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House of M by Brian Michael Bendis and Olivier Coipel (Marvel Comics, 2005)

Reviewed by Martin Fletcher

10th August 2005

It used to be that for the reader of Marvel comics the shared universe was a constant presence. Characters were forever turning up in each other’s titles. Continuity was taken extremely seriously by writers and editors, not just by the kind of stereotypical reader who looked like a refugee from the set of Revenge of the Nerds and could talk in excruciating detail about the Crimson Dawn subplot in the Archangel & Psylocke miniseries. Then there were the line-wide crossovers – huge events like Secret Wars and Fall of the Mutants where every hero and villain you could think of was roped into a huge, sprawling epic that lasted months and took over all the regular titles.

Ten years ago, in fact, line-wide crossovers were all the rage, taking place so often they became devalued and lost the cachet of being a special event. Just as a Wolverine guest appearance can’t sell a completely unrelated comic any more, readers began to switch off. This coincided with the collapse of the 1990s comics bubble, when readership was reduced to the hardcore devotees who the publishers could not afford to alienate – nor could Marvel, facing bankruptcy for several years, roll out lots of extravagant “events” which weren’t selling. But just as significant, comics publishing has always had its fads. In the early 1990s it was the superstar artist producing endless splash pages and to hell with the script; today it is “decompressed storytelling”, which in plain language means stories being stretched to twice their natural length.

So for some years crossovers have been severely out of fashion at Marvel. In fact, the concept of the shared universe has itself come under strain as there seems to be little or no connection between the various Spider-Man and X-Men titles. Their return now seems to be partly due to the traditionalist ethos of editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, who is keen to provoke fans into passionate responses, and partly due to the money accruing from lucrative film, game and merchandising deals allowing a bit more extravagance than a few years back.

This year’s big event is the House of M crossover, which has been hyped to high heaven and has certainly fulfilled Quesada’s brief of getting the fans talking. Before we take a look at the House itself, though, we will need to fill in a little background. This event derives from two sources – last year’s Avengers Disassembled event, and the continuing backwash from Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men.

Some disassembly required

Brian Bendis, on taking over writing chores at Avengers, had to deal with a series that had been firmly stuck in the whizz-bang mode of superheroics for decades. Although Bendis is generally regarded as one of the most talented writers in comics today, his trademark style – heavy on dialogue, and a bit low-key – was not obviously suited to a series this traditional. He got around this by taking down the whole edifice, prior to rebooting the series. The result was Avengers Disassembled.

The plot of Disassembled is relatively straightforward. Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch – a much-loved member of the team since the 1960s – has a nervous breakdown and uses her reality-altering powers to launch an attack on the Avengers. In the course of the story Avengers Mansion is blown up and three long-serving members – Hawkeye, the Vision and Ant-Man – killed. Eventually Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, shows up, explains to the clueless Avengers what exactly has been going on, and puts Wanda into a coma. Wanda’s father, the mutant terrorist/freedom fighter Magneto takes her away to parts unknown, and the Avengers disband.

To say that Disassembled got a mixed reception from the fans would be an understatement. If online reaction was anything to go by, Bendis would be flipping burgers now. Partly this is down to the conservatism of comic fans, who have their own particular ideas about what should happen to their beloved characters. Partly, however, Bendis’ writing was a problem. The story starts out with an extended big bang action sequence, not one of Bendis’ strengths, then moves to a lengthy sequence of talking heads before Doc Strange appears with a deus ex machina solution. As a result, Disassembled works far better in the trade paperback than in the monthly issues, where the erratic pacing was much to the fore.

Disassembled, however, is a means to an end and will be justified by the success or failure of New Avengers. The new series hasn’t had time to bed down yet, so a judgement would be premature, but I feel the casting is ominous, with fan favourites Spider-Man and Wolverine being drafted. Spidey doesn’t belong on any team, which is why his spell with the old Avengers didn’t last. As for Wolverine, the diminutive Canadian seems to have acquired the powers of the Multiple Man. He is currently playing a starring role in three teams of X-Men, as well as having his own ongoing comic and scores of miniseries, leading the reader to wonder why, if he is going to be an Avenger, he doesn’t leave the X-Men. Now it should be said that Bendis writes quite a good Wolverine and he makes a useful foil for patriotic bozo Captain America (this was Hawkeye’s traditional role), but after endless amounts of Wolverine-themed crap, Marvel should really set a policy of fewer but better Wolvie appearances.

