There are a lot of comics that I am still trying to catch up on, but after literal months of being bombarded with hype for the X-Men relaunch that Jonathan Hickman is headlining through Twitter, I finally caved and decided to see what the big deal is. In the run up to the full line launch at the end of September, the entire series has been reduced to two biweekly miniseries, both written by Hickman. I’m going to devote some space here on the blog to reading and parsing this stuff as it comes out, which is a pretty different mode of thinking and writing about comics than what I’m used to. Everything I’ve done commentary on in the past has been tempered either by extreme familiarity–they were books I’d read multiple times–or planning a delay between the initial read and actually putting my thoughts down in an ordered way; you only get to do gut reactions to a story once, and it’s not at all uncommon for the gut reaction to fail to consider some things that are more apparent on a re-read. I just don’t do writing in that mode here, but I can try to shorten my lead-time a little bit. It’s summer, after all, and for at least the first half of the event, I can crank out thoughts on a pretty short time frame. If you want to see my totally unfiltered first impressions of each issue, then you can check my Twitter feed (conveniently located on this very page!) where I’m typically posting around seven to eight a.m. PDT during the summer.
Okay, that’s enough housekeeping; let’s get on with the main event.
There is a core premise embedded in the X-Men universe which has its foundation in a reality of social justice work in our world: people who have marginalized identities often must do extra work to be seen as not only equal to people who belong to the dominant cultural group, but also to be seen as non-threatening participants in our society. Patriarchy, white supremacy, cisheteronormativity, and all the other kyriarchical structures that favor a very narrow class of people rely on conditioning that class to remain mostly unaware of its own privileges until a threat is perceived and the fight or flight response is activated. We see this play out in the vicious responses that white people have towards the increased prominence of people of color, the covert shifting into overt threats that men make towards women’s bodies for appearing in male-dominated spaces, the often violent reactions straight people have towards queer people who dare to be proud of their identities. It’s akin to an autoimmune response on a societal level, and people like me are the often unwitting antibodies. We don’t mean to be hostile, but the reality is that we are, and it unfairly falls on marginalized people to soothe our anxieties so they can go about carving out millimeters of extra space for themselves in the landscape that we thoughtlessly dominate. As clumsily as it was done in the series’s beginning, the X-Men have always been a representation of people who do that unfair labor, all framed within the context of superheroes where colorful outfits and punching stand in for taxing conversations and thankless organization efforts.
The beginning of House of X takes that core premise and totally ejects it. From the first page we’re thrust into a world where Charles Xavier, having somehow re-entered the good graces of all the various factions within the mutant community, sets a plan in motion designed to upend human hegemony on Earth and usher in an era where mutants rule. Being who he is, Xavier has covered his plan with a patina of beneficence, but his apparent partner in this endeavor, Magneto, makes it clear as the ambassador of the new mutant nation that humans don’t have a real choice about their role in Xavier’s plan. Where we see Xavier off playing messiah in his garden, Magneto is laying down the law: mutant supremacy begins today.
Tell me what you really mean, Erik. (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia, letters by Clayton Cowles)
My first read of the issue focused on two specific things: how unsettling Xavier is and how much the implicit threat of Krakoa’s existence is backed by his lieutenants. Long time readers of the X-books know that Charles Xavier is a complicated figure whose motivations are always suspect. He’s the master of self-deception so that whatever he does will be justified in his own mind regardless of its larger implications. His own students have seen the results of this behavior often enough that they should know better than to take his promises at face value. He’s good for ideals, but bad for pragmatic execution. Consequently, I have no problem thinking that it’s pretty creepy that he’s suddenly the face of the mutant rights movement; honestly, I think that Magneto’s casual aggression towards the assembled ambassadors visiting Krakoa is much less jarring–he’s always been the strong arm of the X-Men when he aligns with them, and he doesn’t hide what he wants.
