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Fall of the Mutants: X-Factor (Review/Retrospective)

I’ll freely concede that I’m generally wary of Louise Simonson’s X-Factor. Her contributions to the Mutant Massacre were the weakest part of the crossover, and she didn’t exactly make Inferno an exceptionally readable event. While I can understand why some fans are fond of her writing, I’ve found the X-Factor I’ve read to generally be an awkward and heavy-handed attempt to emulate Chris Claremont’s patented soap opera stylings.

However, I will concede when I’m impressed, and Simonson has more than impressed me here. While I respect Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men tie-in to Fall of the Mutants more than I enjoy it, Simonson’s X-Factor feels like a much stronger offering, feeling like the book is really firing on all cylinders. Fall of the Mutants allows Simonson to bring all manner of plotlines to a head, tying together years of build-up into a fascinating, exciting and compelling pay-off. I have no qualms in suggesting that Simonson’s X-Factor is the highlight of this gigantic collection.

A wing and a prayer…

There is something just a little bit cool about the idea of the original X-Factor, at least a comic book nerd. When Chris Claremont took over Uncanny X-Men, following on from Len Wein’s introductory Giant-Sized X-Men, it felt like a completely different book than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men. With the exception of Professor Xavier, Scott Summers and Jean Grey, it was a new line-up – packed with ethnically diverse new (and rescued) characters who have arguably eclipsed most of their predecessors in popularity and fame. Still, it seems interesting to revisit those original five students, especially in a franchise like Marvel’s X-Men, where new characters seem to archive by the bucketload and the key cast seemed to change almost yearly during Claremont’s run. I’m not a huge fan of comic book nostalgia, but the idea is quite appealing.

However, more fascinating is the basic premise, which actually seems years ahead of its time. Indeed, it’s funny to look back on a comic book first published in the mid-eighties and read it as a deconstruction of the trend towards darker and edgier books that was only really taking hold at the time. Of course, at this time, anti-heroes like Wolverine and The Punisher were becoming increasingly popular and it seemed that readers would be dying to read books about morally ambiguous heroes. And so, at a surface level, X-Factor reads like it could be one of those books, following an organisation that hunts and captures dangerous mutants, the persecuted victims of the Marvel Universe. If one were to look no closer at that premise, it might seem like a precursor of Thunderbolts or Dark Avengers.

The real McCoy?

Of course, it isn’t at all. The organisation is just a front for the original X-Men to rescue and save mutants from persecution, part of a publicity initiative to ensure that any humans contact them before forming a flash mob to attack a poor victimised mutant. Underneath the cover of a mutant-hunting organisation, the members of X-Factor are “goody-two-shoes little heroes”, about as good as they come. They’re like an inverse version of the Thunderbolts, heroes pretending to be villains to earn the respect and trust of the public. It’s an idea way ahead of its time, and seems to almost satirise so-called “villain” books. I think that the X-Factor issues collected here cover this fascinating dichotomy and subversion remarkably well, as Simonson finally gets to hammer home her themes and tie up that plotline.

As Rictor remarks, trying to make sense of the situation, “Only Iceman — Bobby — said you must know people — mutants — by their deeds and –“ It’s a recurring theme in these issues that it is what people do that defines their character. Tying it all together in a plotline that moves away from this status quo gives the issues collected here a very significant weight. Indeed, abolishing the status quo that had existed since the first issue almost feels like a more substantial change than Chris Claremont’s shift to “outback X-Men” over in Uncanny X-Men.

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake…

It helps that Simonson’s strength as a writer lies with conventional and relatively straightforward superheroics. Reading the earlier issues scattered through other collections, it seemed like she struggled a bit writing the team under that initial status quo, pretending to be villains. Simonson is at her strongest working on good old fashioned superheroes, and it’s telling that one of her lasting contributions to Marvel was the series Power Pack, effectively “superhero babies.”

The series never really worked especially well for me, being a little bit too silly and goofy (this is from someone who loves Jack Kirby’s Captain America and Bob Haney’s Brave and the Bold), but there’s no denying it played to her strengths. Here, after writing the team posing as villains for quite a while, Simonson finally gets to indulge in some good old-fashioned super-hero fun, and it feels almost cathartic to have the team take on a big bad like Apocalypse as out-and-out heroes.

The devil in the dark…

Indeed, I think that’s why the series works better here as part of a “thematic event” than Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. While Claremont’s work was interesting and insightful, it was also complicated and convoluted. It offered some nice character insights for Storm and Wolverine, but it didn’t feel fitting for a story about the end of an era. In contrast, Simonson’s work is a lot more straightforward. She pushes the team to their lowest point during the confrontation with Cameron Hodges, when it is revealed that everything they’ve taken for granted is a sham, and then given them a relatively straight-forward superhero victory.

It is telling that X-Factor features the largest number of tie-ins, suggesting the largest scale of events. Any issue of Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America or Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil is welcome in oversized hardcover, if you ask me. Nocenti in particular proved quite adept at tying in and crossing over. Some of the most efficient and effective event crossovers and tie-ins came from her run on Daredevil, which I quite like. It’s interesting that she returned the character to relatively conventional superheroics after Frank Miller so brutally picked him apart.

