Taking on the voluntary mission of being the latest — in a long line of authors — to reintroduce a famous superhero team like the X-Men, in my humble opinion, is akin to reinventing the wheel or building a better mousetrap.
No matter how good your concept, and no matter how unique your perspective, there will always be another author who came before you and did it better.
Comics like X-Men thrive on a strange combination of synergy with certain names who fans always want to see and failure. X-Men, traditionally, are a “one step forward and three steps back” group, i.e. for every step towards progress, for every Genosha, Asteroid M, and Utopia, there are Days of Future Pasts and Ages of Apocalypse to haunt the horizon. Authors traditionally have to walk a delicate line of introducing a great X-team, but also advancing the narrative forward just enough to ensure that their ideas are not big enough to be quashed by the next writer who’ll want things returned to the status-quo.
So, if X-books are seemingly doomed to need mutants to be hated and feared, what does it take to actually achieve narrative progress in an X-book?
In my view, making the world of mutants feel unique from the regular world of the homo sapiens would be a darn good start. Which is exactly what Jonathan Hickman seems to be doing through his twin texts, House of X and Powers of X.
I’ll be blunt and open about something that has always concerned me with X-Men as a comic, as an IP, and as a team: they don’t belong in the Marvel Universe. It has never, ever made sense to me, and I am quoting something by an author whom I cannot remember to give credit here so … forgive me … but it makes no sense that Wolverine is loved as Avenger and loathed as an X-Man.
“What” the Marvel Universe is, a world of varied and weird heroes with very human lives, is utterly disconnected from the pathos at the heart of X-Men, at least to me. I always wonder, as Spider-Man did in the old 90s cartoon, why he couldn’t be an X-Man since he was technically a “mutant.” The response, simply, was that he wasn’t born one. He wasn’t accustomed to having lived as a mutant and having to have hidden part of himself away. He was born and raised human only to have lucked into a series of powers that made him different.
Even now, that’s a tough line to have to hold fast to in a world with Inhumans, Eternals, and alien hybrids of all kinds.
My desire, on a personal level, was to understand what made “being a mutant” unique within the Marvel Universe. Weirdly this niche was always served better through the Inhumans, yet they were a group with (unfortunately) far less impact.
The X-Men are the freak’n X-Men.
They hold a special place within comic history, so it was always strange to me to see middling attempts to explore unique aspects of mutantkind by writers continually upended — or worse, to see no progress made at all in shaping how mutants and humans exist in separate cultural spheres. The reality is, these two cultures should have to come to terms with co-existence — even if painfully — or die.
This all a very longwinded way of saying that, to build a better x-book, Hickman seems to have started by avoiding any introduction of a snazzy new X-team. In ignoring any attempt at nostalgia by dangling Wolverine, Storm, Jean, etc. in front of readers, it seems that Hickman is instead focusing on defining the “state” of mutantkind as it exists in his unique view of the Marvel Universe’s “present day.” I think this is important to recognize, because it then means that geography and culture are going to be two huge things his book has to deliver upon, and so far he’s doing a great job via a very “Hickman-esque” cheat: expository documents.
Okay, so maybe you didn’t start reading this to hear me explain why potentially cheap dodges to the “show, don’t tell” rule are making this comic great, but hear me out on this concept. Having notes and well-written documentation implies that somewhere, there is a fleshed out narrative with a conclusion at the end. You can’t write a fictitious history without knowing where multiple narrative threads will lead. I love that there is a historical account of the fact that a popular X-villain is executed on, if I am not mistaken, the planet Mars.
That is wild, it’s stupid, and the fact Hickman establishes this as a (seemingly) fixed point in time means that whatever else he has planned will go towards a certain end goal. Or, for the moment, it seems there are certain end goals in sight. I am sure there will be twists involved, but taking the scope away from X-Men as a group and focusing more on mutants as a species is a great move … that, I’ll have to admit, could fizzle.
For the moment, the execution is going well, but I also thought that Utopia was going to be a “thing” almost a decade ago that would stick around. What seems to be keeping this proposed mutant narrative in place is actually one character, that of Moira MacTaggert.
X-Men is a comic that tries, often, to play fast and lose with genetics, nanomachines, and other kinds of “hard science” materials. There isn’t anything wrong with this. Plenty of comics do it, but in the case of X-Men, writers often play with fire like this: an often evil group/character makes use of something to change mutants, cure mutants, or kill mutants.
