House of X and Powers of X have done the unthinkable: they’ve made having an encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel X-Men continuity minutiae an asset. Now I have a reason to talk about Xorn’s brother Xorn who was posing as Magneto pretending to be Xorn OTHER than to make someone go away.
This is, of course, a joke. HoX/PoX is remarkably accessible for anyone with any level of background knowledge of the X-Men, from “I like Hugh Jackman” to “remember the time the Sentinels tried to kill the sun because it was causing mutations?” But there is certainly a lot in here that rewards deeper knowledge. And to help you understand it all, we put together a reading list that might help you see the throughlines from Marvel Comics history that help create the comics sensation revitalizing the X-Men books.
For this reading guide, we’re not only going to tell you what’s good and why we like it. We’re also going to try and piece together how it fits into what Jonathan Hickman and crew are doing in today’s series. Because of that, we’re slapping a big ol’ SPOILER WARNING here: proceeding beyond this point risks spoiling big twists from the first half of the HoX/PoX epic.
FOR GENERAL BACKGROUND: X-Men: Grand Design
Ed Piskor is the indie comix guy who, prior to this book, was best known for a webcomic-turned-prestige-series, Hip-Hop Family Tree, which told the story of the origins of the biggest genre in music (it’s fantastic, by the way). His acclaim for that book, where he would quite frequently homage superhero covers, eventually garnered enough attention from Marvel for them to take a risk on him. In a fit of uncharacteristic ambition, they allowed Piskor to rework thirty years and 300 issues of X-Men or X-adjacent comics into one miniseries. The result is absolutely stunning.
There are retcons involved, but Piskor manages to turn several eras of comics history into one coherent narrative. Retcons become plot points, characters move rationally instead of for post-hoc rationales and slow-burn payoffs are seeded even earlier. It’s all done with a distinctly underground style, which is refreshing and appropriate, since this is the era when the X-Men became counterculture iconography.
In other words, if you need the best X-Men comics history lesson imaginable, this is the book for you.
Pay close attention to: Anything with Moira Mactaggert. The revelation in House of X #2 that current Marvel continuity was the tenth time Moira had been resurrected and that she had been planning for six lives to protect the mutant race casts literally the entirety of X-Men history in a new light. So now any interaction with the Professor or his students, like, say, when she was watching Jean Grey become the Phoenix on Muir Island, has potentially new meaning. Grand Design is particularly valuable here because Piskor started before the planning for Hickman’s relaunch did, so you are reading source material that the rebooter himself was probably working off of.
You may also like: For tone and craft, X-Men: Grand Design is unique. Despite countless reboots and cleanups attempted in the almost 50 years the X-Men have been published, nothing to my knowledge has been this comprehensive or accessible. However, if you like the characters and the idea of a modernized, streamlined origin-esque story, Jeff Parker and Roger Cruz’s mid-aughts series, X-Men First Class, which tells new stories with the original team of X-Men, is worth checking out. It’s a lot of fun, certainly a lot more fun than reading the original Silver Age issues themselves.
TO UNDERSTAND THE BIG THEMES: Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye
No, I’m not kidding. I am absolutely recommending an alternate universe Hawkeye miniseries in an article about X-Men comics.
On his way to destroying it, Jonathan Hickman was given space to play around with the Ultimate Universe, and he used it, writing a Thor miniseries and relaunching the Ultimates. Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye was the third prong of his overall story and it focused on a fictional country – the Southeast Asian Republic – as Hawkeye and a team of SHIELD agents arrive on site to deal with a civil war. We quickly find out that SEAR scientists have created a virus to eliminate the X-gene, and a serum that gives their own people a virus-resistant mutation. A “paradigm shift,” as one of the SEAR officials calls it.
That government unleashes both prongs of the plan and promptly loses control of the situation, setting up SEAR as a mutant haven for people taking their serum and thus one of the three prongs of a global conflict that plays out in Ultimate Comics: Ultimates.
Pay close attention to: The Xorns. Not because they’re anything like the ones who have shown up in HoX/PoX – the ones in House of X have only thus far been glimpsed, and the millennial nihilist icon from Powers of X is a corpse in an alternate timeline (probably).
No, we’re watching the Xorns in Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye because the idea of mutants as resources in a geopolitical struggle seems central to the conflict playing out between the Krakoan mutants and the humans in the X^1 timeline of today’s series. With all the talk of omega mutants and alignments, you should be able to get a very good sense of what is to come in the mutant conflict by reading this.
You may also like: Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, Hickman and eventual Secret Wars collaborator Esad Ribic’s story of what else is going on in the world while SEAR blows up. That story is mainly concerned with SHIELD being woefully outgunned by the mutants on one side, and evil Reed Richards’ Asgard- and Europe- destroying hyper evolved Children. It’s really good.
FOR A SENSE OF THE TONE: “Days of Future Past”
“Days of Future Past” is right smack in the middle of what Piskor covers in Grand Design. So why read it separately? Because I strongly suspect this is the foundational text of what Hickman is trying to do with his story.
This is one of the all-time classic X-Men stories by maybe the most well liked team in the franchise’s history. In the far future of 2013, Sentinels have taken control of the US and are on their way to taking over the world, because they see human existence as the flaw causing mutation that they are programmed to wipe out. So they kill most of the heroes and round up the remaining ones into camps. Wolverine, Rachel Summers (in her first appearance), Katherine Pryde (not long after her debut), Colossus, Storm and Magneto all team up so Rachel can send Kitty’s consciousness back in time, take over her younger body and prevent the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (led by Mystique and Destiny) from killing Senator Robert Kelly, sending the future spiralling towards extinction.
