Monday, March 6, 2006

Comics Review: March 6

X-Factor #4

This issue concludes the series' introductory arc, as the conflict between X-Factor and Singularity Investigations crystallizes (though Singularity is still coming off much more like an evil law firm than a rival detective agency - since when do investigators protect clients from murder charges?). Meanwhile, the Mutant Town riots force Strong Guy, Wolfsbane and Siryn to stake a claim they may not be able to enforce, M solves the Santiago case on her own, and Layla... well, she knows stuff.

It all comes together nicely, but I find I'm not completely sold on "X-Factor" just yet - it feels like Peter David is trying to juggle one too many plots, especially for an opening storyline. And the balance between these various subplots would seem to contradict the book's stated premise: it's been classified as a detective series, but the Santiago case is relegated to the backburner in favor of the cloak-and-dagger machinations of Singularity and the enigma of Layla Miller. What should have been a four-issue mystery becomes three issues of "our client has been arrested" followed by a brief and speedy fix that does not emerge from any kind of detective work.

Again, the problem is that PAD insists on making "X-Factor" an explicit event spinoff; that is to say, in addition to all the potential storylines you could extract from the "mutant detective" angle alone, he's also dealing with "House of M"/"Decimation" fallout in its various forms. At the same time, it's debatable whether anyone at Marvel sees this series as a vehicle for that agenda: Joe Quesada would probably maintain that "Deadly Genesis" is the primary "Decimation" series, purely in terms of direct relevance to upcoming stories. PAD ends up caught in his own snare: he's writing a fringe book that's desperately trying to thrust itself into the mainstream by promising to address plot threads that belong in other books. That's all well and good in the short term, but it doesn't make for much of a long-term plan.

The question I've been struggling with since I started reading this series is "Where is this book going?" After four issues, I still can't seem to find a definitive answer. The writing is still well above average, which is why I'm sticking around for now, but I don't see "X-Factor" surviving very long unless it defines itself in opposition to the generic X-book, by offering something the other books don't.


Sentinel Vol. 2 (5 issues)

I enjoyed Sean McKeever's first run of "Sentinel" quite a bit, back in the old Tsunami days. It represented a rarity in Marvel at the time: Bill Jemas having a good idea. Specifically, it was something of a trend during his regime to tell Marvel Universe stories without the explicit tropes and presence of the Marvel Universe. For example, the first volume of "Runaways" had the Avengers on TV, or radio broadcasts about the Fantastic Four, but these icons were always very distant from the protagonists. It was a ground-level view of Marvel superheroes, lower even than Phil Sheldon from Busiek's "Marvels" because he still participates in that world. Someone like Juston Seyfert or the X-Statix are in the Marvel Universe but not of the Marvel Universe. In other words, their stories were their own, and if you were familiar enough to see another layer of context, well, that was your reward for being a loyal Marvel reader.

This practice has more or less fallen apart under the Buckley administration. The second run of "Runaways" kicked off with guest-stars galore, and while Vaughan has promised an end to that for the forseeable future, it doesn't change what's already seen print. In fact, the greater movement trend-wise seems to be going back to the concept of a shared universe, one book's subplots intruding on another's, that sort of thing. Frankly, I find the idea dreadful - its advocates justify their arguments by claiming it worked in the '60s and made Marvel what it is today, which misses the obvious counter-point: Marvel was much smaller then. It's much easier to coordinate twelve books by six writers than sixty books by forty writers plus the Hollywood brigade. It's just begging for disaster. Leaving that aside, is a shared universe really the answer to Marvel's problems? It worked way back in the Time That Land Forgot because the characters were the selling point; it was a very big deal if Namor suddenly appeared in "X-Men". But that paradigm eventually gave way to the Dark Decade of the '90s, where artists became the star attraction. These days, the writers are the ones who push the book, whose names are used to draw attention. Which J. Michael Straczynski doesn't need to write a pointless one-panel scene where Peter Parker's spider-sense goes off in "Amazing Spider-Man", just to acknowledge the return of Apocalypse in Peter Milligan's "X-Men" - nobody cares.

You'll notice that I haven't actually said anything about the recent "Sentinel" miniseries yet. This is because, tangent aside, there's very, very little to say about it. Having received an extension over a year after the first series concluded, Sean McKeever then proceeds to jog in place for five issues. Oh, there's a big robot fight, and we learn the Sentinel's "secret origin", but by the end of the story Juston and the Sentinel are still together, his mother is still MIA, the CSA is still in the dark, Jessie is still just a friend... there's no closure, no change, the story goes right back to status quo. It doesn't even resolve the plot threads left over from the previous run. On the one hand, this was probably done with the possibility of a third sequel in mind... but I can't help feel a little cheated that this whole miniseries ends up treading water. Juston gets some development, but every other character remains more or less exactly where we left them, and there's no sense that anything especially significant ultimately happens. A bitter disappointment.