A lot of comic fans collect in trade, rather than in singles – I certainly prefer it, myself. But with trades, it can be very difficult to decide which series to start off. Rather than paying a few pounds to buy twenty pages, you’re looking to spend a tenner on a much bigger story. Is it worth it? What’s going to be coming up next?
That’s where this fortnightly feature aims to help out. Every Friday I kick across to a cult classic or well-known series, and review the first arc. I’ll try to explore how well things start off, and if it’s as good a book as everybody says. Leave suggestions in the comments, and I’ll try to get in to as many different books as possible!
X-FACTOR: The Longest Night
By Peter David, Ryan Sook, Dennis Calero, Wade Von Grawbadger, Jose Villarrubia and Cory Petit
I forgot how quickly X-Factor settles itself in as a noir series and goes all-out on the murders, sabotage, creepiness and horror. Following a miniseries about Madrox the Multiple Man, Peter David expanded the character into the leader of a roughshod detective agency called X-Factor Investigations. Set during the immediate aftermath of the House of M/Decimation event which depowered millions of mutants, this was the book which really dealt with the human aspect of that storyline, and gave it a depth lacking in the event itself.
Because this is a first trade paperback which really takes a long stride into the Marvel Universe. It’s a precursor to books like Hawkeye, really – whilst all around are people doing superhuman feats and tackling exaggerated problems like supervillain invasion or aliens, here is a book which jumps straight past through all that and lands on ground level. X-Factor is very much a book which looks upwards at the superheroes flying past, shrugs, and walks on to the diner.
For this opening trade, David brings in the whole cast with relative flair – mixing faces he’s an old hand at writing with some new characters he’s not touched before. And it’s surprising how cohesive he manages to make the ensuing book feel. Even as Monet bristles at Rictor and everybody wonders what exactly Layla Miller IS, the tone of the series keeps everybody in touch with one another, and operating on a similar level. That noir aspect to X-Factor is the uniting link between many very disparate concepts, and carries the story through to some unsettlingly dark places.
The storytelling benefits hugely from an artistic team overseen by colourist Jose Villarrubia, who manages to handle the fact that first issue artist Ryan Sook seems to immediately drop behind schedule and requires Dennis Calero to draw half of issue 2. Villarrubia’s colours not only handle that potentially jarring shift in artists, but against creates a cohesiveness to the story despite the varying artistic approaches seen here. Whilst Sook uses photo reference to create images which look almost like photos themselves, Calero has a more expressive and naturalistic approach to art. Villarrubia coats them all in sharp, contrasting colours and deep black shadows.
In doing so, he creates a heavy mood which sits over the events of each issue, and bolsters David’s dialogue and narration. Madrox is the focus character here, and his narration kicks off many of the issues, setting up a trope or premise which plays a role in the story of each issue. The last page then typically bookends that opening remark, with an ironic twist or hint of dark humour.
Although this is still a Peter David who throws in references to Right Said Fred and sprinkles very silly puns into his stories, X-Factor’s first trade – this starts to fade as the series moves into double-digits – marks a notable step into a more mature approach to creating narrative. The first issue sets up a number of different subplots and storylines which resolve themselves at unexpected times, and mess with your idea of how pacing should work. For example – after finding out the identity of the villains who are behind a conspiracy they investigate right in issue 1, the team haven’t taken any direct action against them by the time we reach issue 6.
It’s an unpredictable book in that way, and that was the hook for the series when it first came out – ‘X-Pect the Un-X-Pected’ and so on. By shattering the book into six or seven plots immediately, David can focus on each character for very short bursts of energy, investing a mystery in each of them. You get a sense of each character, which is reinforced over a longer period of time than usual. In several cases here he’s actively playing a character against type – Wolfsbane is aggressive, Strong Guy is sullen – and establishing each one as a different challenge for Madrox to try and come to terms with.
This does mean that the mysteries are less important than the people trying to solve them. Of the several opening mysteries, many of them resolve in anticlimactic ways (as this IS a noir, after all) or without really explaining what their own concept is. They exist to keep the team members moving, speaking to each other, and cooped up in the same house.
I spoke about the idea of world-building, and what comes across most strongly in X-Factor is a sense of place. The building they operate from is shown in clipped, tight frames throughout by Sook and Calero, squashing the team together into a claustrophobic space. Rather than a guided tour through the building, the artists try to hide as many dark corners as possible into the place, to keep readers off-guard. And that helps to serve one of the bigger twists that come about through Layla Miller.
On the course of the overall X-Factor run, David started to become known as a writer who could take any underperforming character and rehabilitate them. That starts with Layla Miller, who proved to be one of the breakout stars of the series for quite some time. Although he shows you the answer to the mystery of Layla by the time you finish this very first trade, the tightly-plotted nature of his plans mean you won’t be able to work out what’s happening until you get shown it, in maybe fifty issues from now.
As with all noir stories, David struggles later on to maintain the momentum of the first few X-Factor stories. This sort of atmosphere wasn’t intended to sustain a long-running series, and that starts to show shortly after issue 15 or so (the series starts to evolve into something else after that, although every so often you can see David attempt to bring back a bit of noir to proceedings, to differing affect). However, re-reading the first trade this week, I was struck by how fresh and alive the whole thing feels. This is the start of a sprawling mystery series, filled with tight character construction, fun dialogue and, a cohesive artistic team.
Probably the most definitive X-Factor artist, Pablo Raimondi, jumps onto the series with the next trade. After him, though, the book goes through a number of event tie-ins and crossovers and fill-in artists that make much of the series a slight struggle to work through without having Wikipedia to hand. Despite that, however? OH WOW have you got to try reading X-Factor. If you’re an X-Men fan and you’re wondering whether this series is worth it – without hesitation, I’d recommend trying it.
NEXT: GREEN LANTERN REBIRTH