Jonathan Hickman Might Just Save the X-Men From Themselves

A Decade of Nostalgia & Mishandling Has Left the Franchise in a Rut—is Hickman the Solution?

Comics Features Jonathan Hickman
Jonathan Hickman Might Just Save the X-Men From Themselves

Marvel Comics had a busy weekend at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2 for short). Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman’s Absolute Carnage event was confirmed to launch this August; newly Marvel-exclusive writer Tini Howard announced an unexpected Death’s Head series with artist Kei Zama; Jason Aaron’s War of the Realms follow-up was revealed to be a Valkyrie series co-written by Immortal Hulk scribe Al Ewing; and one of the longest-whispered rumors in all of modern superhero comics was finally brought into the light of day: Jonathan Hickman is returning to Marvel Comics to revamp the X-Men franchise—and not a moment too soon.

Before we explain our optimism, here are the facts: starting in July, Jonathan Hickman will write two twice-monthly series, effectively weaving together into a weekly dose of Hickman. Extermination artist Pepe Larraz will draw House of X, while Amazing Spider-Man and Hunt for Wolverine contributor R.B. Silva will illustrate Powers of X, which is pronounced “Powers of 10,” evoking the Roman numeral. Colorist Marte Gracia, who has contributed to the X-Men on and off since 2010, will color both series.

Concrete details for the two titles are scarce, beyond Marvel Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski comparing House of X and Powers of X to prior franchise milestones like Giant-Size X-Men #1, suggesting that Hickman may use the two limited series as a launch pad for a longer run on the X-Men. Both Cebulski and Hickman described the two series as a “radical” change for the mutants, and an accompanying promotional image by artist Mark Brooks posed more question than answers. As seen below, Brooks’ image pulls from a hodge-podge of X-Men eras, from Disco Dazzler and Punk Storm to pint-sized Havok and three variations on Wolverine. Most puzzlingly, the image is flanked by characters who appear to be amalgamations of Nightcrawler and Gambit on one side, and Magik and Colossus on the other. At the center, Magneto stands above a seated (but presumably ambulatory, given his crossed legs) Professor Charles Xavier and a woman fans have suggested may be an out-of-costume Jean Grey, or potentially geneticist Moira McTaggert, a character who died way back in 2001.

House of X/Powers of X Promo Image Art by Mark Brooks

Of course, there’s no way of knowing how literally Brooks’s image is intended to be taken, or if Hickman’s two series will muck with X-Men history or merely revisit notable eras. Either way, Hickman’s arrival marks a potential course-correction for a franchise that has for too long been mired in nostalgia, and which has sacrificed newness at nearly every turn in exchange for ever-diminishing attempts at pacifying a demanding fandom still chasing the highs of Chris Claremont and/or the ‘90s X-Men boom.

Hickman’s prior series at Marvel—Secret Warriors, S.H.I.E.L.D., Fantastic Four, FF, Avengers, New Avengers and Secret Wars—dealt almost exclusively with big, bold, occasionally confusing ideas. While some fans consider his character work lacking or even cold, it’s impossible to downplay Hickman’s ongoing impact on the publisher’s mythos. In the pages of Infinity, Hickman helped elevate Thanos ahead of his MCU debut, and created the Black Order who stood by Thanos’ side in Avengers: Infinity War. (Ironically, Infinity also unleashed the Terrigen Mists, the transformative Inhumans vapor that proved toxic to mutants and inspired one of the worst X-Men eras in recent memory.) Hickman’s Fantastic Four pushed Reed Richards and his family to the bleeding-edge of Marvel-U. sci-fi, and his dual Avengers series expanded the scope of the team beyond familiar faces like Iron Man and Thor to include everyone from Shang-Chi and Hyperion to the X-Men’s own Sunspot and Cannonball. Secret Wars, which Paste named Marvel’s best event comic in modern history, capped off his Marvel period by resetting the playing field for the publisher, integrating alternate-reality characters like Miles Morales and Old Man Logan into mainstream continuity in the process. Now, three years after departing the publisher to focus on creator-owned series like East of West, Hickman is poised to join the X-Men franchise after a…challenging…few years for Marvel’s merry mutants.

New X-Men #114 Cover Art by Frank Quitely, Tim Townsend & Brian Haberlin

Following critical and commercial heights under Grant Morrison and co.’s radical 2001 reimagining New X-Men, the franchise has experienced, charitably, just as many misses as hits. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon and Planetary artist John Cassaday united for Astonishing X-Men, which will sell trade paperbacks until the sun extinguishes, but few runs between Whedon and Cassaday’s departure in 2008 and this weekend’s Hickman news have reached anything approaching a reader consensus of quality. Even the best post-Morrison series, like Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men, drawn by artists including Nick Bradshaw and Chris Bachalo, spent much of their page count trying to recapture the mix of action and melodrama that characterized the franchise’s heyday between the late ‘70s and early ‘90s, during which X-Men godfather Chris Claremont introduced most of what’s considered foundational franchise canon. Aaron’s best-remembered arcs focused on the Hellfire Club, Wolverine’s deadly past, trips to Shi’ar space, the Brood and potential futures—all plot beats pioneered by Claremont. Those series that haven’t looked overwhelmingly to the past have often been tied up in character rehabilitation; current Uncanny X-Men writer Matthew Rosenberg’s franchise work has largely involved resurrecting and/or redeeming mutants like Banshee, Havok, Jamie Madrox and Jean Grey who were killed off or dragged through unpopular status-quo changes.

