NOTES on Jonathan Hickman’s 2019-2021 run on X-Men

Jonathan Hickman began a run on X-Men that started in 2019 with a miniseries called House of X/Powers of X. He then continued to write the relaunched X-Men (2019) for 21 issues, interspersed with Hickman writing and co-writing issues of New Mutants, one-shot Giant Size X-Men titles, as well as the crossover X of Swords which he co-wrote with Tini Howard. His run finally ended with Inferno, a 4-Part Miniseries that began in 2021 and whose final issue was published on January 5, 2022. This is a short review/summation of this entire run, of which I’ve read every single issue, and have also owned and collected a few as well.

The X-Men have always been my favorite team in comics. If I were to name my favorite superhero team across the genre and media, it would be the Justice League Unlimited but among comics, only the X-Men have engaged me over and above the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the Justice League, and the Teen Titans. The X-Men as a concept have always had a certain dynamic charisma to them, it’s a team that can change/reform/transform before your eyes into various new versions. Other superteams are interesting mainly for the villains, or the scale and scope of the action, the nature of the conflicts they get entangled in; but the X-Men are interesting by themselves, among themselves, for themselves.

The X-Men were once at the absolute center of comics. A great deal has been said and written about them in various places such as ComicsXF, Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, The Claremont Run, A People’s History of the Marvel Universe among many others. As such I don’t feel there’s much ground for me to contribute anything new or original about the X-Men which doesn’t mean I am not a fan of the X-Men. The fact is there’s simply a lot more in Spider-Man to say new, and say differently, at the present moment. At the same time, I am a huge X-Men fan, and I discovered and came to know the X-Men, near-about the same time I discovered Spider-Man.

X-Men: Evolution (TV Series 2000–2003) - IMDb

At this point I can’t really remember my first exposure to the Merry Mutants. It might have been a 8-Bit side-scroller game, or it might be something else. The real introduction was X-Men: Evolution a really underrated animated series of the early 2000s which, in my opinion, is greater than the Fox X-Men show of the early 90s, and also better than the first two live-action X-Men films (which generally hasn’t dated well barring a few interesting scenes and ideas). But even then there was the comics which I discovered shortly after. My inaugural X-Men run was Grant Morrison’s New X-Men which I followed from the first story “E is for Extinction” all the way to “Planet X” and “Here Comes Tomorrow”. New X-Men was also my introduction to Morrison, or Moz as they are known to fans, and while their Batman run is far more consistent with a better conclusion, emotionally I prefer the New X-Men run.

The Morrison-era X-Men was full of wild ideas and swings to the fences, some were great — secondary mutations, genocide sentinels, Emma Frost as Anti-Hero/Villain, Fantomex, Mutant Culture — others were decidedly not (Magneto as an unimpressive fruitcake, sentient bacteria, Jean Grey dying while making a lame meta-pun about her death). It also ended with two storylines (Planet X and Here Comes Tomorrow) that seemed to negate all the elements that were charming and charismatic about that run. At the same time I followed Ultimate X-Men which to my teenage self seemed interesting and edgy though after a time the “Mark Millar of it all” irritated me. My favorite part of the Ultimate X-Men is actually the period after Ultimatum when Nick Spencer wrote the titles (the first thing I’ve read of his incidentally). My interest in X-Men ebbed in the comics with the House of M storyline where the whole “no more mutants” came out of nowhere for me and to me the mutants being reduced to about 200 mutants and absolutely marginal felt reductive. Seeing Wolverine shoehorned into new contexts also deprived the charm that the character once had.

[ASIDE: Not to sound gatekeep-y or anything but I’ll stake a claim that the lifecycle of a modern X-Men fan begins when you no longer find Wolverine cool.]

I came back to X-Men titles around 2017-2018, just before the announcement of the Fox purchase. I caught up with X-Men titles such as Cullen Bunn’s Magneto series (which is an all-timer) as well as Tom Taylor’s X-Men: Red and Ed Piskor’s X-Men: Grand Design, a miniseries that compresses the classic X-Men era comics into three issues with wonderful art, coloring, textures. I also started doing a full deep dive into the Chris Claremont X-Men runs at this time and it was like reclaiming the thing one had lost. My appreciation of the X-Men was now based on its innovations, its radical ideas, and the bold imagination that powered it. As such I think Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men, which has for 2 years now been the most discussed, and most influential title across the superhero genre, really tapped into a generational zeitgeist when he wrote the titles. Comics had a major X-Shaped Hole that needed refilling, and the Hickman cometh.

