instinctively, which makes he lecture seem uncalled for. The same beat happens in X-Men #1 a few months later.

Claremont's Hank seems ten times smarter than Simonson's - but as you noted, Claremont is just a better prose stylist, and Hank's impeccable diction is essential to the impression of poise and intelligence that a good depiction of him hinges on. I regret that Hank never played much of a role in Claremont's X-Men after the Byrne era; he seems like such a natural fit for the rest of the classic Claremont team - a sort of triangulation between Colossus's sensitive brawn, Nightcrawler's acrobatic daring-do and Banshee's technical skill and literary chops. It's interesting that Claremont pulled off such a long run on a team book without ever feeling the need for the kind of "Brain" archetype exemplified by Hank.

Jean gets her telepathy back in these issues, after having been weirdly just a telekinetic for the 64 issues since her resurrection - just in time for her team to get folded in to the X-Men, and for her telepathy to become redundant with Betsy's. You'd think it would've made sense to keep Jean as just a TK, but I guess the order of the day was resetting all the characters back to their most salient incarnations - which meant Byrne era Scott, Jean and Hank; and the apparently much-loved flying-wolverine version of Warren.

And... the plot. Apocalypse is back, with a new set of disposable, non-biblically themed, Liefeldian lackies. Where did these come from? Why does Apocalypse decide, after "giving" Ship to X-Factor, that this is the moment he wants it back? Where did his peculiar interest in Warren go? Where does his sudden interest in baby Nathan Christopher Charles blah blah blah come from? (The later continuity patch, that Sinister engineered the boy as a weapon to wield against Apocalypse, does a kind of genius job of tying all this nonsense together, but it's hard to read this villain as well-motivated without knowing that retcon in advance). None of this is Claremont's fault - he had to write words for the story Portacio and Lee handed him, and he turned out a more credibly villainous version of Apocaypse than Simonson - but even he can't cover up the fundamental nonsensicality of it all. The climax ("...and give Apocalypse a view of mine") exemplifies all this best - stirring and resonant at the script level; idiotically straightforward at the plot level (General Summers finds the bad guy and gives him both barrels, personally. The end. No resolution for Warren, no followup on the teamwork themes, just a few more pages to tie up the loose end with baby Nathan.)

I wonder how much anybody was thinking about the Nathan/Cable connection at this point? I know that Liefeld always despised that plot point and made a point to never reference it, but you can see some hints here - Askani's futuristic bionics; and the techno-virus infected baby Nathan, but this might be Portacio's visual tics, since they also show up on Apocalypse's flunkies.

Peter Farago said...


It's sad - I adored Cable when I was collecting X-Men comics in my teens in the mid 90s; and I thought getting to read these issues in the context of a decade and a half of X-continuity would be a real treat. But it all takes place in a pretty sad era for the comic, and in hindsight, everything that appealed to me about Cable was pretty color-by-numbers monomythological storytelling tropes. It's depressing to think that I was drawn into comics by the very entity that best represented the death of the emotionally intelligent, character-driven storytelling that built the franchise.

Jason said...


Fortunately for myself and my own reading enjoyment I always tend to read these issues as a continuation of Claremont's Uncanny run, and am pretty unconcerned with how it syncs up with the X-Factor issues by Simonson that preceded. To me, Simonson was never ever a good fit on X-Factor; I found all five of the leads fairly excruciating when she was scripting them.

The plot has its problematic areas, most definitely, though some of the problems don't bug me, and this may be partly because I didn't read all of the Simonson run.

To me, Apocalypse having a new set of lackeys just seemed like his thing. He had the Alliance of Evil in his first appearance (non-Biblically themed as well), then his Horsemen as a second group. Now these guys. As to where they came from, that is explained: They were recruited by Apocalypse from out of the Inhumans' society.

As for the interest in the baby, and whether they were already thinking that the baby was Cable (or actually that the baby was Stryfe and Cable was a clone of Stryfe), it seems certain that at this point the X-Office had already decided this. Besides the hints you mentioned, there are also the floating images that include Cable, which show up at two different point in the story. (I think one time they juxtapose a Liefeld drawing of Cable right beside an image of the baby.) Also didn't X-Force #1 come out weeks after X-Factor 68, and reveal that Cable has the mutant power to create telekinetic force fields (which at this point was Nathan Christopher's established mutant power)?

Shrug. What can I say? I can see why X-Factor fans who liked Simonson's stuff would dislike this material, but for my part I am happy to see that stuff ignored in favor of some good, solid Claremontisms, because I never really cared about Simonson's plot threads anyway.

I'm a bad critic!

Jason said...

