In July 2019, writer Jonathan Hickman returned to the Marvel Universe after a nearly 4 year sabbatical to deliver House of X #1, a game-changing paradigm shift for Marvel’s X-Men comics. With collaborators Pepe Larraz, RB Silva, and Marte Gracia, Hickman completely reinvigorated X-Men and the fandom that surrounds it. After the massive success of House of X and Powers of X, Hickman turned to an ongoing X-Men series, set during the new status quo of the X-Men’s Krakoa era, a run that lasted from Fall 2019 through summer 2021.
Looking back at the full run now, what did we learn, what mysteries still remain, and how effective was Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men as a whole?
Before digging deep into the content, it’s essential to preface the conversation with the following: Jonathan Hickman’s post House/Powers X-Men comics are strikingly scattered, often to the point of feeling wholly disconnected. Over the course of about a year and a half (with a Covid pandemic disruption square in the middle), Hickman wrote or co-wrote 35 full issues of X-Men comics, including the 5 “Giant-Size” specials, and two very short teasers in Marvel Incoming #1 and Marvel 1000.
In the below Comic Book Herald graphic, I’ve reconfigured the run into thematically connected parts, which you’ll quickly note is greatly different than publication order. Personally, I find it more enjoyable to read the comics like this, grouped into related segments, but admittedly this is with the benefit of having read the full run according to publication as the books were released. The major caveat w/ the above is I still think you’d want to read X-Men #1 and X-Men #4 as your first post HoX issues, but beyond that, reading according to segment works great.
Regardless of approach, the core takeaway should be there are 5 primary focuses of the Hickman run, tackling the “World of X” (aka Krakoan affairs), “Arakko and the X of Swords event” (aka the Apocalypse family saga), Nimrod & Mystique, the Children of the Vault, and X-Men Cosmic (which resonates most clearly with Hickman’s work on New Mutants.) This is the framework I’ll be using to consider what actually happened in this run, what questions remain unanswered, and where we’re going from here.
In terms of framing, Hickman’s work on the X-Men series is primarily through the lens of Cyclops, Scott Summers, as he travels and interacts with various elements of the newly established Krakoa. X-Men #1 opens with Professor X promising to show Scott his vision for mutantdom, and through much of the run, we’re experiencing that in a similar way, our eyes opened to the new world of X-Men on Krakoa. From the first issue, Hickman is set on proclaiming this is a bold new era of X-Men comics after too many years of slow incremental changes.
12 of the 21 issues closely involve Cyclops, and indeed, in his pre-Inferno interview with AIPT, Hickman states this was the original focused intent of the run. This very much speaks to the scattered nature of the work, keener on showing a variety of aspects and threads with Marvel’s many mutants than any one centralized plot.
Hickman’s World of X
One of the promises of House of X and the Krakoa era of X-Men is seeing how this new status quo would manifest across the wider Marvel Universe, and how mutants declaring a sovereign nation state FOR ALL MUTANTS would impact everything from political alliances, to world economies to anti-mutant sentiment. Likewise, the stage is set for the truly fascinating exploration of building a nation in its earliest days, and all the complications that brings to the table.
Krakoa announces this is a mutant nation with tremendous pharmaceutical advantages, and that leads to unprecedented financial power for mutantkind. This is the driving force for the best issue delving into Krakoan Affairs, X-Men #4, in which Professor X, Magneto, Apocalypse, Scott Summers and Gorgon visit Davos, Switzerland for a conversation w/ the world’s foremost economic titans.
X-Men #4 stands out as such a great entry because of the ways it parallels real world power, governance, and as Hickman is fond of asserting, the ways the hidden hands of economics controls people. I don’t think it’s any kind of stretch to say X-Men #4 is the most directly politically and socially relevant issue of the run, and arguably the only issue where Hickman leans hard into the mutant metaphor and extensions to marginalized communities.
Magneto deliberately and clearly lays out the strategy for mutantkind, making it clear that were once force would have dictated his actions, now mutants have learned dominance can be best achieved through money, and the control that brings, and the way it will define mutant influence of all aspects on Earth.
