Monday, August 06, 2007

Storytelling Engines: X-Factor

(or "On The Fly")

For the most part, this column has had to use a lot of guesswork and hypothetical thinking to describe why one storytelling engine works and another doesn't. There are things you notice that seem to generate a lot of good story ideas, there are reboots that "work" (are creative and/or financial successes) when the original series didn't, allowing you to dissect the differences, but it's rare that you can actually see a writer changing and adapting a status quo as a series goes on in order to get it to work.

X-Factor is an interesting exception to the rule. Writer Louise Simonson not only recognizes the flaws in X-Factor's storytelling engine, she actually makes those flaws a plot point in her story arc as she reconfigures the book.

At the start, X-Factor is one of those inevitable ideas--with the collapse of the Defenders comic, Iceman, Beast, and the Angel are all floating around the Marvel Universe with nothing to do, and Cyclops has recently left the X-Men (albeit reluctantly) to be with his wife and newborn son. With sales of the X-Men and New Mutants going through the roof, it didn't take much to persuade Marvel to reunite the original X-Men as a new series (with Kurt Busiek providing a rationale for Jean Grey's return that satisfied the various internal factions at the company.)

But what should these five heroes be doing? Bob Layton (presumably working with Jim Shooter) came up with the idea that they would pose as mutant hunters, "capturing" mutants and secretly training them in how to use their powers. They would also occasionally slip into more traditional Spandex and pretend to be evil mutants whenever they needed to use their powers.

It's a storytelling engine with a number of flaws. The team dynamic relies on Cyclops leaving his wife and child at the drop of a hat, then proceeding to conceal his marriage from his ex-dead ex, yet still remaining a sympathetic character. The X-Factor organization has to go "mutant hunting" on a regular basis, but every time they meet a mutant, they have to then explain that it's all a scam to them, but hope that nobody ever under any circumstances overhears them. Or notices that they're constantly followed around by "mutant terrorists" who look just like them, but wear spandex. Or wonders what happens to all the mutants they "capture". Or wonders why the five original X-Men, who've been running around the Marvel Universe pretty much since its inception and have revealed their true identities to a number of people, accidentally or deliberately, are running around pretending to be "mutant hunters".

The first five issues of the series were devoted to the various contortions needed to make all this happen. Jean Grey came back from the dead, Cyclops left his wife without so much as a word of explanation to see his dead girlfriend, and the Beast lost his fur (one wonders how he would have fit into the mutant hunting scam without that step.) The Angel's right-hand man, Cameron Hodge, set up the "mutant hunting" operation. And even within those first few issues, you could see the cracks in the set-up.

Then Louise Simonson took over, and instead of sticking with the existing formula or rebooting it, she made an interesting decision that served as the basis for almost four years of plots. She made the flaws in the storytelling engine into a plot point; Cameron Hodge, the Angel's right-hand man, turned out to harbor a secret hatred for mutants. The X-Factor organization was designed to collapse out from under the team, leaving in its wake a toxic hatred among "normal" people for the secret mutants in their midst. Cyclops was forced to undergo a personal journey of discovery to figure out why he'd left his wife, the Angel was pushed to his limits by his friend's betrayal, and by the time it was all over, X-Factor was a team of publicly acclaimed mutants operating out of a sentient spaceship and helping find and train mutants (a good thing, since this was about the time that the 'New Mutants' storytelling engine was going off the rails, but that's a whole long story in and of itself.) And best of all, the Beast got his fur back.

Then, of course, there was another big shake-up, and the whole team got rebooted as a government task force featuring none of the original members, but that's comics for you.

8 comments:

Caine said...

I know you can't write about EVERYTHING but I'm curios: In your opinion does the first few years of X-Factor (and its story engine) warrant a post in your blog more than the stories generated after the "secret government agency" reboot? If so, is that because the engine was better?

Generic Viagra said...

Yeah the success got to X-factor really shocked me, because this is not normal. Commonly this kind of engines are not popular and the population doesn't accept it very well.

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Anonymous said...

Speak to comic book readers who know nothing about Cyclops from his time before X-Factor, and they think he is a horrible human being.

Speak to comic book readers who remember Cyclops from his time before X-Factor, and they think of him as an admirable character who was ruined by X-Factor.

Speak to those of us who remember when Jean Grey and Phoenix were the same person, and we look ill to the stomach when we remember how we felt with the X-Factor retcon of Phoenix and Jean Grey as different people (as well as the later retcons of Madelyn Pryor and the charming C-string superhero Firebird which were necessitated by the X-Factor retcon).