How Marvel is Redefining the Future of the X-Men

Jonathan Hickman and crew are blazing a bright trail for Marvel's X-Men with House of X and Powers of X.

Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz, RB Silva, Marte Gracia, and the rest of the team are now two issues into House of X and Powers of X, the intertwining X-Men event comics meant to reset the marvelous mutants, and in four issues over one month, they’ve managed to change everything we know about the X-Men. This isn’t hyperbole: the changes that were made in House of X #2 altered everything we knew about the past of the X-Men, and the additional information we got in Powers of X #2 changed at least two potential futures and may have further tweaked the past. We are one third of the way done with the event, and already these are the most ambitious, most entertaining X-Men comics in a decade. 

WARNING: This article contains EXTENSIVE spoilers about the first issues of House of X and Powers of X. STOP READING NOW if you haven’t read both comics.

I. The Theme

They’re not kidding about this 10 thing. First, Powers of X literally goes through exponentially greater powers of ten on a timescale (starting at year 1, jumping to year 10, year 100 and year 1000). So of course Moira X would be the tenth Moira Kinross.

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House of X #2 made one of the most head-spinning retcons in X-Men history. This is a flatly absurd statement to make about a comic family where the title character faked his own death for shits and giggles more than once, but Jonathan Hickman will see your “actually Jean Grey’s real body was in a cocoon at the bottom of Jamaica Bay,” and raise you “in Moira MacTaggert’s ninth life she chose to help Apocalypse ascend to godhood.”

A brief summary of this massive, massive retcon: Moira Kinross lived a happy, long life full of family and died at the age of 74. When she died, she immediately woke up in the womb with all the knowledge she had gained in her previous life. She tried living through her life again with that additional knowledge, but it didn’t work, and when Charles Xavier outed himself as a mutant on television, she felt that was the answer she had been looking for, and promptly died in a plane crash on her way to meet him. She woke up again in the womb, with an additional lifetime of memories, and proceeded to devise a cure to her mutant ability of reincarnation. Unfortunately, Mystique and Destiny didn’t care for the potential outcomes of having a mutant cure out and available in the world, so they burned her and her cure in her lab, but not before warning Moira to help mutants, to never attempt to make a cure again lest they find her and kill her again, and telling her that she only has ten or eleven lives in total.

read more: Marvel’s X-Men Relaunch Explained

From there, Moira begins an iterative process of figuring out the best way forward for mutants. First she marries Charles and helps him establish the X-Men, but they’re eventually all killed by Sentinels. Then she finds Charles 10 years early and helps him establish a separatist mutant colony, but they’re all killed by Sentinels. Then she goes badass commando and kills every Trask she can find, but Sentinels are created anyway and she’s killed by a stray Mastermold.  So she convinces Magneto to attack early, but he’s killed by the heroes of that world and she dies trying to break out of jail. The ninth time through, she wakes Apocalypse early and helps him ascend to his maximum power, and they go to war with the Sentinels. And the tenth time through brings us, presumably, to House of X.

This is a massive, massive change to existing continuity that asks as many questions – what happened in the unaccounted for life 6? why would she enter an abusive relationship with Joe MacTaggart in life 10? – as it answers (Moira is no longer the only human to contract the Legacy Virus).

II. The Art

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Mystique and Destiny in Marvel's House of X

Pepe Larraz on House of Xand RB Silva on Powers of X  continue to astonish with their linework, but my god, Marte Gracia’s colors are staggering. It’s unfair to single anyone out, because these are arguably the best looking superhero books on stands right now, but Gracia is doing tremendous work (and we fawned over Larraz and Silva last time, but holy shit look at Destiny’s mask and tell me Larraz isn’t due some awards).

These two books are basically telling four stories; one in each of the four time periods. Each is a vastly different setting with a different tone and different coloring needs. Gracia maintains the distinctions between the four with different palates, and uses different effects for each. He also does a great job of getting out of the line art’s way when it’s needed – Larraz is a little chunkier and muddier with his blacks, which really adds to the tone of some of the scenes in HoX, while Silva is a little bit bubblier and cartoony, which is perfect for adding incongruous menace to Nimrod. Gracia combines with the other artists to make an X-Book that sings better than any X-Men comic since Jerome Opena and Dean White on Uncanny X-Force.

We are in a golden age of comics coloring. The perfection of digital coloring technology has both opened the doors to a lot more potential colorists, and given those at the top of their game more tools to use when telling the story than they had when coloring was more analog, and that means there are a lot of people doing incredible work. Gracia’s work on House of X and Powers of Xshow that he belongs in the same conversation with the Dave Stewarts and Jordie Bellaires of the world.