Ironically, Magneto makes no bones that the strategy is a human one at heart, and that’s why it’s so resonant outside the fiction of mutantkind. Turn on the news any given day, and you’ll see countless examples of these lines: “Leverage people w/ debt. Make them pay to be healthy and whole. Make them pay to become educated. Make them pay you interest so they can have a place to live.”
This is just our world but here Magneto is describing it from the perspective of the mutants who will manufacture this leverage and wield it for their own control. Of course it will work. It already does.
There’s a moment in issue 4, too, where Professor X – largely settled to let Magneto do the speechifying, takes off his Cerebro helmet for the first time readers had seen since the House and Powers began. It’s as if to say, the era has changed, the methods have adapted and evolved, but these characters? These are your X-Men. There’s no Shadow King under the Helmet, no Cassandra Nova (at least not outwardly or obviously!), this is your Professor, and that was still his dream.
We’re building a nation now.
It’s time for new dreams.
The World of X themed issues go on to explore the day to day of life on Krakoa and its culture, none more influentially than X-Men #7, which introduces Krakoan Crucible. Resurrection of mutants on Krakoa grants immortality of a sort, but it’s a problem for all the depowered mutants left not feeling whole following Wanda Maximoff, the Great Pretender’s “No More Mutants,” in the wake of House of M. So in order to deal with this in a way that doesn’t encourage mass suicide, Apocalypse and the Quiet Council of Krakoa settle on… well a gladiatorial arena where mutant can fight for the right to an honorable death and prove their desire to be a mutant again.
It’s a very Apocalypse idea.
Crucible’s compelling because it feels both unique to Krakoan culture, and full of sinister complications that call the nature of this island utopia into question. Is mutantkind really ok with cheering on a generally lopsided fight to the death, like Roman gladiators of antiquity? There’s a violence and a bloodthirstiness to the proceedings, prior to the beautiful miracle of resurrection and mutants reborn.
Whether directly intended or not, Crucible mirrors the dark heart of Krakoa, and the ways secrets, compromise, or closed door decisions can influence nations, and drive them towards their worse impulses. A theme of Hickman’s Krakoa is absolutely that nation-building is fraught with challenges and complex decision making. Binary assertions of good or evil, too common in superhero comics are increasingly irrelevant as we consider what it takes to cultivate a people.
What matters most? The people’s short-term happiness? The longevity of the nation? The “Final End” of mutant survival? Or something deeper and more spiritual as we see Nightcrawler wrestling with in this issue, and later in the spinoff series Way of X by Si Spurrier and Bob Quinn.
At its fullest, this is the full suite of potential Krakoa offers X-Men comics, in ways wholly unique to the history of the Marvel Universe.
The remaining “World of X” explorations again dig into Day in the Life on Krakoa, whether it’s Magneto standing up as the nations hero during the Empyre event invasion, or Cyclops and the Quiet Council responding to the emerging threat of Octogenerian Eco-Terrorists Hordeculture.
There are perfectly valid reasons to find the Hickman run aimless, or worse, boring, but I’m struck re-reading even these seemingly one off pieces how many ideas are set up for future story. Magneto’s defense of Krakoa carves out Mutant Technology, targeted combinations of powersets, before Al Ewing gave it a name in SWORD #1, and X-Men #3, the controversial and out of nowhere elder comedy issue, sets up both hacked Krakoan gates, and the psychic feeding of Krakoa, measured by Selene and Emplate, just to name a few examples. There are always more examples, and that’s part of the thrill and potentially the disappointment of this run: overflowing ideas, with minimal resolution.
Arakko / X of Swords
The saga of Arakko is particularly unique in Hickman’s run because it directly follows up on one of the seeded plots of House of X, and I’d argue is the only plot category that sees a fulfilling end during Hickman’s time on the title. It’s also the only category with a full event around it – X of Swords – which definitely helps.
The premise, is that in House of X #5, we learn that Apocalypse is familiar with the land of Krakoa, and that actually thousands of years ago, he was there when demonic forces invaded and split Krakoa’s original state – the one land of Okarra – into two: Krakoa and Arakko. The saga from X-Men into X of Swords then is the story of what exactly happened and what it means for Apocalypse.
