Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance.
This week, they are House Of X #1 and Powers Of X #1. Written by Jonathan Hickman (The Black Monday Murders, East Of West) with art by Pepe Larraz (Avengers: No Surrender, Extermination), R.B. Silva (Uncanny X-Men, X-Men: Blue), inker Adriano Di Benedetto (Uncanny X-Men, X-Men: Blue), colorist Marte Gracia (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Amazing Spider-Man), and letterer Clayton Cowles (Mister Miracle, The Wicked + The Divine), these two issues kick off an ambitious new era for the X-Men that places mutants at the core of the Marvel Universe. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
In two pages, Jonathan Hickman changes everything for the X-Men.
Breaking down five months in eight panels, these two pages in House Of X (HOX)
#1 show characters planting flowers across the Earth, the Moon, and Mars, setting up a network of mutant-friendly habitats and gateways to the X-Men’s living island base. This is the first step in completely changing how mutants interact with the human world. As this debut issue unfolds, the creative team reintroduces the X-Men as a political, economic, and cultural force ushering in a new future. It’s the kind of audacious, forward-thinking concept you’d expect from a creator like Hickman, who comes to the X-Men with a long-term plan that begins by throwing readers directly into a period of rapid, wild change.
Make that four periods of rapid, wild change. In Powers Of X (POX) #1, we see how the human/mutant conflict destroys Earth and spreads throughout the cosmos over centuries, with plot threads set in the past, present, and future. The X here is the Roman numeral, and the title is intended to be read as Powers Of Ten. There are four timelines, each represented by a power corresponding to a year: X⁰ (year one), X¹ (year 10), X² (year 100), and X³ (year 1000). X⁰ is the beginning of Charles Xavier’s dream, showing his younger self as he meets Moira MacTaggert for the first time. X¹ continues on the present-day timeline of House Of X #1, giving us more ominous teasing of Charles’ current mission. X² jumps 100 years in the future to reveal the dystopian landscape of the Man-Machine Supremacy, and X³ goes 1,000 years forward, ending all the conflict with a calm visit to The Mutant Library and The Preserve.
If this all sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Hickman comes to the X-Men with tons of ideas, and he’s not wasting any time implementing them. HOX and POX are six-issue miniseries that alternate shipping every week, and their double-sized first issues are packed with new information, much of which is presented in sharply designed data pages that have become a signature of Hickman’s work. You don’t need to know a lot about the X-Men to jump into this story. The data pages allow Hickman to give newcomers the information they need to know without having to fold exposition into the interactions between characters, which makes the scenes between data pages very active.
In an interview with SKTCHD’s Off-Panel podcast (full disclosure: I write a quarterly column for SKTCHD), designer Tom Muller speaks in depth about the design process for the new X-titles and how he collaborated with Jonathan Hickman to develop a cohesive visual identity for the line. Muller has been elevating comic book design with his work on creator-owned Image series like Zero, Drifter, and Motor Crush, and for the X-Men relaunch, he created a tool kit of different design elements for Hickman to use on the data pages. The result is a fusion of both their styles that plays a big part in distinguishing these books from other superhero titles.
The data pages serve multiple purposes: They provide information, introducing new ideas and providing necessary background knowledge. This information is tied to the scene that comes before it, turning the data pages into bookends that expand on the story with a very different blend of text and visual elements. This makes for a longer read, but it also switches up the pace, providing a space for Hickman to situate the audience and cleanse the palate before jumping into the next scene. After one reads Powers Of X #1, the data pages gain a new dimension in the context of a millennium-spanning narrative, which ends with a librarian overseeing a giant hub of information. I’m now wondering if these pages are pulled from the archives of The Mutant Library, which would be a very clever way of putting the reader deeper inside the world of the story.
That world is beautifully illustrated by Pepe Larraz and R.B. Silva, two artists who channel Stuart Immonen, one of the greatest superhero artists of all time. But they channel different Immonen styles. In House Of X, Larraz delivers more textured, heavily shaded linework that evokes Immonen’s art on All-New X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man. The art for Powers Of X recalls the flatter animated style Immonen used for Ultimate Spider-Man and Nextwave, with Silva and Adriano Di Benedetto depicting the different timelines with remarkably clean, confident lines. There’s clear overlap between the main artists of these two titles, which is very smart given that HOX and POX are one big 12-issue story, and the visuals gain even more consistency by sharing a colorist.
The concepts introduced in these two debut issues significantly alter the course of the Marvel Universe, situating mutants as the ultimate disruptors of human society. This isn’t a new idea. Grant Morrison had it back with his New X-Men run in the early ’00s, and he was committed to exploring how mutant culture diverges from humans. Marvel did a lot of backtracking after Morrison’s run, and by severely reducing the mutant population, Marvel put an end to the cultural evolution Morrison had started. Hickman recognizes how revolutionary Morrison’s take was, and after spending far too long being hunted, persecuted, and killed, the mutants are claiming their dominion over humanity.
