When most folks these days think of X-Factor, they think of that failed Simon Cowell talent show that ran for three seasons on Fox. I think of the short-lived teaming of the original X-Men that first encountered the mutant Apocalypse. Meet me after the jump for my thoughts on X-Factor: Countdown to X-Men: Apocalypse.
Origins of X-Factor
Marvel Comics had several problems during the 1980s, but one of their most pressing problems was the success of the New X-Men – specifically how to cash in on them. They spun off younger students of the Xavier school in New Mutants, started a reprint series called Classic X-Men, and started moves toward animation and videogames. What else could they do? How about a new series starting original X-Men? Ka-ching!
The wheels began turning toward the series that would become X-Factor. Defenders had been canceled, leaving Iceman, Beast, and Angel available. If Cyclops were made to leave his wife, his scarily Jean Grey look-alike wife, Madeline Pryor and their child Nate, he too would be creepily available too. But what of Jean Grey, the final remaining original member? She was very, very dead.
Like a Phoenix…
At first Dazzler was suggested as the fifth member of X-Factor, but the allure of having all five original X-Men on a new team proved too compelling to the powers that be at Marvel. Jean Grey was last seen sacrificing herself to save the universe from Dark Phoenix in perhaps one of comics’ most legendary sagas. That’s a hard road to come back from, even in comics, where people come back from the dead all the time. The combined minds of Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, and John Byrne however thought their way out of it. The retcon machine was on the move.
You see, Jean Grey had never actually been Phoenix or Dark Phoenix. The Phoenix entity had merely taken on her form, personality, and memories, while sealing Jean in a weird Adam Warlock-like cocoon beneath Jamaica Bay. The Fantastic Four and the Avengers recovered and opened the cocoon in prologues to the new series in their own titles. Even then, Marvel built stories on crossovers. Jean Grey, Marvel Girl, was back.
The set-up of X-Factor was that these five original X-Men, shocked at what was transpiring at Xavier’s school, went off on their own to continue Xavier’s work their way. Where was Professor X? Who knows? It seems to me that every other month over there in the X-Universe, he’s either dead, evil, or canoodling with Lilandra… I’m not sure what it was that week, but the bottom line was that Magneto was leading the X-Men. There was no way that any of the originals could abide that.
So the five set up shop as X-Factor, which as far as the public knew was sort of a Ghostbusters outfit for the mutant haters. Got a mutant? Suspect a mutant? Want a mutant gone? Call X-Factor and they’ll take care of it. That was the PR pitch, but really what they were doing was removing said mutant from their situation and educating and training them in the use of their powers – basically what the Xavier School used to do. And then came Apocalypse…
Business As Usual
I was thrilled at the time to see the X-Men in the hands of someone other than Chris Claremont or John Byrne, and writer Bob Layton and artist Jackson Guice did a fantastic if pedestrian job of it. All in all, at the beginning, things seemed more like superheroic Ghostbusters than anything even slightly X-Men-related. The team saved and was training novice mutants Rusty and Artie, and were fighting very run-of-the-mill (but new) mutant villains like the size-changing Tower, and the Amazonian Frenzy.
The thing was, these villains were not just coincidentally attacking X-Factor, lurking in the shadows was an entire team of these mutants, along with Stinger and Time-Shadow to form the Alliance of Evil, and their master, Apocalypse. In his first appearance, he remained in shadow, menacing and powerful, and when he revealed himself he was more a super-villain in the mode of a Doctor Doom, and a shapeshifter. At the end of his first scheme and first clash with the X-Men, he is less than memorable as the team is more concerned with their own personal problems. Ah, Marvel…
Creation of the Villain
A change in creative team to writer Louise Simonson changes everything, as the scam falls apart, and she brings in the Freedom Force, the Morlocks, the Marrauders, and her husband, artist Walt Simonson. And she also brings back Apocalypse, with an artistic makeover by her husband, looking more like we know him today. The design surprisingly came first with character details to be worked out later.
Before the Simonsons came on board, Layton intended the big bad behind the Alliance of Evil to be Daredevil foe, the Owl, but editorial insisted on a new villain, one who could easily be considered major league. This new Apocalypse would remain a menace to X-Factor and humans and mutants worldwide thereafter. He would even be retconned as being behind the scenes in the X-Men’s battles against Moses Magnum and the Living Monolith.
The Rise of Apocalypse
While he remained an enemy of X-Factor through most of the run, his origins would pop up in other places, like in Cable, where we learned his name, En Sabah Nur, and X-Force, where his full origin was revealed for the first time. Apocalypse was the first mutant (take that, Namor), a slave of an Egypt ruled by Rama-Tut, who used the technology of the Celestials to drive Tut out. Once taking over Egypt, he begins his reign as one of the world’s most dangerous villains.
Over the ensuing centuries, Apocalypse encounters and/or battles the Brood, ancient S.H.I.E.L.D., the Eternals, Dracula, Thor, and even future X-Men foes Mister Sinister and the Hellfire Club. In some ways, Apocalypse has had more retconned adventures than actual published adventures. He’s like Marvel’s Vandal Savage.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
One of the villain’s most chilling modus operandi, and one that has translated to film in X-Men: Apocalypse, is his recruitment of his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Implying that he inspired the Biblical expression and vision, Apocalypse finds mutant individuals that match up the fabled horsemen – Famine, Pestilence, War, and Death. These Horsemen blindly follow Apocalypse and do his bidding.
In a terrible blow against the X-Factor team, Apocalypse had transformed the Angel into one of his Horsemen, Death. After a government amputation of his wings, the hero seemed to have committed suicide but in reality he was captured by the villain and brainwashed into the being Death. With new mechanical wings that shot blades and missiles, he attacked his former teammates as an underling of Apocalypse. The Horsemen appear to be a big part of Apocalypse’s plan in the new film. Played by Oscar Isaac, the villain recruits Storm, Psylocke, Magneto, and the Angel as his Four Horsemen. It should be exciting to see what other elements are brought from the pages to the screen…