It’s sort of strange to be a fan of comic books these days. For reference, I was ten years old when Iron Man hit theaters. So from age zero to about eleven, it was considered wildly uncool for me to wear a shirt with the Justice League on it or play with any superhero toys that weren’t Spider-Man or Batman. I did those things anyway, and I did read comics, albeit sporadically (I was not a financially secure child).
I was a huge fan of Nightwing and Superman and Nightcrawler and Magneto. Aside from Superman, most of my friends had never heard those names. And Superman was not considered *cool* by most 6–11 year olds. Sure, the Fox X-Men movies existed and were popular, but it really was just Wolverine and his Amazing Friends as far as people my age were concerned. And even Wolverine wasn’t cool unless he was dressed in black leather. So it was hard.
And then, the MCU happened. Now my mom knows who Rocket Raccoon and Thanos are. My friends like Captain America and the Scarlet Witch for God’s sake. And one of the biggest shows on TV stars The Vision! The Ultron-created super-android who has the power to change his density and shoot a forehead laser. Household name. It’s like the world is upside down.
But, I digress. As I said, I didn’t really have access to many actual issues of comics. What I did have was a series of massive reference books, visual dictionaries, complete guides, that kind of thing. And these captured my imagination for years. Flipping through these books was like treasure hunting, the goal being to find some incredible design and read everything anyone needed to know about the backstory, relationships, and inner world of that hero or villain or supporting character.
Not until late high school would I actually be able to start picking up and reading the real material. When I did begin, I struggled to find a place to focus my reading. The respective universes of the big two publishers are so massive, there’s just no way to get into it all. Now, I knew I wasn’t a Batman guy. I liked Tim Drake too much. They really do not know what to do with poor Tim. I thought for a minute I was big into Green Lantern, then Geoff Johns’ obsession with Hal Jordan killed that. Spider-Man? Continuity nightmare. Superman? New 52’d. Avengers? Way less interesting on the page than on the screen. So who then?
Enter the X-Men.
With the X-Men, I found characters I’d always loved right alongside new ones to discover, terrestrial adventures alongside space-faring action. Massive variety, incredible characters, all wrapped up in a complex metaphor with real things to say about the world we live in. Of course, if you’re an X-fan, you know that the late twenty-teens were not exactly a great period for the mutant metaphor. I focused my efforts on fun x-cursions like the popular Nightcrawler mini. I made it through.
For the uninitiated, 2019 saw a line-wide relaunch of the X-Men and all of their nebulously related titles under the ambitious eye of superstar writer Jonathan Hickman. This began with two concurrent bi-weekly mini-series entitled House of X (ex) and Powers of X (ten), which established a radical new status quo for the mutants. The first massive step forward for the mutant metaphor in decades, the new normal includes some truly startling concepts. A sovereign mutant nation, universal amnesty for heroes and villains alike, a true alliance between Professor X and Magneto, and literal mutant immortality by way of a complex process which combines the powers of five unique mutants and Charles Xavier’s Cerebro (not to be confused with Connor Goldsmith’s incredible podcast dedicated to deep dives into individual x-characters through the lens of the Mutant Minority Metaphor) to resurrect any mutant who happens to die in the line of duty. Well, almost any mutant.
Needless to say, this seismic shift reinvigorated the line beyond belief. Suddenly, everything we’ve known about the mutant misfits and their world of woe is turned upside down, a relatable concept these days. For decades, mutants were just beaten down, oppressed, decimated over and over again, and now, suddenly, they were the ones saying “no more.” I may be a cishet white guy, but even I felt the power of that. Out of nowhere, all of the waffling over whether Charles or Erik had it right, all the squabbles with the Avengers, all the handwringing by writers over whether mutants could ever integrate with human society was swiftly tossed aside. And the message was clear. Mutants are the future, they’re here to stay, and it’s not a negotiation.
Crucially, this was additive storytelling, introducing new concepts and pushing forward, building on what came before, accepting and digesting it. So often in superhero comics, when a new status quo is instituted, it means erasing five or ten years of development and just moving on, pretending it didn’t happen. And this cycle repeats every few years ad infinitum. That’s why comics are so hard to get into as a new reader, you can never tell where you are in the cycle and what actually matters or will continue to matter. That’s what makes the additive nature of this development so compelling. Now, if you pick up an X-book, all relevant information is provided and everything feels like it will matter moving forward. You don’t have to worry that your new favorite character or relationship or costume or superpower will just disappear in 20 issues, because it clearly won’t. The line just isn’t doing that anymore.