The Morrison arc

The other source for House of M has been the changes at the X-Men end of the Marvel universe since 2001. In the 1970s and 1980s Uncanny X-Men, written by Chris Claremont, had been an innovative and constantly changing title, in comparison to old favourites like Fantastic Four, which remained stuck in a very 1960s aesthetic. The reason for this has to do with simple commercial pressures. Marvel, and their competitors at DC, are reluctant to tinker with titles that are selling well. If there is innovation, it is usually to be found in fringe titles or unsuccessful ones being reinvented – this is why Daredevil, much loved but rarely bought by comics fans, has consistently pushed the boundaries of the genre.

Uncanny X-Men in 1975 was a prime candidate for reinvention, as it had actually been cancelled way back in 1970. However, by the time Claremont left in 1991, it was the biggest-selling comic in the world, and conservative reflexes kicked in. For the next decade we generally got retreads of Claremont stories by writers who may have been good in their own right but did not get the chance to find their own voice, as opposed to mimicking Claremont’s. Then in 2001 Marvel declared a new era of invention, bringing in critical favourite Grant Morrison as star writer, giving him a level of creative licence that effectively allowed him to set the tone for the X-books as a whole, and hyping the hell out of the result.

Morrison’s books certainly sold well, although I suspect that may be more down to canny promotion than his name. If there is a Morrisonite audience out there, it consists to a large extent of the snobs who read the Comics Journal and wouldn’t go near the X-Men unless Grant Morrison was writing them. This is not a big audience – a more typical comics punter is the teenager who doesn’t know who Grant Morrison, Brian Bendis or Greg Rucka are, but will buy a book with a thong-clad Elektra or Emma Frost on the cover. What Morrison succeeded in admirably was polarising the fan base and getting the books talked about.

The fan debate around Morrison is interesting in its own right because, as Chris Claremont has pointed out, while fans are always demanding something new they are often more conservative than the writers. The changes of Morrison’s that were most fiercely debated – black leather costumes instead of colourful spandex, the Beast looking like a lion instead of an ape – were the most superficial ones. In fact, Morrison’s approach was to rehash old material in his own distinct style. So we had a Sentinel story (with, inexcusably, the mutant nation of Genosha suffering genocide off panel); a Phoenix story and an exploration of Wolverine’s past that, unbelievably, left those continuity train wrecks making even less sense than before; a Magneto story that ignored decades of characterisation; and, winding things up, yet another bloody post-apocalyptic future.

From the foregoing it might seem that I didn’t enjoy Morrison’s run. On the contrary, I greatly enjoy his writing style and was carried along by his energy even when I didn’t like the plots. What was most frustrating was that Morrison obviously had lots of good ideas, but tended to introduce them and then forget about them in favour of pursuing some bizarre pseudoscientific hobbyhorse of great interest to him but less to the reader. One of his best subplots involved killing off Jean Grey, a much loved character who had done virtually nothing since the 1980s, and setting up the dour Cyclops in a relationship with the dubiously reformed villain Emma Frost. Scott and Emma are a far more interesting couple than Scott and Jean ever were.

Other ideas included the X-Men going public, which makes much more sense than an organisation supposedly out to build bridges operating in secret; the “District X” mutant ghetto in New York; and establishing Xavier’s as a proper school with a large student body. It’s no coincidence that since Morrison’s departure to DC the X-books have been working hard on his dangling plot threads, and have got lots of mileage out of his better ideas, while quietly forgetting the more esoteric ones.

What has immediate relevance for the House of M setup is the murderous terrorist attack on New York, apparently by Magneto, in Morrison’s storyline Planet X. Wanting to bring back Magneto, who seemed to be killed at the end of the story, Marvel editors did not work out a coherent explanation based on the gaping plot holes in Planet X, but allowed Chuck Austen and Chris Claremont to put forward two contradictory theories. But it did allow Claremont to set up Magneto in the ruins of Genosha for the short-lived Excalibur series, which consisted – if we ignore some generic fight sequences – of the elderly Magnus angsting over his legacy and the failure of his war, with Xavier as his straight man. In the midst of this meditation on Magneto, the comatose Scarlet Witch arrives from Avengers Disassembled. Confronted by his alienation from his children, we see him becoming increasingly unstable, and the possibility of him taking some drastic action is foreshadowed.

