Jonathan Hickman's Return to Marvel's X-Men

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated superhero pop culture for a decade, but it was the 2000 release of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men that is now widely regarded as the progenitor of the modern genre in film. This summer, Fox released the final film in this incarnation of the franchise: Dark Phoenix, exploring yet again, as in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, the corruption of the X-Men's original female member and later matriarch, Jean Grey, this time portrayed as a younger woman, as she was in the original comics arc co-created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Dark Phoenix was a critical and commercial failure, being pulled from 1667 theaters three weeks after its June 7 North American debut. There were delays, international test screenings, and reshoots that moved its release from November 2018 to February 2019 to June 2019. Even Simon Kinberg, the writer, director, and producer, made a rare Hollywood apology for the film’s poor results. And to a certain degree, the decline was almost predictable. The X-Men, like the born-minorities they were created to represent, have long been Marvel’s canaries in the coal mine.

In 1975, Chris Claremont took over writing duties for the failing X-Men title. Since 1970, new issues on stands had been reprints of earlier ones, and the series was in dire need of revitalization. Though Len Wein originally created with artist Dave Cockrum popular characters such as Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Thunderbird in the 1975 issue published Giant-Sized X-Men #1, Claremont’s subsequent takeover paved the way forward with new material resuming in X-Men #94. He joined with artist and co-plotter John Byrne for the 1980 Dark Phoenix Saga, one of the most iconic stories in all of mainstream comics. What emerged was nothing short of their nascently rebranded namesake: the Uncanny X-Men.

I began collecting in 1995, right as the next, recently billed “seminal” moment in X-Men history, the Age of Apocalypse, had come to its end. A child of the 80s and 90s, I first became familiar with the X-Men through the arcade game and Fox’s popular animated series. Following the record-selling issues of Spider-Man #1 and X-Men #1 in the early 90s, Marvel’s properties continued to soar in popularity even as they filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996. I collected newly published issues, but the by-then Classic X-Men, reprinting issues from the 70s and 80s, inured a nostalgic loyalty that compelled me to save for pricey, original back issues, too.

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The Claremont and Byrne arcs were simply stunning. At a time when incredibly powered women were rare at Marvel and DC, this power duo rapidly introduced in a single title characters such as Joss Whedon’s Buffy inspiration, Kitty Pryde, the world-phasing Shadowcat; Emma Frost, the White Queen, notorious psychic dominatrix; even Jean Grey's alternative timeline daughter, Rachel Grey-Summers, who later became the Phoenix in her own right. (Yes, it’s a soap opera.) Along with Claremont and Cockrum’s previously created characters such as geneticist extraordinaire Moira McTaggert, Empress Lilandra of the alien Shi’ar, and Arnold Drake and Jim Steranko’s Polaris, ultimately revealed to be Magneto’s daughter, each of these women has tested the limits of power and leadership among Marvel’s Merry Mutants.

Mastermind producer Kevin Feige at Marvel Studios announced at the 2019 San Diego Comic Con the upcoming incorporation of “mutants” into the MCU, which he was asked to clarify unnecessarily to mean the X-Men. Co-creator Stan Lee originally wanted to call the book “The Mutants.” And since Claremont’s 1975-1991 run on the main X-books, the X-Women have centrally crossed over with more titles than other Marvel heroes. Like many X-Men, they integrate with the “main,” non-mutant Marvel Universe— recently speaking, Storm’s marriage and divorce from Black Panther, Kitty Pryde in Guardians of the Galaxy, Rogue’s Avengers prominence, and the world-ending Avengers vs. X-Men crossover— in a way that those other Marvel characters do not regularly mix with X-books. Few other traditional mutants in the comics, such as Typhoid Mary, who appeared in the final Netflix season of Iron Fist, have made it to screen in the MCU, silver or small. 

Two seasons of The Gifted and three seasons of Legion will have aired and completed their runs by the end of August on Fox and FX respectively, the only two recent, Marvel-affiliated, live-action series to incorporate mutants directly. X-Men film rights were sold to 20th Century Fox in 1993, and both films and TV series have, at most, been Marvel co-productions in the time since. Although Feige got his start on the X-Men films, direction and production of the fan-chise has centered on the controversy-beleaguered Bryan Singer and his proteges. Enter: Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and another due surge in popularity to carry through financial success for the studio despite Singer’s leadership behind the scenes. However, popular and critical acclaim have wavered since those first two Singer-helmed films. This year’s final acquisition of Fox by Disney prompted the long-awaited reunification of additionally sold-off Marvel properties such as the Fantastic Four, their mutant son Franklin, and related X-Men titles, like Deadpool and the multiply delayed New Mutants film that seems increasingly unlikely to see the light of day if it misses its newly scheduled April 2020 release. 