These two issues function as an effective preview of the conflict that HoX/PoX explores. Humans are irrationally afraid of Mutants, who alternate between trying to be left alone and trying to dominate their progenitors. Meanwhile, the robots say “you both suck” and (presumably before falling into the sun in the case of Mothermold) just start killing.
Furthermore, “Days of Future Past” is precisely the kind of dystopia that PoX is pushing. The X^2 future has lot of Age of Apocalypse trappings, but its central conflict is between mutants trying desperately to survive and robots who hate everything biological trying to destroy everyone. Surprisingly, though Nimrod is closely associated with this dark future, he doesn’t actually appear in these issues. He comes back in time about 50 issues later, from that future but not seen in it.
Pay close attention to: The mood and milieu of this story are the important factors, but it’s also probably worth keeping an eye on Destiny and Moira Mactaggart here. The mutant precog had one very…pointed…run in with Groundhog Lady in her third life, and they come very close to each other here. This may be fertile territory for a retcon.
You may also like: Uncanny X-Men #208-209. This is Nimrod’s big battle with the X-Men and the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle, as Rachel Summers lays dying in Central Park. It’s nowhere near the bleak, oppressive tone that “Days of Future Past” has, but you get some sense here of the sheer power that Nimrod has at his disposal. Also, he’s clearly insane, and as far as things you want from your robots, insanity is not high on the list.
TO UNDERSTAND THE MAIN VILLAIN: “The Phalanx Covenant”
The X-Men crossover that introduced Generation X, the second wave of mutant students after the New Mutants/X-Force, also seems surprisingly important. Originally presented as an offshoot of the techno-organic space mutant Warlock’s race, the Phalanx are half Borg, half grey goo nightmare. In this story, they invade Earth to assimilate and destroy it, but find that they can’t assimilate mutants, so they start trying to figure out why by kidnapping the X-Men and a group of teens identified as potential students. They fail, of course, but not before planting phalanx eggs around the planet and killing off a character who became inexplicably popular a year and a half later (Blink, who existed in the 616 for a grand total of 20 minutes before dying. She’s great, but I don’t get why she endured and not someone like Synch).
The Phalanx are the hive galaxy in the X^3 future being called down by the Librarian to assimilate humanity, and it looks like (at least in whatever life of Moira’s this is), they’re finally successful.
Pay close attention to: Husk and M. I went back and forth on whether to prioritize this or the other comics you might like, trying to figure out which is more important to the narrative, and what sold me on The Phalanx Covenant is the fact that Husk and M are part of the X-Men strike force attacking Mothermold in space in House of X. They’re also two of the more plot-relevant members of Generation X during this crossover – Monet is the one who finally breaks them out of captivity, and Husk’s powers are revealed because one shell is infected with TO virus. That doesn’t feel like a coincidence.
You may also like: Annihilation: Conquest. This is the second mid-aughts Marvel Space crossover, the first helmed by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning exclusively, and the one that launched this line of books into what would eventually give us the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. The galaxy is reeling from the events of Annihilation, and as it recovers, the Phalanx take over Hala and the remains of the Kree empire. This series is good, pure Marvel Space fun. It’s the exact moment where I fell in love with this line of books. It’s also very thorough in laying out the mythology and rules of the Phalanx.
TO TAKE A WILD GUESS ON WHAT IS YET TO COME: “The Dark Angel Saga”
This run on Uncanny X-Force, ostensibly a side book full of stabby mutants (and Deathlok) brought together first as Cyclops’ wetworks squad, then held together by Angel’s money, is without a doubt the best X-Men comic of the last 15 years. It’s also brimming with Apocalypse lore, which feels like one of a couple things left deliberately unstated by the events of HoX/PoX.
The gang finds an Akkaba enclave in the desert, discovering that they’ve resurrected Apocalypse and are training the now six year old kid to be the evolutionary destroyer they believe he’s destined to become. So Fantomex shoots the kid in the head.
What follows is an extended superhero musing on nature vs. nurture, while at the same time the Death Seed Apocalypse planted in Angel’s back to turn him into Archangel takes over Warren’s mind, turning him into the new Apocalypse. The story goes through all the reasons for it and has Warren reassemble his horsemen. It functions essentially as a deep dive into the reasons for Apocalypse’s ascension and the role that he plays in the galactic ecosystem of the Marvel Universe.
That’s noticeably missing from Apocalypse’s scenes in the new series.
Pay close attention to: The Celestial stuff. Apocalypse in Powers of X was a heroic figure, leading a suicide mission against Nimrod and the robots to get Moira information on Nimrod’s emergence so she could stop it in life 10. There’s no mention of the role he was originally created for, one that exists separate from the Moira cycle because it started thousands of years before she was born: to guide evolution on Earth so the Celestials don’t return and destroy it. How that plays into the man-mutant-machine war seems like a clear fit, but also completely unmentioned.
You may also like: Uncanny X-Men vol. 2 #14-17. Even though it takes place during the utterly dreadful A vs. X, Kieron Gillen’s Mr. Sinister story is the definitive recent take on the master genetic manipulator, and he’s DEFINITELY coming.