This was the X-Men, somewhat unfamiliar, somewhat weird, highly uncanny but also they felt essential and transformative in the way they used to feel. Hickman restored to everyone the X-Men that had existed in their hearts. And at the same time, he was taking wild swings with the title that made the Marvel Universe, generally a sterile and sanitized place since the late Quesada years (the EIC that have followed have for the most part maintained the Quesada regime rather than surmount or overcome it), feel dangerous. To some extent this was true of Hickman’s runs of New Avengers and Fantastic Four as well, but his X-Men run seemed to go bolder than before.

House of X/Powers of X is the inaugural miniseries of Hickman’s X-Men opus. A 12-part series published in counterpointing minis once-a-week, and while the series reads well in TPB as I can attest having perused it a few times, there’s something to be said about following each issue when it came out, and following the coverage online and elsewhere. It’s a real “ya-hadda-be-there” moment and it’s by far the greatest superhero story in comics of the last five years. It takes the genre to some big new places, introduces ideas that, while not original, certainly never clashed with the genre the way they did before. It’s filled with pathos/humor/tragedy while filled with some of the most beautiful art by Pepe Larraz and R. B. Silva accompanied of course by Hickman’s famous charts which supplement and amplify the reading experience. The dialogue in the comics was unique and there are moments of astounding beauty that I can conjure by opening and closing my eyes such as the first visit to Krakoa with Jean Grey in her Marvel Girl outfit introducing children through the gateway, the flashbacks showing Moira X’s many lives, the introduction of the “Five” and the party at the end.

If I say HoX/PoX is the highpoint of Hickman’s X-Men run that isn’t to diminish the rest by any means. It’s certainly not to cast any shade at the stable of writers around Hickman that sprouted in the wake of that seminal story. I happen to like many of the new X-Men satellites such as Marauders, Excalibur, X-Factor and the miniseries such as X of Swords (especially), and The Hellfire Gala, and the recently concluded The Trial of Magneto. I also like Gerry Duggan’s new X-Men run that followed Hickman’s and I expect to follow it for a while.

House of X (2019) #2 | Comic Issues | Marvel
House of X#2

By the time he finished his run, Hickman ended up writing more than 40 issues while co-writing other issues to take him to about 50 issues. That’s more issues of X-Men than Grant Morrison wrote (if far less than Chris Claremont of course but then nobody has written as much as Claremont on any title). There’s not a single bad issue though some are of course better than others. Hickman’s run on X-Men is highly standalone and self-contained, compared to his mega-serialized Avengers and Fantastic Four runs. As such when I talk about the big moments of his run, what I treasure are the individual smaller issues. Even HoX/PoX rises to greatness on the strength of two single issues — HoX#2 [“The Uncanny Life of Moira X”] and HoX#5: [“Society”]. The criticism about the Hickman era of X-Men is that it gets static after a certain point, but at least some of the problems behind that can be laid at Hickman’s feet with the standalone nature of his X-Men stories which were self-contained and generated ideas, and eventually whole books, rather than serialize from the jump. I personally enjoyed following a comic book run that was basically “hang out with pals” and old school. The criticism of Hickman used to be that he wrote the trade, nay wrote for the omnibus. But his X-Men run is the opposite of that.

More than anything that’s what impresses me about Hickman’s time at the X-Men. Comics generally don’t have too many examples of successful reinvention. Especially from a writer who makes an imprint on Marvel titles, steps away and then comes back and does something absolutely in different in story, theme, style from his Avengers and Fantastic Four run. Hickman’s earlier FF/Avengers run was also a fairly macho and masculine-centric period of comics whereas his X-Men run centers on the franchise’s historically dominant and powerful female characters: Moira, Mystique, Destiny, Storm, Emma Frost while also introducing odd and memorable female antagonists such as Hordeculture (think the Vuvalini from Mad Max: Fury Road), Alia Gregor and Omega Sentinel. So as a writer, he deserves respect for evolving along the lines of the nature of his characters.

My favorite stories and moments from Hickman’s run:

House Of X/Powers Of X (Hardcover) | Comic Issues | Comic Books | Marvel
  • HOX/POX for reasons stated above, this 12-issue miniseries is an instant-classic and very much a game-changer. It’s also a satisfying read in just its 12 issues alone. Ultimately, Hickman became a victim of the aesthetic achievement of this opener. It’s so fully realized that the X-Men titles since then and his own issues after it, have been basking in its radiant shadow and it’s charismatic enough that it can bask for another year or two at the least.