The buy in from other X-Men in this issue strikes me as significantly more jarring. Jean’s brief appearance introducing Krakoa’s central island to a new mutant kid feels like a massive step backwards in character growth. She literally tears up at Xavier declaring “Welcome home” in this beatific moment that just chills me; it doesn’t jive with the Jean that appeared most recently in the X-Men Red series. That Jean was a mutant integrationist, someone committed to doing hard diplomatic work so that humans could understand and welcome mutants. I don’t buy that she’d just be okay with Xavier’s new approach of scaring humanity into submission, especially after waging an extended campaign against his evil twin who was all about fomenting that fear into uncontrolled violent rage. Clearly there’s a lot of context missing from this first issue, but for now color me skeptical about that character dynamic.
The character who does ring more true to me is Cyclops. Scott Summers has been through a lot of phases in his tenure as an X-Man, and his evolution from awkward teacher’s pet to movement leader to revolutionary all makes sense. I haven’t yet read the Matthew Rosenberg run yet to see what’s been going on with him immediately prior to House of X, but I can see Scott jumping headfirst into an opportunity to assuage his guilt over accidentally killing Xavier and to back away from being a public face for a while. Scott’s a competent leader, but he’s always more comfortable when he has permission to defer to someone else up the chain of command. Given all that, his confrontation with the Fantastic Four is an incredibly uncomfortable scene for me. So many parts of it make total sense: the pleasantries and greetings between long-time colleagues who haven’t seen each other in a while, Scott’s total commitment to the party line, his frank honesty about the frustrations he’s felt for years as a second-class citizen even among fellow superheroes are all just ineffably right character beats. Despite all that, elements of the exchange unsettle me in ways that make me suspect something isn’t right here. On one level I fully understand the relief that all of the mutant characters in House of X are feeling that they can safely revel in their power for perhaps the first time ever. On another, I’m seriously unsettled that Scott Summers, who lost his own infant son through superhero shenanigans, would even imply that he’d be part of stealing Franklin Richards from his family. I know Franklin’s a genius kid and he has agency, but Scott’s parting words don’t feel like a casual invitation for his colleagues’ kid to get to know a community he can rightfully claim membership in.
What are you doing, Scott? (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia, letters by Clayton Cowles)
It’s pretty played out to suggest that characters acting in ways we don’t expect or dislike are probably being mind controlled, and despite the fact that we’re discussing a series that centers the world’s most powerful telepath who also now always wears a helmet giving his powers planetary range, I don’t want to immediately jump to that conclusion. There’s time for character motivations to become more clear and the oddness of this first issue to sort itself into a more cohesive narrative whole. I am going to pointedly remind us all that the first two pages of this series feature Xavier hatching mutants out of Krakoa pods, the first two of which are heavily implied to be Scott and Jean.
Congratulations on hatching from your cocoons, children. There is absolutely nothing you need to fear after gestating in the core of a sentient plant creature that I have totally bent to my will. (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia)
To wrap up thoughts here, I do need to include the caveat that most of my reactions to this issue are certainly based in that autoimmune response I discussed earlier. One thing Hickman does super effectively here is push all the buttons for existential dread that people who recognize potential threats to their own power feel. I am naturally suspicious of Xavier partly because I read him as ruthlessly self-interested without having any awareness of this aspect of his personality, but I also sympathize with the anxiety the ambassadors express at being shown how the status quo has shifted in such a way that they are totally at the mercy of the mutants’ good will. They’re experiencing the fever dream of all hegemonic beneficiaries: “If the people beneath me ever got more power, would they treat me the way I treat them?” Converse to my own reactions, I’ve seen folks on Twitter reveling in the fantasy of a marginalized people claiming their own power and finally being able to tell oppressors that their power is broken. This whole event is genuinely joyous for the mutants who have aligned themselves with Xavier, and most of them are likely acting in good faith. They just want space to live in peace.
Shut up, Doug. (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia, letters by Clayton Cowles)
Whether that actually what can happen is still up in the air. We don’t know how Krakoa will operate as a nation (even if it’s clear that humanity’s autoimmune response is going to inevitably stir up trouble with a Sentinel factory in space). The optimist wants to say, “It will be fine; people who experience oppression know its pain and wouldn’t inflict that on others.” The cynic says that Charles Xavier is at the head of this entire project, and he is not a trustworthy man.