Also, would you say there is any issue with Jean's telepathy returning apart from the redundancy once she joins a team with Betsy?

I'm just curious because I've seen this complained about before, and I don't get what the problem is. It seems like a nice nod to tradition, really: Jean was telekinetic only for her first 42 issues of existence and then suddenly made a telepath. Claremont's ret-con was that Jean's experience with Annie Richardson so traumatized her that Charles had to suppress her telepathy for the sake of her own sanity. He only removed the blocks when he had to leave the team.

So for her power to return because she is forced to relive the Annie Richardson trauma (and, coincidentally, right before Xavier comes back) is a nicely poetically reflexive, in more than one way.

Peter Farago said...

Don't call yourself a bad critic. You've been the highlight of my Tuesdays for two years.

I forced myself through Simonson's X-Force and New Mutants (a frequently painful slog) while I followed your reviews because I'm an obsessive completist (I also read Nocenti's Dazzler/Beast and Longshot, Cockrum's Nightcrawler, Mantlo's X-Men/Micronauts and Shooter's godawful Secret Wars I and II, because I wanted to punish myself.) So when I talk about Simonson's X-Factor, I'm not criticizing Claremont, and I'm certainly not criticizing you for reading it - I just think it's worthwhile to put everything in context. The friendship between Claremont and Simonson was an important piece of background for the best issues of the X-Men, so the differences of opinion between the two writers on the characters they shared is notable.

Ken Dynamo said...

Peter - small quibble but Portacio had been the artist for a few issues earlier (63) during the Bobby/Opal robotic ninja/crazy ice hands storyline (i am fuzzy on the specifics).

Jason - great write up, you are right, there's lots of great Claremontian moments here. And for all of Portacio's shortcomings has as a graphical storyteller (the worst for me are the arbitrary use of blank spaces and often absurd panel/word balloon flow - altho maybe that can be at least partially blamed on the letterer), he's got heaps of imagination, and i did enjoy some of his often totally random creations (Barrage, the man with missile launchers for hands - why not?)

my favorite bits: in 65, one of the henchmen (already forgot most of their names) cleverly repurposes the Mark Anthony speech from Caesar and is subsequently told to shut up by another henchman; in 68, apocalypse jokes about the 'wonder of mutants, every time a body turns around there are more and more of you"; and cyclops saying "in our line of work, villains and heroes always seem to come back, bigger and better than before." I thought both could also serve as meta commentary from claremont.

plus a few of the plot points from Lee and Portacio are nice, such as the Marvel Universe cameos in 66 echoing the cameos in the issue where dark phoenix ate the D'Bari sun (135 i think). and Beast using two blow dryers after his 'daily ablution' was fun. and the askani's outfit was reminiscent of the original teams unis, kinda, right? Kirby's work will live forever!

so yeah, some weird 'image-y' stuff going on, but overall very enjoyable. i'm glad you reminded me Claremont scripted these and i dug them out to re-read. thanks, jason!

Peter Farago said...

Jason - nothing against Jean getting her powers back. I just think it's narratively weird. The writers took her telepathy away in X-Factor #1 so that she wouldn't learn about Madelyne Pryor right away, but she remained TK-only until long after that particular plot point was resolved. Then, just as having Jean be a TK-only character might prove narratively useful again, she gets her telepathy back. It has nothing to do with whether I prefer Jean one way or another (I don't care) or whether having a telepath and a telekinetic on the team would lead to more interesting story possibilities than having two telepaths (It didn't come up much in practice either way). I'm just trying to understand the motives behind those editorial decisions.

Ken Dynamo said...

almost forgot my favorite bit about issue 68 - having cyclops narrate. Jason, didn't you mention before how rare it is to have a character narrate in a Claremont comic? the Wolverine Brood issues are the only ones I can think of right now.

Also what i found fascinating is the yearly legal thingee for subscription mags that goes in the letter columns popped up and it mentioned the circulation umbers at around 400,000. thats 4 times what the highest selling current ongoing title (or to put it this way, the latest Uncanny X-Men, no. 525, sold 76K), and something like 13 times what x-factor sells now. i guess thats the early 90's for you.

Peter Farago said...

And it wasn't even issue #1 with a foil cover and a holographic trading card inside the polybag!

If you really want to melt your brain, look up the sales figures for X-Men #1 and X-Force #1. Sigh.

Ken Dynamo said...

yeah, seriously. must have been all those idiot fanboys who bought all 6 covers of x-men 1 and 2 copies of x-force so hey could keep one bagged forever. what kind of jerk does that?

/checks longboxes


Jason said...

Ken, thanks for mentioning some more fun moments from this arc. It really is a lot of fun, for all its flaws.

