With a break from the rugby yesterday, I decided it might be a good idea to pay a bit more attention to the world outside of sport. What, exactly, has been going on in the world of politics and culture?
Well, that was a mistake, wasn’t it? Let’s retreat into some make-believe instead and take a look at one of the biggest comics stories of the year, Jonathan Hickman’s reboot of Marvel’s X-Men franchise.
(Spoilers below, if you haven’t read it. And you should—it’s good.)
The X-Men have been one of the mainstays of the Marvel universe for years. Not, unusually, since their creation by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, when they were created as a team of evolutionary misfits, but rather since their relaunch in 1975 by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum. Claremont drove the X-Men to industry-dominating heights, with the help of melodramatic storylines and superstar artists, but in recent years the X-Men have been eclipsed by other Marvel properties. So Hickman was given the green light to relaunch it all with two interlinked miniseries: House of X and Powers of X.
As originally envisioned, the X-Men were mutant children of the atomic age, fighting to protect a world that hated and feared them. However, the original cast suffered from being just a bit dull. Claremont’s success lay in dialling up not just the interpersonal melodrama but also the weirdness. Claremont’s relaunched X-Men expanded the cast to include such fan-favourites as Nightcrawler, Storm, and Wolverine, and he flung them into adventures that spanned space, hell, and the far future. Even the original X-Men were granted depth and pathos, never more so than in the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” a story so successful that it’s dominated and weighed down the X-Men ever since. (The recent X-Men: Dark Phoenix was the second X-Men movie blighted by an attempt to recreate that story.)
Which makes it interesting that Hickman’s relaunch has used almost every element of the X-Men’s complicated history except the Phoenix. This is not an exaggeration. Over the decades, X-Men continuity has sprawled and tangled, and House of X/Powers of X seems to be aiming to disentangle and grant new shape to all that complexity over just twelve issues. This is not a series for newcomers—I haven’t been a regular X-Men reader for years, but I have a quiz-lover’s mind for trivia and have more or less kept up with the state of comics continuity. Someone coming in cold may well struggle to avoid asking questions on every page, though Hickman does his best to provide context in the form of explanatory text and infographics.
So what is House of X/Powers of X? Why two mini-series? In his previous Marvel work on the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, Hickman was given years to lay the groundwork for intricately structured, galaxy-spanning stories. Here he doesn’t have that, so instead he’s treated the past of X-Men continuity as his groundwork, and in an effort to make the result more comprehensible, he’s created two interwoven miniseries. House of X is largely set in the present day, telling the story of how the X-Men try to carve out a new place in the world for themselves. Powers of X sprawls across space and time, from the past to the far future, as it provides backstory necessary to understanding how and why things happen as they do.
Of course, that’s a gross simplification. The central conceit of Powers of X is that the X means 10. Hickman uses four timelines: X(0) is year one, when Charles Xavier founds the X-Men. X(1) is ten years on, the present day, with the X-Men fighting for their place in the world. X(2) is one hundred years on, an apocalyptic future in which the X-Men are on the verge of extinction at the hands of the robotic sentinels, creations of a humanity that is likewise facing extinction. And X(3) is one thousand years on, when the struggles of the past have faded into irrelevance and mutants face more galactic questions.
So, four timelines that inform each other. Complicated enough, right? Well, a few issues into the twin series, Hickman doubled the complexity with the revelation that one of the X-Men’s supporting cast, the human scientist Moira McTaggart, was in fact a mutant. Specifically one with the power to be reborn at the moment of death, living her life again with full memory of all her previous lives. Suddenly there weren’t just four timelines—there were also Moira’s ten lives, almost all of which ended in some form of failure as she sought to resolve the future of mutantkind.
That alone would have been enough to send any reader’s (not to mention the writer’s) head into a spin, but Hickman has been impressively catholic when it comes to drawing from the elements of X-Men continuity. It’s not that he’s including every minor character and forgotten story element, but it can feel that way. The revelation of Moira’s mutant gift is his only real addition to existing lore. Everything else grows from what came before.
The result could have been a brain-melting mess, but it’s not. Hickman enjoys and is an expert at offering his readers tales to challenge their intelligence. Ably aided by his art teams for the two series (Pepe Larraz and Marte Garcia on House and R.B. Silva and Garcia on Powers), he’s delivered an engaging tale of the efforts of one species to avoid extinction. In doing so, he’s largely avoided the metaphor that dominated the X-Men in earlier decades; that of a persecuted minority. Instead, Hickman’s X-Men look to the future and ask a question: where will evolution take us?
The X-Men have had numerous stand-out villains over the years. Some are extreme variations on the X-Men themselves, such as Magneto, Apocalypse, and the Hellfire Club. Some have been X-Men gone bad, such as the aforementioned Phoenix. But the opposition that Hickman favours is simpler: technology. Against humanity’s evolutionary heirs he pits their technological heirs, in the forms of evolving artificial intelligences.
The X-Men have had two major technological foes over the years. The better known are the Sentinels, robotic mutant hunting machines that are typically under human control and tend to evolve into more advanced forms. Less well known are the Phalanx. Unlike the Sentinels, the Phalanx are alien, a technological species that overwhelm and absorb biological species. Probably inspired by Star Trek‘s Borg, the Phalanx are a recurring foe that have provided a serious challenge without ever rhyming thematically with the X-Men themselves.
Hickman changes that by making the Sentinels and Phalanx part of a continuum. As Sentinels are the result of what happens when a species starts to play with AI and self-replicating technology, so the Phalanx are the outgrowth of that on a truly galactic scale. Universe-dominating technology, as shown in the X(3) timeline, which I’m convinced is Moira’s thus far hidden sixth life, in which mutants merge with the Phalanx to protect themselves forever.
Set against this technological ascendancy are the X-Men, who have ensconced themselves on a living island, using bioengineering to barter a space for themselves in a human-dominated world. They have even found a way to cheat death (the common X-Men refrain is “I got better”) using a combination of mutant powers, aided by a modicum of non-AI based technology. The X-Men no longer seek to protect a world that hates and fears them but rather to create a world where that hate and fear can no longer touch them.
All of this, as stated, has been built using the material that previous X-Men creators have provided. This is a serious achievement and probably plays heavily into why this story has proved so popular already, flying off the shelves and into the hands of current and lapsed (like myself) X-Men fans. It’s fascinating not only in itself—with Hickman dropping hints and story threads left, right, and centre and providing twists on a regular basis—but for what it means for the future of the X-Men. There are a few issues left and some twists undoubtedly yet to come, but what sort of world Hickman will leave for other writers to explore is the question now. Xavier’s mutant Eden has been well populated with snakes, and there’ll be drama aplenty to come.
Regardless, what Hickman seems to have achieved is to recast the X-Men story for a more modern era. No longer a hated minority (a hard status to hold onto when you’re a superpowered superior species and stars of some of the best-selling books on the shelves), they’ve instead been cast as a forward-looking group of survivors, fighting for their own future, against a backdrop that ranges from the personal to the universal. That’s fertile and broad ground for any writer to work with, and Hickman has managed to create it while not stepping on the toes of any of the rest of the shared Marvel universe.
Once House of X/Powers of X ends in a few weeks, a new raft of X-Men titles will launch, and they’ll be launching into the new world that Hickman has created. As a relaunch of the X-Men as a property, this has already been a storming success, and if the follow-up titles can make the most of its ideas, they’ll likely keep that going for years to come. I’ll be fascinated to see how that all works out, and I don’t doubt that I’m far from the only one.