Peter David’s X-Factor, like a lot of ensemble superhero books (particularly books relating to the X-Men franchise), is half insane sci-fi action storytelling and half soap opera. But very, very few writers can blend those two tones as well as David, or with as much humor and heart. Like any good soap opera, David’s book is filled with sex, rejection, betrayal, brain-washing, sex, kidnapping and dopplegangers. Unlike many soap operas, though, David occasionally took the time to stop and catch his breath, lest we forget that these are characters rather than interchangeable plot-driving devices.
Look, for example, at “Re-X-Aminations”, the thirteenth issue of his X-Factor relaunch. After two solid arcs introducing us to many of the core conflicts that would drive the series, X-Factor #13 steps back a bit and asks us this: how has this affected the characters and their relationships to one another? The answer, gleaned from a series of interviews with superheroic shrink Doc Samson, is illuminating.
Now, very, very few people can pull off the therapy routine subtly. HBO has managed it once or twice, using it in The Sopranos both to frame stories and to give us a glimpse at how our protagonist sees and presents himself and what he does, rather than how we see him. But what Peter David attempts here is closer to a less-popular HBO series: In Treatment. In Treatment was the ONLY way we got to know these characters. What we got may not have been the truth, but it was as close to the truth as we got. It was subtle, a sneakily charming show, but one that demanded a lot of attention.
“Re-X-Aminations” is not subtle. But, like In Treatment, it gives us a glimpse into the inner lives of these characters, both as they’d like to be seen and as, deep down, they may truly be. Guido is a tortured, lonely soul – but by the end of his brief, three page session with Samson, he’s back to the wise-cracking strongman we normally see.
It’s not a flawless issue. I suspect that, to really do the concept justice, it would take multiple issues. It’s that lack of subtlety – few people are as blunt about their issues in therapy, at least right away, as these characters are here, and everyone seems so honest. But he does acknowledge the issue, and as fascinating as I might find it, I don’t think there’s a huge market for a superhero book built around sessions with a therapist (but if you think there is, DC, give me a call!), so I can see why David would want to limit things to a fairly short story.
But it’s still a very worthwhile bit of storytelling. By this point in the series, only a year in, the team had been through a lot. Theresa’s father had died in another series, a fact she was brutally suppressing, and early in this series she had been captured, gagged, poisoned, tied to a chair and tortured. Guido had been brainwashed into murdering an ally of X-Factor by their enemies – a fact that tormented him in part because he knows hypnosis can’t make you do anything you wouldn’t normally do. Jamie was having a severe identity crisis. Rahne was deeply guilty over something she hadn’t even done yet – a dark prophecy about where her life was headed sent her into the throes of a deep religious panic. And Quicksilver… well, we’ll come back to Quicksilver.
It’s also a callback to Peter David’s other run on X-Factor. The team had become a government sanctioned team of mutants then, led by Havok and working under government agent Valerie Cooper. After the traumatic events of X-team crossover “The X-Cutioner’s Song,” the government decided that the team needed to talk to someone, to help them deal with what had happened. Just like this issue, we got a few pages from each character telling us where they were at, what’s on their minds, and suggesting, perhaps, where they were headed. It wasn’t subtle then, and it isn’t subtle now, but it’s also a fantastic device to see these characters at their most vulnerable, used well by a writer who clearly loves the team.
It’s striking how similar the team was, then. Havok and Cooper are gone from David’s new iteration, of course, as is supporting member Polaris, but the remaining members of David’s old X-Factor remain (albeit very much changed). And this change is commented on as Samson reacquaints himself with Quicksilver, Strong Guy, Wolfsbane and Multiple Man. The team has gotten older, though, and their problems have gotten bigger.
Quicksilver, whose previous interview with Doc Samson gave the character one of his all-time most memorable character beats…
… has had a particularly tough time of it since then, and he is accordingly living an even darker life. True, he’s more mellow – the ornery speedster who lives life in slow motion is gone. But he’s been replaced by a genocidal ex-mutant with a messiah complex who just recently lost his sister.
As Samson rightly points out, he’s only a slightly darker shade of grey than the rest of X-Factor. Moreso than most writers, David seemed determine to write these characters like they’d had these dramatic relationships for the many years the comics said they had – with all the baggage that implied. But doing so caused a lot of drama, and, realistically, it needed an outlet.
There was a lot of talk about how dark Marvel had gotten at the time, even before they literally had a Dark Reign. Post Decimation-era Marvel was only very rarely fun to read – many writers wallowed in misery like they were trying to write a Lars von Trier film, and the characters were punished accordingly. Though Peter David’s run on X-Factor was no more lighthearted than anything else Marvel was publishing at the time, he was one of the few writers from that time whose work doesn’t already seem aged and silly.
A big part of that has to do with this issue. Not the issue specifically, but what the issue represents: he was willing to take these characters seriously. “Grim and gritty”, for many fans, means ultra-violence, a bit of nudity. It means a faux, forced maturity that can simultaneously pander to their inner 12-year-old boy AND make them feel like a grown-up. Peter David’s current run on X-Factor has certainly contained quite a bit of sex and violence. It tortured its characters to the breaking point and, at times, beyond. But it was never dismissive. It might be a month. It might be a year. But the emotional fallout from the events it portrayed would eventually come back.
“Re-X-Aminations” was an acknowledgment of that. It deals with Monet’s fallout from a convoluted, ill-conceived story 15 years old. It deals with the romantic fallout of the Jamie-Monet-Theresa love triangle started only a couple issues prior. It acknowledges the pain and the loss and the drama and the angst and the excitement and the romance of the lives these people lead.
It treats our heroes like people.
And for awhile in the 2000s, that was exceedingly rare in comics.
– Cal C.
Coming Up Next: Ex Machina #40, “Ruthless”
One Shot 9: All-Star Superman #10, “Neverending”
One Shot 8: The Unwritten #5, “How the Whale Became”