Monday, January 12, 2009

X-FACTOR #126 – September 1996

The Beast Within
Credits: Howard Mackie (writer), Herb Trime (layout artist), Stephano Raffaele (penciler), Al Milgrom (inker), Comicraft (lettering), Glynis Oliver & Malibu (colors)

Summary: Forge reinstates Mystique and Sabretooth’s restraining devices, and creates shackles for Random and Havok. Polaris and Shard are left to guard Random and Havok, while the rest of the team searches for the Beast. Forge and Sabretooth discover the Beast shackled underneath the abandoned Brand Corporation building, and are quickly attacked by Fatale. Wild Child arrives with Mystique (who has morphed wings to fly with), and knocks Fatale unconscious. When the Beast is freed, both Sabretooth and Wild Child are suspicious. Sabretooth breaks through a brick wall and discovers the real Beast, who is still shackled. The Beast is released and defeats his imposter, the Dark Beast. Meanwhile, Random and Havok use their enhanced powers to break out of their restraints. Random attacks Havok when he thinks that he’s luring Polaris into a trap. Havok blasts him, reverting his body into a gelatinous liquid. Havok then attacks Polaris, leaving her near-death. When the rest of X-Factor emerges with Dark Beast and Fatale as prisoners, Dark Beast boasts that he will save Polaris and force the team into his debt.

Continuity Notes: The Beast was previously seen in X-Men #54 where he managed to escape his shackles, only to be greeted by three mysterious figures. That’s contradicted by this issue, which tells a conflicting story of his escape. I assume that the three figures were always supposed to be Forge, Sabretooth, and Mystique (as they were the ones left to discover him at the end of the last issue), but absolutely none of the details match up.

Mystique continues to develop new powers, as she grows wings (based on the Angel’s original pair). Outside of Forge saying that he didn’t know she could do that, the story doesn’t treat it as a big deal at all.

Sabretooth had a past run-in with Fatale in Bangkok, and she now wants to kill him. This has no bearing on the story whatsoever, it’s just another vague line given to a mystery character to make them feel “connected” to the established characters.

Random tells Polaris that the Dark Beast has been helping him to control his powers for as long as he can remember. He also says that he helped him create the “Random” identity and that he’s the closest thing to a father he’s ever known. The move towards making Havok an actual villain begins, as Random claims that the Dark Beast “never makes you do anything you really don’t want to do”, and that he only “keyed into something that was already there” in Havok. Havok later tells Polaris that he can’t shake off Dark Beast’s influence because, “first you have to want to”.

Creative Differences: If you want to learn the circumstances that lead to Herb Trimpe working on this title, check out his memoirs that were published by the New York Times: “Old Superheroes Never Die, They Join the Real World”.

Review: Ugh, another awful issue. The preceding issues of this series had their fair share of arbitrary elements thrown in with the bland stories, but we’re now reaching the point where the run moves from “lame stories that the next writer can just ignore” to “lame stories that the next writer will have to retcon”. And, since Howard Mackie never seemed to leave any assignment he was given during this era, there never was another writer on this volume of X-Factor. Consequently, the “Havok secretly wanted to be a villain” nonsense remains an odd blemish in the character’s history (I believe Mackie contradicted himself later on in his run, when he tried to dismiss Havok’s actions as a part of a ruse, but that’s too little, too late). The demolition of Random’s character is also completed with this issue, as we learn that his entire persona was invented by another character that hadn’t even been created when he first appeared. Marvel had no idea what to do with Random after Peter David left (and they didn’t seem to grasp that he was actually a parody of the ‘90s bad boy heroes), but a quickie shock value death still would’ve been better than this.

Aside from the nonsensical story, the art also seems like a misguided attempt at imitating an early Image comic. Even with a veteran artist like Trimpe providing layouts, Raffaele’s storytelling remains either dull or confusing for much of the issue (one scene that has the Dark Beast doing acrobatics around his base is so horribly interpreted, he resembles a limp stick figure in one panel). The style itself is an improvement over last issue’s Jim Lee impression, but the final result is still overwhelmingly mediocre.

It’s hard to deduce what exactly Marvel was thinking during this time. Remaking this book into a grim and gritty, black ops team seems like a forced attempt to follow a trend that was already waning by the mid-90s. Apparently, the new hook for the series is that it’s a “mutant militia” (a phrase that shows up twice in this issue), which doesn’t summon up a very pleasant mental image, given the media hysteria over anti-government militias in rural America during the ‘90s. Was this intentional on Marvel’s part? Were we supposed to be afraid of X-Factor now? If that’s the case, why was a fairly generic superhero writer placed in charge of this series? If you want a dark reimagining of the X-Factor concept with a morally dubious cast, why not hire someone like Warren Ellis or John Ostrander (who wrote a book with a similar premise for DC for years)? Both of those writers were doing work for the X-office during this era, and could’ve done something with the concept.

6 comments:

Chad said...

The astonishing thing for me is that even after "X-Factor" was canceled the editors turned around and gave Howard Mackie another title in the franchise, "Mutant X" (and that Mackie's ideas and scripts got even worse in that series).

I can only imagine that Mackie must have been good at making and keeping connections and was flawless at meeting deadlines and following editorial guidelines.

rob said...

The Herb Trimpe article was great. The company seemed to be in a complete shambles at this point and it's no surprise the X-line was such a mess. I know the very early nineties Jim Lee/Liefeld era usually gets the worst rap, but this year or so after AoA is hands down the worse period for the X-Men (incredible number of dropped plots, plots not thought out (Onslaught), terrible ill-designed plans for books, no coordination between books, embarrassingly bad integration of the AoA characters), at least until Claremont returns in 2000.

As for X-Factor, I always thought the final lineup assembled before they decided to kill off Havok and start Mutant X could have had potential for nice simple superhero stories, mainly because Mackie had mangled the book's premise for so long. But at least Mutant X was an alternate reality that's been basically ignored since.

Teebore said...

Thanks for the link to the Herb Trimpe article; that was great, and also kinda sad, in places. It's a shame the way so many people with real experience and skill get passed over, if not outright ignored.

Also, I learned that Herb Trimpe and I have the same birthday.

Anonymous said...

As a classroom teacher and a comics fan who used to harbor dreams of working in the industry, that Trimpe article was incredible.

Chris said...

I honestly feel that Howard Mackie gets a bum rap for his time at Marvel in the 90s. Yes, yes, X-Factor was awful and his Spider-Man stuff wasn't much better. But - BUT! - Mackie was also responsible for the 90's Ghost Rider series, which was both an undeniable success and a fantastically solid series until the editors stuck their noses into the mix with the "Midnight Sons" mess.

I had the opportunity to interview Mackie a few years ago for my Ghost Rider site, and he was probably one of the nicest creators I've chatted with. Obviously, that doesn't have anything to do with his writing ability, I just hate to see people baying for the guy's blood over some subpar Spidey stories (not that you had that attitude, I'm just saying in general).

Matt said...

Yay, it's nice to see someone stick up for Howard Mackie!

Honestly, his Spider-Man wasn't even that bad either, until the "reboot" with John Byrne! His work on Web of Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man was (in my opinion) generally the best or second-best Spider-Man work being published in the early to mid-90s (second-best being whenever J.M. DeMatties was on one of the titles). In particular, the two years or so right after the Clone Saga ended and before the reboot gave us some of his best Spider-Man work ever!

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