I confess I do really like these villains too, even though they are pretty Image-tastic. And in the end, they don't really do much here other than look cool. There is a curious disconnect between their introduction -- where Claremont has them go into fastidious detail about how they plan to take down each member of X-Factor -- and the actual fight, where Portacio basically just draws a big rumble.

I actually at the time looked forward to seeing more of those guys, but I think the next time they turned up (X-Cutioner's Song?) it wasn't as cool; in fact, it was pretty lame.

I was pleased with myself when I only bought one copy of X-Force #1, despite the gimmicks.

Then two months later I went and bought all five versions of X-Men #1. But I regret nothing.

I don't know if I said it was rare for Claremont to use first-person narration (he always did it for Wolverine solo). But I think I did mention how having Forge narrate two issues of Uncanny in a row was an oddity, and the only time in the Claremont Uncanny run where the same character narrated two issues in a row.

(There are isolated examples amongst Uncanny, though. Wolverine narrates the Brood issue you mentioned, and also issue 205, the Deathstrike issue. And Storm narrates issue 198, "LifeDeath: Heart of Darkness.")

Peter, what is the tally on X-Men #1? Is it four million? (I know I've got some stuff in the blog for that issue about how it sold so many copies, but I think I fudged talking about the actual amount 'cause I didn't know where to look it up ...)

Geoff Klock said...

its 6 million, i think. Also -- check out this list of goofy things from X-Men 1 http://bit.ly/9vhgbc

Jason said...

Interesting. That's a re-write of an old Sims blog from years ago.

Not one of my favorites, for obvious reasons, particularly the crack about Magneto's verbosity. But he does point out some funny stuff, for sure.

Jeff said...

I haven't read these X-Factor issues yet and I really want to. Your review makes them sound like a lot of fun, Jason.

Also, I feel like the panels listed in Geoff's link aren't really that much more goofy than any random ten panels from most Claremont issues. So I agree with Jason, screw Sims!

Anonymous said...

The depiction of Apocalypse in these issues is unforgivable -- comparable in at least the smallest of ways with mangling of Magneto's character in "Fatal Attractions." For all of Simonson's limitations as a writer, she gave Poccy a crude but consistent philosophy and attitude toward life. All of that is gone here. And so are his powers! Instead of the shape-shifting trickster we had seen before, suddenly he's ballooned up to Sentinel-size and is shooting generic energy blasts. Claremont remarks on this incongruity in the script -- there's a line where he thinks something like, "Why is Apocalypse suddenly using a blunderbuss approach?"

One reason why Louise Simonson's X-Factor Forever has been so rapturously received among fans of the original series is that it's the first reappearance of the "real" Apocalypse in 20 years. We've been putting up with a generic Darth Vader clone all the rest of the time.

What happens to Apocalypse here will happen to Sinister as well when he returns: previous characterization and motives vanish, and his power set becomes utterly arbitrary and undefined. Welcome to the '90s.

Anonymous said...

"there's a line where he thinks something like ..." should be "there's a line where Cyclops thinks something like ..."

Zed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zed said...

Jason -

In terms of Cyclops' redemption, what did you think of "X-Men: The End"'s new wrap-up of the Cyclops/Maddie Prior/Jean drama?

I know you're on record as not liking "X-Men: The End", but I really liked what Claremont did with the Maddie storyline. Cyclops, in drunken-self-pity mode, confesses his biggest regret was losing Maddy, who loved Scott Summers, not Scott Summers The Mutant, or Scott Summers The X-Man. Then in the final battle Maddie appears and reveals she was always the essence of Jean that loved Scott, thus explaining why Scott and Jean's relationship never worked post-Maddie. Satisfied finally that Scott DOES in fact actually love her, she rejoins with Dead Jean, and Dead Jean and Dead Scott finally get some peace and transcend with the others in that odd Phoenix tree-of-life deal.

I liked "The End" in general (the final issue made the whole thing for me), but I thought the Maddie stuff was the best part.

Jason said...

Zed, I do appreciate the Madelyne stuff, even though it didn't make any sense how Maddie even got there. (She was part of a team that turned out to be Skrulls impersonating people from the X-Men's past. Except she somehow wasn't a Skrull, she was the real Madelyne ... ? Don't get it.)

I thought it was a decent attempt at creating some proper closure with Cyclops and her, and as an isolated scene it worked pretty well. That bit and the bit where Dani takes over the role of Death from Hela were the bits that hinted at what could have been: A true capstone to Claremont's classic run. But instead he tried to include a lot of the Morrison stuff and other bits from other continuity, and it all got pretty jumbled up and silly.

Joe Gualtieri said...

