The last time I fired up this blog, I was closing in on the conclusion of a series of weekly write-ups on Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men relaunch. Writing a “recap” style series was pretty exhausting, and in retrospect I think the only recap writing series that has stood the test of time anyway is Tom Scharpling’s commentary on the 2011 season of Celebrity Apprentice, so I have no regrets walking away from an unpaid gig that ultimately failed to bring me joy.
I am still thinking a lot about the current state of the superhero serial narrative. There’s an art to collaborating on a monthly mainstream comic: writers, artists, designers, and editors are all variously attending to the work on a particular issue, while also keeping a careful eye on what came before and what’s up ahead. This work seems particularly challenging in our present moment due to a range of factors: the high price points for single issues, preferences for collected editions and binge-ready batches of longer-form storytelling, disruptions to the temporal rhythms of buying and reading monthly comics.
At the start of my House of X / Powers of X write-ups, I talked about the ways that these contexts for serial narratives in superhero comics seemed to be informing Hickman’s take on the X-Men. “The Uncanny Life of Moira X” (House of X #2) begins with three pages laid out very similarly: we see four “widescreen” horizontal panels of similar sizes. Business as usual, same as it ever was. The panel compositions start to vary when The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants show up, disrupting Moira’s third life and her attempt to play by the rules while changing the world for the better. When the story pivots to Moira’s interrogation by Mystique and Destiny, we see two pages of the nine-panel grid made famous by Alan Moore’s use of it in Watchmen and then infamous by later, inferior invocations of the form, deployed as a signifier of weighty introspection or whatever (now that I think about it, I don’t know many Marvel books that have deployed the nine-panel grid). The grid’s appearance here reads more like a wink to readers familiar with the history of superhero comics than a somber acknowledgment of this book’s ambitions (and it does return later in the series, but more as a way for the storytellers to alternate perspectives in Krakoa’s leadership roundtable discussions).
The pages that follow are mostly arranged at oblique / Dutch angles, to reflect Moira’s own disjointed search for a better future for mutantkind. Having been sufficiently “radicalized” (as a panel helpfully tells us), Moira’s story resumes on more sturdier footing, with a return of expected angles and layouts, even through her continued failings and additional deaths. This is likely a way to demonstrate that the important bit here was not her success but that her perspective has changed.
The story continues, traversing two books that suggest to some the structure of a double helix. Unfortunately, the remaining issues, their arrangements and storytelling decisions, all kind of blur together. The creative team continues to care about layouts and panels and uses of color and rhythm and repetition. And there is attention paid to the form of the chapter or installment in the serial, but it feels more in debt to how “prestige” television considers these segments. While less constrained by the budgetary limits of television, the book returns to particular settings and scenes with the same regularity as a Breaking Bad or a Game of Thrones. Part of this repetition may be due to a need to establish the new environs and conventions of these new X-Men and their new island existence. And the storytelling decisions made in “The Uncanny Life of Moira X” stand out compared to the later chapters, further establishing this issue’s events and perspectives as particularly significant. But it was disappointing to see something exciting and full of potential revert back to something that felt more like business as usual.
I’ve kept up with the X-Men ongoing series and I’ve even sampled some of the spinoff books like Marauders and New Mutants (and I’ll check Wolverine out one day, but I’ve realized that I like Adam Kubert but not enough to spend eight dollars on one issue of Adam Kubert art). The most enjoyable issues to me have been the “Giant-Size” specials, but even these books feel like overpriced cover song versions of earlier X-Men hits (the issue with Jean Grey and Emma Frost riffs on the silent issue from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s New X-Men run; the Nightcrawler special brings back the goofy sci-fi superheroics of early Excalibur by Alan Davis and Chris Claremont, with Davis back in the artist’s chair to boot). And this summer’s event comic features a lot of swords, apparently. I guess swords are better than Draculas again.
Ultimately, what House of X and Powers of X made me realize was how much I enjoy a well-done, subversive, weird, or even complete mess of a single issue. And I have lots of those books here in my office. So I’ll be spending some time this summer (and beyond, most likely) using this blog to write about some of the books I’ve been reading over the last year or so: good, bad, ugly. But I guess I needed to get this post out of my system and wrap up this series. Thanks for reading!
Questions? Comments? Jim is on Twitter @JimMc_Grath (for more academic approaches to comics, pop culture, and media studies) and @poolhalljames (if you’re more interested in out-of-context panels from comics, bad memes, and live-tweets about professional wrestling). You can also email him: jameskennethmcgrath[at]gmail[dot]com