X-Factor today may bring to mind a smug bastard sat behind a desk gleefully crushing dreams of the untalented and deluded (and trust me I will be coming back to this some day), but back in February 1986 it was a tantalising logo in the top right hand corner of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers comics for that month, declaring that X-Factor began and continued in those issues.
I’d been a regular buyer of the Marvel Universe for only about a year when I bought a copy of Fantastic Four 286 and was still learning about it’s mythology and history. Therefore it was quite baffling when the issue read more like an X-Men story than one with the FF and I was totally lost on the significance of Reed Richards opening a mysterious pod found at the bottom of Jamaica Bay and waking up a hot redhead wearing a ripped to shreds black dress who appeared to have telekentic powers and was ranting about sentinels.
X-Men, wait, X-Factor? What is X-Factor anyways?
Now I knew there was a original team of X-Men one of whom was a redhead called Marvel Girl and that she’d been Cyclops lover and that she’d died in something called the Phoenix saga (most of this I knew from Rachel Summers who was the new Phoenix in the X-Men I’d become a massive fan of). But I wasn’t going apeshit at the return of Jean Grey like many other comic readers were, some overjoyed but many more were writing letters of complaint to the Marvel offices. You see in those days we didn’t have the internet and message boards to instantly complain about anything we didn’t approve of, we had to write letters and actually go outside and post them. Times were hard back then, it was exhausting.
I may have still been a newbie but I could read the signs where the resurrection of Jean Grey was leading to, as a month earlier I’d read X-men 201 where Cyclops was sulkily walking out of the series after Storm had beat the crap out of him in a duel for the right to lead the team. Meanwhile the Defenders comic that featured Beast, Iceman and Angel was coming to a close (which was a shame because I was really getting into that series). So yeah I reckoned I knew what this X-Factor was going to be all about. A reformation of the original X-Men, which to me was an exciting idea having missed out on them the first time around.
Little did I know the turmoil that was going on behind the scenes around all this, as I said we didn’t have the internet in those days for writers to drunk tweet when they were pissed about things and then delete it several minutes later. We even had to make our porn (I dread the day my parents ever decide to move house as I suspect my Samantha Fox scrapbook that I made in the 80’s is still hidden somewhere at my parents house and is one big spring clean away from being discovered).
The idea to do another mutant based team came about after artists Jackson Guice and Bob Layton pitched the idea of reforming the original X-Men to Jim Shooter, citing the belief that the originals were either languishing in the Defenders or in the case of Cyclops not been used at all having been giving a walk off into the sunset with his wife and son. Shooter loved the idea, no doubt seeing big sales with another sister comic to the massive hit that Uncanny X-men had become.
The idea was the reformed team would go back to their original premise in the 60’s by running a secret school that would help young mutants cope with their powers, something the current X-Men had drifted away from (although the New Mutants was filling this role quite nicely). X-Factor would disguise themselves as ghostbuster style Mutant Hunters in order to gain information and tipoffs on mutants in need. However missing from the planned lineup was Jean Grey due to being, well dead!
A woman was obviously needed for the role and the original choice was to be Dazzler, who’s own troubled book was been bought to an end around the same time. Indeed the final panel of her series has Beast seemingly inviting her to join X-Factor in the old “seems more like a beginning than an ending” type of deal. (I have nothing to back this up but I would be surprised if the Rachel Summers Phoenix wasn’t at least mentioned as that would be a good fit for storyline and conflict reasons).
One guy wrote 500 letters and it changed comics forever
Well plans changed and you can blame a young Kurt Busiek who legend has it was a dedicated letter writing fan who was deeply mortified by the death of Jean Grey back in 1980. So much so he accosted Roger Stern at a convention and pitched the idea that when Jean Grey emerged from the crashed Shuttle back in issue 101 as Phoenix this was merely the form and memories that the entity had adopted and the real Jean Grey was still in the shuttle at the bottom of the sea, cocooned and recovering from radiation poisoning.
Instead of telling Busiek to go fuck himself and writing his signature on his face Stern related the the idea to John Byrne who in turn many years later suggested it to the team working on X-Factor. Jim Shooter liked the idea as it absolved Jean Grey of all the crimes against the Universe the Phoenix had committed (the main reason Shooter has insisted she be killed off in the first place) and also guaranteed publicity for the comics release as well as bringing the opportunity to pair up Scott Summers and Jean again.