X-Men (2019) #4 | Comic Issues | Marvel
X-Men Vol. 5#4 (2019)
  • X-Men #4: Hickman reimagined the X-Men and all their villains as a nation and community of Krakoa, and this issues shows Xavier, Magneto, and Apocalypse (yes En Sabah Nur himself or as he’s known in the X-titles these days – |A| –) at Davos. All of them rocking business suits in a way not seen since Watchmen (Sabah in a giant suit especially seems to conjure Dr. Manhattan). Hickman again introduces by way of allegory ideas of contemporary reality, namely out-neoliberalizing the neoliberals (what China is doing at present to the world) and the ways economic power and acquiring it is another aspect of the competition of resources that generates the tension between humans and mutants.

X-Men (2019) #7 | Comic Issues | Marvel
  • X-Men #7: Otherwise known as “The Crucible”. The subtitle of the X-Men in comics is Uncanny X-Men. The “uncanny” is a word that gained currency thanks to a famous essay by Sigmund Freud himself, who refers to the idea of elements which challenge our sense of normality and what we perceive to be the illusion of common reality which gets shattered when confronted with it. Hickman’s run really puts the “uncanny” back in X-Men, having them design a culture by/of/for, mutants that has ethical/cultural/religious ideas completely at odds with human understanding. No issue takes that as far as “The Crucible” which centers on the X-Men becoming a post-Death society and needing to create rituals and ideas that provide gravitas and consequence to the choice of death and resurrection. Apocalypse, a character who Hickman has completely reinvented similar to how Claremont reinvented Magneto, is at the center of this. The result is a dark, brutal, terrifying but also oddly joyous and beautiful comic. It’s in the running for most discussed and most controversial X-Men issue of Hickman’s time, and it directly led to a spinoff title called Way of X by Si Spurrier, so great were the ideas featured therein.
REVIEW: X-Men #11: Cotati, Welcome to Die! - WWAC
#11 – Magneto reveals that he’s still got it.
  • X-Men #11: Hickman’s run on X-Men isn’t exactly light on action but on the whole these are comics animated by ideas and characters with large personality so there aren’t too many traditional superhero pleasures to be found. The exception is X-Men #11. It’s a tie-in to a Marvel event (of little value) called Empyre and it features Magneto as a heroic defender of his people and it’s absolutely about him working in concert with the X-Men as a guardian of Krakoa. Seeing Magneto in his classic red and purple defending Krakoa against a bunch of Cotati and being a stone-cold badass is awe-inspiring and thrilling.

X-Men #13 – Apocalypse and Genesis (aka Mrs. Apocalypse)
  • X of Swords: X of Swords is a crossover that Hickman co-wrote with Tini Howard, and for which Hickman wrote individual tie-ins in the pages of X-Men. To my own great surprise, I ended up reading every single issue across all the satellites and to me it’s the most fun and enthralling part of the X-titles these last few years. One of Hickman’s great achievements is reinventing Apocalypse. Among all X-Men villains, En Sabah Nur always seemed highly remote and garish, lacking in personality and much in the way of interesting design. But under Hickman, and Tini Howard, he finally comes into his own. The best way to understand Hickman’s Apocalypse is the Thanos of the first-half of Avengers: Infinity War as realized in a single character, someone that alien and remote who gets imbued with enough interiority and personality that you feel like you can hang out with him and shoot a game of pool with him. In X of Swords, Apocalypse becomes the outright protagonist of the story, it’s about him and his family and legacy. So momentous are the changes here and he’s such a big part of the early X-Men run that the X-men titles lost something when he left. Maybe that’s building a certain ominous expectation for his return, i.e. don’t miss Poccy just yet.
X-Men #18
  • X-Men #5, #18-19: Told out of this order, this ought to be called the “Vault Trilogy”. It’s essentially a self-contained story done over an interval. A team of X-Men (Darwin, Synch, Wolverine/X23) are sent into the Vault (one of Mike Carey’s creations) which is an alternate dimension that has thanks to time dilation featured a highly evolved trans-human society that’s achieved the Singularity. The goal is infiltration, information-gathering, surviving, and lasting long enough to make a report. It’s a basic spy plot but thanks to the mutant powers and science-fiction sequence it becomes unexpectedly poignant and moving. It’s also an example of an essential/great X-Men story centered entirely around “minor” characters.
Art by Rod Reis
  • Giant Size X-Men: Fantomex. Hickman’s Giant Size X-Men one-shots are generally speaking a bit disappointing. They’re still good but they are mostly showcases for the art and greatest hits/homages. One of them homages the silent issue from Moz/Quitely’s New X-Men. The Fantomex is also a Moz homage but at the very least it adds substantially and elaborates a fair bit on the previous story while also filling in the gaps of one of Morrison’s creations in their time as writer of X-Men. Rod Reis (who collaborated with Hickman previously on some issues of New Mutants) is a terrific artist who makes every panel look awesome, and this is the highpoint of the Giant Size X-Men series.
  • Inferno #1-4. Hickman’s closing run on the X-Men is some of the most dense, eerie, and unnverving stories told. It’s a little frustrating since one senses that Hickman wished to elaborate some of the plot threads a bit further but the paradoxical emotional see-saws in these issues is highly unnerving, since Mystique and Destiny seem at first glance to be villains but also characters who tend to have their point no matter their cruelty and vices. We also see a series of revelations that shatter various characters and their certainties. Although named after a great Claremont/Simonson and Co. crossover from the 1980s, this one has very little to deal with the title or with setting fire but I suppose it is about going into various deeper circles while following a guide, much like Dante and Virgil. Mostly it’s a story about women (Moira X, Destiny, Mystique, Omega Sentinel) and the men who underestimate them at their peril.

