Remember back when Marvel tried to be relevant? Good times!
X-Factor by Jeff Jensen (writer), Arthur Ranson (artist), Paul Mounts (colorist), and Paul Tutrone (letterer).
Published by Marvel, 4 issues (#1-4), cover dated June – October 2002.
Some minor SPOILERS below, but nothing too serious. And remember – click on the pictures to see them better!
Sunset falls over Hollywood, and the hills are dark but for the sign, which shines yellow in the twilight. As we move in, we see something hanging from the “Y.” As we get closer, we see it’s a body. As we get even closer, we see that a young man is hanging there, his skin torn in several places, and the word “MUTANT” carved into his naked chest. He has been shot and, we learn a page later, burned. It’s a job for the Mutant Civil Rights Task Force of the FBI, and that’s where the story begins.
When Bill Jemas was president of Marvel for a brief period around the turn of the century, the company published a lot of stuff they would not have published earlier and would not publish afterward. Jemas liked to throw stuff onto the wall and see what stuck, and some of it was excellent (Bendis’s Alias, for example), some were ambitious failures (Morrison’s 1 2 3 4, for example), and some were disasters (can I interest you in Marville?), but the point was, it was an interesting time to read Marvel comics. Jemas allowed his creators a lot of leeway, and one thing it seemed he really wanted them to do is explore, much more than had been done before, what would the world be like if Marvel heroes actually existed? What would the “regular” people be like and how would they feel about these gods among them? Into this atmosphere stepped Jeff Jensen, who wrote this odd little mini-series.
X-Factor, of course, was simply a generic name (perhaps the most generic name in the mutant universe, which is saying a whole hell of a lot), and perhaps Marvel wanted to cash in on the name recognition when they decided to go with it for this book. It doesn’t exactly feel like Jensen wanted to only do four issues, so perhaps the name recognition factor (yep) failed miserably, but in the meantime, we got these unusual stories. Jensen gives us Agents Aaron Kearse and Catherine Gray, and even on the first few pages, he does a nice job with the characters. Gray is a black woman, and when we first see her, she’s dreaming about a burning baby that is clearly her child. Kearse is a white man, and he’s injured somehow (his wife calls him “handicapped,” and it’s clear it’s a temporary condition, but still) and he’s a devout Christian. It certainly feels like “cliché bingo” with the two agents, but Jensen only has four issues to work with, so he needs to get these things in there quickly, and, as we’ll find out, both characters are deeper than their surface introductions indicate. Kearse takes point at the press conference announcing that task force’s investigation into the man’s death, and he talks about the rise in hate crimes against mutants and how that cannot continue. It sounds nice, but in the middle of his speech, Gray begins to hear someone’s voice in her head. It’s Jean Grey, standing in the crowd, explaining to her that she’s being watched. “We do not trust you, or the FBI, or the integrity of this ‘Task Force,'” she “says.” “And we certainly don’t trust your partner. His thoughts are dark, his soul is tortured. His heart is knotted with hate.” Jean tells Gray that she’s getting a warning because some people don’t want her to come to any harm, but she’s still on notice. Again, this feels like a cliché – the good Christian is really a hateful person? That’s not great, because it’s lazy. It doesn’t bode well for the series, but we’ll see what Jensen does with it.
