Hello everyone, and welcome back to COMFORT FOOD COMICS PRESENTS: SPECIAL INGREDIENT.
In every column, we look at a newer comic and the “Special Ingredient” that made it extra delicious. It could be a character, a location, a plot device, a callback to a previous issue… basically anything that jumped out to me and made me think “mmm, that really improved the taste of this comic.”
I’ll be honest with you – I was sorely tempted to write yet another column about what happened in the newest issue of Daredevil. But I’m sure there will be plenty more opportunities to write about that, so instead , this week, I chose to take a look at another amazing issue –X-Factor #5 by Leah Williams, David Baldeon, Israel Silva, and Joe Caramagna.
We all have our favorite X-Men, for one reason or another. But the concept, by necessity, requires the constant infusion of new, young characters. If you’re telling your audience that mutants represent the next stage of evolution for humanity – the future – then it doesn’t really fit if the main symbols of mutantdom are a bunch of old, white guys. Sorry Professor Xavier, Magneto, Logan, and Apocalypse.
And so, as the originally-young X-Men got older and got married and had kids and abandoned their wife to go back to an ex who their wife was cloned from, it became time to introduce ‘80s readers to some new mutants, aptly named The New Mutants. (Let’s be honest – Chris Claremont has a questionable track record when it comes to naming things.) And as the New Mutants got older and became X-Force, it became time to introduce ‘90s readers to Generation X. And when Generation X’s time had apparently passed, but Grant Morrison was making the school relevant again, it became time to introduce 2000s readers to a new class of New Mutants, later to be called “Academy X.”
It is the characters from that class that stood out to me as the Special Ingredient of X-Factor #5.
First introduced in 2003’s New Mutants volume 2, characters like Wind Dancer, Hellion, Elixir, Prodigy, and Pulse were the teenage entry point for new X-readers in the first decade of the 21st century (unless you were into X-Men Evolution or Ultimate X-Men instead, in which case, sorry, they’re probably never coming back).
Mostly created by writing team of Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir, with a variety of artists, the characters grew and struggled and fought and loved and more through 13 issues of New Mutants volume 2 and 46 issues of New X-Men: Academy X (re-titled to just New X-Men starting with issue 20 because Grant Morrison had left the main book and that title was no longer being used there).
Unfortunately, the characters suffered the same fates as most new mutants created outside the main books. They were the group most disproportionately affected by the M-Day, “No more mutants,” Decimation event. Many of their members died in the aftermath of that and the lead up to Messiah CompleX. And after their series ended, many of them would fade into the background, barely to be seen again, unlike their classmates who were introduced in the main, Morrison-penned, New X-Men series, like Beak, Quentin Quire, and the Stepford Cuckoos.
This is part of why I chose these characters as the Special Ingredient this week. Not only do Leah Williams, David Baldeon, and team, bring more of them back together in X-Factor #5 than has been done in years, with Wind Dancer, Elixir, Prodigy, Rockslide, Hellion, Icarus, Surge, Mercury, Indra, Pixie, Dust, Bling, and even DJ (whose powers were described in 2005 as “Energy manipulation based on type of music he hears”) making appearances, but the story makes an interesting (and possibly unintentional) metaphor out of their character treatment.
Sofia “Wind Dancer” Mantega was depowered on M-Day, as revealed in New X-Men #21 in 2006. She would leave the school with other, newly human, students and barely be seen again since (outside of a very odd New Warriors series that starred other depowered mutants as well but has been mostly forgotten). So here, in X-Factor #5, she is shown being killed on camera in Mojoworld, which she submitted to voluntarily so that she could be resurrected as a mutant under the new Krakoan status quo. She is literally killing herself to be relevant again.
Conversely, Santo “Rockslide” Vaccarro never lost his powers, and has been a mainstay background character in X-Men comics even after New X-Men ended. But despite having that presence that Sofia lacked, he still hasn’t really been the star of a series, or a main team member, or truly relevant in that time. As with other students and new mutants, he is used as cannon fodder – the first victim of X of Swords – to motivate the tenured, popular, central X-Men into battle. And because he died in Otherworld, his resurrection is tainted, and he is reborn without his memories or personality. In order to truly be relevant and matter again, he needs to be completely remade.
I’d like to think Williams is intentionally drawing attention to how readers and fans of these characters may feel about their repetitive fates and apparent mistreatments. The conversation in X-Factor #5 between Dani Moonstar and Emma Frost seems especially relevant. Dani was the recruiter for the Xavier Academy who first brought many of these students to the school, going back to New Mutants volume 2 #1, when Dani recruited Sofia Mantega. Emma was the Headmistress of the Academy afterwards, and oversaw many of the students’ power losses and deaths after M-Day. Here, they come together and discuss why they, like the readers, keep coming back.
And that’s really it, isn’t it?
I love these characters. I also love Generation X, and the original New Mutants, and even some of the Wolverine and the X-Men and Bendis era kids. And even though I know that they are more likely to be ignored, de-powered, or killed – even though I know they have to kill themselves or be completely remade to be relevant – like Emma, I keep putting myself in the position to be hurt. Because I care. Because I choose to love again, over and over.
X-Men, more than any other line at Marvel, will always be about creating new characters, because X-Men is about the future, and the future is new and the future is young. So being an X-fan is being asked to care and love over and over again. But it also means you get to enjoy that special feeling when characters you loved before come back, and you get to spend one more story, or even just one more issue with them. And that’s one reason X-Factor #5 was so great.
I reread all of New Mutants volume 2 and New X-Men: Academy X/New X-Men in order to write this. There are some problematic elements – some racism (intentionally done to draw attention to racist stereotypes and ideas, but done poorly), some statutorily inappropriate relationships, some poor characterizations, etc. – but, for the most part, it’s all fairly enjoyable if you like teen angst and mutants.
The book really kicks into high gear when it becomes New X-Men and enters the post M-Day “Decimation” era with issue #20. Writers Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost take over, with Mark Brooks and Paco Medina on art, dragging the cast through tragedies that are worse in scope and scale than any other group of X-students had ever dealt with. X-23 joins the cast as well, and Emma Frost takes on a larger role, so if you’re only going to read a little bit, this is it: issues 20-31 – the best 12 issue run of the series, which should really be available as a hardcover or Epic Collection TPB, if Marvel was smart (they aren’t).
After that, the “Quest for Magik” storyline, from New X-Men #37-41, is amazing, and key X reading for the return of Illyana Rasputin. It also features the early Marvel sequential art of Skottie Young – and some of his best, IMO. Rockslide features heavily, but it also brings Anole and Pixie to the forefront and makes you love them, too.