There's no shortage of X-Men titles on the shelves. Warren Ellis's Astonishing X-Men explores A-list team dynamics, while X-Men Legacy focuses on the life of Professor X. Uncanny X-Men continues its long run; the new X-Force is for fans who like their heroics to toe a moral line. I have no idea what Dark X-Men is about and am equally lost when it comes to Wolverine's solo books. Time-traveling X-Man Cable has his own book, and the entire X-Men continuity takes a trip backward in time with Chris Claremont's bubble-universe reboot in X-Men Forever. I'm probably missing about five other titles, but you get the idea: there's something for everyone. Flirting in the periphery of all these books is writer Peter David's X-Factor, the best X-book on the market, and it's hitting its peak this winter with two must-read collections.
David is no stranger to the title, as he wrote the series to fan acclaim in the early 1990s (collected in an "Essential" series of paperbacks) and returned to relaunch it in 2005 as a distinctively noirish take on the X-Men team book. Led by Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, X-Factor investigates mutant mysteries and injustices with a dry sense of humor that's missing from most of its brethren (team member Guido's codename is "Strong Guy," for example).
Since its relaunch, David has kept the team's roster filled with strictly B and C-listers (including Longshot, my favorite X-Man), enabling the stories to have actual consequences without fear of upsetting the status quo of, say, the Wolverine franchise. Recently, these consequences have come to a definite head, and there's been a sense of ramping and wrapping up plotlines, beginning with X-Factor: Time and a Half.
The book opens with a recap of past events, most notably team member Siryn's pregnancy by way of Madrox. X-babies are rarely without drama, but David threw a curveball into the birth that left me reeling. In a world of perpetual supervillain wedding crashers and baby-nappings, to bring something as original and terrifying as what happens in the very first chapter of this book is impressive enough. But David keeps the pressure mounting by introducing a new team member in the next chapter--one who's lain dormant for years, mired in 1990s clichés. And then there's the kiss that set the comic book Internet ablaze for a few days (warning: heavy spoilers at the link).
At the book's close, David places several long-dangling plot threads at the cusp of resolution, and it's in the follow-up volume, X-Factor: Overtime, where he rewards longtime readers with shocking revelations intermixed with cackle-inducing dialogue and quiet (and sometimes loud) character moments. Overtime is full of action and gritted teeth, but these are necessary battles, rather than gratuitous splash pages to pad chapters. David also reveals new dimensions to old powers of several characters, including the origin of Layla Miller's--a character whose backstory has been in high demand since Volume 1. And it does not disappoint
David pushes his team forward at the finish of the overarching plot in these two titles, turning well-tread devices (time travel, mind control, surprise character reveals) into the means with which to tell significant X-Men stories. But some of the best moments are when he lets his characters stop being superheroes, as is the case when Madrox visits his wayward "dupe." It's a welcome chapter, featuring a conversation free of mid-fight quips and exposition-driven chatter. It's pathos.
For fans who are new to the series: Time and a Half is a pick-up-and-read book, and it's necessary to read before Overtime, although there will be a few head-scratching moments if you are unfamiliar with the team dynamics. An obvious but good place to start filling in the blanks would be with Volume 1 of the series, while House of M and Messiah Complex will clarify a few other details if you're curious.
P.S. Happy New Year!