He’s no angel…

Still, X-Factor works best because it is a conventional superhero book, albeit one with the trappings of Claremont-ian drama. Consider, for example, Simonson’s handling of Cyclops, a character who has been tough for many writers, including Claremont. Early on the author has Rusty outline the somewhat complicated relationship history of Scott Summers and Jean Grey to Skids. “Look,” he explains, “you’re not likely to have some energy creature bury you in suspended animation and pretend she’s you! And I’m not likely to marry somebody who looks like you ’cause I think you’re dead, only to have you turn up really alive, and then have the girl I married get killed! No wonder Scott’s a nut case!” The character has been through a lot, and it can seem tough to really get a handle on him if only because his publication history feels like one awkward humiliation after another.

Hell, Simonson goes a bit further than most writers at the time, and actually seems to foreshadow the current characterisation of Cyclops, decades ahead of stories like Messiah Complex. She fairly explicitly suggests that Scott and his team were trained by Xavier as little more than child soldiers in a war they had no part in. “We were being trained for combat!” he insists. “Xavier’s children’s crusade! His little soldiers!” You can argue that he was preparing them for a tough and hostile world, but those scenes of Xavier training teenagers as a military unit read much differently today than they did during the sixties. At one point, War goads him, “You were raised as a warrior, weren’t you?” He was indeed.

Apocalypse who?

Simonson even seems to foreshadow Cyclops’ characterisation in Schism, and his suggestion that even kids need to be ready for combat. Of course he sees it that way, he was trained to head a team as a teenager. Jean calls him on his philosophy as Power Pack join the fight against Apocalypse. “They’re children, Scott!” she insists. Scott is pragmatic in his response to such accusations. “It’s their world too!” pulls together.

And yet, despite that, Simonson manages to keep Scott heroic, and to keep the team as an essential functioning superhero unit. In Uncanny X-Men, Claremont would pick apart the team until there literally was no team, but Simonson’s more traditional superheroics serve X-Factor well here, pulling the title pack from too much meloncholia or cynicism. Even the fragile Scott Summers can pull it all together and lead his team to something approaching victory. “It’s not the neurotic who leads this group, Jean! It’s the bit of Xavier that’s in me! The bit that’s made of sterner stuff.”

Jean’s on fire…

That’s not to say there isn’t some sinister stuff here. In fact, this is probably the darkest of Simonson’s X-Factor work that I have read. Angel sells his soul for a chance to fly again. Even when the team defeat the evil Apocalypse, he still manages to convert Caliban to his cause. Cameron Hodge plans to turn the capture mutant children into soldiers and slaves, his “school” contrasted with Xavier. While Simonson dares to raise questions about Xavier’s military philosophy, it is justified by the fact that people like Hodge exist and their methods are far less pleasant than those of Charles Xavier. Even the creepy soldiers in armour suits seem especially sinister, with their creepy smiley faces evoking similar faces drawn on ships and planes and missiles. Weapons and war craft, not people.

And yet the team pulls through with a big battle against a very clear evil. I’ve always had a bit of an inexplicable fondness for Apocalypse, even if he isn’t the most nuanced of X-Men villains. Here he works precisely because he’s so obviously evil. Keeping with the biblical themes of the story, with the four horsemen, the quote from revelations and the notion of Archangel, Apocalypse is cast as Satan, the great tempter. Explaining how he recruited volunteers, he states, “I offered them salvation… what they most desire! They accept without reservation! As will you!”

Right makes might…

More than that, though, there is something just a tad more sophisticated about the character here, and it’s something I’ve never thought about before – a wonderful irony at the heart of Apocalypse. He’s generally presented as a sort of a skewed social Darwinist, motivation by the notion that war will provide a vehicle for evolution. “Peace between humans and mutants does nothing to force mutants to grow, to evolve! To become the strong!” The irony is that this state of conflict is the status quo. Xavier and his mutants want actual advancement and evolution, while Apocalypse fights to maintain the status quo rather than to force a change or development. It’s a small thing, but it’s nice.

Similarly, I do like the idea that Cameron Hodge isn’t motivated by any deeply-seated racism, but by a sense of envy. He doesn’t believe mutants are inferior, he’s just jealous. He can’t fathom why Warren Worthington got to fly and he didn’t. “I was wealthier, of older stock, attended the best schools! That should have made me homo superior! Not an evolutionary dead end!” Indeed, the confrontation with Hodge represents a low point for Scott and his team. Perhaps foreshadowing the road to Avengers vs. X-Men, the team leader muses, “Humans and mutants can’t live together in peace — if the humans don’t want it.” It’s fascinating how much of Scott’s current portrayal is rooted in Simonson’s X-Factor.

Angel of death…

However, Simonson pulls back. The team re-affirms their virtues and values. They fight to save a world that fears and hates them, just as they always do. Sure, they suffer and they don’t always win outright, but Simonson’s X-Factor feels like a cautiously optimistic book, one that suggests the X-Men aren’t just misfits or outcasts, but heroes. They have the strength and fortitude to do what they must, however uncertain the situation might be. I think that Fall of the Mutants covers that remarkably well, and it stands as the best work from Simonson that I have read, and the best part of this crossover.

You might be interested in or reviews of some of the rest of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run (and other assorted mutant-related work):

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