Morrison’s New X-Men debuted at a time when Marvel was keeping its main superhero lines separate, giving creators the opportunity to tell stories that weren’t restricted by larger events. That distance from the rest of the Marvel Universe is a big part of why New X-Men is such a distinct chapter in X-history, but that also keeps the series from taking advantage of the benefits of a shared universe. Morrison’s story has a huge scope, but it always feels like the stakes apply only to a select group of characters that Morrison specifically wants to use.
Hickman makes it clear from the start that his new status quo affects not only every mutant, but also the entire Marvel Universe. The Flowers Of Krakoa create habitats and gateways for mutants, but there are also three that have been turned into drugs that specifically benefit humans: one extends human life by five years; one cures diseases of the mind; and one is an adaptive, universal antibiotic. The X-Men are taking a chunk of that Big Pharma pie, and Krakoa has given them an economy that they can use to leverage amnesty for mutants with other countries. The implications of this are huge, but that’s pretty much the case with everything in these two issues, which has inspired passionate fan speculation the likes of which I haven’t seen in years.
There are many mysteries unfolding here, but one of the biggest is Charles Xavier, who now dresses all in black and wears a helmet that covers his eyes with a giant X. Hickman leans into Xavier’s shady mutant mastermind qualities. This X-Men run begins with Xavier in an underground cavern where he watches adult mutants hatch from pods in the ground. These slimy naked figures reach up to their god, who utters four words that have never been creepier: “To me, my X-Men.” Larraz’s character acting enhances Xavier’s menace, and as the hatchlings reach for him, Xavier turns his hands up and grins. He keeps his brood at a distance, and Hickman keeps the audience at a distance, giving them no insight into how Xavier has made all this happen and why his character acts like this now. Marvel touts a Moira/Xavier interaction in POX #1 as the most important event in X-Men history, but what Xavier sees when he searches Moira’s mind is kept hidden from readers.
As serious as this story gets, Hickman understands the value of humor in drawing readers in and increasing tension. Hickman brings Cyclops and the Fantastic Four together for a generally pleasant interaction that highlights Cyclops’ respect for the family. Instead of giving them a fight, Cyclops approaches them as an ally and is willing to compromise. This scene offers something more familiar, with Hickman returning to the team that defined his early Marvel career. It’s a breather that helps the reader regain their bearings after an intense ride, but then Hickman throws in one last twist, ending the conversation on a foreboding note by reminding the Fantastic Four of their stake in mutant survival.
POX #1 goes to darker places than its companion issue, but the humor is even more pronounced. It also comes from an unexpected source: Nimrod, a mutant-killing, world-dominating machine. Hickman writes Nimrod as deeply apologetic for all of the atrocities committed by previous models, but it hasn’t actually gained empathy for those who have suffered. It feels shame about ideas that were poorly executed, and it has new ways of wiping out mutants that are more beneficial to its goals. Silva has a lot of fun with Nimrod’s expressions when he gets excited about the prospect of cataloging a new mutant, and giving this machine a personality makes him a significantly more engaging antagonist.
At the end of HOX #1, Magneto comments on how much humans love symbolism and religion, and Hickman uses both to enrich his X-Men narrative. Magneto’s ominous final line in HOX #1, “You have new gods now,” ties directly to the ending of POX #1, in which The Librarian looks down at The Preserve and the two new humans they have bred inside as a reminder of past mistakes. The final panel of HOX #1 is a proclamation of mutant godhood while the final panel of POX #1 reveals the Adam and Eve of a new creation myth, tightly connecting the two titles on a thematic level.
My enjoyment of Hickman’s X-books is significantly informed by recently reading Ed Piskor’s X-Men: Grand Design, an astounding breakdown of the first 280 issues of X-Men comics. I’ve read maybe half of these comics (mostly the Claremont ones), and nearly all of them when I was a teenager, so it was a delight to refresh my memory while also filling in the blanks with Piskor’s chronological retelling. There are so many characters and plot lines developed in those three decades, and you see how the X-Men franchise evolves over time as the overarching narrative expands across galaxies, timelines, and dimensions.
Maybe it’s the recent passing of Marvel icons like Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, but the publisher is very interested in exploring its past right now, with Mark Waid and Javier Rodriguez currently telling The History Of The Marvel Universe and Tom Scioli launching Fantastic Four: Grand Design in October. House Of X #1 came out on the same day as Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels Epilogue, a poignant short story about honoring the past while taking joy in the new, and it’s fitting that this nostalgic one-shot featuring the X-Men was released alongside a debut that redefines the status of mutants in the Marvel Universe. Hickman restores a spirit of innovation and discovery to the X-Men, elevating mutants to a position of power that opens up a world of creative opportunities.