Thursday, May 6, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #17: February 1993

 An Almost Perfect Eighty-Seventh Issue

X-Factor #87
Writer: Peter David
Penciller: Joe Quesada
Inker: Al Milgrom
Colorist: Marie Javins


In the early days of my comic book fanhood, it was nothing extraordinary for me to develop artistic crushes. I'd get really into a certain artist for awhile and try to read as much of their work as I could, and imitate their style in my own drawings. But very few crushes arrived as quickly and intensely as the one I had on Joe Quesada.

He first came to my attention in the middle of 1992 with his work on a DC miniseries called The Ray. Written by Jack C. Harris, the comic was a revival of a 1940s Quality Comics hero by the same name. I loved it, and Quesada’s art was a big part of that.

Hot on the heels of The Ray came Batman: Sword of Azrael, a mini-series written by Dennis O'Neil. Here, Quesada was inked by Kevin Nowlan, a talented penciller in his own right, and the result was gorgeous: solid, fluid, and moody.
(An aside: This miniseries was part of an elaborate set-up for an epic storyline - or series of storylines - in the Batman books, “Knightfall,” “Knightquest,” and “Knightsend.” In the story, Batman’s back is broken by Bane, and Azrael assumes the mantle of Batman. But it’s not long before his tendency to violently kill criminals - and the deterioration of his mental health - leads Bruce Wayne to confront him and wrest the role of Batman back. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a clear condemnation of the extremely violent vigilante superhero trend of the early 1990s.)
After finishing work on Batman: Sword of Azrael, Joe Quesada jumped ship from DC to Marvel and then drew what for a long time I considered the single best issues of a comic book I had ever read, a comic that completely changed the way I saw superheroes, X-Factor #87.
Conventional knowledge gives a lot of credit to Alan Moore and Frank Miller (and Dennis O’Neil, too, come to think of it) for helping comics grow up. They did this by introducing real-world social and political concerns into their fictional worlds (and in Moore’s case, deconstructed the medium at the same time). Less attention was paid to the way these writers didn't just put scrutiny on the world outside their heroes, but also the one inside. These books really explored what made their characters tick, psychologically speaking. Of course one of the innovations Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko brought to Marvel in the early 1960s was that they gave their heroes real-life problems and hang-ups. But even these didn’t go much deeper than Dr. Strange's arrogance or Spider-Man’s guilt or the Thing’s anger/sadness at being a monster.
There was a whole world of opportunity, then, to examine superheroes’ inner lives, and Peter David was one of the first writers to recognize that and actually do something about it. David got his start in Marvel’s sales department, eventually moving over to write Spectacular Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk. It was on the latter that David made what’s probably his signature mark in comics, writing the title for twelve years and introducing ground-breaking elements to the Hulk mythos, namely Bruce Banner’s abusive father and his multiple personality disorder (which resulted in various manifestations of the Hulk).
David became a comics-writing superstar, working on a variety of projects for both Marvel and DC. One of those was taking over X-Factor in late 1991 as part of the X-Book shake-up that also produced X-Men #1. The X-Factor title had initially followed the adventures of the first five X-Men, reunited to track down and help newly-identified mutants. With those characters folded back into the X-Men, X-Factor was recast as a government-sanctioned team consisting of former supporting characters: Cyclops’s brother Havok, Magneto’s daughter Polaris, the Scarlet Witch’s brother Quicksilver, Madrox the Multiple Man, Guido, and former New Mutant Wolfsbane.
The line-up was quirky, and so were David’s stories, but none more so than issue #87, otherwise known as the “analysis issue.” The premise is that the team’s government liaison, Val Cooper, is exasperated by the team's dysfunction, so she asks a therapist to sit down with each member. This, of course, ends up revealing quite a bit about the characters and their hang-ups and motivations. When I first read the issue, it seemed like an act of magic to me, both in concept and in execution.
In terms of concept, I was blown away at least in part because at that point I hadn’t yet read those  Miller/Moore/O’Neil comics, so the focus on character seemed like a true innovation. But more than anything else, I’d just never conceived that you could make an interesting superhero comic book without any action in it.
As for execution, David is only able to give 2-5 pages of spotlight to each character, but he’s somehow able to reveal a shocking amount of character insight in just that little bit of story acreage. He was, of course, greatly helped in that by Quesada’s intricate layouts – there’s zero wasted space – and his expressive character work. It Quesada's first issue on the book, and the first time he and David had worked together, but it was a rare case of writer and artist being completely in sync.

Rereading it all these years later, I find that X-Factor #87 is still compelling, if a bit too proud of its own cleverness. This is especially evident in the final page where Val Cooper reveals her takes on the characters and they’re all the exact opposite of what we just learned.

There are also elements that feel too facile. Yes, Quicksilver is impatient because he’s so much faster than everyone else, which is presented as an excuse for why he acts like a dick. There are plenty of other characters in both the Marvel and DC universes who have superspeed who don’t act that way (this makes me happy that David never wrote the Flash).
 Both female members are given somewhat sexist hang-ups that hinge on male approval. Wolfsbane’s session explores her tendency to fall in love with male authority figures. Polaris is revealed to have a negative body image, which she then attempts to deny by adopting a new, skimpier costume. 

But other elements work really well and add depth to the characters, particularly the revelations about Guido (that he was bullied as a child and that his power causes him constant pain) and Madrox (that his annoying, attention-seeking behavior stems from a fear of being alone). And though, again, it might be a bit too clever, David positioning characters in psychological opposition to their powers (the guy who can multiply is lonely, the lady who has magnetic powers feels unattractive) was sharp.
The things we learn about each character also provide a wonderful set-up for future conflicts, both internal and external. But that promise was not fulfilled, at least not in the short term. David quit the book three issues later over his objection to the title being included in a line-wide crossover. In 2005, David returned to a rebooted X-Factor (with Madrox, Guido, and Wolfsbane still in his cast) and spent eight years and 112 issues chronicling their adventures. X-Factor #13 (2006) serves as a sequel to X-Factor #87 (the fact that the sequel has a lower issue number tells you everything you need to know about comics renumbering). Like most sequels, the issue doesn't quite hit the highs of the first one, but it does contain some fun callbacks.
Flaws and all, X-Factor #87 will forever stand for me as an example of the unlimited potential of superhero comics, and the importance of characters having, you know, character.
I obviously wasn’t the only one who saw something special in Joe Quesada. After a short stint on do some work here and there at Marvel before going independent with his writing and inking partner Jimmy Palmiotti to create the superhero Ash. In 1998, he’d return to Marvel and spearhead a line called Marvel Knights, which offered creator-driven, mature takes on heroes such as Black Panther, the Inhumans, and Daredevil. The success of that led Quesada to become Marvel’s editor-in-chief in 2000. It was the first time an artist had ever held the top post, and Quesada would stay in the position for 11 years. He now works as the executive vice president and creative director for the company.

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