I hear you saying, “that’s all well and good, but won’t almost all of this be totally different in 10 years? Won’t we just be back at the school in Westchester fighting sentinels and Magneto?” And, truth be told, I don’t know. But what I do know is that it doesn’t *feel* that way. It feels like this is a firm, immovable step towards something new, something permanent. And that is so incredibly refreshing in the age of four events every year and MCU-driven retcons (looking at you, Axis), and character death as a joke. What does it mean that all mutants can be resurrected? It means that when they truly die, in ways that don’t enable resurrection, it’s a really big deal. It means that the Five are precious, vital characters. It means that the entire mindset of a mutant hero is changed. They’re not fighting for their lives anymore, they’re fighting for more. Huge.
So why does any of this matter? Well, aside from being important to me personally, its important to look at superhero storytelling as it stands today and examine Hickman’s X-Men as relatively novel example of it. The MCU is the biggest media franchise of the last decade and a half, comic sales are steady for the first time in a while, little kids dress up as Groot and Ant-Man for Halloween now. Superheroes are huge. And while many will bicker and complain about homogeneity or how they’re “all the same”, these stories connect with people for a reason.
At the same time, superhero stories have been approaching a metaphorical cliff for a while now. In comics, there’s talk of event fatigue and reboot fever, always destroying and rebuilding the universe and starting over and reinventing in pursuit of new sales. Marvel’s “sliding time scale” becomes more and more volatile with every year that we creep further from Captain America’s origin and Magneto’s tragic backstory, both events tied intrinsically to real history.
The truth is, at their inception, these stories were not designed to last for upwards of 80 years. The strain is starting to show.
In film, Avengers: Endgame pulled off a continuity miracle by actually tying together 10 years of movies and making sense at the same time, but it took an ungodly amount of money and a three hour runtime to pull it off. More new MCU franchises and sequels are announced by the month, and the pressure will be on to deliver more Endgame style crossover extravaganzas time and time again. It just doesn’t look entirely sustainable.
This is pretty much exactly where the X-Men and their satellite titles were when HoX/PoX was pitched.
So, Hickman’s framework provides a possible solution. Fusing additive storytelling and bold ambition in pursuit of reinventing the status quo while remaining true to the spirit of the story and the characters works. It can be done.
Recently, DC Comics published a short run of mini-relaunches that they called “Future State”, jumping the DC Universe ahead some years and telling stories about new heroes and grown up sidekicks, for once allowing the world to age a little and let things move forward. It had a mixed reception, but one thing that seemed universally agreed upon was that it was refreshing to see new characters, new designs, new relationships, and new stories, all existing within the timeless DC Universe.
Audiences aren’t just ready for a new status quo, they want one. And to tell the truth, those sects of fandom that are vehemently against change on this level probably aren’t worth bringing along for the future of these heroes.
Bruce Wayne should retire. Permanently. Peter Parker should marry MJ (again) and take a teaching job. Permanently. Hal Jordan should die saving the world. Permanently. Tony Stark should dump all of his Stark Industries stock, end world hunger with the cash, and eff off to Malibu to sip Mai Tai’s and drive a fast car way too slowly. Permanently.
Of course this doesn’t mean that these heroes need to stay gone forever. Not only could they return in incredible cameos or mentor roles, but stories can always be told in retrospect, like the recent “Symbiote Spider-Man” which saw writer Peter David return to both the character and the time in which he was actively writing the book, the mid-80s. The story was set *during* the events of David’s original run and saw characters, plot lines, and story elements from that time make a reappearance. If Batman is retired in the current canon, why not write a story about something he did twenty years ago? Not only does this keep the character alive in their prime, it reinforces the timelessness of these stories and adds a sense of a true narrative arc to the long careers of classic superheroes.
In any case, the argument for significant evolution of the status quo could come from no more relevant source than the X-Men. Hickman and the X-Room have pulled of a massive sea change and in the process roped in x-fans old and new. These new stories are bold and imaginative and fun, and they remain that way because we know the writers are ready and willing to go places and do things that could never be done in the pre-Krakoa age.
The rest of comics could really stand to learn something from Homo Superior, or get out of the way.