The thing Arakko does effectively early on – the first threads are continued in X-Men #2 – is lean into the history of Apocalypse, as one of few mutants on Krakoa who has generations of experience. Where Professor X and Magneto have decades of shaping human / mutant relations, Apocalypse has thousands of years of scheming, plotting, and waiting.
And through the arrival of Arakko, the Summoner, and in X of Swords the full fledged reveal of the Apocalypse family, there’s a strong sense of mutant history, lost mutant culture, and purpose to the character Apocalypse, that had never been laid so bare before. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but when looking back, the most fully formed character development in the entire run goes to En Sabah Nur.
The X of Swords reveal that Apocalypse stayed behind on Earth while his wife and children went to Amenth to fight for Arakko against Annihilation and the demon hordes is a huge one for the longtime villain. And it’s not just that the romance softens Apocalypse – although certainly revealing the beating heart of the Big Blue Daddy does that – but it’s the way it so incisively cuts to the character’s motivations as we’ve seen them in the history of the comics he’s appeared in.
Apocalypse’s mantra of “survival of the fittest” is given emotional and deliberate heft behind the mission of making Earth’s mutants strong enough to support the Arakko mutants lost in Amenth. Apocalypse isn’t just acting out of belief; he’s acting out of desperation and expectation of a coming disaster. And perhaps most importantly, out of a desire to prove himself strong enough to the woman he loves.
Structurally, the reveals of Apocalypse’s history remain one of the more controversial formalistic maneuvers of Hickman’s time on the title. X-Men issues #12 to #14 all tell the same mutant’s history Arakko, but from the vantage point of three different mutants (Summoner, Apocalypse, and Genesis). The use of comics and the space between panels to expand on known histories is a trick Hickman pulled to greater effect in East of West, but stacked one after the other, the effect feels a bit too openly like a deadline reprieve for Leinil Francis Yu and Sunny Gho, or perhaps Hickman himself.
I think this is most disappointing because Arakko – a world inspired by Dune (the Dune planet of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic – A Hickman favorite – is literally called Arakkis) – has so much world to fill in, and fantasy to explore. Time spent rehashing known details to the degree these issues do is time away from getting to know the White Sword, or the legacy of Annihilation, and I would have preferred more of that.
Big picture, though, the addition of Arakko and the many, many new mutants it brings to the Marvel Universe is an absurdly rich windfall of new character and potential story. The possibilities of fully developing characters like Isca the Unbeaten or Tarn the Uncaring (not to mention the millions of Arakki mutants as yet unnamed) is a much greater legacy than even the updates to an established property like Apocalypse.
Among the many massive reveals of X of Swords core three issues – Creation, Revelation, and Destruction, cowritten by Hickman and Tini Howard – the return to Cyclops as our guide, as he and Jean determine the need for an X-Men roster, is one of the most important and memorable. It’s honestly a bit of a remarkable thing where readers realize together Hickman and Leinil Francis Yu’s run has lacked a proper X-Men team for the duration.
Ultimately, though, if you flash back to X of Swords, and look at what Hickman wrote or co-wrote, the effect and legacy is the most decisively successful of anything in the run following House and Powers. Apocalypse and the story of Okarra is firmly followed up on and resolved. We get:
- The restoration of a mutant Captain Britain Corps
- The restoration of an X-Men team
- The restoration of the Apocalypse family in Amenth (a thing we didn’t know we should want)
- A vastly expanded mythos and relevance of Otherworld
- Complications with Krakoa’s resurrection process, particularly for Rockslide and Gorgon
- A reconfiguring of Krakoa’s Quiet Council
- Millions of Arakkin mutants on Earth, including the island Arakko itself.
House and Powers also set the stage for Nimrod and Destiny as major players in the future of mutant stories, and Hickman interlocks both threads across X-Men #6 and X-Men #20, by following up on Mystique’s role during the mutant invasion of the Orchis Forge in House of X, and Professor X and Magneto’s manipulation of Raven Darkholme despite Moira’s House/Powers declaration that Destiny cannot be resurrected.
The backdrop is that Nimrod is the ultimate manifestation of mutant hunting sentinel technology, and that Moira’s 9th life is used so mutants of life 10 can destroy the Nimrod facility before it comes online (this happens in House of X #3 and #4. What we learn in these issues of X-Men, is that not only did this mission not succeed as it originally appeared, but unless Mystique can infiltrate Orchis in time, the inevitability of bringing a Nimrod online will come to fruition.