The X-Men, like those deemed historically to be “others” in our changing human civilizations, live as outcasts in their own world, amid what many non-mutant heroes, like the irreproachable Captain America, have mostly passively respected in tacit agreement with the X-Men as a boundary of “mutant affairs” with which they won't bother. These minority metaphors continue to this day in the comics writing, controversial or not. Maintaining such a broad creative philosophy and messaging under the umbrella of a global commercial audience and corporate ownership is a difficult aspiration. The X-Men’s decades-long estrangement from the now-primary Marvel franchises, in both print and screen— beginning with Jessica Jones co-creator Brian Michael Bendis’ revitalizations of many other characters in the early 2000s as writer of Ultimate Spider-Man and The New Avengers, whose lineup also included Wolverine— evolved into the multi-billion dollar franchises that left mutants behind. Spider-Man rights sold separately to Sony, licensed back to Marvel for comedic nirvana. 

As of July 2019, comics writing superstar Jonathan Hickman has taken over creative control for the X-Men comic books. He’s known for reinvigorating the Fantastic Four (as best anyone can), and the grand-vision Avengers Infinity crossover that created Thanos’ crew appearing in the Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame films. Two twining series written by Hickman, House of X and Powers of X, will run for six issues each, featuring art from Pepe Larraz and R.B. Silva, two of Marvel’s hottest talents. Already in House of X #1, the X-Men have finally achieved an eerie unification of Xavier’s and Magneto’s dreams: a firm-handed insistence of both mutant political integration and isolation. Because X-Men film rights had been separated from the MCU, the Inhumans assumed the ostracized, superpowered minority-species role on screen. That inclusion will end for now with the 7th and final season of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Meanwhile, the 2017 Inhumans series was yet another critical and commercial disaster, venturing as far as a limited IMAX release for the underwhelming pilot. So it’s time to re-position the X-Men characters as Marvel’s minorities-in-chief in advance of the next screen revival, a strategy that Marvel has haphazardly adapted over the years since finding global film success. This time, however, the X-Men are not acting the way minorities are expected to behave. 

Because they have operated primarily in their own corner of the Marvel Universe, the X-Men are insular and yet equally heroic as their mainstream Marvel counterparts. Often their world-saving adventures are as much an internal war with one of their own kind threatening the very fabric of existence as combat with any everyday villain. Hickman jumps forward from the latest concluding volume of Uncanny X-Men (2018-19) where the rosters were split between 1) survivors of revived mutant hatred on Earth in the form of a government-sponsored, mutation-eradicating vaccine; and, 2) an entirely separate plane of existence, created solely for mutants by another alternative Grey-Summers offspring named X-Man (Still with me? They've done it before), with neither side aware the other was still alive. Before Hickman’s takeover, there were months of issues with dramatic confrontations, shifting alliances, deaths, resurrections, and executions: the usual fare for any run of X-books. But he takes all the baggage, all the drama, as standard, launching his vision from that given point. Perhaps he means to signal the typical in-fighting is done. 

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“Main” Marvel plotlines and reinventions such as Bendis’ Avengers: Disassembled and New Avengers, Avengers Vs. X-Men, the disparate realities of Secret Wars, and several other company-wide, rejuvenating crossovers have strong structural ties to the four X-Men stories that Marvel compared in promotional material to Hickman's event: 1) Giant-Sized X-Men, 1975; 2) X-Men, 1991; 3) The Age of Apocalypse, 1995; 4) Grant Morrison's New X-Men, 2001. With Hickman, the X-Men are positioned to return to frontrunner status, benefiting from Marvel Studios’ film popularity, nostalgia for the team’s 90s incarnation and its representational pan-minority struggles, and a made-over identity for how mutants fit into the rest of the world.

In House of X #1, Auschwitz-survivor Magneto entertains in Jerusalem an international cadre of human diplomats at the mutant embassy. Poignantly, he asserts to them that: “There has never been a mutant war, Ambassador. We’ve never conquered a people, stolen their land or made slaves of the vanquished. That’s our real advantage.” Never have Xavier and Magneto been so freely on the same side, no longer working toward but already living their common purpose as mutants close ranks around their own, even in defense of career terrorists like Mystique and Sabretooth. The reclusive but highly connected Xavier is the carrot, promising peace and prosperity from mutantkind’s gifts; the infamous and foreboding Magneto is the stick, a stalwart defense against any oncoming threat, metallic or otherwise. 

Throughout the new book are technical layouts explaining the mutants’ newfound organization and solidarity as a world power, as well as the coalition of human-run opposition to their ascension, called ORCHIS. One of the most controversial topics about mutant powers since Claremont's 1980s introduction of the term and its subsequent expansion by 21st-century writers, is the Omega-level classification, described in this issue with a short list of “known” subjects (to humans, at least). Not too much new information is established by this; in fact, many demonstrable and oft-mentioned Omega-levels are excluded. That’s to be expected with a Marvel relaunch, which are both frequent and simplified for new readers. Again, Hickman makes sure that the background information is present, but it’s clear his overarching ideas are much greater in scope, building toward the next phase. Gone are the days of overly expository dialogue to reiterate and illustrate larger points. 