Entering the House of Magnus

Issue 1 sets the scene. The X-Men meet the Avengers to discuss what to do with Wanda, as Xavier and Strange have failed to make any progress with her. Bendis neatly brings in some of the old Avengers – Warbird, Wonder Man, the Falcon – to represent the large constituency of readers who felt that Disassembled sucked and aren’t sold on the new setup. In the discussion, two camps quickly emerge. The pragmatists – Emma Frost, seconded by Wolverine – favour killing Wanda before she can do any more damage. Predictably, this does not go down at all well with Captain America. The teams therefore repair to Genosha to see Wanda before reaching a decision.

Unfortunately, the fastest man in the world – Wanda’s brother, Quicksilver – has got wind of their plan, arrives in Genosha ahead of them, and informs his estranged father that Wanda’s life is in danger. When the teams arrive, Wanda and Magneto are nowhere to be seen. Then there is a sudden flash of white light – and Spider-Man wakes up beside his wife, back home in New York. In the last panel, it is revealed that his wife is not Mary Jane Watson, but the long dead Gwen Stacy…

In issue 2 it is revealed that the whole world has been transformed – mutants, usually Marvel’s stand-in for any oppressed minority, are now the dominant majority while baseline humans drift quietly towards extinction. Magneto is running the world as a relatively benign dictatorship, which makes a nice change from the fascistic hellholes these alternate realities tend to be (Days of Future Past, Age of Apocalypse). Our familiar characters have new lives, and new histories to go with them. Through a series of vignettes, Bendis shows us that most people have more or less got what they always wanted. Captain America is a wizened pensioner, so presumably that unfortunate incident with Bucky in 1945 never happened. Wonder Man has got his acting career together, Emma Frost is a children’s counsellor, Shadowcat a schoolteacher, the Beast (minus fur) a research scientist.

But of course, somebody has to realise something is wrong. Depressingly, this is Wolverine. Bendis does at least motivate this – the amnesiac Logan has got what he wanted, his memory back. But come on, Brian – something is wrong with the world and only Wolverine senses it? Nope, never read that one before. It is also at this point that some serious problems with plotting and pacing emerge. Issue 3 gives us 20 pages of Wolverine running around New York, pursued by government agents for reasons not clearly explained, before being confronted on the last page by Hawkeye. Given that Bendis has resurrected Gwen Stacy – hell, in the Spider-Man tie-in Mark Waid has brought back Ben Parker, who’s been dead over forty years – the return of Hawkeye after a few months is somewhat wanting as a cliffhanger.

We then meet the Human Resistance Movement, whose leadership includes, apart from Hawkeye, such deadbeats as Iron Fist, Power Man and the Sons of the Tiger – you would hardly be surprised if the Vanisher or Werewolf By Night turned up. Obviously these guys haven’t been giving Magneto much trouble, but they have hooked up with a young mutant girl who has the plot-device power of making people remember the world before Wanda changed it. Wolverine not unreasonably feels that these losers aren’t going to be much use and he’d better round up some powerful mutants. He then tracks down Emma Frost, restores her memory and she instantly decides the world has to be put back and Magneto and his entire family killed in the process. This is where we are in the plot right now.

Now then. Changing the whole world back exactly as it was. Wolverine is in the habit of taking on irrational and quixotic tasks – a trait usually explained by reference to his samurai code of honour, which must annoy Japanese readers no end. But Emma? The pragmatist supreme, one would expect her to make the best of the changed situation or at least have a realistic plan.

There is a further problem with the restoration of memories. It is well established (recently in Avengers #503 and Excalibur Vol. 3 #11) that Wanda does not create illusions but manipulates causality. She has radically changed the world, fair enough. But to give characters new histories she would need to have either cast an illusion – which isn’t her power – or actually changed the past, in which case Logan and the plot-device girl couldn’t remember the previous world. There may be a plausible explanation, probably involving Xavier, but Bendis has set up a scenario that the reader is drawn to think about but makes less and less sense the more you think about it.

