Book Club / Just So You Can Marvel at the Scope of All of His Big Thinking

House of X Powers of XHouse of X / Powers of X
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Pepe Larraz

 

 

 

At first trying to read this book feels like trying to eat a science textbook spine first. You open it up and try to make your way through and it just starts hitting you with all of these notes and diagrams about different branching realities and different types of magic flowers and how many super-minds makes a mega-mind or something and you’re like – wait a second I thought this was supposed to a superhero comic so why does it feel like I’m suddenly back in school?

Of course this is what Jonathan Hickman does right? I mean – I’ve read East of West; The Black Monday Murders, Pax Romana and a whole bunch of others and it’s definitely his “thing” to make his books half comics and half powerpoint presentation. Maybe it’s because he studied Architecture that his books often feel like they have the blueprints attached just so you can marvel at the scope of all of his big thinking. He wants you to know all the thought and consideration and planning that went into making the thing you’re walking around in. And you know you can’t say that he’s selling any of this stuff short (oh wow – look at that – he’s designed his very own nifty-looking new alphabet) – like everything is ambitious and going to the biggest and most epic lengths possible. 

Why did I choose this book for us to discuss? Well – judging from the Barbican Comic Forum it seems as if this has been the book of 2020 that everyone’s been checking out. I don’t know who’s been doing the publicity but I’ve gotta say I’ve heard nothing but positive things. Apparently this is the book that’s made the X-Men cool and a must-read again after god knows how many years in the wilderness. Apparently Hickman has the magic touch in that he’s made something for all the old school X-Men fans to get into and the perfect place for new people who want to jump on (although I feel like this is how ALL superheroes have been sold for my entire lifetime). 

My own experience was… a little mixed. I mean I know in this Book Club I’ve always been a little bit harsh about superhero comics but it’s coming from the perspective of someone who has at least some idea of what he’s talking about – I’ve read the Joss Whedon stuff. I’ve read the Warren Ellis stuff that came after. I’ve read pretty much all of Ultimate X-Men (written by Mark Millar, Geoff Johns, Brian Michael Bendis, Brian K. Vaughan and Mike Carey amongst others) and – of course – I’ve read Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run (I liked the Frank Quitely issues the best obvs) so you know – I’m not a total beginner. (I think maybe I’ve tried to read some Chris Claremont stuff now and again but trying to fit all of those speech balloons into my head just hurts my brain). I found the start pretty hard going – lots of (admittingly very pretty) information being dumped into me and not really all that much in the way of fun. Although to be fair I already knew about the big opening reality-bending twist which is probably where most of the fun is for someone who’s coming to it fresh. 

And yes as always with Hickman you’ve got to be impressed by the scale of it all. Dude likes to think big. 

Although as a still relative newbie (and this is often the problem I get with superhero comics) I was a little confused by how much was supposed to be new and crazy and how much I was supposed to know. I thought Nimrod was a Hickman invention but then checking the internet afterwards it turns out he was made all the way back in 1985 by Chris Claremont so erm yeah. Shows what I know. 

I mean there was a bit when it started getting into the heavy sci-fi concepts that I actually really started to dig it (“You have to consider that each black hole isn’t a seperate machine.”) but then that’s kinda the point where everything just kinda stopped with a “to be continued” which is a bit of a piss-take seeing how it’s a 304 page book. I mean yeah superhero books are always just the second act I know – but this kinda felt like it barely got to the end of the first. Which I guess is always going to be an issue when you’re doing the multiple timelines thing – seeing how everything is dished out in such small portions. And yeah I’ll admit that I wanted more and I’d be up for picking the next book whenever it comes along – but I also wish that it had given me more of a feeling of satisfaction you know? But then again it’s kinda obvious that that’s not what mainstream superhero comics are about LOL

What did you think?

 

I liked it, though I completely understand people that didn’t. Part of that is outside the remit of this arc, ignoring the delay caused by Covid we are currently a year into the storyline as set up by this and so far none of the themes raised in these six issues have been touched at all. But on the specific HoX/PoX crossover it gives while it takes away. Since the Chris Claremont era I’ve never liked stately Xavier mansion as an HQ for the X-Men and since it was rebuilt the first time in the early Nineties for the big X-Men reboot I’ve seen it as a retrograde step. It’s now accepted that in the Marvel Universe the people will accept the Fantastic Four destroying their houses while activating the Sentinel problem if a mutant looks at them funny. So I generally like stories where the mutants decide to be proactive about it, like setting up their own nation state away from the annoying humans, although I’m sure that when the Hickman era comes to an end there will be some homily about how it was all a mistake and they’ll move back to Xavier mansion and closer to the people that hate and fear them because… reboot button!

The artwork in this is great, especially considering some of the costume designs are terrible. For some reason Jean Grey has gone back to her sixties green mini-skirt design. She also appears to have absolutely even less personality than she did in the Sixties and most of the other characters are much the same. Xavier is weird, Magneto is gruff, Mister Sinister is every annoying extrovert gay character from TV comedies of twenty years ago, it’s as though Hickman got someone who had watched some of the X-Men films decades ago to explain who each character is to him. It’s odd because the two chapters that concentrate on Moira and her story are the best of the entire thing, not just of her but the characters she meets. Side-characters like Xavier or The Librarian have depth and angst even as they push the story in the direction it needs to go. So it’s not clear as to why the rest of it is so sparse, I don’t know whether Hickman expected the other writers to work on this but they mostly seem to have ignored it.

