After a banger of a penultimate issue, X-Factor comes to a close on issue #10, sliding right under the wire for Pride Month. Unfortunately, the abruptly canceled book doesn’t manage to nail the ending, instead hastily wrapping up plotlines and leaving us with one helluva cliffhanger.
Leah Williams & David Baldeón (story), Leah Williams (script), David Baldeón, David Messina, & Lucas Werneck (artists), Israel Silva (colorist), VC’s Joe Caramagna (Letterer), Tom Muller (Design), Ivan Shavrin (Cover)
June 30, 2021
Leah Williams excels at creating character beats that X-Men readers often clamor for, the liminal spaces that you only see fleeting glimpses of — X-Factor sitting around the breakfast table or accidentally hosting a party or watching reality TV. But one of her biggest weaknesses is integrating character momentum and growth into the plot, the action of the story. The relationships grow around the actual problems being solved, but not always during the solving. (Daken is the exception to this.) And while it’s nice to see a found family develop, these small moments created a choppy rhythm.
It’s especially a problem for a book full of sprawling plotlines and predicated on solving murder mysteries, not the most natural things to craft. I’m sympathetic to the fact that the creative team’s plans were up-ended and they were forced to hastily wrap up their mysteries in one last issue.
Marginalized readers have long desired more mutants with real-world marginalized identities, for Marvel to let marginalized people also exist within the broader metaphor of mutants as both feared and awesome. And I agree — if mutants are stand-ins for people of color, for queer people, for marginalized people, then mutants should also be people of color and queer and disabled and more. Mutants should exist across a spectrum of identities, and of course, those identities will intersect. Tackling racism, queerphobia, anti-Blackness, or other real-life issues being tackled directly in X-Men comics isn’t new. But the decision to (explicitly) introduce the topic of violence against queer Black men in white queer spaces in the same issue that also ends that storyline made Prodigy’s murder feel like a compressed episode of Law & Order: SVU rather than a thoughtful reflection on racism.
Perhaps there’s a Marvel book that could handle a delicate, triggering subject like racialized anti-queer bigotry head on. But that would have to be the focus, not the b-plot introduced in issue #5 to be resolved at an unknown point in the future. The scaffolding for this case had barely been started by issue #8 when Prodigy discovers the secrets past-him hid in a JPEG. I was not expecting the mystery of Prodigy’s death to be the result of a crime he was trying to solve by himself, unpowered, and also without mention to any of his friends. I especially wasn’t expecting a reflection of real-life criminal Ed Buck’s actions against queer Black men (and also, somewhat, echoing the serial homicides of gay men of color in Toronto, a case that went to trial in 2019). It felt almost like shorthand, to allude to this real-life tragedy to convey what was supposed to unfold over multiple issues. But simply identifying and portraying violence against the marginalized as a real-life issue does not contextualize it.
I think superhero stories can be weighty and interact with real life issues. But not every superhero book has the right tone to carry a plotline meant to highlight the risks of being young, Black, and queer. Does this kind of real life horror need to appear in a relatively light-hearted superhero book, even one about murder? I personally appreciate the mutant metaphor as a way to engage with a story about bigotry one step removed from the dangers of living in the world as a person marginalized across multiple axes, so my answer is no. I also didn’t need the book to explicitly confirm that Prodigy endured sexual violence, even if he cannot remember it. The moment was in-character but jarring as hell, adding insult to injury.
The cancellation announcement should have been an opportunity to, perhaps, find a less clumsy or abrupt way to wrap up Prodigy’s mystery, or even tie it into the other big, underwritten mystery of the book — the one that kicked off issue #1 and led to the creation of Krakoa’s X-Factor in the first place. The decision to stick with the presumably original conclusion of both Prodigy’s and Aurora’s deaths was a bad one by the creative teams, because the execution was rushed and sloppy. Williams and David Baldeón sincerely wanted to bridge the gap between fictional marginalization (Aurora) and real-world marginalization (Prodigy) but… it doesn’t work, at least not for me. I also did not love that Prodigy’s real trauma was used to showcase Eyeboy’s new powers (more later), or given the footnote of Daken and Aurora flirting over threatening his murderer — if you want to tackle something as serious as violence against queer Black men, then I think your Black queer character should get the last word.