Talking about my favorite issues in Hickman’s X-Men run isn’t enough. I’d like to talk about moments and characters:

  • Doug Ramsey aka Cypher, of The New Mutants is the beating heart of Hickman’s X-Men run and the emotional center, which is confirmed in Inferno. Originally he was the least liked of the New Mutants, whose power, speaking any language, was considered the lamest. But Hickman makes Doug’s powers essential to Krakoa and situates him at the start of a journey where the former tagalong of the New Mutants, and representative figure of tragic youth, shows maturity and speaks truth to power. Also Doug gets married to a woman who’s besotted to him. So yeah Doug.
  • Cyclops is the main protagonist of Hickman’s X-Men run and Hickman’s feeling for Scott, his voice for the character, as this laidback cool leader who’s also a patriarch of a very weird family and elder brother to two weird brothers, is aces. That’s not getting into the famous floorplan arrangement with Wolverine and Jean Grey. This is the first time Scott comes off as intrinsically cooler than Wolverine and done by a writer who doesn’t show Wolverine short to allow Scott a win. Hickman likes Scott more than Logan, and that just comes across naturally. The closing speech which Scott gives to Kevin Feige at The Hellfire Gala is one of those great moments in X-Men history.
  • Moira MacTaggert has been many things over her long publication history but Hickman changed how we saw her in the past and likely going forward. Moira’s resurrective immortality as unveiled in HoX#2 was one of the most thrilling retcons in the history of comics, something that nobody’s stopped talking about since that issue’s publication. Formerly the human and normal sidekick of the X-Men, she ends up becoming, in Hickman’s hands, the most bizarre and weird mutant of all, far moreso than Nightcrawler, Apocalypse, Phoenix have been in the past. So unreal and bizarre are Moira and her various lives, all of whose memories are imprinted on her tenth ongoing one, that one doesn’t quite know or fully understand her psychology and motivations, much of which are left mysterious even by the end of Inferno.
How X-Men's House of X Has Realigned the Marvel Universe
  • Magneto in Hickman’s run gets some of his most epic dialogues and speeches. Whether it’s telling the ambassadors at the Krakoan Embassy of Jerusalem in HoX#1, “You have new gods now”, his speech at Davos, the folk-myth spreading around him at Krakoa, making the Cotati pound sand, and of course partially-terraforming Mars (in Planet Size X-Men written by Duggan but Hickman did help with the worldbuilding) all of it is awesome.

There’s a lot more I’d like to talk about the Hickman X-Men run, namely how funny it often is, how entertaining it is, how well-written it is. This and much more has been covered in detail elsewhere. Ultimately, it’s like The Matrix you’d have to see it for yourself. And I recommend diving into the run now that it’s done and on the shelf.

As for where the X-Men go from here. Well I’ve not read and followed every single X-title over the course of the Hickman era to start with. Now that he’s left the building, I expect to follow a few titles. It remains to be seen how the X-titles go from here, the aim seems to be essentially spin details out of the Krakoa status-quo a bit longer and I’ll admit that I’m not ready to the see the X-Men return to the mansion just yet. Ideally would prefer if they never went back. At the very least it seems that the X-Men will not go back to the House of M era going forward. That ghost at least seems put to rest. What comes after Krakoa? Who knows. I am not sure I’ll cover the rest of the X-Men titles but perhaps I might do for some individual titles as and when it wraps up.

At the end of the day, Hickman’s early departure is a major loss and it’ll long be speculated as to what his original plans for X-Men would have been and how it would have panned out. Still as the saying goes — don’t cry it’s over be glad it happened. Hickman can boast of being one of very few writers to do major runs on all three of Marvel’s major teams — The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, The X-Men. He will join the ranks of the greatest X-Men writers alongside Claremont and Morrison. He defined superhero stories in the early 2010s leading up to Secret Wars 2015 and he came back a second time to redefine it again. That’s more than enough.

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