III. The Marvel Universe Matters Again

For a very long time, the X-Men books have been siloed off from the rest of the broader Marvel Universe. This has been to the detriment of both the X-Men and the rest of Marvel. That shared universe feeling is part of the reason most of us got into superhero comics in the first place. If we wanted to read a story about a group of kids with powers, there are any number of places we could go for that. It’s the fact that the X-Men resonate within a larger shared superhero universe that helped lend these stories some meaning.

That feeling is back, and the beauty is that the creative team is doing it entirely through offhand references. The fact that Powers of X‘s textual explanation borrows heavily from Annihilation: Conquestisn’t material to the progress of the story, but for longtime fans it’s a sign that these stories matter, and for new fans it’s a thread to tug at to find more stories to love. Cyclops showing genuine affection for Ben Grimm is an awesome metacommentary on how the Fox properties were treated at Marvel, but it’s also a link between all of these stories happening. X-Men comics haven’t felt like they mattered like this in a long time.

IV. Everything X is New Again

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Powers of X Magneto Flashback

X-Men comics haven’t been this effectively rooted in their own continuity for some time either. These two comics are absolutely jammed with classic X-Men nods and love from all over the time period. The promotional material flagged four distinct eras it would call back to – Giant Sized X-Men #1, the ’90s launch of volume 2, Age of Apocalypse, and the Grant Morrison run – and while we’re getting plenty of those, we’re also getting everything else. There’s a surprising amount of ’90s X-Men, too, from well beyond the launch of volume 2. That is perhaps required when you’re doing this much work with classic ’90s villains like Apocalypse and Sinister, who weren’t entirely fleshed out until The Twelve and the Gambit ongoing series respectively, but it’s still fun and surprising to see that era rehabilitated here. And the X^3 era’s focus on the Phalanx hearkens back to a lot of X-Men continuity that is firmly mid-90s.

Magneto is also a pathway for a lot of Silver/Bronze Age cusp continuity. We spend a lot of time in Octopusheim, his island base from the dawn of Uncanny X-Men that he then used as a vacation getaway for the New Mutants when he ran the school, and the gorgeous flashback above from Powers of X #2 is chockablock with classic callbacks. 

And every aspect of X-Men life is touched. Obviously their genetic inheiritance is the crux, but the preponderance of crazy X-adjacent space name drops like the Shi’ar and Phalanx and Technarchy shows that everything counts and nothing is off limits.

V. Hickman’s Mastery of Villains

There were very few outright villains in Jonathan Hickman’s older Marvel work. Really only two that I can think of: Thanos in Infinityand The Maker, Ultimate Reed Richards. There were plenty of villanous characters, but while Namor and Dr. Doom are assholes, they at least had an argument to make. But whether they were bad guys or bad guys making compelling points, Hickman wrote them beautifully. This is happening again here.

read more: The X-Men Movies You Never Saw

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Nimrod is a delight. He plays as brilliant, weirdly funny, and just slightly unhinged, which goes against type for a blocky murder robot. But his power and design and openness to flat murder make him a little bit terrifying as well. Meanwhile, Magneto is tremendous. “I do. I decide.” is right next to “I. Doom.” in the face of the Beyonder’s destruction of the multiverse as PERFECT lines from ambiguous bad people. Destiny’s entire interaction with Moira in HoX #2 is on the same level. Menace, authority, understanding, and purpose all in the briefest of dialogue.

VI. The Greatest Cyclops of All Time

This is going to sound weird, but I don’t want to be friends with this Cyclops. I want to be his coworker.

I want to be set to a task with him. I want us to decide who’s going to take care of what. And then I want to be completely and utterly certain that the stuff I’m not working on is going to be taken care of correctly and quickly, and then we can go grab a beer when it’s done.

This is perfect writing of a character who’s been done dirty for the better part of the last 15 years. Good Cyclops should be competence porn. He’s the guy who can bank an optic blast off of two walls and knock out the bad guy, the one Captain America takes tactical advice from. I look at him and I see a viable politician with appeal outside the mutant community, but for a decade and a half events have conspired to push him into reactionary terrorism before he was killed off panel. His return in the last wave of X-books is promising from what I’ve read so far (I’m on Unlimited time, so I’m six months behind), but he was off the board or playing a different game for a long time. He’s back now and he’s better than any Cyclops I’ve ever read.

