A shift of gears to the comics world now with a review of House of M, the centrepiece mini-series for Marvel’s huge 2005 crossover. I’ve only just read this – thanks to the trade becoming available at the city library – because my relationship with Marvel Comics has soured in the last couple of years. Although Joe Quesada and his team have hardly reneged heinously on the promise of the new Marvel era that began in 2000, they’ve lost my interest by gradually returning to the internally fixated stories that blighted the company during the 1990s, albeit with more creative integrity and without shameless extortion. They’ve dispensed with the approach where a reader must buy thirty comics a month to follow the crossover storyline, but the crossover-as-publishing-nexus element is very much in force.
Once a year now, Marvel’s major titles become embroiled in tie-ins to the main event, seen last year with House of M and this year with Civil War. This creates a greater sense of a shared, thriving universe, which delights many and I have no objection to that. Marvel’s recent events certainly deserve praise for following on from each other and for enacting genuine consequences. But as comics go, the impermanence of a major comics event no longer excites me. Long-running titles aren’t a problem, as long as they’re self-contained texts with a plan, as most of Vertigo’s titles are for example, or if they give rise to a stellar individual run (Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil) But these all-encompassing paradigm shifts at Marvel no longer seem that interesting even as radicalism, and as individual texts don’t deliver anything particularly memorable either. I sadly have no desire to re-read either House of M or Avengers Disassembled.
The latter, published in 2004, was the precursor to House of M, wherein Marvel and writer Brian Michael Bendis bravely shook up the interminably consistent Avengers team. The Scarlet Witch has a nervous breakdown and her reality-altering powers go haywire, throwing various disasters at the Avengers that swiftly pick off some long-running characters. Wanda is ultimately secured on her father Magneto’s island nation of Genosha and the Avengers are disbanded, although they are soon succeeded by the New Avengers, a cynical marketing stunt in that the team consists of the Avengers people have actually heard of along with Spider-Man and (sigh) Wolverine. It’s this type of thinking – conservatism under the guise of radical change – that frustrates me about Marvel these days.
House of M sees the New Avengers and the X-Men convening to decide Wanda’s fate as she becomes increasingly unstable. But as they search for the suddenly missing Xavier, the world is inexplicably transformed into one where mutants are now the dominant species on a stable and prosperous Earth and Magneto is the head of a noble house that dominates world politics. This is the world that Magneto dreamed of, where mutants rule a minority of ‘sapiens’. The familiar Marvel characters have been scattered, unaware of the old world, except for Wolverine (of course), who can remember everything about the real world and now his own past.
The problems with House of M are two-fold: the alternate universe ultimately proves incidental to the Marvel Universe, and its reason for existence is to facilitate a change in that universe that is simply not required. The first count is perhaps addressed by the myriad mini-series that accompanies Bendis and Olivier Coipel’s eight issues, which would have allowed readers to explore this intriguing universe further. But those stories were only adjuncts to this narrative, which has no protagonists until the regular Marvel Universe heroes are restored to their old selves by walking plot device Layla Miller. Although her existence is briefly explained by Wanda’s inherent desire to be foiled, her ability to just think at characters and restore their memories is too convenient and lacking in much suspense – Layla just presents herself to Wolverine and his human allies very conveniently. The Avengers and the X-Men then set about finding Wanda and restoring the original universe, and then it’s all over. Unlike 1995’s Age of Apocalypse series, where only one character had knowledge of the real timeline and had to convince this one’s X-Men, House of M features no such slow-burning saga, existing merely so that the Scarlet Witch to facilitate Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada’s endgame: the reduction of the Marvel Universe’s mutant population from millions to hundreds.
In the leadup to House of M, Quesada stated that the crossover’s outcome would allow one of two ‘genies’ to be returned to the bottle, elements of the Marvel status quo that he saw as fundamentally flawed. Quesada for some reason objected to the presence of millions of mutants throughout the world, as if this eliminated their minority status. Forgive the obviousness, but the world has several billion people, so even when numbering in the millions, mutants are still the minority. Their numbers also make sense given that they are a genetic rather than ethnic minority, and so are not limited to one or a few locations. And besides, did anyone have any problem with the number of mutants in X-Men stories to date? They were a sensible part of the landscape that I can’t recall much objection to.
More importantly, to reduce their number to hundreds actually damages the metaphor of mutants as an analogue to today’s multicultural and varied social landscape: if mutants are hidden around every corner and incurring the hatred of many humans in every corner of society, their potency as allegory is increased dramatically. If they become an international obscurity rather than a subculture, then their relevance is diminished. While I absolutely applaud Marvel’s willingness to shake up its status quo (the depowered mutants include Xavier and Magneto), their passion is misguided in this case. A major crossover is orchestrated to achieve an irrelevant end.
It’s this sound and fury to signify nothing that contributes to my ambivalence about Marvel these days. After spending my teenage years a devoted X-Men fan who basked in the generation-defining takeover of Marvel by Quesada and Bill Jemas and the quality and integrity that they helped to return to my beloved characters, it’s strange to feel so coldly towards them. But then I remember that it’s not the characters that I’ve distanced myself from, merely their current incarnations (although I’ll admit a greater malaise about their now unavoidably indefinite nature). The ubiquity of trade collections only offers more reason to shy away from keeping up with the flimsy pamphlet installments of these stories and enduring a process of trial and error with my finances. Collected editions now ensure that I can dip into the treats that Marvel does offer at my leisure with the benefit of critical feedback (Ultimates 2 and Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark’s Daredevil are current favourites, and I hear great things about Nextwave). But the monthly draw of these characters has now passed as I move on to the greater and wider potential of the comics medium and the multitude of genres it offers. But the classic runs of the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Daredevil, the glorious early years of the Ultimate line, and other storytelling achievements of Marvel over the last forty years will be treasures that I’ll revisit for years to come. And when it appears in trade, you can bet that I’ll check out this year’s opus Civil War, centring on an ideological issue and featuring such genuine bombshells as Spider-Man unmasking himself to the public – I’ll definitely be keeping my toe in these waters… just no longer as a Marvel zombie.