It is also worth remarking on the pacing. After four issues of an eight-part series, we are only starting on mustering the troops. It will take at least another full issue to put a team together, which points to a rushed story and rabbit-from-the-hat ending. For all his much-mocked wordiness, Claremont would be well into the main story by now. Setting up the scenario is fine, but following the two scene-setting issues with one of Wolverine running around aimlessly and then one composed mostly of talking heads makes one yearn for the days before anybody had ever heard of decompressed storytelling.

Finally, and this isn’t Bendis’s fault, it is difficult to get emotionally engaged with an alternative reality storyline. After all, when the crossover is finished we aren’t going to be staying in the House of M universe, but will return to the Marvel universe. The main question arising from House of M is, how will this affect the main universe? In the course of the series and its various spin-offs, we have seen the return of characters who were dead (Gwen Stacy, Hawkeye, Cypher), stuck in alternate dimensions (Dazzler, Captain Britain) or simply forgotten about (it’s nice to see Jubilee put in a cameo). Will any stick around? How, if at all, will ongoing characters be changed? Will Wanda be sane, or alive, at the end? Will characters like Psylocke and Marvel Girl, with hideously convoluted back stories, get a good solid thwack of the reset button? It all depends on whether you care about these particular characters, and how much drama Bendis can extract from a situation whose outcome is fairly predictable. And it must be said that Bendis is still a sharp writer, who has been keeping his more annoying tics in check, and Olivier Coipel’s art is very nice. The overall package is good enough to keep the interest of most dedicated Marvelites, although casual readers who don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Marvel continuity will be a bit lost.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines…

House of M has an advantage when it comes to tie-ins in that historically a lot of crossovers have included tie-in issues on a fairly tenuous basis. This was particularly the case with the recent Avengers Disassembled tie-in issues. House of M, being a “world transformed” concept, lends itself to all manner of stories that don’t have to strain plot dynamics, just to be set in the House of M universe.

As a result, with the exception of Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men (who has dispensed with most of his regular cast to bring Captain Britain back into circulation and line up the players for the launch of New Excalibur) many of the other Marvel writers are pretty shamelessly using House of M as an excuse to play in the sandbox. Freed temporarily from having to write stories which tie in to existing continuity or have any lasting significance, they are having fun playing with ideas, and some of these have been quite appealing.

The Fantastic Four tie-in is a case in point. In this reality we have Doctor Doom leading an alternative FF and grumbling that he only gets to rule a vassal state and play second fiddle to Magneto. The miniseries in fact begins with a great sequence of Doom confronting the Mole Man, whose subterranean realm has been declared a “rogue nation” by the “international community”. The Mole Man gets to respond with a nice speech pointing out that the “international community” is just a euphemism for Magneto – power is all, legality is just spin.

Then we have Mutopia X, forming a coda to the now cancelled District X series set in New York’s mutant ghetto. In the House of M reality, this now becomes a human ghetto. The plotline riffs on the War on Terror, with young human radicals deciding to become suicide bombers rather than rely on the likes of Iron Fist and Power Man to free them. There is also a hilarious sequence of a mutant hip-hop artist delivering a guilty liberal rap about how he’s really human inside. Mark Waid’s Spider-Man mini meanwhile replays a dilemma familiar from gay politics as it recounts how Peter Parker is now a rich and powerful mutant celebrity. Of course, Spidey isn’t a mutant, he’s just told everyone he is. It works as an inversion of all those X-Men stories about mutants “passing” for human with awful consequences.

It is uncertain, at this stage, whether the main House of M series will succeed as a story. What is clear is that the crossover has been hugely successful as an event, and a fair bit of good material has been produced. The trouble, as mentioned earlier, is that this will only have significance to the extent that mainstream Marvel continuity is altered because of it. This is in the nature of the scenario. The massive Age of Apocalypse crossover ten years ago resulted in half a dozen characters leaking through into the main universe, and played a major part in setting up the ongoing Exiles series. The continuing impact of House of M will probably be something similar. But Bendis deserves credit for doing something this ambitious, and developing the underlying themes in a more original way than usual. After Grant Morrison’s Here Comes Tomorrow, which combined an incoherent plot with murky art, I could happily have lived without seeing another alternate reality story ever again. But this has really been quite enjoyable, and restores the reader’s faith in the ability of mainstream comics to do something beyond lame rehashes of last year’s stories.


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