Kearse and Gray bust a mutant hate cell whose leader was in the vicinity of the Hollywood sign on the night of the murder. He claims the victim was a member of the cell, and the autopsy proves that the victim wasn’t actually a mutant. He has a transplanted liver that is from a mutant, leading the doctor to speculate that he might have wanted to gain superpowers that way, even though it wouldn’t work. The victim’s mother is extremely grateful that her son wasn’t a mutant – it’s very clear that she (or, at least, his father) would prefer him dead and non-mutant than living and mutant. The task force stays on the case despite the non-mutant status of the victim, and they get a call from a filmmaker about the victim. He’s a “limousine liberal,” someone who made blaxploitation movies back in the day and has now shifted to making “mutant-sploitation” movies. His son has a “skin condition,” and he knew the victim, so the filmmaker asks them not to suspect him, giving them all the information they know about the victim and attempting to bribe them into silence. Of course, the young man is a mutant, and the filmmaker set things up so that the FBI would come after him because he didn’t want to turn his own son in for murder. Kearse and Gray sneak back to the mansion (the filmmaker has sway within the city government, so the agents were told to back off) and find the kid, but Jean Grey shows up and wipes their memories. We find out at the end of the issue that Gray is pregnant, while Kearse has managed to teach his son to be anti-mutant. It’s a depressing beginning to the book, to be sure.
I don’t always like to go over the plot so meticulously, but I wanted to for this first issue because of how Jensen structures the story. The X-Men are present throughout, but as shadowy figures – Nightcrawler shows up in issue #2 to stop a sniper who’s trying to kill a baseball player, but he’s in the darkness and teleports out quickly – and occasionally as scary ones – Wolverine threatens Kearse in issue #3. Jensen does a nice job acknowledging what Grant Morrison was doing in the main title without being too beholden to it, which is always nice to see from a writer in a shared universe. Jensen also gives us murky situations that don’t provide a lot of moral clarity, which, in a superhero universe, is difficult to do. He doesn’t do anything new by framing Marvel’s mutant issue as a civil rights problem, but he does it very well, and it’s always good to be reminded of the actual problems we still face in this country, and using mutants helps that while still remaining firmly in a superhero milieu. In issue #1, we get the non-mutant who claims to be an ally of mutantkind and is perfectly willing to make money off of the mutant phenomenon but isn’t as friendly when there’s a mutant in his own family. In issue #2, a baseball player chasing the single season home run record gets death threats because the news has leaked that he’s a mutant, and he’s trying to decide if he should “come out.” Of course, sponsors are lining up to use him and get into the mutant market, but he’s not sure what he wants to do. In this issue we find out why Kearse doesn’t like mutants, and he’s passed that on to his young son, who naturally idolizes the baseball player. In issue #3, someone is bombing “sanctuary” churches – churches that allow mutants to stay there if they’re being persecuted and offer assistance to said mutants. Finally, in issue #4, Kearse and Gray have to stop a man from bombing Xavier’s school. While all of the plots converge (I won’t say how), and while all of the plots concern mutants, Jensen does a nice job using them as vehicles for examining the plight of minorities in the U.S. Marvel doesn’t usually do stories about black people, or gay people, or even women, so mutants become a good catch-all for those stories. Tony Robb, the baseball player, is a white dude, but the death threats against him remind us of what Henry Aaron had to deal with as a black man about the break the home-run record in 1974, which was mostly (all?) about racism. Similarly, Robb’s mutant power recalls Barry Bonds (whose single-season record he’s chasing in the issue), around whom suspicion about performance-enhancing drugs has always swirled due to Bonds’s unusual growth late in his career. Bombing churches is usually linked to racism, as it’s usually white supremacists killing black Christians, so issue #3 brings that to mind even as Jensen makes sure the bomber is specifically NOT a white supremacist (he’s Asian, in fact). In issue #4, similarly, the bomber is possibly Muslim, but because he’s targeting a mutant school, Jensen can frame it in mutant-centric terms but still comment on America’s “War on Terrorism.” It’s not the most subtle storytelling in the world, but Jensen does a good job showing us the issues in our own, non-mutant country while still telling good stories about the world of Marvel. As both Marvel and DC move away from having actual regular people in their comics, it’s fascinating to see how Jensen shows the way mutants have become part of “regular” society. They interact with non-mutants all the time in this book, and most of the interactions are benign – in issue #4, there’s a nice scene at an airport showing people meeting each other after a flight, and it’s just mutants and non-mutants milling about, some greeting others, some ignoring everyone else. Jensen does a good job both highlighting the issues of mutantdom in the Marvel Universe, showing how “normal” it can be, and linking it to the problems we experience in our own world.
