Judgement War

(X-Factor (1st series) #43-46, 48-50 -- 1989)

Written by Louise Simonson. Illustrated by Paul Smith, Rich Buckler, Al Milgrom.

When their sentient ship, Ship, is mysteriously summoned to another solar system, X-Factor -- then comprised of the original X-Men (or, at least, their 1980s incarnations -- Warren a.k.a. The Angel was blue skinned with metal wings and called Archangel) -- find themselves marooned and separated on a planet where everyone has mutant powers and have divided into warring societies -- the primitive and physically bizarre Rejects, the technologically advanced and human-looking Chosen who have turned physical appearance into an entire caste system, and the Beginagains who seek a middle way and are, therefore, rejected by Chosen and Rejects alike. Meanwhile the gigantic, unfathomable Celestials oversee all, preparing to render judgement on the worth of this strife torn world.

A surprisingly effective, occasionally moving, epic. "Surprising" because, though the X-Men have had their share of space opera stories, it's maybe not the signature milieu for the characters, and even less so X-Factor -- though by setting it on a world where mutations have run wild it is more thematically connected to the concept than, say, some of their Shi'ar Empire forays. But it's also surprising because, despite having an affection for the "classic" X-Men, X-Factor rarely quite worked for me...and Louise Simonson (nee Jones) has never made much impression on me as a writer. Oh, it's not that she's necessarily any worse than anyone else, and often working on "committee" properties (the X-mags in the 1980s, the Superman comics in the early 1990s) she probably wasn't encouraged to demonstrate a distinctive "voice". Certainly some of the dialogue here can be a bit stiff and clunky.

Yet, it gradually emerges as a pretty impressive epic. Simonson has crafted a complex tale that has the genuine feel of a science fiction novel, with its large cast of characters, its cleverly developed and imaginative cultures, and its various machinations, with factions within the factions meaning it's not just simply about one note "good guys" and "bad guys". For a while, I didn't really feel the X-Factor characters themselves were that well realized (often saddled with clunky, colourless dialogue) but this is a rare situation where you don't care so much, because the world and supporting characters are sufficiently interesting that the team is just part of the story. And as the saga progresses, they seem to click back into character a bit better, speaking in more casual phrasings (perhaps the early issues had Simonson so focused on establishing her story that she was kind of neglecting the "stars" a bit). And though there are a few cutaways to sub-plots (including a short back up piece in #50 setting up the next multi-title crossover epic) the Judgement War plot itself does neatly wrap up, not leaving you with dangling threads or tossing in an extraneous, last minute cliff hanger -- it even wraps up some on going threads, like the secret of Ship's origins, and Jean's schizophrenia.

The art by Paul Smith (inked by Al Milgrom) is attractive, detailed and clean and though Rich Buckler comes in to handle the final chapter (still inked by Milgrom) the change isn't jarring. Funnily enough, there's actually a bit of a Gil Kane vibe in some Smith's pages and you wonder if that was just where his style was at then (or Milgrom's) or whether it was a deliberate tweaking -- maybe the mix of sci-fi and barbarians just put them in mind of something Kane would do.

It is a bit longer than it maybe needs to be. Sometimes with cutting back and forth between the characters involved in their various schemes and plots, you can feel there's a bit of padding. But it genuinely drags you along in its tale of war and peace, of shifting allegiances and philosophical awakenings, with the themes about mistrust and prejudice seeming sincere. Funnily enough, one wonders if Joss Whedon was remembering this story (consciously or subconsciously) when he wrote his Astonishing X-Men arc, Unstoppable. But though Whedon's boasted the better, sharper dialogue...Simonson's is the better, more complex story, and less sordid.

Of course, Simonson was borrowing herself, since stories involving the judgement of the Celestials had been used in previous Marvel Comics.