Peter David’s newest issue of X Factor, #17, opens with our valiant anti heroes piled up like stacked corpses on the cover. Their bodies are surrounded by barbed wire, and a red, hazy sky swirls like mists above their heads. If your immediate reaction is to remember one of the horrific genocides and massacres common to the (real) 20th century, then cover artist (and penciler) Pablo Raimondi succeeded in that rarest of comic feats: drawing evocative parallels between the real world and this fantasy that we are privileged to dwell in for the shortest time every month.
If you have not yet read issue #17, let me momentarily reassure you that X Factor, that noir detective agency ran by the quip delivering MPD parody Jamie Madrox, does not succumb to complete devastation in this issue. Instead, the cover functions as a form of prophesy for the reader - it suggests a possible future and something to fear. Instead of grounding the cover art in David’s story this week, it makes the issue feel open ended. Frequently, a comic series can feel railroaded, as though the entire plot was carefully scripted and plotted beforehand. X Factor suddenly feels burgeoning with possibilities, and the affect on the reader is palpable. I haven’t worried this much for a fictional hero since the season finale of The Office this year.
This is not a coincidental accomplishment. X Factor has become obsessed with the future, and with the concept of possibilities. Perhaps it’s a result of the series’ unique protagonist—Jamie Madrox or Multipleman. Quickly, the conceit behind Madrox’s power is that when hit, he replicates himself like a doppleganger. Some time before the series began, Madrox sent his dopplegangers into the world to learn unique skill sets. As they return, he absorbs them and attains their knowledge and abilities. This is more than a cool parlor trick—it’s also a chance for Peter David to play games in morality, sexual politics and nonlinear historiography. Sound heavy? In early issues, Madrox cites Freud, Sam Spade and King Solomon. It’s like a hodgepodge of delicacies for a pop culture junkie.
In this issue, one of his dopplegangers ends up committing a murder for the sake of justice. A split second before the reprisal for his crime (a cadre of police officers raising pistols to return fire) Madrox is offered the chance to reabsorb his clone. A reabsorption could save the doppleganger’s life, but it would also make Madrox responsible for the crime—since the doppleganger would once again be Madrox. Sound heady? Imagine throwing in love affairs conducted by other dopplegangers, or some as the heads of multiple families. It’s enough to make you dive for a metaphysics primer. As a symbol of the conflicted man, Madrox has become the comic world’s closest answer to post-modernity. He is a million different people and only one at the same time. No wonder he’s having a hard time feeling motivated these days to fight crime.
If that weren’t enough, X Factor #17 also ups the political ante—a stick of dynamite that’s been slowly building over time. In the aftermath of the “House of M” story, Mutant Town has become a hotbed for terrorism and violence on both sides of the human/mutant divide. In the previous issue, Monet (also known simply as M) and Banshee’s daughter Siryn end up fighting anti mutant rioters. M, in a move that is so full of symbolic meaning that even the fictional Siryn calls it “sacrilegious,” crucifies one of the rioters. In this newest issue, a newly introduced mutant terrorism group called The X Cell, attempts to assassinate a political figure. Madrox is left to deal with the remaining factions, attempting to reconcile both his team’s personal politics, and the politics consuming his community. The irony that Madrox must also salvage the political issues provoked by his own split personalities can’t be avoided. Philosophically, this series has been meticulously charted and mapped. It’s hard to ignore that Peter David has history in writing heavily philosophical Star Trek: The Next Generation novels. This isn’t completely uncharted territory for him. Though he should still consider it a coup d’etat—it’s simply a remarkable venture he’s embarked upon with X Factor.
X Factor‘s greatest accomplishment, though, is that it doesn’t bury you under considerations and thick treatises until you grow bored. The dialogue is as sharp as a Dashiell Hammett novel, and Madrox’s quips frequently interrupt his musings. When one of his dopplegangers introduces himself as the greatest detective alive, Madrox replies sardonically, “I thought that was Batman.” The jokes don’t interrupt David’s cadence, either. Before the doppleganger’s death, he asks Madrox, “What do you mean, ‘we,’ paleface?” The reference is of course to The Lone Ranger, and in the hands of a lesser writer, it would merely be an inside reference, something clever for observant readers to stew on. In X Factor, though, Madrox turns the phrase over in his mind, linking it to the original pop culture source as well as considering the role of humor in the face of death. If Madrox and X Factor are the new faces of comics, it’s about time. And the storyline only promises to become more involved, and more intense as time goes on. My only complaint is that it’s released monthly - and that kind of complaint is the highest form of praise.