Jensen uses his two main characters well to illuminate the way mutantdom reflects racism or sexism or homophobia. When we meet Gray, we get her dream as she wakes, so she obviously traumatized by that. When they interview the filmmaker, we find out that her mother was very involved in the civil rights movement and that Gray is estranged from her (and also that her mother did not respect the filmmaker when they were both involved in the movement). At the end of the issue, we find out that Gray is pregnant and she is doing an “X-factor prenatal screening.” Due to her fear about the burning baby, we learn in issue #2 that she’s considering an abortion. Her mother also finds her, in order to emphasize how important Robb could be to the mutant rights issue and also to warn Gray once again about the task force. Later in the issue, her mother tries once again to convince her that someone inside the government has a sinister agenda when it comes to mutants, but Gray isn’t biting. In issue #3, Gray’s husband, Ramon, tries to confront her about her behavior – he even knows she’s considering an abortion, something she hasn’t shared with him – but conveniently (as he bitterly notes), she has some horrible crime to investigate. Her mother reappears, telling her that she has proof of the government’s nefarious designs, but also to appeal to her impending motherhood (which she knows about because Jean Grey told her, which feels like a breach of ethics). When Gray says she might not keep it, Jensen has done a good enough job with her mother in so few panels that when she asks why she might abort it, we can’t be sure if she’s upset by the potential personal loss of a grandchild or the potential loss of a new mutant. It’s fiendishly done. In issue #4, we find out what exactly happened to her baby (we knew already, but only through others’ words, not through the art), and while Jensen plays fast and loose with the “rules” of mutanthood (a baby manifesting powers when it’s always been a metaphor for puberty is a bit odd), it’s still clear why Gray is trepidatious about having another child. As we might expect from a mainstream Marvel comic, Gray doesn’t actually get an abortion (at least Jensen uses the word, which most television shows do not), but she does give a good reason for not going through with it. Jensen does a nice job showing what a person getting pregnant in a world filled with mutants would look like. In our world, we can do DNA testing to see if a fetus might have some sort of genetic problem, and it’s not terribly controversial, even if a woman decides to end a pregnancy because of it. Jensen can’t explore the ramifications of that kind of testing to the fullest in a four-issue series that has to have some action, but he does a nice job with what he can do. Meanwhile, he does a good job with the generational gap between people who fought for civil rights and those who reap the benefits of that fight. Gray still lives in a world in which women and minorities aren’t treated equally, but it’s also true that her mother, for instance, could probably not have gotten a job as an FBI agent due to the racism and sexism of the times in which she lived. So Gray is justified, a bit, in thinking her mother is a dinosaur, but at the same time, Jensen does a nice job showing that even with the strides earlier generations made, there’s still a lot of work to do. Using mutants for this plot point helps soften the metaphor a bit, but it’s still a valid point.