Circling back to Aurora, I can’t say her plot fared much better. Despite being the catalyst for the series, the circumstances of her death were used more to create tension between her and Daken than to tell a wider story. Williams created good chemistry between these two throughout the series, but I found Aurora herself pretty impenetrable. (As someone who doesn’t have a lot of outside familiarity with the character, a refresher would have been appreciated). I don’t think I got to know her very well over this story arc either, other than her taste in television and men.
Comparatively, Prodigy gets some agency over his murder, solving it almost entirely solo and at least confronting his murderer head on. Aurora’s death, despite being a driving plot point for a few issues, is explained as part of an incredibly wordy monologue about how she smells like the ocean, how Daken is fine with her dissociative identity disorder, and hey! He accepts that she murdered Eddie because he’s murdered the rest of the anti-mutant bigots responsible for her death. It’s… a lot to dump on someone during a romantic dance at the Hellfire Gala and a LOT to spring on readers. It’s weird and extremely clumsy, and it is the weakest part of an already struggling issue. (As a note, I was never really sure what the book was doing with Aurora’s DID, aside from letting her make the occasional joke about it, so having it named explicitly right at the end felt like tying up a plot thread I didn’t even know was dangling).
Again, I’m sympathetic to the cancellation, but comics are a lean medium that lend themselves better to tight storytelling. Needing more than ten issues to solve a mystery that you opened issue #1 on is indicative of a serious pacing problem and too many plots.
The art, though, that’s where X-Factor shines, and it continues to in this issue. While solving your own murder in your fanciest clothes might not be the most logical way to do it, it did create some gorgeous panels of Prodigy. Baldeón’s costume designs shine with some nice coloring even when rendered by other artists. Eye Boy especially is resplendent, and maybe one of the most fleshed-out characters in this title. The visual representation of his powers is hands down my favorite part of this book, and I was glad to see Baldeón gave me one more round of his tiny secrets, bubbles of everything he can see at once. Eyeboy’s growth as a character, earning the respect of his team, has been a nice treat — which is why I’m a little disappointed he now has an offensive power to go with his increasing power of perception. Not every mutant needs to be a weapon.
I must note, however, my absolute antipathy for the grey gutters this book used consistently. The gray often felt at odds with a bright palate, clashing with the greens, reds, and oranges coming from Lorna and Rachel’s powersets and costumes. The bright white panel outlines, the overlay of those white-framed panels over larger panels, is sometimes very effective. Were the grey gutters trying to give this book some noir appeal? Some hints of moral ambiguity? Regardless, the choice did not enhance the run at all.
The best part of this particular issue (and yes, I read them all) is the gentle friendship between Prodigy and Eye Boy, which has been a focus of this title and has been a consistent delight. The emotional warmth between these two was lovely. And it created space for an emotionally affecting reveal at the very end of the book — Eye Boy’s desperate attempt to save Tommy from emotional pain rang true, as did Tommy’s absolute despair.
I know Wanda’s death will be controversial, but personally, this plotline was a natural palace to go in the Krakoa-era. I’m also pretty certain she’ll be resurrected, whether by The Five or something else down the line. I am, however, a little concerned about Magneto’s characterization in the upcoming Trial of Magneto event. He was used as color for Lorna in X-Factor, but every time he popped up, he felt like an over-the-top shitty dad; a caricature. If he’s still that unsubtle, it might feel more like Trial of a Strawman.
Overall, X-Factor was ambitious, giving fans the found family they wanted but not living up to its potential or promise. I’m curious to see what’s ahead for the team, especially now that their second-in-command Lorna is now an X-Man.