I suppose that after so many decades of reading comics with very similar stories just recycling again and again I’m happy to read something where it looks like it’s using a new language to retell those same old stories?

 

 

 

This is a difficult book to review. I appreciate the scale of Hickman’s ambition: it’s no small feat to reboot mutant society while accounting for the depth of canon and characters behind it. The fact that someone like Goldballs has a purpose in this universe is testament to the consideration Hickman has given to how this new mutant society is supposed to work.

Though the world-building is meticulous, and all of the usual X-Men (plus many also-rans; see Goldballs) make an appearance, the same level of thought doesn’t seem to have made it into the character development. Moira’s story/stories are compelling, but beyond that Loz’s point about the personalities being off sums it up perfectly. It’s like Hickman got so carried away with establishing Mutant Utopia and the administrative procedures behind it that he forgot he needed, or ran out of time to create, compelling characters and growth and interactions. Banking on readers being familiar with the mutant roster or surprising them with new character designs isn’t a substitute for developing characters’ personalities and conflicts.

I like X-Men best when it’s focusing on individual or small groups of mutants and their relationships/conflicts with their powers and other people. This book… isn’t that. This book is a lot of global politics and big-picture stuff. It’s a lot of exposition and scene-setting.

There are a lot of strands that could come out of it, though. Like: What’s the X-Men’s most misused mutant, Scarlet Witch, been up to? Who are the mutants who aren’t sold on the new creepy culty island regime and how do they fit into all this? Where are internal rifts/factions forming, and will they factor into Mutant Utopia’s inevitable downfall? Will there come a point where the utopia crosses into dystopia? Did Hickman knowingly write an allegory for Israel, and if so how will that play out in future arcs?

Trouble is, HoX/PoX spins off into 6? 8? separate ongoing X-series. As usual, I suspect this will be one of those runs I attempt to return to in a couple years, after it’s wrapped up and it’s clearer which arcs are worthwhile.

Jonathan Hickman is a weird writer. There’s a quote from Ilia talking about the Black Monday Murders in the London Graphic Novel Network 2017 in Review that has always springs to mind whenever I read any of his comics: 

“Hickman comics don’t really have characters that are recognisable to the likes of you and I. They are a bit like watching a group of Galactus-level beings play Civilisation II against each other (I think that’s how I put it at the Shoe Lane Forum). Black Monday Murders does the same thing but in a genre – financial institutions that worship the devil – which has been done and dusted. East of West was at least new in its grand combination of science fiction, western and apocalyptic fervour (you could describe it as Issac Asimov’s Foundation books crossed with Nietzsche at his maddest).”

There’s no such thing as an ordinary everyday type-of-person in a Hickman comic. You’re either the personification of Death or someone who keeps getting reborn in multiple dimensions or Albert freaking Einstein himself. The thought of Hickman writing a comic like Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels is incoherent. Instead he’d do it the other way round and have a bunch of superheroes looking up at beings even more powerful than themselves. 

There’s a part of me that wants to compare him to Grant Morrison as both writers are completely besotted with the idea of taking an idea and then blowing it up to COSMIC proportions. What if you had a gun that was as big The Sun? Imagine a monster that used planets for its eyes!! Picture a superhero made up out of Galaxies?!? But in terms of temperament they’re poles apart. Grant Morrison books are often frantic and sweaty-palmed. Countercultural and extolling the benefits of various mind-altering substances. While Hickman is more of an establishment kinda guy. His books are rigid and orderly and even tho he likes to play with big ideas – he also likes to have everything composed just so. Hickman is the kinda guy that will actually sit down and write a whole new alphabetical system just for the hell of it – while Morrison’s approach is much more… wild and free-wheeling. 

The thing I’ve found with Hickman tho is that his books always start off with so much coolness and promise but then they just kinda fall apart as they keep going… Like when East of West first started I think after reading the first two volumes I took the (for me) very bold and (mostly) unprecedented step of being like: oh wow. I need to start buying these volumes as soon as they come out. Cut to: earlier this year and as the final volume had come out I’m reading the whole series end to end and like – “oh wow – this is actually a comic that gets noticeably worse every single step of the way.” Like it starts out like you’re watching intergalactic 3D chess being played by characters of infinite power and cunning and then towards the end it’s resorting to storytelling techniques that you’d expect to find in a cheap soap opera… (“Oooh I heard the gunshot which must mean that the character’s dead right?”) 

All of which is to say – I wonder about Amanda’s idea of attempting to return to this series in a couple of years “after it’s wrapped up and it’s clearer which arcs are worthwhile.” Every Hickman book I’ve read has been nothing but diminishing returns and/or have disappeared without a trace (I’m looking at you Black Monday Murders and The Manhattan Projects). But then maybe this is the problem with writing books starring Galactus-level beings when you’re only a human being. And you know – it’s easy to start a story that’s full of wonder and promise but eventually you’re going to have to bump up against an ending. 

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