Thursday, December 01, 2005

The value of typography and fortune telling.

There’s something very telling about the logo to Essential X-Factor. If you’re a graphic design nerd like I am, it’s very obvious: The logo is broken. Behind each letter, for the most part, there’s a shadow letter – The X has another X, the F has another F, and so on – with the exception of the last two letters. At first I thought that it was some kind of strange design decision, a way of saying that something in the image is closer to the viewer than everything else, but upon further investigation, I realized that, no, the logo is just broken. It’s exactly the same on the spine – Two of the drop shadow letters are missing for no reason. If I had been in my right mind yesterday, when I picked up the damn thing, I would’ve recognized it as a bad omen and run screaming from the store as any sane man should.

I bought Essential X-Factor, you see, for all the wrong reasons. It was a book that I’d picked up way back when I was eleven years old, and even then with all my unformed critical faculties and naïve view of the world, I knew that it was an utterly flawed book. I remember reading each issue, thinking “What is the point?” and then promising myself that I’d only pick it up again next month if it looked as if it was getting better. Sadly, I was incredibly optimistic back then, and always managed to convince myself that it was probably getting together. But it was in this spirit – The idea that this was a book so bad that even the eleven year old me felt as if it shouldn’t exist – that I made the decision to buy the Essential collection of the first year (and a bit) of the series. Maybe, I thought to myself in some diseased sick corner of my mind, maybe when I read it now I can analyze just what was so bad about it.

Looking at it now, with the benefit of hindsight and cynicism, X-Factor seems like the point where the X-Men franchise ceased to be anything other than a money-making exercise. It wasn’t the first spin-off from X-Men – by this point, New Mutants was coming up on four years old, and there had been a couple of Wolverine miniseries, as well as things like X-Men/Alpha Flight and X-Men/Micronauts – but it was the first one that you can tell was solely unmotivated by any kind of creative impulse. You can tell by the fact that the series actually started with a crossover between Avengers, Fantastic Four and its own series (No Uncanny X-Men, interestingly enough, but perhaps Chris Claremont’s alleged strop about Jean Grey’s resurrection had something to do with that), or – if that wasn’t enough for you – by the fact that the original creative team had entirely vanished from the book by issue eight. And that’s not even going into the fact that, within a year of the series’ launch, the original premise of the book was being criticized by the creators through the characters in a way so blatant as to make Geoff “Superman of Earth-2 hates today’s comics” Johns blush.

X-Factor broke the X-Franchise, even as it made it into the X-Franchise that we know and make cheap jokes about. Its entire premise was enough to give that away: “Remember the death of Jean Grey, which has powered the majority of X-Men storylines in one way or another ever since it happened? Yeah, it didn’t happen. It was just someone who looked very like her. Okay?” I mean, it’s one thing to pull that kind of cheap stunt if you’re going do something with it, but it’s really clear from the first issue alone that poor Bob Layton, never the most dynamic of Marvel’s 1980s writers at the best of times, clearly had no idea what to do with the character now that she was back from the dead. Not that that was that unusual, as the series showed the longer it went on. Never mind destroying any dramatic impact that the original Phoenix story had had in the first place (or, for that matter, destroying any dramatic tension that could be made from life-or-death situations by showing that, hey, death isn’t actually that final after all), X-Factor then went after most of the other characters with gusto, offering up dramatic changes: Cyclops abandoned his wife and son to be with his no-longer-dead lover! Beast gets de-evolved from blue and furry into his original mutated form! Angel attempts suicide after losing his wings!

(Iceman got left alone, for the most part, because – well, he’s Iceman, and what can you do with him?)

X-Factor was where soap opera finally took over. At least for the first year or so – Louise and Walt Simonson had better luck turning the book into something more interesting starting with issue #10 – it was a book that read as if someone was trying to outdo the emotional melodrama that, conventional wisdom at the time had it, was the secret of Chris Claremont’s success. Emotional misery was piled upon emotional misery, but for no real reason, and with no real intention beyond giving characters something more to be angst-ridden about. There was never any lightness or humor in the book to balance things out or give the impression that the characters were anything other than the writers’ punching bags. As a result, none of it rang true to the reader, and any and all emotional connection they had with the characters was lost to the unintentional comedy of the whole thing. Who cares that Cyclops is having an emotional breakdown and hallucinating floating Professor Xaviers this month? Next month, everyone’ll have forgotten about him when Angel’s plane blows up! Huzzah!

Reading the stories now, disturbingly almost twenty years later, was both nostalgic for all the wrong reasons – Reading as the series got retooled with new creators and a new purpose on a monthly basis was interesting; these days, the book would’ve been cancelled for two months and then relaunched as New X-Factor with a new #1 – and just kind of sad. Terrible “Let’s resurrect Jean Grey” idea aside, the series was still a mass of wasted ideas and potential lost in the rush to have a book on the stands starring all of the original X-Men to cash in on the potential hungry market for it. I know, it's kind of strange to feel sad about this kind of thing, but if there was one point that I could point at where all of the X-Men books went off the rails, and took all the rest of Marvel, and then DC and everyone else with them, I think there's a case could be made for it being X-Factor.

The logo was an omen, I’m telling you.