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House of M (Review/Retrospective)

This is the third in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity. Get an overview of what I’m trying to take a look at here.

The X-Men represent the oddball of mainstream superhero comic books. In a genre and medium dedicated offering a static setup – things never really change or resolve – the X-Men are built upon the very idea of evolution. The whole basis of the franchise is the pursuit of equality by the genetically distinct mutant population, the idea that they and mankind can grow together. It has even been frequently suggested that these super-powered individuals represent out future or our replacements. However, the only way to actually tell a story like that is to follow it through to its logical conclusion – to let the ball roll and to let the world change. It feels a little counterproductive for Charles Xavier and his students to still be fighting for the same rights as everyone else nearly fifty years on – it might even seem a little stale. Grant Morrison’s superb New X-Men run offered a solution of sorts – it gave us a world where humanity would be extinct in a couple of generations and showed the growth and relationship between human and mutant subculture. Gone was the minority struggling against an oppressive majority – a more complex example of race relations had come into play with “mutant music” and “mutant slang” making their impression on the youth, amid a silent and almost invisible middle-class backlash. This was an ingenious approach which demonstrated the relevance of the franchise. Unfortunately, Marvel were not quite pleased with this – some people even, ridiculously, accused Morrison of telling all the remaining X-Men stories – and decided to set things right. They did that through House of M.

Dive in...

Of course, some would state that the X-Men as a franchise were in serious need of reinvention coming into this decade. To quote Bill Jemas:

I called the X-books ‘comics about comics.’ In order to understand the X-Men you had to have already read 100 previous books – and to understand those 100, you would have had to have read 100 before that… Marvel peaks when our characters look and feel like real world people facing realistic issues similar to (or at least analogous to) what our readers face in their real lives… The X-Men books started to fail when the characters were interacting more heavily with their own back story than with stories pulled off the front page of the New York Times.

That said, I’m not necessarily convinced that the situation has been remedied in the years since – particularly with this particular event miniseries, which seems to exist to serve an editorial mandate. It’s ironic to hear Marvel’s editor, Joe Quesada, describe the titles before this event as “insular”, particularly when the outcome of this particular massive crossover was to banish the X-Men to their own particular corner of continuity.

What about robo rights?

Quesada himself has been somewhat critical of the social evolution of mutants in Marvel publications:

Part of what is inherently important about the metaphor of the X-Men is that they are a minority. … [T]here aren’t supposed to be a lot of these guys … they never really should’ve been in the forefront. That kind of message got lost over the years, to the point where we ended up with a mutant island where there were over six million of them, and every time you’d turn a page, you’d see a mutant on every corner. We even had ‘Mutant Town’. So, one of the things that we wanted to do was put the genie back in the bottle.”

Which, in fairness, is a fairly weak argument. You can come from an ethnic group comprised of millions all over the world (and even settled in one place in large numbers) and still be a victim of discrimination. Indeed, that’s what most discrimination is like:

Such rhetoric suggests a misunderstanding of the challenges faced by real minorities. The invention of a mutant nation and a mutant neighbourhood really enhanced the metaphor, rather than undermined it. After all, the existence of almost four billion Asians in the world doesn’t make life easier for one Asian kid in a town in rural America. The existence of gay neighbourhoods in almost every major city in the Western world has not made coming out to one’s parents any easier. More than half the world is female, but women still don’t have full equality in the first world, let alone in the developing world. The claim that “there aren’t supposed to be a lot of these guys” is not likely to be well received by anyone who has ever been a victim of prejudice.

But perhaps that’s a discussion for another time.

The once and future Thing...

That’s the story of the X-Men coming in to House of M. This is a crossover between The Avengers and the X-Men, and the non-mutant superhero team have their own particular baggage coming to the event. Perhaps realising the power of a brand of superheroes, or perhaps simply seeking brand their core team of heroes as a counterpart to their distinguished competition’s Justice League, Marvel had decided that they needed to move their Avengers properties back to the centre of the Marvel Universe. Although the team is renowned in the world of comics, the reinvention in the past decade has seen a move towards a “big hitters” style. Wolverine and Spider-Man, the two most iconic Marvel characters, are now as welcome on the team as Captain America or Iron Man. The team was revamped to offer an “all star” line-up.

Although the team had anchored crossovers before, the past decade would see a conscious restructuring of the fictional universe around these heroes. Every truly huge Marvel event – from then until now – was an Avengers event: House of M, Civil War, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, Siege. Gone were the days of embarrassing crossovers like Heroes Reborn – this wasn’t an era where the Avengers would be lucky to get a single miniseries during a big X-Men crossover like The Age of Apocalypse. How times have changed. Perhaps the first indication of what this series is about can be found with the arrival of the X-Men – fresh from Joss Whedon’s superb Astonishing X-Men – land at the Avengers Tower. Jarvis welcomes “Master Logan and the X-Men” – the none-too-subtle suggestion being that Wolverine, the most popular of the mutants, is now an Avenger rather than an X-Man. Indeed, Captain America is quite possessive of his mutant colleagues (speaking of Wanda, he declares, “She’s not an X-Man, she’s an Avenger” – which certainly underscores the fact that it’s an “us” or “them” situation – as far as he’s concerned, Wolverine is probably just “on loan”).

