A couple months ago when I persuaded Rachael to read The Wicked + The Divine, we had a conversation about the big reveal partway through the fourth arc relating to a major character death; she was of the opinion that the explanation for what happened was pretty cheap, and I argued that it was actually a cool bit of structural legerdemain that depends on playing with readers’ expectations for how the components of a comics scene are supposed to unfold. She made a good point about how the structure of the twist wasn’t necessarily unique comics; you could achieve the same thing in any kind of narrative media. I got her point, although I still have much less trouble accepting that particular story beat than she does; I’m just an enthusiastic reader and she’s a skilled storyteller, so we’re probably approaching the thing from different perspectives and with slightly different interests in how the story works. One thing that stuck with me though was one part of comics effluvia I used for justification that isn’t structural so much as cultural. In serialized comics, particularly from the Big Two, there’s a long tradition of creative teams acting more as stewards than as owners of the characters they tell stories about. Name a character who’s penetrated the popular consciousness in the last ten years, and odds are good they have a publication history spanning at least three decades (in many cases, it’ll be more like at least five). These characters go through multiple iterations depending on a lot of factors, not the least of which is whoever gets to write them in a given moment making a decision to change something about the character’s past that they don’t like.
I’m talking about retcons.
In the WicDiv case, it wasn’t so much a retcon as a reveal based on a story beat that had already been planned out, so there’s probably more room to argue the relative merits of the way that story unfolds, but the basic structure of the beat feels in a lot of ways like a retcon. It’s a bread and butter part of the Western comics experience. Having someone explicitly say to us as readers, “Ha ha, you thought this happened, but actually that happened!” is just the way stories go sometimes, and so we as comics readers tend to build up, if not an acceptance, at least an understanding that it’s a convention of the medium.
Beyond the basic notion that a writer decides they don’t like something that happened in a relevant story to what they’re now writing, a retcon at its best serves to open up more interesting stories through renewing previously shut off possibilities or recontextualizing all that history to create new kinds of narrative resonance. See: Jean Grey (Phoenix).
In this week’s House of X, we get treated to a massive retcon of one of the most significant supporting characters in X-Men history. Moira MacTaggert, the human geneticist who is a major ally to Charles Xavier and the X-Men, is actually a mutant with a very specific mutation that makes her undetectable to most other mutants. Her power doesn’t do anything flashy or particularly useful in a day-to-day context. Moira, upon dying, reincarnates with all the knowledge of her previous lives in a parallel timeline.
It’s such a simple power, and it’s an incredibly elegant way to reframe a longstanding character without fundamentally altering any of the old stories about her. The Moira who has been around since the ’70s is still the Moira we’re reading about this week, but now she has a whole history that informs her actions in interesting ways while also providing a springboard into the bigger stuff that Jonathan Hickman has planned for his two miniseries. It’s cool stuff.
There are certainly some trade offs to this change to Moira’s character (there always are when you do a major retcon), the most significant that I’ve seen discussed in a few places is the sudden shift in her motivations for being an ally to the X-Men. Before House of X, Moira was an enlightened human who saw that mutants were being persecuted for things beyond their control and who wanted to help them, if not for altruistic reasons (it feels incredibly important to remember that she’s the mother of Proteus, a reality warping mutant whose powers cause him to burn out the physical body he inhabits), then at least because she understood that it was the right thing to do. With this issue, her motivations are shifted from basic decency to self preservation spurred on by the threats of Destiny, the precognitive mutant who promised to hound Moira through all her lives if she didn’t dedicate herself to helping mutants thrive. On a more metatextual level, this change in the story undercuts a valuable fictional example of (mostly) good allyship. People in marginalized communities have good reason to mistrust allies who don’t share their marginalization, and allies need examples of how to work for the benefit of communities in which they don’t have a personal stake. In a saga that centers a community’s struggle for acceptance, Moira was up until this point a major exemplar.
The effect of this shift is that Moira’s history is now tinged much more heavily with self interest; even though Hickman goes to pains to show that the experience of Moira’s previous lives have turned her into a committed defender of mutant life by the time she reaches the current timeline, it will be hard to go back to stories featuring her and not think of what secret machinations she’s engineered to protect herself going forward. Xavier’s sudden apparent shift in methodology at least becomes a little more comprehensible; this issue shows us that Moira has sampled every major mutant survival ideology on offer, and she likely has come away from all of them with a greater sense of clarity about how they each operate, what strengths they possess, what weaknesses, and how they might be mixed to most effectively attain the goal she’s after. House of X #1 was bewildering partly because Xavier seemed to be explicitly borrowing methodologies from Magneto, but if that mixture is part of a plan that Moira helped him devise, with her hundreds of years of experience and in-depth knowledge of how all Xavier’s ideological rivals operate, then it suddenly becomes much easier to think that the end game won’t simply be about Xavier’s own elevation to the top of a new world order. Moira, while she may love him, has known since her third life exactly what sort of flaws Xavier has, and she will presumably have accounted for those flaws while she was planning for whatever her ultimate goal actually is.