Retro-Review: X-Factor #122-137, and #-1, By Howard Mackie, Jeff Matsuda & Other Marvel Comics Creators

X-Factor #122-125, 127-137, -1 (May ‘96-Sept. ‘97)

Written by Howard Mackie (#122-137,-1)

Pencilled by Jeff Matsuda (#122-125, 127-129, 131-132, 135-136,-1), Stefano Raffaele (#124-125), Eric Battle (#130, 133-134), and Andy Smith (#137)

Inked by Al Milgrom (#122-125, 130), Al Williamson (#127), Art Thibert (#129, 131-137, -1), Sean Parsons (#134-136)

Spoilers (from nineteen years ago)

My last column on X-Factor ended with issue 105, which is when I decided to drop the title.  I was heading off to school, and had to pare my comics purchasing down a great deal for financial reasons.  The book did not make the cut.  By the beginning of 1996, though, while I was still in school, I was financially secure, and was slowly being drawn back into Marvel by the post-Onslaught titles.  I liked the idea of the Marvel Universe operating without most of its biggest names, and while I never read a single one of the Heroes Reborn comics, I was interested in a lot of the smaller Marvel books, that were getting a little grittier.  Also, to be honest, I think I just missed a lot of the characters I’d spent most of my life reading about.

I picked up X-Factor #127 because I liked the cover, which featured Mystique sitting on the book’s logo, with an American flag backdrop.  There were a lot of problems with that comic, but I liked the new line-up of the team, and found Jeff Matsuda’s art to be pretty entertaining.  I picked up a few of his earlier issues, and soon found myself buying this title again, at least for a while.

I haven’t read any of thee comics in almost twenty years though, so re-reading them for this column, it makes more sense to talk about these books chronologically.  I think it’s worth pointing out that I picked up one of these issues in a dollar bin (#123) specifically for this column, and wasn’t able to find a copy of #126, which is why it’s not being talked about here.

So, starting at #122, we see a pretty different X-Factor from the one we left.  Forge is running the show, and taking a more active interest in what’s going on with the team.  Polaris is still around, but she’s the only other member left from where I dropped the book.  Wildchild, from John Byrne’s Alpha Flight, is a member, as is Shard, Bishop’s sister, who has come to our time as a hologram, somehow.  Mystique has been placed on the team, and with this issue, so has Sabretooth.  They are both there under a Suicide Squad-like deal – they work off prison sentences by assisting the team, and they are both outfitted with power-suppressing devices (it’s never clear what these look like) that Forge controls.  Valerie Cooper is still around too, but I’m never sure what her official role is.

As the run progresses, we learn that Havok has been taken prisoner by Dark Beast (the McCoy from the Age of Apocalypse world) and has been brainwashed into serving his Brotherhood.  Later, he shakes off the brainwashing, and takes over the Brotherhood, with the same bad people making up his team.  Random is also working with that group, albeit a little reluctantly.  He disappears at some point though, and isn’t used again in this run.  No mention is made of Strong Guy’s whereabouts for a while, and then we learn that he’s in a coma.  A letter in the letters page makes it clear that Wolfsbane is in Scotland with Moira MacTaggert, and reading Bullpen Bulletins in each issue eventually reveals that she’s now with Excalibur.

This new line-up lends itself to telling darker stories.  There is a lot of questioning of the team’s purpose, especially from Lorna, although Forge is also unhappy that so much of the team’s time seems to be spent hunting mutants.  I don’t know if writer Howard Mackie is making a nod to the title’s original purpose, that the original X-Men were posing as mutant hunters to help train new mutants, but I somehow doubt it.  Like most 90s comics, there’s not a lot of reliance on long-standing continuity or tradition going on.

What there is is a lot of reliance on stories told elsewhere, without any indication that the reader should be on the look-out for these books beforehand.  For example, when this stack starts, Mystique is upset that something attacked her in a comic called X-Men Prime, and goes looking for that individual.  Later, Shard becomes solid, or something, and we learn in an editor’s note that this took place in X-Men ‘96, which I assume was an annual.

