House of X: A Question of the Damage Done

Charles Xavier walks out of a bright portal, leading Marvel Girl, Wolverine, Cyclops, and Magneto

I’m trying to think about how to tackle this. House of X is X-Men, right? It’s…different.

There’s that idea that after a definitive run on a book, usually by that book’s creators, everything else is just well-financed fan fiction. I have…some issues with that concept, but it’s hard to deny the idea that a lot of the time, future teams will spend their issues trying to ape the glory gone by. We’re coming off of a lot of that with X-Men, a lot of creators stepping in to play with the toys that were left behind to tell stories without consequence, meaning, or power. Children smashing action figures together and making explosion noises with their mouths.

But that was never really what X-Men was about–it wasn’t about the fights, or the struggle, or the powers. It was never even really about the soap opera, as much as we love it. X-Men was always about the harm. Who causes it, how to heal it, how we mitigate it or survive it if it can’t be healed. Harm and marginalization often go hand in hand, so X-Men is about that too, but never exclusively, because the metaphor always breaks down. Can you tell I’ve been thinking about this?

Uncanny X-Men #165, (Marvel Comics, January 1983)

Recently, I’ve reread a handful of specific issues. #251 — the one where Wolverine gets strung up on a St. Andrew’s Cross in the middle of the Outback. His healing factor is shot, the X-Men are occupied elsewhere, and he’s slipping in and out of lucidity. It’s abundantly clear that Wolverine would’ve died here if not for the sudden appearance of one Jubilation Lee. She pulls him down from his crucifixion and carries him, half-stumbling, into hiding. Given his semi-lucid state, this is an incredibly dangerous act for her — she doesn’t know it, but readers do — and she does it anyway. Because harm is being done, and while she can’t do much by fighting the bad guys, she can get him to a safer place. She mitigates the harm.

In #164, the team is on the run from the Brood Queen, aboard Lilandra’s starship. They are under fire for most of the issue, in such dire straits that Kitty has to do a spacewalk to do repairs so that the ship can escape. So dire, in fact, that when she completes those repairs, they jump to warp speed before she can even get back inside. She knows this when she volunteers for the task. Elsewhere on the ship, Storm struggles explicitly with the concept of harm, as she accidentally kills a couple of their pursuers. She’s justified in this instance — her team’s lives are in danger — but that doesn’t prepare her for the reality of having done it, and it begins a character arc that culminates in the adoption of a radical new identity a year later.

Wolverine, on the other hand, has no such compunctions. He’s well versed in the philosophy of killing the bad guys before they kill you, but his struggle is a different sort altogether: he knows that even if they escape this fight, the X-Men are going to die regardless. His quandary is whether he tells them, so that they can fight or even brace for their fate, or to keep it to himself, convinced as he is there’s no hope for their survival. Claremont’s circuitous plotting ensures that Kitty’s plight forces Wolverine’s hand, but that’s neither here nor there; each member of the team is wrestling with the idea of harm in their own way.

In its prime, this was always the central thesis of the X-Men; strip away the metaphors and allegories and this is, ultimately, what each story was about. It’s a concept that has been handled to varying degrees of success since that era, and it always tells on a writer, whether they address the concept properly. I covered this some when I talked about the recent Uncanny X-Men #17, but another, better example is something Grant Morrison spoke to in his New X-Men run; his initial version of Quentin Quire, an angry boy trying to show off for a girl, causes a great deal of harm. Harm to the school, to the students, and ultimately to the very girl he’s attempting to impress. It is a horrifying object lesson for a boy and a deeply resonant emotional impact. However, it even tells on Morrison; he fails to consider the lesson to his female readers, in his fridging first one of the Stepford Cuckoos and later Jean Grey. He does not consider the harm done to women.

This question is why a lot of stories don’t work for me. A specific example is the modern concept of X-Force as a sanctioned black ops team that runs official X-Men missions. The very concept of a team in that vein should be absolutely drowning in the question of harm, in the question of the moral complicity of the team leader who authorizes such a thing (lookin’ at you, Scott). These are weighty concepts that need to be wrestled with, and I never trust a book that sidesteps them as a shortcut to the flashy explosion pages.

I could go on and on with examples but I think I’ve made my point clearly enough here. This is, of course, really about House of X #1. A traditional review doesn’t really serve this book; it plays with X-Men history, but so do they all, since Claremont. I think — I am hopeful at least — that it will be a very good story, for the reasons above. The X-Men present here have given the world an ultimatum, and that ultimatum is borne — explicitly — out of the question of harm:

House of X #1, (Marvel Comics, July 2019)

It’s not a perfect book. It’s notable that the primary grandstanding done by various mutants through the course of the issue is always by men — Xavier, Cyclops, Magneto. I don’t know if the story will allow the women of the X-Men to shine adequately or not. I hope that it will. What intrigues me though, what is unstated here, is the question of what harm the X-Men will cause in pursuit of their goal. Will it be justified? Will it be worth the price? I don’t know yet, but I’m ready to find out.

Nola Pfau

Nola Pfau

Nola is a bad influence. She can be found on twitter at @nolapfau, where she's usually making bad (really, absolutely terrible) jokes and occasionally sharing adorable pictures of her dog.