REVIEW: X-Factor #5 – For The Children

Two people stand on a cliff's edge with vibrant light shining down on them

X-Factor is a hard book for me to talk about. It’s not that it’s bad—quite the opposite—it’s that it quite literally is challenging me on every level when I read it. That’s a factor (heh) I adore.

X-Factor #5

David Baldeón (Artist), VC’s Joe Caramagna (Letterer), Tom Muller (Design), Israel Silva (Colors), Leah Williams (Writer)
Marvel Comics
December 2, 2020

Northstar and Aurora on the cover of X-Factor #5

It is not hard to spend any amount of time witnessing Leah Williams within the context of X-Men and come away with the understanding that she cares, deeply, about Emma Frost as a character. Emma pops up in Leah’s social media presence regularly, whether shitposting or providing complex thematical breakdowns. She’s written an Emma Frost one-shot (X-Men Black: Emma Frost) that read like such a perfect take on the character’s presence and poise that it could be considered a modern masterclass, a bible for Emma’s future appearances. When Emma appeared in House of X and Powers of X, those renditions appeared to follow that one; she had poise, charm, and confidence, the latter often wielded in her hand like a dagger. In recruiting her, Xavier was smart to appeal to her care for the children; for all of her occasional cruelty and capriciousness, Emma’s character has evolved primarily as a teacher, a leader of children. It was her role in the Hellfire Club, and again with Generation X, and yet again during the New X-Men and Astonishing X-Men eras. If she is a bit cold, a bit brusque and imperious, it is because she is ever pushing children toward the future, toward the realization of their potential, and she will not accept excuses.

When Dawn of X began, with Emma aboard the roster of Marauders, I confess I was dismayed. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Gerry Duggan’s work; indeed he is a compassionate and capable writer often. It’s that I had hoped, somewhat, that Emma, in all her grace and grandeur, would rest under the pen (or rather, the keyboard), of a woman. Does Leah feel like the obvious choice in that? Yes, certainly. Nevertheless, she’s been a delight in that book, and I wish it no ill will.

Nola, you may find yourself thinking, get to the point. To you I say: No. I have more preamble!

The other thing that makes X-Factor a difficult book to write about, or at least this issue, is that, like Emma, it holds the legacy of Generation X in its history. After all, that book notably was diverted after a mere four issues into the massive X-Men event of 1995, Age of Apocalypse, in much the same way that X-Factor diverted course directly into X of Swords after the same number of issues. It’s a difficult balancing act to achieve, to establish a book, to set the tone and the style, to prepare the direction, and to immediately be diverted to the nearest exit as the main thoroughfare undergoes construction. For readers, it can feel breathless to come back from that, to sit in the haze of an event recently ended as the author of a book does their best, “Now where were we?”

This is compounded when an author is someone like Williams, endlessly derided for having writing that is too “for the memes” or “terminally online.” I find criticisms like this laughable when a cadre of internet trolls will simultaneously defend concepts like Nick Spencer’s take on “social justice warriors” in the pages of Captain America: Sam Wilson, or when they’ll blithely shovel the dreck of fifty year old men pretending they know how to write teenagers. It is a banquet hall of entitled fools used to eating slop, turning their noses up when a cook has prepared the exact thing they have professed to want.

I may seem to have gotten off the track here, but I have a point: the last issue of X-Factor was in the early stages of X of Swords, at the end of September. A full two months and some twenty X-Men related comics have passed since then, which is a lot of dead air time for a nascent comic, especially in the year of 2020, under a global pandemic. Coming back, we face both the hanging thread of the death of Wind Dancer in the Mojoverse, as well as the recent resurrection of…well, someone, where Rockslide used to be, in the wake of his death in Otherworld. It’s a chaotic pickup point for a book that has already been going in many directions at once. Others, who died in Amenth, are also coming back differently, and for a new investigative team, the entire thing is a lot to handle.

This is what I mean when I say that the content is challenging to me, as a reader. There are writers who are known for character, writers who are known for plot, and writers who are known for dialogue. The balancing act of all three, of hitting important emotional moments in response to the relentless advance of story beats, of doing so with language that has a feeling of truth, that is a difficult act to perform. So, what does Leah do?

She gives us Emma.

Actually, that’s not fair. When we speak of creative fiction, especially in comics, there is such a tendency to default to just the writer, and perhaps the artist, as though they are the lone voices involved here. They’re not, which only makes the derision I mentioned earlier more unfair; often a writer ends up bearing the responsibility for a perceived failure when the book is a team effort. Similarly a success is a team effort, and so it’s important to acknowledge not just Williams’ writing, but Baldeón’s art and Silva’s colors, as we find amidst the foliage, Emma Frost, her head bowed in sorrow, the White Queen shrouded in black shadow, enveloped in sorrow. Whatever has taken the place of Rockslide, it is a new thing, a baby of sorts, but Santo Vaccarro, the man who Rockslide was, is no more. Frost has lost a student, she has failed, she feels, in a deeply personal and heartbreaking way. Again.

It is a measure of response against the ideas of the great new paradigm of the X-Men; as Hickman and his crew push back against the concept of inevitable loss that seems to have glommed onto the franchise, the team here on  X-Factor points out that even when one wins, there are setbacks, hardships. Not every victory is joyous, and grief does not become a memory just because that victory is assured. Emma Frost in X-Factor #5 by Baldeon

Death may be but a door now, but that does not mean that traversing it is easy. X-Factor is gearing up for grim work.

Nola Pfau

Nola Pfau

Nola is a bad influence. She can be found on twitter at @nolapfau, where she's usually making bad (really, absolutely terrible) jokes and occasionally sharing adorable pictures of her dog.