Similarly, making Kearse a white Christian man allows Jensen to explore that cliché as well, and as with Gray, he does a good job. When we meet Kearse, he’s packing a Bible for his trip to Los Angeles and promising his wife that he’ll be careful and asking her to pray for him. Then Jean Grey “outs” him to Catherine, which makes us wary of him. When he calls his wife later, he says it’s “hard to see God’s hand in this whole mutant phenomenon,” which of course makes us trust him even less. But we also see his withered arm, which has been utterly damaged in some traumatic way, and so Jensen makes it harder to dismiss him. When he and Gray go back to the filmmaker’s house to see what’s going on with his son, Jean Grey and Scott Summers show up, and Kearse reacts very negatively, whimpering that he’ll kill the “mutie,” and it’s clear that it’s more personal than anything. At the end of the issue, we see that he’s passed his hatred on to his son, who draws his dad as a “good Samaritan,” standing over a dead mutant. In issue #2, Jensen reveals how he sustained his injury – he and his partner were setting up a sting on a weapons dealer, only it turned out the dude was a mutant who could telepathically “kill” muscle, and Kearse’s entire arm withered. This issue is more about Kearse, as his son is a huge fan of Tony Robb, so Kearse struggles with the fact that Robb is a mutant. On an important page, Kearse wonders aloud to his wife how he’s going to tell his son. It’s well done, because it shows the very real concerns a person might have about mutants, it’s still bigoted, but Jensen still manages to make Kearse sympathetic:
Jensen does a good job with this topic – Kearse and his wife never discuss Robb’s mutantcy with their son, and Jensen subtly makes the point about how harmful keeping secrets, especially from your children, can be. Ultimately, whether Kearse’s son idolizes a baseball player isn’t the point, it’s how Kearse raises his kid. The pay-off isn’t world-altering, but given what he’s been teaching his son about mutants, it’s not surprising. But Kearse is beginning to realize that things he learned growing up might not be the way things are.
This comes more into focus in issue #3, obviously, as anti-mutant terrorists bombing a church would hit close to home for Kearse. Gray doesn’t know about “santuary churches,” so Kearse explains that they “offer shelter, food, health and educational services to mutant runaways, dissidents and asylum seekers.” He says that many denominations did not approve of this, because mutants are “tricky” for Christians. When another agent asks why, Kearse says, “They can’t explain it. The Bible doesn’t cover it. Evolution? No way we’re buying that. So what are mutants? Demon-possessed? The physical manifestation of a sinful, fallen world? Freakishly handicapped?” The other agent says that’s not very politically correct, and Gray points out that they’re American citizens protected by the Constitution and that’s all that matters, and of course what Kearse is saying is awful, but it’s clear he’s struggling with it because his whole life he’s been taught one thing, and now he’s starting to realize that it might be wrong. Jensen understands the power of indoctrination, and no matter how we dress it up, part of parenting is indoctrination. Kearse was parented a certain way, and now he’s parenting a certain way, and his son is already learning his father’s point of view, but Kearse doesn’t necessarily believe it anymore. But when you’re taught that the Bible is absolute truth, what do you do when something clearly contradicts that truth? Mutants don’t exist in the real world, of course, but it’s not like there aren’t many things in the real world that tax the Bible’s authority. Gray, naturally, wants to know if Kearse’s church voted on the “sanctuary” issue, and he tells her they voted it down, but avoids the question of how he voted. Then, at the end of the issue, the X-Men show up and cloud his mind a bit, and reacts very negatively. His rage and fear at being touched by mutants has context now, as the only other mutant (perhaps) that he’s been in close contact with damaged him so severely, and while it doesn’t completely excuse him, it becomes understandable. In issue #4, he tells Gray what happened with the vote: he abstained. He says, “I wasn’t confused; it seemed very clear we should have voted to open our church to those in need … But this was right after Wither [the mutant who wrecked his arm]. I was still so angry — at mutants, the world, and yes, at God. So I did nothing.” Gray and Kearse finally understand each other, and they can become better partners. What’s interesting about the comic is that Jensen does not give us any easy answers, either with Gray or with Kearse. Gray decides not to get the abortion at that moment, but she doesn’t close off that avenue if she changes her mind. Kearse doesn’t become a mutant-lover, but he begins to talk to his son about some of the things they’ve thought were true in the world but perhaps aren’t. Jensen shows us that people can change, but it’s much harder than we like to think. It’s a remarkably mature take for a mainstream superhero comic, and Jensen does it in a fairly subtle way, which is nice to see.