Check out his raw magnetism...

The core of the miniseries follows the creation of an alternative reality by former Avenger Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch. Driven mad by the loss of her family, she has used her power to alter reality to literally rebuild the world. And in doing so, she takes the X-Men to their literal conclusion. Mutantkind are the dominant lifeform – politically, socially, economically. Humans are kept in ghettos and discriminated against (if not worse). Magneto is a savior to millions, and he lives with his family on the paradise of Genosha – an island destroyed in the very first issue of Morrison’s New X-Men run.

The plot is fairly straightforward and disappointingly linear. You would imagine that the creation of a world shaped in Magneto’s image would offer more than a few interesting ideas – at the very least the man himself (being one of the most intriguing villains in comic books) would play an important role. Instead, we follow Wolverine (who has retained his memories of the “real” world) as he uses a young girl named Layla to help his former colleagues remember what the world was like. He puts together a team, and they go to talk to Wanda.

Spider-Man tries to put this to bed...

It can’t help but feel a little light. This universe has no texture. No depth. No soul. We don’t get an idea of how it works or functions. Despite being the logical conclusion of one of Marvel’s cornerstone franchises, it simply isn’t interesting. The main miniseries teases us with the world, but never distinguishes it enough for us to engage. The tie-ins are a scattershot bunch, not linked thematically and not consistent in their portrayal of this particular reality. Alternate universes are such a frequent storytelling device that you really need a hook to pull it off, and pitch-perfect execution. Bendis doesn’t quite have it (though he does try).

Looking at the tie-ins, they seem rather random. It’s almost as though they capture “a day in the life” of this strange universe. There’s no real philosophical underpinnings that tie all these random event comics together – it’s just a bunch of random stuff which happens to random characters. House of M: Iron Man, House of M: Captain America, House of M: Hulk, House of M: Spider-Man – these all suggest the event’s heart lies more with the Avengers than with the mutants. Whereas the rest of the Marvel Universe was lucky to get a look in the Age of Apocalypse crossovers (mostly confined to a single miniseries, X-Universe), here there are relatively few mutant-centric tie-ins. House of M: Wolverine reflects the character torn between the two franchises at Marvel, Cable and Deadpool reflects more on the popularity of the “merc with a mouth” rather than his mutant heritage, and there really seems to be one set of X-Men-related issues collected in the tie-in materials (save the “No More Mutants” stuff that would follow, isolating the mutants away from the main cut and thrust of the big event stories). Hell, even The Pulse focuses more on bringing Hawkeye back from the dead and the spot where the Avengers Mansion used to be rather than on the whole “mutant world” thing.

Even in an alternate universe, I'm not sure I like him when he's angry...

The tie-ins are mostly disposable stories, without a common thread or theme to really tie them all together (unlike, say, Age of Apocalypse, where each series followed a character to a clearly defines goal or to illustrate a particular facet of the world). Some, like House of M: Hulk, feel simply like the author was told to write a regular story with the character, just tacking on a few cosmetic alterations. Others, such as House of M: Wolverine, feel incomplete and tangential – as if they are waiting for the next installment which will never come. There are those, like House of M: Iron Man, which seem to exist solely because the chance to give a character a slightly modified appearance (in that case, manga-esque armour) was too good to pass up.

The best tie-ins – House of M: Spider-Man and House of M: Captain America – find a way to simultaneously say something about this new universe and the iconic characters they are working with (perhaps because the authors – Mark Waid and Ed Brubaker respectively – are so familiar with the characters). There’s a clear knowledge of the character themselves, but also a wry sense of humour at work. On reading peter’s diary of the alternate world, Ben remarks to his wife, “You’re always having heart attacks.”

Hot Frost...

Indeed, House of M: Spider-Man and House of M: Captain America manage to find important things to say about their respective characters – and actually use the opportunities of another world to do it. Uncle Ben and Peter get to have that second conversation they really needed to. There’s a wonderful honesty when Ben reveals that he is ashamed of his famous “with great power…” schtick. “I’m ashamed because I never said it to anyone else,” he confesses. Similarly, Brubaker uses the House of M: Captain America miniseries to give us an idea of the life that Steve Rogers could have lived and whether that ever would have fulfilled him.

