Mutant Noir and the Unappreciated Brilliance of Peter David’s X-Factor

Since its inception in 2005, Peter David’s X-Factor has been one of the most consistently entertaining and engaging superhero stories on the stands, even if it never achieved the same commercial success as Marvel’s other mutant titles. But now, after eight years, 120+ issues, and one GLAAD award, the adventures of Multiple Man and his zany detective agency consisting of D-List X-Men characters, has finally come to an end with issue #262 (comics re-numbering blah blah blah, don’t ask), and though we’re sad to see them go, we’re looking back with fond memories of our times together. And perhaps as we reflect, some of you may come to a better understanding of our affections for this quirky comic that could.

This most recent incarnation of X-Factor originally spun out of Marvel’s 2005 House of M crossover event, although the seeds for the team were planted much earlier (starting with Peter David’s run on the government-sponsored X-Factor team in 1991). The team is lead by Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, who has more than a few personality defects. He’s not a very good leader, and he’s much less hardboiled than he would like to be, and to make things worse, each of his Multiples embodies a different aspect of his identity—the religious part, or the part of you that lies to yourself, or the suave ladykiller part, or the part that’s a little gay, etc. He also doesn’t get along very well with authority figures, or the other superhero teams, so he runs a detective agency in Manhattan to stay under the radar.

The team is initially focused on uncovering the cause behind the Decimation which stripped 90% of the world’s mutants of their powers, but as the series progresses, they begin to take on more individual cases, from domestic violence to missing persons or artifacts and beyond. Of course, even the cases that initially appear to be civilian or mundane almost always end up involving some kind of fantastical element, which helps them to establish a reputation for precisely that kind of work.

If that reminds you at all of Angel Investigations from Angel, well, that’s hardly the only Whedon comparison you’ll find. It’s also incredible witty, much like a Whedon show, and its strengths lie in the fact that it’s hardly about superheroes at all; it’s about people with superpowers and a compulsion for doing good who also happen to be seriously messed up individuals. David does an incredible job of exploring the psychology of these characters—sometimes literally, when they go into individual therapy sessions with Leonard Samson, the Marvel Universe’s resident shrink. The plots are almost irrelevant—they’re just Things That Happen that cause conflict and reveal character. Certainly there are some storylines that are better than others, but as a reader, you’re never as concerned with the individual case that the team is working on, so much as you’re focused on the relationships between characters.

The ensemble cast of X-Factor is noticeably large by most comic book standards—with at least twelve active characters on the roster at one point—but the series never feels stuffed or overcrowded. Peter David demonstrates a remarkable adeptness at focusing on the right characters at the right times, and he constantly shuffles the cast around to keep readers on their toes. He’s also a master at using superpowers as literalized metaphors within the characters’ lives, making you empathize with some painfully human stories that go to very dark places. Throughout its run, the series delves into major themes like fate and identity, depression, the death of loved ones in a world where superheroes are constantly resurrected, what it means to have a soul, one of the most heartbreakingly surreal instances of abortion/stillbirth that I’ve ever read, and some of the most unique and honest explorations of sexuality—and reactions to sexuality—that I’ve seen in a mainstream comic book.

Although there are some cast members who embody the worst of convoluted 90s comic book continuity, the series is remarkably friendly to new readers. If you have a working knowledge of X-Men history, all the better, but Peter David’s impeccable characterization tells you everything you need to know. And even though the series exists in the modern Marvel Universe, it’s typically separated from the larger events and left to function on its own, so while some pre-existing knowledge of the world might enhance your experience, you’ll be fine without it.

It’s not surprising that a book called X-Factor would be full of surprises and twists, but the caliber of jaw-dropping, mind-blowing cliffhangers over the course of the series was truly remarkable. That a book full of D-List superheroes could keep me so engaged, so riveted, that it was consistently one of the most highly anticipated books on my pull list every month for 8 years, is truly a testament to Peter David’s abilities as a writer. Every little thing that happens—every dangling plot thread, every bit of overshadowed intrigue, every subtle shift in character—has a payoff, even if that payoff doesn’t come for fifty issues or more. It’s a series that rewards a long-term investment, and becomes more rich and nuanced with every re-read. In fact, the stories are so intricately woven together that it’s hard for me to recommend a single of the 21 trade paperback collections over another one, because even if the plot of Volume 11 (“Happenings in Vegas,” guest-starring Thor!) is self-contained, you would be missing so much of the emotional payoff. So all I can do is recommend that you go all the way back to Volume 1, “The Longest Night” (or Peter David’s standalone MadroX miniseries, which is kind of like a prologue) and prepare yourself for unexpected.

I’ll miss you, Madrox, and I hope to see you soon.


Thom Dunn is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. He enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve whiskey and/or robots). He is a graduate of Clarion Writer’s Workshop at UCSD, and he firmly believes that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the single worst atrocity committed against mankind. Find out more at thomdunn.net.

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