Naturally this pissed off some fans, as it pretty much devalued Jean’s sacrifice in killing herself to save the universe from Phoenix (in one of my favourite single issues of all time) and threatened to invalidate several years worth of X-Men stories.
One man in particular was livid beyond belief.
Chris Claremont’s first run on Uncanny X-Men is the stuff of legends and it seems he’d started to consider anything Mutant related to be his baby. After all he’d been writing the X-Men for ten years and actually had plans of where he wanted to take the title for issue 300 (which would have meant another ten years in those days).
Claremont treated the X-Men as an ongoing ever evolving saga. In common with many teambooks the lineup would change subtly over time, with members leaving and being replaced with specific reasons, not with the mass reboots that are forced upon titles today. This philosophy was evident with the character developments of Wolverine, Storm and Rogue, with Magneto becoming the head of the School, while Xavier had left the book entirely. (Incidentally the original X-Men are one of the few teams who we have seen to actually age in anyway in the Marvel Universe. Franklin Richards seems to have stunted in growth so much is sister looks to be taking over him soon. And Aunt May should be begging for death by now the poor woman).
But no where was it more evident than with all what Claremont had done with Scott Summers, something that the X-Factor series was severely going to undo. Claremont had given Cyclops a happy ending, allowing him to retire from the team and living a good life with new wife Madeline Pryor. The idea was for this to be a permanent move, with Cyclops coming back every once in a while for a guest appearance or to take part in a major story event when someone really needed the shit kicking out of them.
X-Factor robbed him and Cyclops of that ride off into the sunset (there’s a moment in Secret Wars where Cyclops mentioned his honeymoon he’d been whisked away from was the first time in his life he’d been truly happy, so I’m guessing Maddie was a bit of a goer). But an even harder pill to swallow was the return of Jean Grey who Jim Shooter once promised Claremont would remain dead.
When Claremont was told the plans for X-Factor it was by editor Ann Nocenti who cannily chose to tell him on a Friday night in the hopes he’d have the weekend to calm down before having the chance to confront Shooter, an argument that would probably have resulted in the furious writer quitting (Nocenti refused to give Claremont Shooter’s phone number).
Claremont was particularly appalled by what Jean’s return would do for Scott’s character, as he pretty much ditches his wife and new born son upon hearing of her return and in turn doesn’t tell Jean about Maddie. So yeah, Scott Summers pretty much is a real bastard to everyone concerned here. However the triangle does create a dynamic of conflict and human drama in it’s first year and a half, espeically when Angel makes his own feelings for Jean known (who also ditches his girlfriend Candy in the process, seriously is there any woman in comics who causes more romantic grief than Jean Grey?)
Dead Doesn’t Mean Dead
Claremont tried to come up with alternative members, included a suggestion that Jean’s sister be revealed to be a mutant and take the position. Shooter would not budge, Jean Grey was coming back from the dead.
X-Factor fitted in well as a companion series to the Uncanny X-Men, ironically because it held off on the obvious meeting between the two teams for three years with a signature Claremont slow build (Claremont wasn’t actually writing X-Factor but was reluctantly working with the team). But there were teases, oh there were teases with a series of what Marvel termed as Non-Crossovers. Like when Magneto arrived for a meeting with the Hellfire club which was witnessed by X-Factor in their mutant hunting persona. Read X-Factor and you’ll see the teams reaction assuming that Magneto is turning to his evil ways, read Uncanny X-Men and you’ll see Magneto’s assumption that Jean must be Madeyline and that the original team have legitmatly becoming Mutant hunters and sold out Mutantity (Have I just coined that phrase? Probably not).
These teases would occur regulary, most of them seemingly geared to fuck with Wolverine’s head. Like during the Mutant Massacre where the two teams come close enough to each other for Wolverine to get the scents of X-Factor and almost freaks out when he catches Jean’s whiff (The Marauders cave in the tunnel between them before the two teams can actually meet and go What the Fuck?). Another of sorts occurs when in X-Factor Scott and Jean check in on Jean’s sister and the house is destroyed in a bomb blast committed by an anti mutant hate grou. Over in X-Men that month Wolverine and Storm investigate the bombing and yep Wolverine once again gets Jean’s scent and goes berserk.
