Getting to write for a superhero-comic for DC or Marvel must be a mixed blessing. The perks are clear, being a steady salary and a certain level of almost guaranteed sales. You’ll likely be playing around with already established characters who have a group of dedicated followers. And your title may be part of a larger family of comic book titles and therefore get snatched up by completists no matter what story you tell. There are also major downsides however. The more iconic the character you’re writing about, the less freedom you’ll have to make changes to him or her. There are likely to be cross-over events, tales too epic to be contained in a single title (conceived to boost sales), spilling over into your book and derailing your plot.
If you have a story you want to tell – assuming it wasn’t dictated to you by the editorial staff – you’ll have to maneuver your cast into position at the beginning of your run, take their often complicated back-history into account as you go and don’t expect anything you write to have permanent consequences after you leave.
Superheroes in comics don’t even actually age. They seem to, as time does not officially stand still in their comic book universe, but time keeps skipping back sneakily as they have one bizarre adventure after the next. It makes sense, as a bunch of geriatric superheroes could be entertaining but wouldn’t connect with the mostly young readership. Comic book readers do age however, and as they do, they tend to grow bored with the never-ending, soapy lives of heroes who remain the same age, have inconsistent personalities as they are passed from one creative team to the next and who have a compacted past full of ridiculous events that would leave any relatable human being rocking back and forth in a loony bin. Even death can’t stop these super-powered characters. It may take them out of the running, possibly even for a decade or longer, but if someone comes up with a creative use for them, they will be resurrected and pulled back into the fray.
All of this adds up to the feeling that Nothing Really Matters. No change or consequence is permanent. Popular culture is generally disposable, of course, but because of how DC and Marvel operate, they keep highlighting how throwaway their own superhero stories really are. This is what made me bail on superhero comics in the end, despite having been an avid reader of them into my teens. Even by brainless, escapist entertainment standards, they are generally too flighty.
I finally dipped back into the pool when I heard that writer Peter David would be ending X-Factor after a run of 106 issues. It is rare for a DC or Marvel writer to (be allowed to) stick to one title for so long and also rare for a writer to be given a ‘controlled’ cancellation, allowing him or her to wrap up things up in a satisfying way. But then Peter David is not just any writer. He is well-known for his ten-year run on The Incredible Hulk, among other things, which turned a somewhat one-note character into someone far more complex. And in general he has made a career out of playing with characters and universes established by other people and running with them, while adding characters of his own. Occasionally the result has been a bit workman-like, not surprisingly, considering the sheer volume he manages to put out for concurrent projects. But in general the stories are a fresh spin on familiar material and he never forgets to entertain. The main criticism people seem to have of his writing is that the dialogue is a bit too snappy. In Peter David’s universe, most characters are self-aware smart-asses, even if they were never established as such by other writers. I actually appreciate this aspect of his writing, though, which acknowledges to just the right degree how silly superhero stories are. And he focuses on personalities more than on plot mechanics, which makes it a lot easier to feel invested in what is going on.
With X-Factor, he was given a corner of the X-Men universe to play with, relatively undisturbed apart from the occasional big cross-over event. The fact that his team of superheroes consisted of lesser-known X-men, the b-sides so to speak, gave him the freedom to shake them up and shuffle them around as he wished, without higher-ups getting too nervous about the status quo. And sticking with it for so long gave him time to organically have characters evolve and change and plant the seeds for plot-threads to be paid off many issues later. No jarring changes in direction and sudden u-turns in plot or character. (The same kind of deal, made with Simon and Schuster’s Pocket Book division, allows him to play freely in the Star Trek universe, in his own line of novels under the New Frontier banner. Here, he inserts humor and sex into a franchise that tends to take itself a bit too seriously.)
I had originally bailed on X-Factor as part of my abandonment of comic books in general, and superhero titles in particular. This was years ago, before back issues were readily available digitally, at a lower price, and around the time they started to get bundled as trade paperbacks. (Which I did not yet realize was happening systematically.) When I found that X-Factor had turned into a legendary run for Peter David, on par with his work on The Incredible Hulk, and that it would not just stop but have a proper ending, I could not resist diving back into this world. Because I had really enjoyed those first few issues.
The basic premise is this: Jamie Madrox (also going by Multiple Man) and some of his ‘mutant’ friends start a detective agency in an effort to get all ‘noir’. To throw out some names, the book mainly features Siryn, Wolfsbane, Strong Guy (yes, really), ‘M’ (no, not the James Bond lady), Polaris, Longshot, Shatterstar & Rictor (a rare gay couple in comics), Darwin (named after that Darwin), Havok, Puck and the enigmatic Layla Miller, whose superpower is ‘knowing stuff’. Any customer with some money to spare is welcome to ask X-Factor to investigate something, but this oddball crew naturally gravitates towards cases with a supernatural twist. The scale of the stories told is often smaller than in the other titles featuring mutants. It is very much a super-powered soap focusing on the various team-members and their interactions. The tongue is firmly in cheek, the superheroes are grounded and relatively believable, despite being ‘super’. Banter and wordplay flow easily across the pages. There are separate story-arcs and some stand-alone issues, but all of it forms an organic whole, as you’ll discover if you read a lot of issues in a row. (Like I did.) It all builds up to X-Factor‘s most Epic tale, called the Hell on Earth War, which manages to be Epic despite not disturbing the rest of the Marvel universe. The final six issues group together a few characters from the title in stand-alone short stories, to wrap things up and provide closure.
I am actually glad I read the run this way, in a binge, when it was just done running. It’s not the best way to support a writer, I realize. Sales after the fact don’t help keep a title on the shelves. But having a monthly break every 22 pages doesn’t help story flow and I do remember from my comic book collecting days, having to reread previous issues to remind myself what was going on. Also, the importance of knowing as-you-go that a story will end up somewhere worthwhile and have an ending can’t be understated. Something I hate about various forms of pop culture, is the common practice of leaving people on a cliffhanger which for business or financial reasons is never resolved. Running off mid-story is rude.
Will I go back to currently running superhero comics? No, I won’t. But I am looking forward to picking up past runs in which skilled writers like Peter David establish the ‘definitive’ version of certain characters, like he did with The Incredible Hulk and has now done with X-Factor. (And Frank Miller did with Daredevil, Chris Claremont with the X-Men and so on.) In the final issue of X-Factor, in an afterword, Peter David writes “I’ve spent nearly ten years with these characters banging around in my head an so they are effectively ruined for me: I’ll never be able to read anyone else’s take on them without feeling they’re wrong since I haven’t processed the dialogue through my own head.” I think as a reader the same can apply. Despite the DC and Marvel characters getting tossed from one writer to the next, there are sometimes writers (or artists for that matter) who have such a good handle on some of them that afterwards, these characters seem like pale imitations of themselves in the hands of anyone else. Of course, each generation and each reader may have a different opinion about which version is the definitive one. But as far as X-Factor is concerned (and The Incredible Hulk, for that matter), the story is done, in my mind.
It is inevitable that the closure that Peter David gave most of the characters will be undone in the future. Maybe it will take a while, as they aren’t the most bankable or popular ones, but even for just a throwaway moment, they will be back. And they will be fighting, dying and coming back to life in the extended Marvel universe, as this X-Factor run fades into these characters’ condensed past and becomes less and less relevant. But to enjoy a great run for what it is, you have to disregard all that silliness. You have to lift it out of the time stream and see it as something whole and complete. They may try to blemish its legacy down the road, but as for what they already gave us, to paraphrase M.C. Hammer: “They can’t touch this.”