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VII. Elegant Infodumps

The infodump graphics that abound in Hickman comics have turned some people off to his work in the past. Designer Tom Muller and the subject matter are, I think, combining to change that. Also, the droplets of information hidden on these pages make them really worthwhile to pour over.

read more – The Essential Episodes of X-Men: The Animated Series

There has been an enormous amount of information conveyed in these first four issues. Resetting of timelines, additional potential futures, massive character retcons, a core mystery, new factions introduced. All of them used Muller’s infographics to help further the story, but they’re presented in a clear, logical way that both furthers the story and deepens the mystery. Here’s a perfect example: the timelines at the end of HoX #2 require two page turns. Being the broken completist that I am, I wanted to see all of the timelines lined up, and when I found a copy of the images attached online, I clicked away immediately because it didn’t work in my brain. It was laid out the right way for the page turns, but not necessarily from end to end. Someone also very generously put the timeline data laid side to side in a google spreadsheet that was, to me, fundamentally unreadable, and I have spent enormous parts of my life staring at and creating unreadable spreadsheets. It is a testament to Muller’s skill as a communicator that he found the best way to convey this information on the page.

It also helped that he dropped a huge hint about Moira 9’s timeline as an OS build caption at the bottom of the mutant race summary graphic in PoX #1.

VIII. Mastery of the Form

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As consumer products, these books are just about perfect.

To be completely honest, $5 is pretty expensive for a comic. Even with an added page count, a LOT of books now are breezy, decompressed reads that are done in ten minutes. Not these. Setting aside that they’re designed for rereading, these are incredibly dense stories that are perfectly balanced between using the art and the words to tell them, that reward deep readings and rereadings in a way a lot of other comics don’t. I’m not saying I want my entire stack of books to be like this, but these are good purchases.

They also manage the information flow perfectly for a weekly story. Consider: week 1, House of X #1 lays out the new status quo for humans, Magneto, the X-Men and the robot adversaries. A week later, Powers of X #1 builds two potential futures and sets up a retcon while furthering week 1’s story and layering in mystery that rolls back onto the first issue. A week after that, we get hit with a massive retcon that changes all of X-Men history and totally recontextualizes the first two issues along with building out ten potential alternate timelines. And then this week, more gaps in that story get filled in and more mystery gets layered on. A month delay between any of these would be interminable. A week is just right, and considering the quality we’re getting, it’s also ridiculous from a production perspective. This is high quality work.

IX. #XSpoilers

I’ve been reading comics for a while, and I think the last time any comics hit like this was probably Flashpoint.EVERYBODY is talking about this book. It’s selling like gangbusters, but it’s also the first time since I started using the internet that people were universally and uncritically happy with a comic. 

read more: Best X-Men Movies Watch Order

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Honestly, these books are just so much fun to experience. Rushing to read them right when they come out, then spending hours arguing about the possible interpretations and new plot lines, it’s a reminder of what it was like to first get into comics. I’m loath to be the old white dude shouting at the kids that this is how comics should be, but it is nice to have everyone on generally the same page and having fun reading them again. Even if the guy who owns Marvel has spent the last three years trying to rob the VA.

X. I Don’t Own Enough Corkboard and Yarn

An enormous part of that fun is the baseless, incorrect and often ridiculous speculation. Last time, I argued that X^1 Xavier is actually Sinister in disguise. While the trashy glam geneticist remains conspicuous by his absence, I’m drifting away from that idea a little bit, only because it feels like he’s being accounted for. My big speculation this week is around the various lives of Moira and how they relate to the PoX timeline.

-X^3 is Moira 6.

-X^2 is Moira 9.

-X^1 is Moira 10 and the 616.

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-X^0 is Moira 11.

I’m very confident about the X^2 timeline belonging to Moira 9 after PoX #2 showed that Apocalypse is leading the future mutants. There’s still one unaccounted for mutant on Asteroid K, so that could easily be her.

Moira 6’s timeline is noticably missing from the timeline at the back of HoX #2, but each new life flows from its predecessor – Moira 5 gets Charles to wall off the X-Men after watching them die in a Sentinel attack, while Moira 9 goes to Apocalypse after Magneto can’t fix things. So what happens to Moira 6 to make her spend her next life hunting down Trasks? 

She makes herself a Sentinel and lives through the Ascension. 

If Moira 6 doesn’t involve a Nimrod, then the first time she’d experience on would be in her ninth life, so it would make no sense for her to have the X-Men hunting down information about Nimrod’s emergence there for use in a future timeline. It makes a kind of sense for her to experience these Sentinel ends to her previous two lives, then to go all the way to the end of what the robots want to find out what she’s up against.

read more: Complete Schedule of Upcoming Marvel Movies

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I have no evidence to support X^0 and X^1 being different trips through besides a gut feeling. X-Men continuity would be SO much more complicated if Moira, Charles, and Eric all knew what was coming and the intervening thousand issues of X- and X-adjacent comics happened. And we’ve seen a timeline where minor changes lead to mostly the same outcomes – Moira 4 lived through the original 5, the Giant-Sized globetrotting team, and A vs. X while married to Charles, so Moira 11 can have Charles and Magneto working together from the jump and the rest of Marvel continuity unfold the same way.

Either way, it’s extremely complicated and a blast to argue about.

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