Marvel Comics has been in a weird spot for some time. While the company’s movie division has done… just historical levels of business with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its source material, the comics themselves, were left to languish for years. This produced some truly wonderful series in the margins — hidden in whichever shadows the larger company couldn’t see, on books it couldn’t care less about supporting. Whereas key series were either de-prioritized (e.g. the X-Men) or handed to mediocre centrists who yell at people on Twitter (e.g. Nazi Captain America).
But times are changing. Sort of… No, Marvel isn’t handing its marquee brands to the talented creators (many of them women and people of color) who barely managed to keep the comic company relevant for a decade. Don’t be silly. But it is, uh, letting more interesting middle-aged white dudes write Avengers and X-Men and stuff. And hey! Ta-Nehisi Coates is on Captain America. At the same time, a person of color is the central author for the more interesting of the two Spider-Men for the first time ever. That’s something!
During this not entirely Earth-shattering shakeup came the return of Jonathan Hickman. Longtime fans may remember him as the man who wrote the last truly great runs of Fantastic Four and the Avengers. He also helped Marvel pen its very cool reboot, the 2015-2016 Secret Wars miniseries, before bouncing out of the Big Two publisher. Hickman followed up with some indie stuff (notably the sci-fi fantasy series East of West alongside Nick Dragotta). Now he’s back at the big M and in charge of… The X-Men?
To Me, My X-Men
If you yourself bounced out of Marvel Comics, or at least stopped following its fortunes for the last few years, that might come as a surprise. The X-Men were once the most bankable sub-franchise within the House of Ideas. Then Marvel got into a pissing contest with 20th Century Fox over the movie rights to its mutant characters, the Fantastic Four, and some other stuff not as many people care about. Both series were subsequently de-prioritized, with most of the X-Men and FF dying, disappearing, or just generally becoming unimportant. But now Disney, the immorally wealthy Marvel parent company with an indefensible media monopoly, owns all that stuff! So Marvel’s magnificent mutants and its first family are allowed to be cool (and alive) again.
And, putting the internal and external politics of the company aside as much as possible, the series are genuinely pretty cool. The X-Men in particular just got a major overhaul from Hickman — as well as artists Pepe Larraz and R.B. Silva.
Anyone familiar with Marvel will recognize the structure immediately. Alongside his co-creators, Hickman is penning two overlapping X-Men miniseries. House of X takes place in the modern day with the mutants you know and… love? There’s Professor Xavier, Wolverine, Cyclops, Magneto, and Jean Grey. Then there’s Powers of X. This takes place decades and eventually eons in the future. Humanity has been supplanted by mutantkind and artificial intelligence. Fictional annotations tease out the horrifying history that led to this point.
Many Lives Intertwined
That’s where Hickman excels: writing fictional histories. East of West uses a very, very similar storytelling model. But the results are very different. That becomes especially clear in House of X #2 (just released this week). It retcons a major X-Men character in a way that totally rewrites Marvel canon, while incorporating everything that came before. Again, this is a pretty common Marvel “trick,” but Hickman does it better than most.
The aforementioned character is Moira MacTaggert: the human ex-wife of Prof X. Except now Moira is neither of those things. House of X #2 revealed that Moira is herself a mutant, albeit one with hard-to-recognize power. She has the ability to reincarnate — into her own body, at the start of her own life, over and over again. She’s basically stuck in a Groundhog Day-style retread of her own life. Except each cycles starts with her in the womb. Eesh!
That’s not the worst of it, though. Moira has, according to an infographic in House of X, lived at least 10 parallel lifetimes. The current Marvel continuity takes place in just one of them. Seeing the mutant race wiped out so many times in all the others “radicalized” Moira. So much so that she has worked with villains like Magneto and Apocalypse to try and save them.
X-Men vs. The Fantastic Four?
How this plays into the rest of the X-Men plot is unclear. But things are definitely different. Xavier and company have turned the living, mutant island of Krakoa into a decentralized nation for their kind. No humans allowed. And, in order to compete with other global superpowers, the X-Men are gathering their own super-weapons. Namely: Omega-level mutants. These are, for all intents and purposes, the less than a dozen mutants in the Marvel universe who can single-handedly end the world. Their abilities are just that great. That makes them weapons of mass destruction to compete with, say, nukes.
The only Omega-level mutant not affiliated with the X-Men of Krakoa, or otherwise independent, is Franklin Richards: the son of Reed Richards and Susan Storm-Richards. That is to say, he’s part of the Fantastic Four. Funny how that works out! The two prime, formerly Fox properties are set right up to butt heads over this at some point. It’s led to some speculation about an X-Men vs. Fantastic Four event sometime later.
If this kind of comic book politicking sounds intriguing, it is. Sort of… The interwoven fictional timelines are very fun to untangle. Cyclops, who has been written as the most politically radical X-Man of the past few years, feels true to that vision. At least he has in the very brief time we’ve seen him on the page. And Hickman is great at writing the quietly sinister super-science surrounding Krakoa.
But it’s all very familiar. One of Marvel’s biggest recurring missteps with the X-Men — and modern Cyclops in particular — has been framing them as the bad guys. That goes all the way back to Avengers vs. X-Men in 2012. The mutants are bad for using violence to protect themselves, even after getting genocided a few times. Sure, the X-Men are a piss poor allegory for civil rights. If a gay person or a black man get angry in public, they can’t shoot laser eyes at somebody (despite what some people say). But the allegory for persecuted people is there. It always has been. And the comparison only gets hairier as we get closer to actual, white nationalist-fueled genocide in the U.S.
Hickman, Silva, and Larraz haven’t really addressed that so far. Instead Magneto is talking about how mutants are humanity’s new gods. Powers of X #1 establishes A.I. as a “clean villain” — an inhuman boogeyman divorced from the real people who profit and suffer from such technology right now. And what about Moira? When does her in utero consciousness begin? Is it at conception? Because, again, eesh!
Like all media (not to mention Marvel Comics itself) House of X and Powers of X cannot escape the gravity of real-world politics. But Hickman doesn’t strike me as someone who intentionally factors those realities into his mainstream work. Although they obviously influence him passively. If this X-Men reboot takes a more active role in addressing both Marvel history and our own, it could be a very good sign of things to come. If not, we’re just stuck in the same weird spot as always. Either way, I’m a damn sight more interested to see where the X-Men are headed than I have been in a long, long time.