At the very least, the event is fascinating – if only superficially – as it inverts the classic racist dynamic between human and mutant. There’s even a slang nickname to compliment the way “mutie” is used in the mainstream universe – “sape”. Early on, Logan witnesses a lynching of a young human by a bunch of mutants, reversing many familiar scenes from the history of the franchise. And, in this world – as the Iron Man tie-in miniseries demonstrates – the extreme racial prejudices work both ways, mirroring Magneto’s dogma in the mainstream universe. When Tony discovers a plot to kill many innocent people, Hank Pym corrects him, “Not people, mutants.”

Just claws...

At its very best, the event is at least fresh in postulating an ending. This is a world where everyone has had their goals met. Spider-Man is no longer universally hated. Mutants and humanity are at peace. Logan can remember everything. As Jessica Jones asks at one crucial point, “Isn’t there an argument that we deserved to get this? To be happy for once?” Indeed, Wanda built her world on the hope that “there would be no more fighting”. However, comic book narratives don’t work that way and – sooner or later – something has got to give. “There’s always fighting,” the Scarlet Witch eventually concedes. The story never ends. These characters can never stop being who they are.

Throughout the book, it’s incredibly obvious that this was intended as an Avengers book – first and foremost. Despite the notion that this is a book about mutants – hence, you know, the title – it is far more intent on offering character moments for characters like Stephen Strange and Spider-Man rather than Emma or Scott or Charles or Magneto.

It's a Strange world...

That said, what House of M gave those mutants was a new status quo – literally a cosmic retcon – which was the old one. Gone was their role at the core of the Marvel universe, or any of the slow advances they had made towards civil rights. Gone was the integration that several authors had begun to hint at, replaced with an “outside-looking-in” siege mentality. Of course, cynics might suggest that the reality of mainstream comic books made this inevitable. When Professor Xavier commands the delusional Scarlet Witch to “Put the world back, now!” it could just as easily be the edict of editors to their writers – you can never truly throw the toys out of the pram, you must always put things back the way you found them for the next writer.

I won’t bore you with a debate about whether this is a necessary step, or a fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of the X-Men as a franchise. Nor will I cynically remark that very few of the “essential” X-Men found themselves depowered. I will however remark that the event made the X-Men a bunch of pariahs within the publishing line. Rather than existing primarily as a superhero team with themes of integration flirting in the background (the cornerstone of Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run), the X-Men became a group skirting the edge of extinction. There’s very little time for meaningful social commentary when fighting for your life. Perhaps this change in approach is what has led the franchise to stumble in recent years (Morrison’s New X-Men and Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men are two of the best runs in modern comics, and the modern X-Men… not so much). It pretty much saddled the team with an agenda – not a passive agenda of social change, but a “fight for your very existence” style of agenda – that marginalised them within the Marvel Universe. It’s telling that, during World War Hulk, the Hulk decides to leave the X-Men in peace after discovering of the loss of thousands of mutants – this as close as the mainstream characters shrugging their shoulders and refusing to invite the emo kid to the party.

Well, at least Pietro thought fast...

When the next X-Men/Avengers crossover took place – Utopia – it would offer a very different dynamic. In that case, even more than here, the X-Men would enter as a fringe group – one that should be thankful of the invitation to play with “the big boys” rather than as one themselves. House of M is arguably more important as a statement than it is as a storyline of itself – it isn’t a particularly well-executed event. Here, it seems that “no more mutants” isn’t just a command from the Scarlet Witch, it’s a comment from Marvel’s editors.

No more X-Men. It’s all Avengers from here on out.

With Brian Michael Bendis’ first major crossover event behind us, we’ll be jumping head-first into the convoluted quagmire of Marvel’s big event-driven publishing cycle. Next week, I’ll be back with a review of Mark Millar’s Civil War and then I’ll be dipping into the relaunch of the “cosmic” Marvel universe with the Annihilation crossover. I’ll follow that up with a look of World War Hulk before returning to the stretch of New Avengers which leads through the war and into the following big event that Bendis has planned out – Secret Invasion. All of these articles are written from the perspective of a (relative) layman who has never really attempted to follow comic book continuity before. Stay tuned, true believers.

2 Responses

  1. “Looking at the tie-ins, they seem rather random. It’s almost as though they capture “a day in the life” of this strange universe. There’s no real philosophical underpinnings that tie all these random event comics together – it’s just a bunch of random stuff which happens to random characters.”

    Whilst I love your reviews and I feel you do an excellent job analysing and critiquing stories, this right here sums up a problem I feel with your reviews – you seem to always look for a message or theme in stories. There’s nothing wrong with finding one, or with writers putting them into their stories, but what’s wrong with a story being pure entertainment? I can understand being upset when something like, say, Civil War fails to live up to the philosophical questions it raises, but I see nothing wrong with a writer for a tie-in saying, “What could I write with this premise that would be entertaining?”

    • That’s a fair point.

      On the other hand, I do think I can enjoy fun for the sake of fun. I’m a huge fan of Bob Haney’s The Brave and the Bold work, if only for its sheer gonzoness.

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