Monday, September 3, 2012

Underrated/Overlooked: X-Factor: The Longest Day

I’ve long wanted to (and really should) ask Peter David how he landed on Havok, Polaris, Wolfsbane, Multiple Man, Strong Guy and Quicksilver as the at-first-glance (and really any glance) eclectic line-up for his wonderful and legendary original run on X-Factor. Was this the group he personally wanted to work with? Was it the leftover mutants who weren’t already on one of the X-Men teams or X-Force? Did an editor or pitch from another writer hand it to him?

Reading the Muir Island Saga, they were obviously setting something up (Polaris, Strong Guy and Multiple Man all figure into the story), but I’d be interested to know who came up with the team and why.

Regardless, it worked, as that mesh of personalities, temperaments and powers made for an entertaining, intelligent and unique era of X-Men stories that were as funny as anything to ever creep out of the mutant corner of the Marvel Universe but also powerful and emotional. So much of that came from the relationships between the characters, whether it was Havok and Polaris trying to make their romance work (and Wolfsbane getting in the midst against her will), Strong Guy and Madrox’s great friendship, Val Cooper trying to get a handle on this rowdy bunch, or everybody hating Quicksilver.

This group dynamic made for one of my favorite stories of the time, which featured little in the way of action and much more in the way of character development. Interestingly, it was also not written by Peter David, though it utilized much of what he had set up during his tenure on the book. The story was “The Longest Day,” a two-parter by Scott Lobdell that ran in issues #93 and #94, putting some bows on things PAD had done and setting up the status quo for incoming writer J.M. DeMatteis, with veteran artists Paul Smith and Paul Ryan switch hitting.

Issue #93 kicks off with Havok and Wolfsbane visiting the familiar setting of Xavier’s School for the Gifted to pay their respects following Illyana Rasputin’s death from the Legacy Virus. There’s a chilling moment where Rahne goes to hug Illyana’s despondent brother, Colossus, and he stands expressionless and motionless (perfectly portrayed by Paul Smith’s simple but pronounced line work) to the gesture. Wolfsbane also has a nice sequence with Professor X demonstrating how far she’s come from being the wallflower of the original New Mutants while also highlighting some of the tragedy in her life that will be explored a bit more next issue.

The highlight of the Xavier School sequence for me though is the “bonding” time between Havok and his older brother Cyclops. I wrote last week about how interesting I find this dynamic and this issue is a good example of its potential in action. While Rahne does her thing, Scott and Alex have a “friendly” game of handball in the Danger Room that, like everything with them, quickly becomes an intense competition with Cyclops having the natural advantage and Havok doing his best to keep up. As they play, they discuss their differences in everything from their love lives to their leadership styles and Scott plays archetypal older brother, “helpfully” chiding Alex on needing to lock things down with Lorna and rein in control over his team. In a nice twist, rather than have a tantrum, Havok stands his ground, justifying solidly why he does things the way he does, and in the process starts winning the game—then things get heated enough that Cyclops pulverizes the ball with an optic blast (of course). They part with a smile and handshake, but you can still see the tension, and I personally applauded Alex’s little pyrrhic victory.

Meanwhile, across the universe—literally—Strong Guy has been abducted by his old boss Lila Cheney, intergalactic rock star and mutant teleporter, who wants Guido to come back to work as her bodyguard. Lila pulls Guido straight out of bed, and since the man sleeps in the nude, it gives Smith some fun sight gags to play with as a giant, naked man finds himself in the midst of an alien rock concert. The long and short of it is that Guido has matured—slightly—from being a purely comedic character thanks to the work of Peter David, and he makes that case here to Lila, who reluctantly kicks him back to Earth; it’s another bit that will be picked up more next issue, but it’s a cute sequence with fun art.

Lastly, there’s a smaller side plot where Quicksilver has been ordered to start wearing a uniform more in line with the rest of the team—Polaris has also been asked to swap her provocative Joe Quesada-designed number for something more wholesome—and he’s not happy about it. After putting on his new costume—which is a pretty funny send-up of 90’s gear with a million pieces of tech, a dozen pouches, a visor and more—he complains about not liking it and not wanting to be part of any team anyhow, in the process using his super speed to discard all the extraneous junk and come out with a sleek look he reluctantly admits is cool, thus also reluctantly admitting he’s part of the team (unfortunately he was gone literally the next issue, shunted over to Avengers, a shame because this was a development that could have led to some neat stuff).

Issue #93 ends with Val Cooper revealing Forge as the new government liaison for X-Factor (to the audience, the team doesn’t find out until #95), then #94 picks up with a framing sequence of her briefing her successor as we get parallel narratives featuring Havok and Polaris as well as Wolfsbane and Strong Guy.

The Havok/Polaris stuff is basically them out to dinner discussing life and their relationship, which may sound a bit mundane, but considering this is a couple that has been fighting for years to have a nice, quiet life together that’s been interrupted by aliens, possession, amnesia and more, it’s a refreshing breather and plenty interesting to boot; it also segues nicely from Alex’s chat with Cyclops about why he and Lorna are different than Scott and Jean. There’s also a recurring bit where they’re seated near an anti-mutant bigot who keeps offending Alex, but Lorna tells her man to relax…until the guy goes too far and she uses her magnetic powers to have his silverware attack him; fun stuff.

Probably the most deeply emotional sequence of the entire two-part story is the stuff with Wolfsbane and Strong Guy. Rahne is headed to Genosha where they’re going to try and undo the previous corrupt government there made of her mind and body—bonding her to Havok in a way that makes him more or less her master and her seem like a bit of a crazy stalker in the process—though there is a good chance it could end up making her worse. Guido assumes he was asked along because he’s funny and can lighten the mood, but he learns that’s not the case.

Rahne tells a story about how when Guido had the team up to his childhood home (I think—it wasn’t a story that actually occurred, just a flashback) she was up early and saw him outside meditating, looking like the saddest guy in the world; she asked him along because she thought he was the only one who could understand the pain she was in. This calls back to the famous Doc Samson “X-Aminations” issue of X-Factor by David and Quesada wherein Guido confesses that his powers leave him in constant physical agony and being the class clown is one of the ways he distracts himself.

Guido doesn’t out and out admit any of this to Rahne, but lets her know that he does indeed understand, leading to a tender moment where she resumes her human form for the first time in years and falls unconscious into his arms.

And that’s it (well, a cliffhanger of Random saying he’s going to kill Polaris is “it,” but still): two issues, no fights, no real action of any kind to speak of, just a lot of talking and unburdening of emotions.

And it’s awesome.

These two issues have never fit nicely into a collection (that I’m aware of), but if you happen upon them at a store or convention, I’m sure they’re cheap and you’ll be getting more than your money’s worth, whether you’re an X-Factor fan or just looking for some touching writing and quality art. And to come full circle, it’s a testament to this line-up and what Peter David laid down with them that another writer can come in for a two-part quickie like this and do such impressive stuff.

Would still love to know where this grouping came from…