Once the team decides to go independent from the government, the book really stops making a lot of sense.  We get a whole issue of the heroes faking their deaths, and duping Valerie Cooper, some bigwig named Bowser, and a bunch of soldiers that their base needs to be quarantined because of some sort of biohazard leak, and then the very next issue, the team shows up at Bowser’s house.  In fact, the faked death proved pretty unsustainable, as the team wasn’t exactly hiding their presence in Washington.

The biggest problem I had with this run is that X-Factor, while working for the government, pretty much only ever fought each other or government operatives.  There are no real super-villains in this run, and the Operation: Zero Tolerance stuff that was happening in the other X-books is kind of just crammed in here, and it doesn’t make sense that the government would be working on getting rid of mutants at the same time that they are employing a team of mutants, that they have staffed with dangerous criminals.

I think that Howard Mackie had some good ideas for this run, both in terms of the team’s situation and the interpersonal dynamics on the team, but for whatever reason, it just never worked out properly.

While this book piqued my interest, it didn’t hold it for long, and I ended up dropping it with issue 137.  I know that Mackie stayed on as writer until issue 149, when the book ended.  Havok somehow moved to another dimension, and Mackie continued to write about his adventures in Mutant X, which I remember as a pretty decent comic.  Maybe I should pull out issues of that for a future column…

Let’s look at some of the things that happened in this run:

  • Mystique receives notice that some individual that attacked her in another comic was at some government facility, and she slips her leash to go hunt it down.
  • The rest of the team pursues, and they come across Sabretooth, who is now on the team, and fight some big ugly thing called The Hound.
  • A training exercise the team is on goes all weird, and we see that Sabretooth is bloodthirsty, in case we didn’t know that before.
  • We learn that Random is really a young teenager, and that he’s not all that happy to be helping Dark Beast and Fatale to hold Havok prisoner.  He is sent to the X-Factor base to do something, which he doesn’t really want to do, and he chats with Polaris instead.
  • Havok gets brainwashed and attacks the team.  This is upsetting for Lorna.  Sabretooth and Mystique are offered jobs with Dark Beast, but attack him instead, not because they are good now, but because they are working their own angles.  Dark Beast is working for Onslaught, in a pretty tenuous attempt at tying things together.
  • I miss an issue, so I don’t know how the Dark Beast stuff ends.
  • A mutant kid who has been secretly training with Mystique for years gets attacked by the Friends of Humanity, and beaten.  Mystique slips her leash (this is a theme of the Mackie/Matsuda run) and goes hunting for the people who did this.  Clearly she cares a lot for this kid, because she can’t decide if his name is Trevor or Tyler, calling him both at different times.  Ah, the 90s, where the editing was as precise as the anatomy.
  • I was reminded that the Friends of Humanity are run by Graydon Creed, who is Mystique’s son with Sabretooth.  How many kids does Mystique have now?  Creed is running for President.
  • The team is sent to track down some costumed mutants (with unrevealed powers).  Polaris and Forge are not happy to be hunting mutants, but end up doing it anyway, because it’s their jobs, until they find out that all of these mutants are really Jamie Madrox, who they believe was killed.
  • The team stashes Madrox until they can figure out what’s going on, and Mystique poses as him to be taken into custody (she later escapes and goes after Creed – see, it’s a theme!).  We learn how it was one of his dupes who died at Haven’s hands, and that he’s been amnesiac and working for the government ever since.
  • Mystique maybe wants to kill her son, so she goes loose again, enlists a very sick Pyro to help her, and ends up getting apprehended by the team at a political rally.  Somebody else kills Creed, but we never learn who, and that whole plotline is either abandoned or picked up in some other title.
  • Havok rescues Dark Beast from government custody, and forces him to start working for him in his new version of the Brotherhood, which is more or less ignored for a lot of these issues.
  • The team decides to quit the governments’ employ, and deliver a list of demands on CD-ROM to this Bowser guy, who is in charge of something, and kind of a jerk.
  • Mystique discovers that her young friend Trevor (definitely not Tyler now) has gone missing, and gets upset.  She wants Forge to help find him.
  • Shard tries to manipulate Jamie Madrox into joining Havok’s Brotherhood by talking to him in a cemetery and being mean to Wildchild.  It didn’t make sense to me either.
  • Everyone fakes their own deaths.  The car that Forge and Mystique are in appears to explode, while the rest of the team walk into their compound’s training facility just as it explodes.
  • Bowser tries to steal Forge’s technology from the team’s compound, but a bunch of booby traps and a leaking biohazard convince him to seal the place in an electrostatic dome, which allows the team to act with impunity, especially since Forge’s CD-ROM gave him access to the government computer systems so he could do something to fix things.
  • Now that the world believes the team to be dead, the best thing for them to do is to go to Bowser’s house, because he is (unknowingly?) holding the boy Trevor prisoner there.  So, pretending to be dead lasted one whole issue, although after that, the government largely left them alone anyway…
  • Trevor displays a certain darkness about him, as he tries to use his powers to manipulate events somehow; none of the stuff around him is clear at all.
  • Strong Guy wakes up from his coma after he receives visits from Madrox and Havok.
  • The government tries to move him somewhere (in a pizza delivery van), but Madrox rescues him, not knowing that his heart could give out at any moment.  Later, Forge fits Guido with a device that will keep him alive.
  • In the -1 flashback issue (which was a line-wide gimmick in the spring of ‘97) we see the events that led to Havok’s first developing his powers, as he was manipulated by Mister Sinister (who talks about how he’s the most powerful and most inferior Summers brother on the same page).
  • In a loose connection to Operation: Zero Tolerance, Sabretooth frees himself (just as the government tries to figure out a way to free him) and comes after the rest of the team, ripping them apart (figuratively and literally).
  • Valerie Cooper (who was somehow able to get into the team’s compound despite the force-field around it) gets the team to a local hospital with the help of a group of volunteer soldiers led by her ex-husband.
  • In Peter David’s run, Cooper had an ex-husband who was an expert in polygraph tests.  Now she has an ex-husband who is an army major.  They are both black men, and I wonder if this is supposed to be the same guy, or if she’s been married twice previously.  I’m too lazy to go look up the names to see if they are supposed to be the same person.
  • While the team recuperates in the hospital, Sabretooth goes after Trevor Chase, but is stopped from killing the kid by Stone, one of the government’s (or Bastion’s) Hounds.  It’s never made clear why so many people want to get this kid.
  • Havok shows up at the hospital to spirit X-Factor away from the government, as Bowser (whose name has mysteriously changed to Browser) is coming for them.

There was something fresh about Jeff Matsuda’s art that attracted me at the time.  Now, it just looks like a rougher version of what Joe Madureira was doing at the time, but there is a certain charm to it.  Al Milgrom, the guy who was on this title from the days just after Walter Simonson left, tends to make Matsuda’s art more confusing, while guest inkers Al Williamson and later inker Art Thibert both gave it a little more panache.  Matsuda draws a mean Mystique, and I think that might have been the thing I liked most about his run.  As his time on the book progressed, however, his art became ever-more cartoonish, and he started drawing everyone with gigantically large feet, which reminds me of the way Humberto Ramos drew Bart Allen at first.  It dawned on me that I may have liked these gigantic shoes because it was the mid-90s, and I was wearing John Fluevog Provogs at the time (click the link to see the exact pair).

Frequent guest artist Eric Battle was clearly told to draw like Matsuda, and that really did not work out too well.

Anyway, that wraps up my long look at X-Factor.  I did return to the series for Peter David’s long run through the late 00s and the early 10s, but they are still too recent to discuss in a column called “Retro-Reviews”.  Next time around, I’ll be checking out the DC world, with a three-issue mini-series that then launched a long-running series that has never received the credit it deserves.  Any guesses?


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