Jonathan Hickman’s X-MEN, and the House that Metaphor Built

The X-Men’s new storyline House of X/Powers of X, which promised to introduce a new era of X-Men stories, has passed its midpoint. While reading this storyline, I’ve been thinking about what drew me to the X-Men years ago and what it means to be a fan of a meaningful story that’s been published by a large media company for decades.

Ever since watching the X-Men: Evolution cartoon show on Saturday mornings, I’ve been a fan of the X-Men and the mutant metaphor has always been a part of what I enjoy about the stories. And it’s not that I only enjoyed the stories that focused on the metaphor. Rather, I enjoyed the combination of stories that focused on the metaphor and those that didn’t.

From the stories about discrimination to the stories about the X-Men hanging out, and everything in between, I loved the variety. Importantly, the fact that the X-Men are a demographically diverse group means that the stories have the potential to show the variety of experiences and views that can exist within any group, because no group is a monolith.

Like many fans, especially kid and teenage fans, I had my own hopes for the X-Men (including the potential inclusion of more characters from marginalized demographics) and perhaps had an elevated view based on my own interpretations.

Since my years watching the cartoon show, I’ve gained a newfound love of X-Men stories from the 1970s and 1980s. And yet, despite being a fan of the characters, in the past five years that I’ve been reading monthly comics, I’ve had a challenge in finding a recent flagship X-Men book to enjoy. I get the feeling that I’m not the only X-Men fan who has had this experience, as the X-Men have seemed to be caught in an endless string of random events for some time.

In addition, the mutant metaphor has become a part that I’ve come to find the most frustrating. By the time the current re-launch of X-Men was announced, I wasn’t even looking forward to it, but decided to try out the series anyway, especially after seeing the excitement of other fans. As I’ve been reading, I’ve been having mixed feelings, and I think I’ve realized why.

This relaunch promises to be a new beginning for the X-Men, on par with defining memorable beginnings such as Giant-Size X-Men (1975), X-Men #1 (1991), Age of Apocalypse (1995), and New-Men (2001). It’s a tall order, and there’s a lot to love in House/Powers of X indicating it might live up to the hype. The storyline is suspenseful; it leaves me wanting to read more and trying to figure out what will happen next. The dialogue between the characters flows well. The artwork really pulls the reader in the story.

And I especially love the artwork in the Krakoa habitats, which make this new nation already feel like a place as significant as some of the most significant places in the history of the X-Men books. The plot is clearly intricately crafted, with each issue revealing major new information. The last few issues have added an element reminiscent of the classic “Days of Future Past.” The text pages and Krakoan alphabet provide additional world building and clues. I read the fascinating first few issues multiple times, as there were clearly various hints in the story and more to find upon rereading.

Interior art by Pepe Larraz

Perhaps the most heartening thing about the beginning of this series is that the mutant characters are taking actions that drive the story, planning for the future. The decision to create the nation state of Krakoa feels as significant as previous decisions to create the Xavier School and its rival organizations.

In the past five years, though I’ve enjoyed some mini-series and one-shots, the flagship titles (at least, the ones I tried reading) often seemed to be staying in the same place (despite surprise plot points) and just introducing some events for the characters to react to, rather than being driven by characters’ actions. Series like Storm or the second volume of All-New X-Men stood out because of the character-focused plot in which the character development played an important role.

This is where my feelings become mixed regarding House/Powers of X, as I remember all the times that I’ve been let down by recent X-Men series and ways in which this series is similar. Despite starting as a character driven story, this series is so heavily focused on the plans of a handful of characters despite presumably being about a worldwide family. I have felt this more and more with the passing issues.

I find myself thinking back to the first issue, specifically two passages that illustrate my apprehensions about the future of the X-Men.

Interior art by Pepe Larraz

The first is the scene with Scott Summers speaking with the Fantastic Four, in which his reaction to Sue Storm seems to suggest that he thinks she would not understand his experiences of discrimination as a mutant. It felt off, partly because of the gender dynamic of the conversation, with Sue Storm being part of a real-world marginalized group.

At the same time, this passage, including Scott’s comment about the Richards’ son Franklin, does add to my interest on the internal conflicts within Krakoa. I’m not sure of the future of Krakoa, but I think of all the real-world nations and organizations that come together based on a shared identity and the resulting internal conflict that naturally happens, as no group is a monolith in experiences, views, or goals for the future.

Though there are limitations to the metaphor of Xavier’s conflict with other mutant leaders like Magneto or Mystique, I do think it can be relevant to bring up the conflicts within a marginalized group, to avoid homogenizing them while only those in the majority get individual characteristics. The X-Men stories have the potential to do this precisely because mutants are a demographic and not characters who got superpowers individually.

Interior art by Pepe Larraz

Despite this potential, and the relevance to many current events, the X-Men stories have often fallen short.

To be fair, the impression this book leaves on this topic is not all due to the work of the creative team, but also the wider context of Marvel’s shortcomings on being inclusive in creative teams and diversity within stories. There have been multiple questionable decisions this year alone.

This makes the reader even more cynical about the whole. Marvel is sometimes called The House That Jack Built, after the famous Jack Kirby. Many Jewish immigrants and children of immigrants like Kirby created many of Marvel’s most famous characters. Even though many marginalized people today can relate to the stories of these characters and appreciate the hard work of their creators — many of whom were not fairly compensated for their work — Marvel doesn’t seem to respect that history.

Despite fans’ appreciation of the message of the metaphor in the X-Men stories, Marvel unfortunately doesn’t seem to care much about inclusion in The House That Xavier Built.

Interior art by Pepe Larraz

The second is the part with Jean Grey bringing mutant youth into the Graymalkin Habitat. Not only did it feel meaningful that she was the one to do this, when the very first X-Men issue shows her arrival at the Xavier School, but the kids’ reactions were very moving.

Personally, I found the passage more impactful than the passages of Professor Xavier, Magneto, or Scott Summers making their declarative speeches, since it shows the effect on other mutants. In X-Men stories, even though the school is named after Xavier, the students and the impact the school has had on their lives is an integral part.

Part of what has always been appealing about the Xavier School to readers from marginalized demographics are the experiences of the students in the school, and how their lives are affected by finding a home with others like them. The students are the people who the school (or in this case, Krakoa) is supposed to be for; their character development is what has made fans fall in love with them.

Interior art by Pepe Larraz

Whenever I read new X-Men books, I’m reminded of my very first attempt at reading X-Men comics as a teenager and how confusing it was. Most of these books presume the reader is already familiar with the characters’ backstory, has read at least several eras of X-Men stories, and knows which resources have additional information to fill in the details they might now know.

The fact that X-Men stories presume decades of knowledge to understand the plot often means that even stories that technically have a beginning, middle, and end still feel incomplete, especially if the story itself doesn’t focus on why we should care about the characters. I would love it if new eras of X-Men brought in new readers with stories about well-developed characters. I’m hoping that the books that follow will have this characteristic.

In-universe, the X-Men give hope to the mutants who they help, and as a reader, I’m trying to keep up hope for the future of the X-Men’s stories. There have been so many events and various attempts at throwing surprise plot points into the X-Men’s stories over the years, many of which have ended up going nowhere. I hope that this story, which has such a fascinating beginning, sets up a storyline that brings back what readers love about the X-Men and improves on the past in the process.

I can say now that I’m enjoying this book as a story; it remains to be seen whether I enjoy it as an X-Men story.


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