By Dan Grote
If Buzzfeed ran a listicle of “90 comics only ’90s kids understand,” X-Factor #87 would likely be near the top of the list. And not just because it opens with a splash-page Ren & Stimpy parody co-starring a character co-created by Rob Liefeld, which is about as of-that-decade as you can get without a foil-embossed cover and a polybagged trading card.
The comic by Peter David and a then-up-and-coming Joe Quesada is one of those post-event “quiet issues” that were a stock-in-trade of the period. Specifically, it followed X-Cutioner’s Song – the 1992 crossover centered on the drama of the Summers family.
But issue #87 doesn’t comment on that story, even though the team is led by a Summers brother. Song was a commercial that interrupted a story writer Peter David was in the middle of telling regarding a group of Genoshan expatriates, one of whom died under X-Factor’s care. David was famously tetchy about sharing his toys, and in fact, he left the book just a few issues from this point, just in time for another X-family crossover, the Magneto-centric Fatal Attractions.
Anyway, as a result of their last mission, #87 finds the team attending government-mandated therapy sessions with Doc Samson (a supporting player in David’s other series of the time, Hulk) and exposing their vulnerabilities. Wolfsbane talks about dreaming in pop-culture parodies and her complicated history with male authority figures. Quicksilver talks about his impatience with everyday life as a byproduct of his mutant superspeed. Strong Guy talks about the day his mutant powers manifested and how he uses humor to hide the physical pain he experiences as a result of them. Multiple Man talks about a fear of being alone caused by a childhood spent on a farm with no other company than his dead parents. Havok talks about leading a team in the shadow of his older brother, the X-Man Cyclops. And government liaison Val Cooper reveals how little she knows about the mutants in her charge.
And then there’s Lorna Dane, aka Polaris.
Lorna gets two sessions with Samson. In the first, she’s reserved. She’s wearing bulky sweats, her arms are folded, her gaze trained on a dish of wrapped candies. An off-hand comment from Samson triggers her to suddenly stand up and exclaim, “Now you’re gonna tell me I’m fat, right?” as she pulls her sweatshirt up to reveal a toned waist, as if a Big Two superheroine in 1993 was going to have anything other than that body type.
After a few more panels of getting sussed out by Samson, she begins to cry, tells the doctor to “get stuffed” – a very Comics Code Authority type of swear – and storms out, leaving tissues to float gently to the ground behind her.
Three teammates later, Lorna returns draped in a trenchcoat and shares, “I want you to know that I’ve dropped fifteen pounds in the last month” before shedding the coat to reveal her new costume, a red-and-gold number with thigh-high boots – effectively a one-piece bathing suit that rides high on the hips and has, because it was 1993, a headsock. Oh, and a boob window. Basically she looked like Image Comics in human form.
Samson’s response when pressed: “You kick my hormones into overdrive.”
…Now, I’m no expert, but that’s probably not something therapists are supposed to say to their patients. “I have an erection. Tell me about your parents.”
The thing is, there are very good reasons for Lorna to have body image and self-worth issues. In the years prior to this, Polaris had been relegated to a bit player who regularly gets possessed, manipulated or kidnapped by random villains. She served as the host for the Marauder Malice. She was abducted by Zaladane and drained of her magnetic powers, somehow in the process developing a She-Hulk-like build. And just before joining the All-New, All-Different X-Factor, she was manipulated by the Shadow King into fighting the X-Men on Muir Island.
That’s a whole lot of trauma… all at the hands of Chris Claremont, it should be noted. The problem was, these were all imperilments for a character who otherwise had no agency. Like Madrox or Strong Guy, David adopted a character who was fertile ground for exploration and growth. Unlike those two, he presents Polaris as the team’s hysterical woman still worthy of the male gaze.
It won’t be the last time the character would experience this portrayal, either. For as much as David’s characterization of Polaris in this issue is uncomfortable, it’s damn near feminist compared with Chuck Austen’s handling of her in his early-2000s run on Uncanny X-Men, when she was the third leg in a love triangle with a post-coma Havok and his nurse, Annie. [editor’s note – actually Chuck Austen rules]
All that said, the reason this issue stands out – the reason this run stands out – is that, while David didn’t create any of these characters, he brought many of them to life, giving them dimensions he’d later revisit in his 2000s run on X-Factor. Certainly no one would care about Multiple Man or Strong Guy were it not for him. In fact, one could argue Jamie Madrox is synonymous with David in a way no other X-character is with any one writer, even those favored by Claremont. But David’s personality and his reluctance to join in the X-Men’s reindeer games also ghettoized the characters in the post-M-Day era.
That ghettoization didn’t start to get undone until last year, when Matthew Rosenberg came on the X-books. He started with New Mutants: Dead Souls, which co-starred Wolfsbane and Strong Guy. Then came Multiple Man, a crazy time-travel adventure in which Madrox annoys the X-Men and uses his powers in ways David never dreamed of. Finally came a run on Astonishing X-Men where Rosenberg somehow redeems Havok, a character who in recent years had become known for giving an unfortunate speech about racism in front of Captain America and then turning into a bad guy through Some Comics Nonsense.
Likely none of those things would have been possible without this one issue.
I didn’t read X-Factor #87 when it came out – I was just a few months shy of regular comics consumption at that point. But it was a back issue I sought out actively on the advice of Matt Lazorwitz, my friend and sherpa up the mountain of comics for 25-plus years, and it remains one of the issues I go back to from the period, along with any issue where the X-Men play sports or Pete Wisdom shows up.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna whistle down the hallway singing “Mutant Mutant Angst Angst.”
Writer: Peter David
Artist: Joe Quesada
Inker: Al Milgrom
Colourist: Marie Javins
Letterer: Richard Starkings
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