Not much to say about the write, but I feel obligated to say that the first part of this storyline was my first ever X-comic... and I was confused as heck.

A few months later, I'd pick up X-Men #1 and sill be confused, but apparently 10 year old me vastly preferred Lee to Portacio since I kept buying at that point!

dschonbe said...

Jason wrote: Zed, I do appreciate the Madelyne stuff, even though it didn't make any sense how Maddie even got there. (She was part of a team that turned out to be Skrulls impersonating people from the X-Men's past. Except she somehow wasn't a Skrull, she was the real Madelyne ... ? Don't get it.)

It's worth noting that Bendis more or less used the same plot to bring Mockingbird back into the Marvel Universe during Secret Invasion.

Thanks again Jason. Keep up the great work.

-Dan S.

Nathan P. Mahney said...

In reluctant defense of Bendis, that was how he brought in a fake Mockingbird. The real one was rescued later from a prison ship or something, along with all the other folks who were replaced.

Anonymous said...

Long-time lurker, but first-time commenter here! I've really enjoyed your series.

These issues actually capped off my dislike of Jean Grey as a character. After Scott loses his son to the future, she can't be bothered to comfort him and goes off to party with the Inhumans. It always sat poorly with me.


Teebore said...

I've been away for a bit and thus missed most of the discussion on this and issue #277.

Let me just say, as a Cyclops, I've always appreciated this arc and the effort put into redeeming Cyclops and the whole "abandoning Maddie" BS.

And when I first read these issues (shortly after the reshuffle was complete and Claremont was gone) I was fully enraptured by the "is Cable Cyclops' son from the future?" subplot and subsequently read this story a lot.

The excitement I had then still resonates today.

Gary said...

Peter Farago was right when he said...
"Don't call yourself a bad critic. You've been the highlight of my Tuesdays for two years."
High five.

Also, how is Mockingbird released from Skrull imprisonment when she was shown as dead in the afterlife in both Busiek's Avengers and Thunderbolts runs?

scottmcdarmont said...

Re: Sales of X-men 1

According to Wikipedia, over 8 million copies were sold. However, I THINK I remember reading somewhere that, in hindsight, they've estimated that less than ONE million of those were purchased for reading. Which means, a lot of people bought multiple copies but many of those were speculators who bouth all 6 copies, then didn't even bother reading them (which was the great injustice-- I can proudly say I NEVER bought a comic that I did NOT read (in hindsight, I probably shouldn't have read them because they were pretty bad-- but I read them)

Jason said...

I think I have bought X-Men #1 at least seven times ...

I am clearly part of the problem. :(

Matt said...

Regarding Jean's telepathy making her redundant: don't forget that at this time, the X-Men were going to be split into Blue and Gold strike forces. Gold team (starring in Uncanny X-Men) had Jean, and Blue team (featured in X-Men) had Psylocke -- a telepath for each group. Plus an extra emergency telepath sitting back at home in the person of Xavier.

Of course the Blue and Gold division didn't really last all that long. I think it stuck until Lee and Portacio left, then came small crossovers, like Colossuus hanging with the Blue team for a 3-part arc set in Russia, or Cyclops and Wolverine showing up in Uncanny #300... but within a couple of years, probably around the time of "Fatal Attractions", the whole idea was quietly dropped, and both X-titles used whichever characters they wanted. At that point, the redundancey become much more apparent.

Incidentally, this is totally unrelated to the subject at hand, but mentioning issue 300 made me think of it -- I've always loved that John Romita Jr. illustrated both the 200th and 300th issues of Uncanny X-Men.

NietzscheIsDead said...

"Besides the hints you mentioned, there are also the floating images that include Cable, which show up at two different point in the story."

This is actually related to a long-running Simonson plot running all the way back to her Power Pack days involving Stephen Lang, from way back in X-Men #98, having programmed into his Sentinels a list of twelve mutants called, creatively, "the Twelve," who were somehow destined to do... something incredibly nebulous. Exactly who this list included was a long-running X-Factor mystery: the floating head-pictures always appeared when they were mentioned, letting us see some of them.

What's important to this discussion is that it shows that the X-office had, in fact, already settled on Baby Christopher as Cable's true identity, as the pictures that Portacio draws here actually include bring the total up to 13 if Cable and Christopher are counted as separate.

This plot was later resolved after Claremont left, where it was revealed that Apocalypse had originated the list, which included an entirely new set of mutants. How Lang found the list to program into his Sentinels was never revealed.

(Apropos of nothing, Nimrod mentioning way back in Uncanny X-Men #206 that there were twelve X-Men in Central Park was Claremont throwing Simonson a bone vis a vis this subplot.)