The last seven years, in particular, have been trying times for the X-Men. If readers were divided on creators like Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker stewarding Xavier’s pupils, former Marvel maestro Brian Michael Bendis’ tenure may have inspired some of the most diametrically opposed reactions in X-Men history, with fans either loving or hating Bendis’ focus on a time-traveling squad of original X-Men brought into the present—quite literally a glance as far into the franchise’s past as possible. Following Bendis’ eventual departure, the X-Men faced one of their lowest points in modern history, and an enemy that seemed unstoppable not because of what was on the page, but because of what was occurring behind the scenes. Extraordinary X-Men, written by Jeff Lemire and drawn primarily by Humberto Ramos, kicked off an era in which all three core X-Men titles (the other two being new volumes of Uncanny X-Men and All-New X-Men) revolved around the Inhumans.

Inhumans Vs. X-Men #1 Cover Art by Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan & David Curiel

While Marvel never has—and almost certainly never will—publicly commented on the rumors, industry gossip held for years that Marvel executives hoped to highlight the Inhumans, whose film and television rights were held solely by Disney, over the X-Men, whose multimedia existence was tied up with Fox until just last week, when Disney finalized an acquisition that catapulted them from one of the largest entertainment monopolies in history to an even larger entertainment monopoly. This push involved multiple series starring the Inhumans, along with an overarching plot across various Marvel series about the Inhumans’ Terrigen Mists spreading around the globe and proving lethal to most mutants.

This effort seemed to backfire on the House of Ideas, with the Inhumans failing to pick up speed in the comics (and absolutely bombing an abortive televised adaptation), and the X-Men titles suffering a sales slump as the mutants fought against yet another pending extinction. Even after the Terrigen era came to a close with the Inhumans vs. X-Men event, the damage seemed done, and a subsequent relaunch led by X-Men Gold and X-Men Blue did little to reverse the downward trend. It didn’t help matters that the biggest story out of X-Men Gold wasn’t anything related to the plot, but that artist Ardian Syaf hid offensive messages in the first issue’s background art, earning a quick dismissal from the company—and an embarrassing press snafu for Marvel.

If Bendis’ tenure dwelled too much on the past via the original five X-Men, he at least attempted to balance the nostalgia with new additions like Goldballs and Tempus, and previously unexplored territory like a crossover with the Guardians of the Galaxy. X-Men Gold and X-Men Blue, on the other hand, felt designed from the ground up to recall sunnier times, evoking the early ‘90s with its colored team names, and eschewing more recent cast additions for a lineup that hailed from the early ‘80s and prior (Gold) or dragged in characters from or inspired by previous alternate-reality series like Ultimate X-Men and Mutant X (Blue). Notably, at a time when Marvel was rapidly expanding its character roster with additions like Ms. Marvel, Miles Morales, Ironheart, Moon Girl, Nadia Pym, Silk and others, neither the Extraordinary X-Men era nor Gold and Blue added any prominent new faces to the mutant lineup, save for a new Pyro who has gone largely unrecognized outside of Gold.

Age of X-Man Alpha #1 Cover Art by Phil Noto

When X-Men Gold and X-Men Blue mercifully wrapped up last year, a new weekly Uncanny X-Men series debuted—and was quickly revealed to be less of a fresh start than a preamble, priming the stage for the currently in-progress Age of X-Man event. Age of X-Man, stretched across six five-issue mini-series and two oversized bookend issues, is an alternate-reality crossover in the vein of Age of Apocalypse, taking place in a world transformed by the immensely powerful Nate Grey into a mutant utopia—albeit one with a dark underbelly. Some of the industry’s most compelling rising talent is involved in the event, including Vita Ayala, Zac Thompson, Lonnie Nadler and Leah Williams, but it’s difficult to consider Age of X-Man a step forward for Marvel’s beleaguered mutants. Age of X-Man is a seemingly finite alternate reality, with changes so drastic—Apocalypse is a free-love hippie messiah!—that they seem unlikely to carry over if and when the mutants return to mainstream continuity. The X-Men finally have some truly progressive themes and new ideas bubbling under the surface, but those themes and ideas are isolated in a contained system.

Ongoing superhero comics are about the journey, not the destination, so knowing that Hickman is just around the corner shouldn’t invalidate any reader’s enjoyment of Age of X-Man, or of Matthew Rosenberg and Salvador Larroca’s fascinatingly bleak current Uncanny X-Men run. The Age of X-Man creative teams are posing interesting questions about oft-overlooked characters like Bishop, Glob Herman and Nature Girl, and creators like Kelly Thompson and Mariko Tamaki are doing enjoyable work on the X-titles not wrapped up in the crossover. If all of that ends once Hickman takes over, the current gaggle of X-titles will be remembered as an improvement on much of the last seven or eight years, even if that improvement came in the form of undoing the damage done by other creators, or playing in a sandbox removed from ongoing ramifications.

But if Morrison’s New X-Men felt like a radical turn-of-the-century look into the X-Men’s leather-clad future, too much of the 15 years that followed have felt like treading water at worst, and a retreat into a more comforting past at best. All we know for sure about Hickman’s upcoming run on the X-Men is a pair of series titles and a confounding promo image, but whether Hickman is on the franchise for years to come or bounces as soon as House of X and Powers of X wrap up, he brings with him a track record of lofty concepts and big-picture thinking—two things the X-Men have been lacking for far too long. It’s all well and good to pay tribute to the baseball games and soap-opera antics of X-Men history, but a baby born when New X-Men debuted will be old enough to vote this year—isn’t it about time that the X-Men embraced that “new” again?

Jonathan Hickman X-Men Teaser via Marvel Comics

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