The new reader of mainstream comics will inevitably have to come up against that most dreaded of storylines: the Event tie-in. I touched on my irritation with crossovers when I looked at two recent Valiant titles, but they’re far more annoying at Marvel and DC. The Big Two create line-wide “Event” comics every year, and while I might be interested in one book featuring characters from across the line, the main story will inevitably affect many other ongoing books (look at Marvel’s current Secret Wars event for an example). As a result, it’s nearly impossible to read cape comics and avoid these huge crossover stories.
Even without the Event titles’ help, X-Men continuity is an intimidating quagmire, to the point where a podcast explaining their history is necessary. If you’ve been curious about X-books, but have been too intimidated to wade in, I can’t blame you, but I’d recommend coming at it through a B-list X-team: X-Factor. Through its various incarnations (particularly the spectacular run that started in 2005), you’ll be exposed to a lot of mutants, as well as major events that affected the Marvel universe. It might be confusing sometimes, but it’s worth it for the fantastic character development.
X-Factor started as a way to bring the original 5 X-Men back together in the ’80s, notably reviving Jean Grey. The fab five pose as regular humans who battle mutant threats, secretly training and aiding the mutants after defeating them. I admit that I got bored with this iteration of the team pretty quickly – this was one of Scott’s dirtbaggiest periods – but things get much more interesting to me when Peter David and Larry Stroman take over the title, beginning with issue 71. Along with a new roster of characters, the team takes on government sponsorship. David’s work on X-Factor is marked by a strong investment in character development, and he did some fantastic work developing a team of characters who couldn’t be called A-listers, particularly everyone’s favourite jerky speedster, Quicksilver. This run is enjoyable especially if you can dig Stroman’s aggressively ’90s artwork, but it’s pretty tied up with some other huge mutant storylines of the time.
The X-Factor team was reinvented a few more times with varying degrees of success, until David came back on the title after creating a fun mini-series about Multiple Man, this time joined by artist Pablo Raimondi. Jamie Madrox aka Multiple Man had been a jokester in the earlier iterations of X-Factor, but David clearly saw more potential for character growth. In his solo miniseries, Jamie fancies himself a private detective in a Noir story, which leads to him opening X-Factor Investigations.
This new detective agency forms the basis for X-Factor volume 3, following the events of House of M, which left countless mutants depowered. Most of the Marvel Universe doesn’t know why or how most mutants lost their powers, and their struggle to figure that out and keep on going, even after losing your superpowers and identity, informed a lot of X-Factor’s early issues. If that sounds intimidating, worry not! The series interacted with larger Marvel events (such as Civil War and Messiah Complex), but given the comic’s intense character focus, you can get by even with gaps in the larger storylines. And it’s worth it, because this team is one of the most dysfunctional groups of weirdos you’ll ever see in a mainstream superhero comic, and I love them all.
The team roster shows remarkable diversity for a superhero comic, with men, women, people of colour, and people with diverse religious and sexual identities – and they’re all equally messed-up people. Many of the characters had past histories to build on, but many of them were treated as blank slates, allowing David and his huge roster of artists to do whatever they wanted with them. Fans notice when dramatic changes are made to Iron Man or Wolverine, but it’s not a big deal when you’re working with characters like Siryn, Rictor, Wolfsbane, Darwin, Strong Guy (yep), and Monet St Croix, so the series expanded their strengths and insecurities. Relationship drama, identity crises, substance abuse, horrible self-esteem – this team’s got it all, folks! But it’s not all doom and gloom – Peter David is an immensely funny writer, and the series lightened up a lot as it went on, particularly with the addition of the adorably clueless inter-dimensional travellers, Longshot and Shatterstar. Back in the ‘90s, Shatter and teammate Rictor shared a very close relationship – the kind of close that leads to fan speculation. Bringing the characters back together in X-Factor, Peter David decided to turn subtext into text, confirming their past romance and putting them into a present relationship. Shatterstar’s creator, Rob Liefeld, was not pleased, but fans were ecstatic.
Even beyond this newsworthy developments, the series included many rewarding relationships, both platonic and romantic; the bestest buddies duo of Strong Guy and Wolfsbane is one of my favourite in comics. I gravitate toward offbeat teams (see also: X-Statix, Doom Patrol, B.P.R.D.) because I love to watch friendships turn into found-families, even if they’re families that argue all the time.
Over time, the series declined in quality, until the series was cancelled and replaced by All-New X-Factor, where lacklustre sales reflected lacklustre storytelling (despite fantastic art by Carmine di Giandomenico) and it was cancelled too. Peter David wrote the All-New series as well, but he’d lost the spark that made his early issues special.
David was joined by an ever-changing collection of artists, and unfortunately none of them stick out as definitive. While there are some great periods – I’m fond of Ryan Sook’s early, moody Noir look and Emanuela Lupacchino’s expressive characters – this isn’t really a series to pick up for the art. But it’s a great series to help you wade gently into the wider Marvel universe. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll learn a bit about some of Marvel’s notable “events” that are basically impossible to avoid once you start reading superhero comics. It’s impossible not to be charmed by these characters, so prepare to find a new fav (or eight) that you’ll rarely see in other comics.