This new “hard science” McGuffin becomes a house-guest that serves no function within the story except to deliver its function. Often this function is concluded at the end of the comic run or that author’s story — thus delivering a plot focused on mutation and not wholly on mutants. I don’t care about the Legacy Virus, or Mothervine, or any of the countless science-based nanite/blood/alien/future concoctions brought in to push a story.
I want mutants to progress beyond being eternal victims of Sentinels, or being pushed into eternal genocide stories with Holocaust parallels. I want to see mutants win, evolve, and grow as a society, I want to see the promise of what mutation means stop being quashed by the nostalgic desire to see X-Men as rebels, underground fighters, and anti-heroes.
In the same way, I have always loved Peter Parker as an older college student with his life (somewhat) together in a happy marriage, even though there clearly is a need to constantly return/reduce him to a high school kid. I get that need, and there have been many runs of Spider-Man where he has been both an adult, a kid, a husband, a CEO, whatever. But the X-Men have, in my living memory as a comics fan, never had stability.
The X-Men deserve a chance to be more than just a group that is hated and feared, and boy does Hickman — via Magneto of all characters — promise something new. Is saying mutants are going to be “gods” the right push? At this point, if it means not seeing mutants under the boot heel of Sentinels? I’ll take it.
Hickman’s notes and addenda provide concrete(ish) proof that in time, humanity pushes past its nature and does indeed evolve. Having this as a fixed element — instead of the drama behind questioning “Is this good or bad?” — is different. Having Magneto and Xavier together pushing an agenda where mutants are saying “No, you move.” is bold, and I am down for it.
X-books have also had a tendency to focus on certain members more than others, such as Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean, etc. to the detriment of its infinite cast. One hallmark of every great X-author seems to be their introduction to new and varied mutants, so I am intrigued by Hickman placing all his eggs in the character of Moira.
In a kind of twist, it isn’t so much that Hickman is making a new mutant, as he is muta’fying an existing character to serve as a narrative tool. I want to be mad about this, but Moira’s abilities and motives channel a lot of what I feel was always hopeless about X-comics and the IP that built up around them: there was no story except the continued destruction of mutants (which needed to be avoided, aso that mutants could withstand another cycle of abuse and destruction to live on in next month’s comics).
Moira’s repeated experiences seem, amusingly, to align with some of the bigger X-narratives i.e. ones where Magneto is the penultimate driver of the plot, where the Trasks and Sentinels are the key threat, or even when Apocalypse shows up every now and again. None of these plots result in anything different, and Moira’s frustration is palpable as she finally (via Hickman, obviously) tries something different. What is that different thing? We don’t know yet, but I am willing to find out.
Placing all his eggs in Moira’s basket (and a new mutant power) to drive the story forward is risky, and it almost didn’t work for me … except what Hickman channels is a frustrated person wanting change and being faced with a seemingly never-ending series of roadblocks. I sympathize with that plight and so, if it means change, I am down for seeing what Moira and Charles are up to.
This last point I want to address is a nit-pick and I am still working through how I feel about it, so I hope I am clear about this.
In a way, feeling uncomfortable about X-Men is a new feeling and I am both digging it and worried by the implications so … Franklin Richards.
First, I am just glad the kid was addressed in House of X #1 as the key figure he should be (which is no surprise, considering Hickman’s use of him in the past). But the exchange between Cyclops and Sue Storm over Franklin is not something I recall a lot from the overarching X-Men narrative.
Maybe this is my limitations on the lore but … have we ever had a spiritual mutant custody battle? Hope Summers’ role in the Avengers vs. X-Men plot was never really over her. It was about opposing views on action vs. reaction toward the Phoenix Force and its role in the story. Cyclops directly saying that Franklin is as much family to mutants as Sue and Reed — and that one day he’ll be able to join them — feels haunting. I don’t read Cyclops as being intentionally threatening, but the implications of children eventually having to chose between their biological (inferior) parents and their new (superior) species pushes the heart of X-Men into a space where questions over evolution are paramount to threats of destruction.
I am not saying both are unrelated, but often what is prevalent in X-stories is destruction. Cyclops talking to Sue Storm about Franklin and his future sets a dynamic I am unfamiliar with, although I am not sure what role Xavier and Magneto intend for Franklin. Still, the issue of Franklin and his powers has been a long, long-running FF and X-Men crossover concept for decades, so I am all for seeing where this plot might go in the future.