It’s a wonderful tantalising build.
In the three years up to this meet up, and lets face it clash of the X-teams, X_Factor was a strong, enjoyable series. It played a part in three of the biggest crossovers in the Mutant sagas at the time in the brutally game changing Mutant Massacre, the immensely emotional Fall of the Mutants and in the big payoff, the gigantically divisive Inferno .
X-Factor built up an impressive cast, with a school full of young mutants such as Rusty, Skids, Artie and Leech and with some major league villains in Cameron Hodge and of course the especially great Apocalypse with his first lineup of Four Horsemen. Apocalypse of course gave rise to Warren Worthington’s transformation from Angel into the incredibly imaginatively named Dark Angel.
When Inferno came along it was a massive crossover event, the likes of which hadn’t been attempted before. Uncanny X-Men and X-Factor crossed over with New Mutants and the mini series X-Terminators heavily tied in to the saga as well, along with lots of superfluous single issue tie ins with other series. It successfully managed tie up many loose ends quite impressively but remains bizarrely uneven and to this day I’m unable to conclude on whether I like the storyline or not, as there are elements I enjoy and many I find infuriating.
Inferno to cut it briefly (because this article is getting out of hand, I mean seriously with all these articles I write for Halfguarded I could have wrote a whole fucking sci fi novel by now. A seven part saga, 900 pages each with a cast of amazing cage fighting warriors all based loosely on Invicta fighters. I could sell millions of copies and gain a trillion readers and then piss em all off by having all the major characters die in a Red Birthday party or something), is all about the demons of Limbo invading New York and loads of babies being kidnapped for ritual sacrifice, which all explodes the same time that the X-Men finally get their hands on the Marauders (and you have no idea how hyped I was for this to happen, major fanboy mark out moment for me as they dish out a hell of a beating).
Naturally when the two X-teams meet they end up knocking the hell out of each other before teaming up, cos lets face it it’s a Marvel tradition. At least there is a reason for it as it turns out Madelyne repackaged as the Goblin Queen has been manipulating animosity between them (more on this in a bit). There is a weird feel to it though as the regular X-Men have been infected with the demonic energies and all the interactions are extremely odd with them throwing down on each other for the least little reasons. Though there is a tantalising clue to Wolverine’s origin as he goes mental when he catches the scent of Dark Angels wings, something which would sadly lead nowhere.
The biggest problem I have is the complete disservice it does to Madeline Pryor by retconning her into a villain and turning her into the Goblin Queen. Madelyne I really liked as a character when she teamed up with the X-Men and you have a lot of sympathy for her as she’s obviously wronged and dumped by Cyclops and made to feel like she’s just a redheaded replacement for Jean. It’s especially tragic with the revelation that she is in fact a clone of Jean created by Mister Sinister. So yeah she’s put through the ringer but the whole transformation into the Goblin Queen seems to be a getout for Cyclops acting as a dick and lets them kill off Maddie so he can carry on with Jean with a clean conscience.
There is some real sickening stuff going on here when you think about it. Maddie thinks she’s found the love of her life, but realises that Scott only loved her because she looked like his dead fiancée, and when it turns out she’s alive after all he rushes off to be with her, then it turns out she’s only a copy of her rival after all and in the end she’s killed by Jean who not only ends up with her husband but takes Maddie’s baby as her own and even takes all of Maddie’s memories!!!!! How fucked up is this when you think about it? The answer is VERY!!!!
Also the final panel in Inferno is particularly sickening in that it pretty much tries to absolve Cyclops of every bad thing he’s ever done in his life, as it’s all been because of the manipulations of Mister Sinister and Madelyne. Even the fight he lost to Storm is because of Maddie’s unconcious influencing the outcome.
You know, not every hero has to be Captain America, what’s wrong with having some of them being dicks?
After Inferno X-Factor and Uncanny X-Men continued with their traditional Mutant crossover events but there was very little memorable going on in X-Factor from this stage forward. At the same time Claremont finally seemed to be running out of steam over in Uncanny X-Men (I did enjoy the weavers storyline that sadly went no where), though to be fair the quality of Marvel across the board was collapsing under the amount of content the company was producing.
