The first X-Men spin-off team to receive it's own Essential volume, X-Factor hit the stands in 1985 in answer to demands to see the original X-Men team back in action again. Of course, it required Jean "Marvel Girl" Grey to return from the dead, but that's hardly uncommon in the world of comics. The origin of X-Factor, according to writer Bob Layton, is that the winged billionaire Warren "Angel" Worthington got the idea to bankroll a team of private investigators who would answer calls regarding the ubiquitous "mutant menace" and contain the threat. The catch is that the mutant hunters are really our friends Cyclops, Iceman and the rest in disguise and that the front will allow them to find wayward mutants, teach them to control their powers and live peaceful lives as Xavier taught them, and as Angel put it, "take the mutant-haters to the cleaners". It appeared to me at first to be an overly roundabout way of operating, but the idea was certainly fresh and new, plus I was definitely in the mood for seeing Bobby, Hank and the guys again (since the Essential Uncanny X-Men 2 doesn't seem to coming with any haste). So let's see how the old cast and the new scheme factors into X-Factor, shall we?
First of all, I'd like to discuss the convenient miracle that made X-Factor possible: Jean's rebirth. As my fellow X-fans will recall, when Jean piloted a space shuttle through mysterious cosmic radiation back to Earth in X-Men #100-1 she emerged from her crash landing in Jamaica Bay with incredible powers and insisted on the new moniker of "Phoenix". The rest of the team studied her and gawked at her for a while until she went mad with power, flew off into space, and exterminated an entire race of asparagus people. When the Shi'ar Empire threatened to hold Earth accountable for the genocide, Jean Grey nobly sacrificed her life to atone for the crime, and that was the end of that chapter. But, you see, that wasn't actually Jean who died but rather a simulacrum of Jean that the Phoenix inhabited because it wanted to experience life in a mortal's form. Back on the shuttle, the Phoenix sealed Jean into a protective cocoon so she could heal from her severe radiation burns, then went on to masquerade as Jean, neglecting to tell her friends what happened (Yeah, that's the ticket). I find it very hard to believe that a supremely powerful cosmic entity described as "light and life incarnate" would stick a severely injured woman in a pod and leave her at the bottom of the sea for years "to heal" and then callously abscond with her identity. I'm assuming that the writers wanted an explanation more substantial then the obvious "She came back to life. She's the Phoenix. It's what they do". Regardless, the story made for the most egregious abuse of a "Marvel death" until Norman Osborn showed up and said the Green Goblin formula made him immune to bat-glider impalement.
After the Avengers and the FF were kind enough to help Jean become alive again, X-Factor was ready to open its doors to the mutophobic public and start logging in some adventures. Their first two beneficiaries were pyrokinetic Navy midshipman Rusty Collins and the mute, disfigured young psion named Artie Maddicks (it wasn't their style to go by cool handles like Backdraft or Slideshow, apparently). During the mission where they met Artie, the Beast was subjected to an experiment which made him lose all of his fur (all the better to go undercover as a human for the team). Later, the ancient A-list mutant villain Apocalypse was introduced initially as a San Diego crime boss who had four superhuman lieutenants called, get this, the Alliance of Evil (Let's cut ol' Pocky some slack here, folks, he was still new to the super-villain game, being only 5000 years old and all). At this point, Louise Simonson, wife of the famed artist Walt, took over as writer and I'd say the series really improved because of her. In the excellent Annual, the team jets to Soviet Russia to stop the vile mutant medical experiments of the Doppelganger (I knew there was a super-villain called the Doppelganger out there somewhere! It's a great name!). She very ably guides the team through the Mutant Massacre (Yes, the whole thing's back again, all except the X-Men and New Mutants issues. X-Factor had a cameo appearance in X-Men #210, and that's all). She sets Cyclops against the towering metal maniac Master-Mold in pitched battle across Anchorage, Alaska (That would've made for a great Northern Exposure episode, am I right?). Plus she's the one who gave Apocalypse his "Survival of the Fittest" credo, had him start gathering his "Horsemen", and basically made him into the big blue harbinger of doom that we all know and loathe.
The series has plenty of stories that make for a delicious literary meal, but it's not without some bewildering elements that can make it taste a little stale. I'll never forget the issue about the Glowworm and the Bulk (Bulk Smash!), mutants dying from radiation poisoning who petitioned X-Factor for help. Sure, Hank could have whipped up some radio-absorbent suits or something like comic book scientists tend to do, but instead Scott decides to just banish them to New Jersey to die. After that proud moment, Scott and Jean chase a band of bitter displaced Morlocks to a police standoff and, in a gesture of peace, Cyclops destroys their cover with an optic blast allowing the paranoid cops to gun one down (My hero!). Also, the waif Skids claims to have an impenetrable frictionless force-field surrounding her permanently. So how does she eat, breathe, walk, or wear clothes (Didn't this same thing happen to Unus back in X-Men #8)? Speaking of the X-Men, the gang never tries to say hello and compare notes with the former team because Magneto was admitted into their ranks and they think that they've all turned to the dark side. I really can't fathom why they act this way; Cyclops himself was at the Trial of Magneto where Xavier personally vouched for Erik after his pardon.
The situations with X-Factor may be hokey and brow-furrowing, but what they do best is provide reverberant inter-personal conflicts, just the way Stan and Jack loved it in the `60's. Cyclops left his wife and infant son to lead X-Factor and return to Jean, and naturally he represses his emotions and doesn't tell Jean about his dead-ringer of a spouse. Jean's estranged sister Sara speaks out against mutant violence and is then believed killed in a bomb attack against her home. Finally, the high-flying Angel loses his love, his business, and practically everything else in one incredibly tragic day. Please forgive me for saying this, but I rather enjoyed watching that feather-headed pretty boy get taken down a few thousand pegs. I still remember all too well his early cock-of-the-walk days when he said stuff like "Sometimes I feel like my wings make me the most powerful of all the X-Men". Hey, Daddy Warbucks! I can name two dozen supers who can fly WITHOUT wings and do a whole lot besides!
It's not a perfect collection, but I'm still glad to have it on my shelf. For all of you fellow comic fans reading this, ask yourselves these following questions. Do you like the classic X-Men? Do you prefer having well-scripted soap operatic dialogue in between superheroic slugfests? Do you think Cyclops should keep using his desire to fight for a peaceful future between man and mutant as justification for being a colossal jerk? If so, then the Essential X-Factor should look great on your Christmas wish list.