Thursday, 20 August 2015
XFA #2: "Bless The Beasts And Children"
("It's not the same world I knew before.")
It's an entirely obvious and common point that whilst the first issue (or arc, these days) of a new comic needs to set up the characters and concept of the series, the second issue (or arc) has the job of demonstrating what a "standard" adventure in the title should look like. X-Factor #2 is an interesting example of this, in that in some senses it clings to this approach, but in other ways it rejects it.
The most obvious rejections are at the story level. Yes, there's a brand new mutant-of-the-week for our heroes to battle (the thoroughly uninteresting Tower), but his attack on Vera's apartment causes complications for the team's X-Factor cover identities, meaning we're only two issues in and already the ostensible structure of the title is in danger of toppling over. The decision to outright reject writing a story in which X-Factor works as intended is a fascinating one, and combined with Jean and Warren's horror over the causal anti-mutant slurs offered to them whilst in disguise as mutant hunters makes it clear Layton realised very early on that the X-Factor scam couldn't last for long. In other words, only two issues in this title is obviously already in a state of transition.
Which makes sense given the wider context of the issue. Whilst plot-wise this doesn't operate as a template for later issues to riff off of, the underlying theme of X-Factor is very clear here, which is that this is about the past and the future meeting. Naturally this is clear from the book's very nature; how could a book reuniting a '60s super-team to fight '80s threats not be about that? But the degree to which past and future interact and often clash here demonstrates Layton's commitment to the idea. Newcomer Rusty develops a crush on Jean that pits him against Scott - new against old - but Scott himself can no longer function with respect to Jean in the way he used to, being now married with a child (though both have now disappeared leaving no forwarding address). Beast bumps into his old girlfriend Vera, only to find that she's ditched her '60s librarian look to bring herself up to date - a link to the past that demonstrates just how much has changed since we first heard names like Juggernaut and the Mimic. Tower's hunting and kidnapping of Beast seems like a new threat until we learn it was on the orders of Carl Maddicks, a villain from Amazing Adventure's Beast run at the start of the '70. Maddicks too has changed, though, he's no longer doing the bidding of the Secret Empire, instead he's looking for an "antidote" for his mutant son. Even Angel becomes part of this through his old friendship with Cameron Hodge which is now taking on a new and unfamiliar shape, exerting new and unfamiliar stresses on the old girders that structure their relationship.
The situations, relationships and characters have been returned to us, but in new configurations, underlining just how much has changed since Jean was thought dead (the opening pages of the issue make this explicit, in fact). Indeed, as Scott's refusal to open up to Jean and Bobby's desire to "steal" Vera from Henry demonstrates that's there no good reason to believe this team can actually function at all any more, save for nostalgia. This of course would hardly be the last comic to attempt to power its sales mostly or even wholly through nostalgia, but it's nice to see it so thoroughly recognised in the text.
That said, there is a problem here, which is that the brand-new elements of the story aren't particularly interesting on their own terms. Rusty is an obvious analogue for a younger Cyclops - his powers are horribly dangerous and beyond his control, and he has a serious crush on Ms Grey - but he does little here to make himself interesting in and of himself. Tower as mentioned is thoroughly boring, a random mutant goon with nothing to distinguish him beyond an unusually unappealing costume. Artie Maddicks, the son for whom Carl went to the effort of abducting Beast is nothing but a prop, a staring, dead-eyed MacGuffin to be waved at to explain Carl's plotting. In fairness none of these characters really get enough to do here for things to be otherwise, but that just demonstrates that there are pacing problems here too. Either way, it's obviously concerning when an issue about how the old inevitably changes to give rise to the new doesn't actually have much in the way of newness that can excite us. This issue does a fine job of demonstrating the problems of a comic that spends its time looking backwards for inspiration.
Now it needs to show us some solutions.
 Just to be clear, I'm not arguing Dr McCoy has any kind of proprietary rights over Vera. Is she wants to pursue her ex's best friend, that's entirely up to her. I'm simply pointing out that it can be plausibly argued there was once a time when Bobby would never think of trying to make a move on Vera. The two of them used to strike me as being much more into the "bros before hos" mindset.
Well actually, the two of them struck me as an obvious gay couple deep in denial (am I shipping? Is this what shipping is?). And following recent revelations in Bendis' X-books, I appear to have been proved at least half-right.
It's not clear how long this story takes to run its course. The pace of the narrative suggests it all takes place within the same day, but since it's also implied Carl's men drive Hank from New York to Atlanta, and at a sensible speed, which means a trip that would surely take some fourteen or fifteen hours to complete.
We shall therefore assume the action here straddles two days.
Thursday 11th to Friday 12th April, 1985.
X+7Y+40 to X+7Y+41.
Ladyhawke escapes into the world to frolic through the imagination of a hundred thousand geeks.
"Brainwashed by aliens?"
Bobby and Hank attempt to figure out the root cause of Vera's extreme make-over. The correct answer, by the way? Elvis Costello. Go figure.