Eventually the X-Factor was reunited with the X-Men full time in a massive resetting of all things mutants. Mansion rebuilt, Professor X back in a wheelchair, Magneto back to being a villain, they even shipped off little baby Summers out of the way and off into the future (although it was hard to act sad as we all knew it was Cable by this point).
Though the comic did live on with a new X-factor team sponsored by the government as a mutant taskforce and later as a detective agency based in Mutant Town (written by Peter David and is well worth going out of your way to read as it’s one of my favourite series in recent years). The first incarnation of X-Factor was a series I enjoyed (when I had to cut the number of series I was following in my late teens it was one of the ones I stayed with), but it’s ironic because it embodies several trends that I absolutely loathe in comics.
I’ve come to groan when characters are killed off these days and grow particularly infuriated when they’re brought back from the dead, especially in those cases where their deaths have had such a massive impact on storylines and history. Jean Grey’s death was one of the most moving tales of sacrifice in comics (the final issue of the Dark Phoenix saga is one of the greatest issues of a comic ever as far as I’m concerned) and her passing had major implications going forward for the series. Her death being a hoax can’t help but demean this.
Now granted it’s done really well, although a cheat it does work as a storyline and is so clever you’d easily think was the intention from the start. Compare this to such half-assed returns seen with Wasp, Hawkeye and the massively disappointing way they bought back Steve Rogers after such a brilliant death and aftermath (it’s one of those smack your head hard at the stupidity in what the villains are doing type stories, leaving a really bad taste in your mouth).
At least there are major storyline implications with Jean’s return which played a major part in X-Factor’s early years. Sadly it started a trend in killing off and bringing back heroes and villains with little care or thought with a case of diminishing returns. Even when it’s done well you can’t take a characters death seriously because you know they’re coming back either as clone or drawing on some alternative universe mumbo jumbo.
Then there’s the dreaded reset button. One of the things I loved about Marvel comics when I first got into them was they were never a static series. Characters and team line ups changed, it was an ever evolving Universe. I liked how characters would move on from books, form new teams and start off their own adventures. Reversing and resetting wasn’t something that happened much back then. Now calling X-Factor a reset maybe unfair on some levels as it’s pulling together an old team and at least doing something new with them and with motivations that make sense.
However when one of your first storylines is written solely to get Beast out of his fur and back to how he looked when in the original X-Men it feels forced. Claremont himself described it as new writers wanting to having a go at playing with the characters they grew up reading themselves. It’s happened with Alpha Flight where the original team was just put together for a run in their original garb, as if wiping out any progression they had made as characters. They did it with New Mutants, reversing all the growing up and changes the members had gone through since the books cancellation and even sticking them back in their yellow and blue uniforms. We even got the original X-Men team back for Christ’s sake this time as their younger selves travelling through time.
I’m not blaming X-Factor for all of this, but comics have a notorious legacy of finding a concept that works great once and then then drawing from that well constantly until even a classic like Days of Future’s past draws a roll of the eyeballs when writers deem it’s time to journey back to it.
You know what? I reckon Dazzler would have been a better choice.
Til Next time
While X-Factor was going back to the X-Men’s roots, over in Uncanny X-Men Claremont was evolving his team into a new direction. It was a new line-up, one that seems to have been forgotten in X-Men lore. But not forgotten by me, and my next comic piece will feature this missing era of Marvel’s Merry Mutants.
With a name like Phoenix, one should not be surprised that Grey would emerge from the ashes like her namesake. But it does cheapened the ending of the Dark Phoenix saga.
Excellent article. Heart-breaking, in a way, because I, too, loved X-Factor, and was perturbed but still glad to see Jean back.
But… comics would have gone down this road eventually without X-Factor. Everything does. So I’m glad that we had the guilty pleasure X-Factor regardless.
I do wonder, though, how it would have gone down with Dazzler. That could have been cool, and perhaps just as good. Or, one must wonder, why they never thought of giving Maddie powers. I never minded the Sinister thing, because it seemed like Claremont was trying to make her a clone or the Phoenix from the moment Maddie stepped on the page. (After all, she didn’t exist ’til the Phoenix died, remember?)