But the X-Men have been test subjects before, and recent weekly and bi-weekly issues of X-books have followed a new publishing model for a headlining Marvel franchise. Hickman’s two series will alternate weekly, with the first issue of Powers of X coming on July 31 and ending in early October. This relaunch follows the most recent grand arc in the X-Men saga, led by Bendis’s time-displaced original X-Men (Cyclops, Iceman, Angel, Beast, and Marvel Girl/Jean Grey) living in our present from 2012-2018. X-Men comic sales have been sleepy for years since the re-popularization of many of Marvel’s infrequent on-screen characters, exploring a swath of diversity through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Today’s A-listers like Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, Black Widow, were esoteric knowledge last century. Even the new Ms. Marvel, America Chavez, Spider-Gwen, Squirrel Girl, and fledgling all-female teams have benefitted from diversification aimed to include more female readers, or nearly half the market. Yet despite the X-Men’s longstanding roster of formidable women like Jean, Polaris, Storm, Kitty, Moonstar, Psylocke, Rogue, Dazzler, Emma Frost, and Jubilee, (Claremont even joked about fanboy complaints on the subject back in 1986’s Fall of the Mutants arc), the X-books have struggled with female readership, and popularity in general, over recent years. Ultimately, it was Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel who assumed the flagship solo female role of the MCU, and her ties to the X-Men run deep from Claremont’s days.

The X-Men’s near-exclusive trademark power among human species is telepathy; that was even how Stan-ley and Jack Kirby first envisioned them: with Magneto showing a limited capacity of psychic communication himself to rival Xavier’s in 1964’s X-Men #6, as he meets with Namor, “Marvel’s first mutant.” Most conflicts between the X-Men and other Marvel heroes are completely disadvantageous because of the latter’s lack of training in psychic defense. If some super-brain like Iron Man or Mr. Fantastic hasn’t invented a preventative measure to counter telepathy, human superheroes are left at the mercy of telepaths like Psylocke, Emma, and Kid Omega, all previously identified as Omega-level even without a boost from the Phoenix power. While it comes as no surprise that Hickman utilizes telepaths prominently in House of X #1, the full return of Charles Xavier seems to once again trump other voices as the most powerful psychic, and arguably most powerful mutant, among an extended list of mostly female telepaths, including the mysteriously resurrected Esme and Sophie of the Cuckoo Sisters. 

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The reduction of female roles in this first installment, with men serving as the primary talking heads and the women a bit more servile, sharply contrasts with their long history. Despite recent runs of the all-female X-Men (2013-2015) and the acclaimed series X-Men Red (2018), led by Jean Grey and featuring perhaps the most proactive Marvel team-up with a slew of supporting human heroes on mutant affairs, that day came and quickly went. Xavier now looms over his students, walking around at all times in a Cerebro helmet, resembling the evil Maker, aka the Ultimate-version of Reed Richards, down to the typeface. No lines for former Headmistresses Storm or Kitty, not a sign of Emma Frost, and hardly anything of personal consequence from Jean except a half-smile of acquiescence as Xavier welcomes her home. 

To be fair, most X-Men do not have active speaking roles in this issue, appearing in faceless profiles as the setup for their new place among Marvel’s heroes and population of human species. James Whitbrook of Gizmodo, noted that he was pleased to “feel nothing” from these mutants. Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler, Kitty, Beast, and Armor perform their functions as part of the expanding mutant enterprise, mostly without using their powers. Wolverine plays happily with a young mutant child on his back, and says nothing. They are more peaceful and passive than they have been in years; ever.

Instead, it’s the classic three male mutant leaders: Xavier, Magneto, and Cyclops, who drive the new narrative of conflict, dusting up against ORCHIS, the Fantastic Four, and the world-at-large. When a spy asks Magneto if he knows what he sounds like in his benevolent dictatorship of terms, he responds: “I do. And it feels good to finally say it.” Then lastly, in concluding words to the spies, Magneto informs them: “You have new gods now.” Most Omega-levels are affiliated with the mutant cause, yet only 3 of 14 on the provided list of Omegas are women. Their public face, as it has been with the X-Men on screen, is limited. 

A high school project, (long preceding a Master’s degree in Women’s and Gender History), established my analytical commitment to Marvel storytelling over that of DC. Whereas Wonder Woman was an archetype and Aquagirl a spin-off, the Marvel women evolved independently and threateningly to the established continuum, carrying that evolution in their character developments. The Invisible Woman, the Wasp, Marvel Girl, the Scarlet Witch, and others became much more than their 1960s original presentations. Their powers expanded as much as their leadership roles and impact within their respective team affiliations.

There is a potentially missed opportunity by doubling down on the male-driven visions of the mutant future, even as the X-series, like most comic books, have been written primarily by men for the past 56 years. The X-Men have to connect with a new and younger audience, as well as a new readership created by the growing Marvel Universe and nostalgites of the 80s and 90s. Stepping back from its female strengths seems dangerous. If you ask anyone familiar about their favorite mutants, and one of the top three is not an X-Woman, be concerned. Hickman clearly has a larger plan to be revealed – with male and female mutants alike. Rather, House of X #1 is truly a conundrum of empowerment, silence, and fear. It’s harrowing. I want to see more of my favorite heroes standing up for themselves, but we’ve all been let down before when their independence is asserted in the face of majority-human resistance.

—Ivan Lett is a marketing consultant, freelance writer, and poet. He lives in New York.