The book wouldn’t have worked as well as a good metaphor for the real world without Ranson’s realistic-looking art. Ranson, who was over 60 when he began work on the book, has never done too much work in American comics, but he worked for years in Britain, and he’s very much in the Steve Dillon/John Ridgway model (although he’s older than both, so maybe they’re in his model). Ranson is a very precise artist who uses quite a lot of hatching lines, which don’t really make his work “realistic” (people generally don’t have solid black lines on their faces), but does make his people more “solid” and more, for lack of a better description, “lived-in.” His hatching creates nuance and shadows without drenching the panels in black, which is a decent trick and helps make the spot blacks, when they come (and he uses them liberally), feel a bit more ominous. He’s not the greatest superhero artist, but he doesn’t have to be, as this comic is only superhero-adjacent, and while his figures don’t exhibit a lot of fluidity, they don’t need to. The art works because Ranson knows how to play with subtleties. Kearse and Gray often don’t say everything that’s on their minds, so Ranson has to be able to show the thoughts roiling through their brains when, outwardly, they remain calm, and he does excellent work with that. Toward the end, when they both finally begin to open up, he’s done good work with them before that so that their emotional faces hit even harder because we’ve seen the mask they’ve worn for so long. He also does an excellent job showing how people in general react to the government agents in their lives – the Marvel Universe often features a government that is both more efficient and more sinister than our own, and the regular people seem to understand that, and Ranson does a good job showing that they’re both respectful of the power the government wields but fearful of it as well. However, Ranson also does a superb job making mutants seem mundane in this world, simply part of the general population, which is what Jensen is going for. As I noted above, Jensen writes a scene at an airport in issue #4 in which mutants and non-mutants simply co-exist, but Ranson brings it to life beautifully. In issue #1, there’s a similar scene at the filmmaker’s mansion, where mutants and non-mutants mingle around his pool without worrying about what others think. Ranson pictures a world that might not be completely accepting of mutants, but in which there is more tolerance than we usually see in a Marvel Mutant comic. A lot of characters in the X-Universe, even non-mutants, speak of tolerance, but Jensen and Ranson do a good job of showing what that might look like in a wider setting than just introducing one or two “mutant-sympathetic” people. It’s a good way to do it, and it makes the book feel even more “real.”
This iteration of X-Factor fell through the cracks a bit, which is a shame. It does not appear to have been collected, although it’s only four issues and they don’t seem to be expensive, so I imagine finding it isn’t that hard. It does feel the slightest bit rushed, which is too bad and seems weird, as this was really during the initial heyday of the six-issue arc (whether the story deserved it or not), so on the one hand, it’s admirable that Jensen was able to tell his story in only four issues, but on the other hand, it feels like he has a lot more to say about these things. The idea of an FBI-run “task force” to investigate mutant crimes is a good one, and Marvel has flirted with that kind of thing before and since, but never in such a realistic way. Jensen does an excellent job taking the idea of “mutants as catch-all minority” in the Marvel Universe and examining what it means to be a minority in our world, and he also manages to write a Christian who isn’t an obnoxious, intolerant fascist and whose problems with mutants aren’t so easy to dismiss and who still tries to learn and grow without denying his spirituality. Both Kearse and Gray are interesting and deep characters, and it’s too bad we weren’t able to see more of their work in the X-corner of the Marvel Universe. Such is life, I suppose. “X-Factor,” the brand, was brought back as a regular superhero comic, and this path through the mutant world faded from view. But that doesn’t mean it has to be forgotten!
As always, you can take a look at the archives if you’re looking for good comics to read. They’re almost complete!
Sounds like an interesting read. I miss this era of superhero comics where writers tried to flesh out the world of the characters, even if some elements were far fetched or inherently silly (the concepts being explored, not how they were explored, although I suppose writers have come up with silly explanations in the past). Nowadays most cape books feel more about staying on brand than anything. Looking at some of the subjects tackled in this book, I wonder how it would be received today, although I imagine a lot of bad faith arguments and panels taken out of context would be involved.
“Staying on brand” is a good way to put it. Yeah, in today’s world, if this got any press at all, it would be people arguing over things taken completely out of context, unfortunately/