At the heart of this story is the emotional core of Professor X and Magneto withholding Mystique’s wife, Destiny, from resurrection protocols as punishment for both her past and current failures. Nothing quite shines a light on the cruelty and callous pragmatism of the duo as their treatment of Mystique, knowing full well that regardless of Mystique’s actions they will never grant her the comfort of her loved one.
Of course, what Magneto and Professor X don’t know is that Destiny foresaw this occurrence, and gave Mystique the instructions to burn it all down if they would not resurrect her. Again, it’s the perfect distillation of the hubris of the mutant ruling head of Xavier, Magneto and Moira,, as their hubris and treatment of those around them like pawns in the grand game will ultimately result in their undoing. Or at least it sure feels like that’s where we’re heading.
Despite Mystique’s infiltration of Orchis, she does allow Dr. Gregor to successfully create a Nimrod, with the personality of her late husband (who sacrificed himself defending the Orchis Forge and killing the mutant strike team in House of X). This particular development feels like one of the larger glaring holes of the Hickman run, as Mystique has countless opportunities to strike earlier, but instead literally watches the successful Nimrod launch to completion.
So it’s either a rare example of dubious plotting, or Mystique’s revenge involves allowing Nimrod to come online, perhaps as part of her efforts to burn Krakoa to the ground for the Professor and Magneto’s betrayal. Likewise, Orchis – this new AIM esque entity for the Krakoa era – remains an anti-mutant organization with a great deal of mystery, from the nature of Director Devo (seen in X-Men #1 but then never again) to the current status of the surviving Nimrod.
The Nimrod’s Destiny sequence is the most directly tied to the core of House and Powers, though, as it’s the only issue in the Hickman run that features an on-panel appearance of Moira X, reading the collected diaries of Destiny, and setting the stage for the Inferno event. Unsurprisingly, it’s an insanely exciting moment! When the Professor and Magneto recognize the return of Nimrod means the plans have changed, and when they have to finally – Magneto literally with hat in hand – return to Moira for guidance on the next phase.
I do think that regardless of what Inferno unveils – and I suspect it will be plenty! – slow playing Moira to the degree Hickman did, and then not hanging around the franchise for the long haul will go down as the biggest misfire of this run. As much as I’ll talk here about what I like, the single greatest hook of House and Powers was the lifelines of Moira X, and a run devoid of that is lacking.
The Children of the Vault
The most effective continuity pull in the run comes with Hickman reaching back to Mike Carey’s deeply underrated run across X-Men and X-Men Legacy, and reviving the Children of the Vault. The Children are particularly effective because they represent one of the core tenets of House and Powers, the rise of the man-machine hybrid as the greatest threat to mutantdom, and how competing adaptive natures mirror and collide with another.
For the unfamiliar, the Children are technologically and temporally advanced beings, more or less controlled by an AI known as the City, and the reside in the Vault, where they can speed up time to evolve their warriors for their planned takeover of Earth. The X-Men’s advances on Krakoa throw a wrinkle into the Vault’s plans, setting the stage for an X-Mission to the journey of the center of the Vault.
Hickman makes great use of the Children as antagonists for mutantkind, as their resurrection protocols and long-term planning for survival are similar in so many ways. We also see the Vault creep into Hickman’s loosely connected Giant-Size X-Men 5 issues, which all primarily revolve around the Vault infecting Storm, and her traveling to the World – a Weapon X designed mirror of the Vault – to cure herself and avoid resurrection.
The Children of the Vault are an appropriately giant-sized mutant problem, so that when Professor X calls them “the greatest threat to mutantkind” it makes some sense, particularly knowing what he knows about Homo Novisimma and the man-machine hybrids at the end of Moira’s 6th life.
The payoff for the Children of the Vault takes places in X-Men #18 and #19, with 19 as what I’d argue is Hickman’s best single issue of the series. Wolverine (Laura Kinney), Synch, and Darwin are sent into the Vault to uncover their plans, and although we knew heading in that time passes differently in the Vault, we didn’t necessarily know it would mean the immense quantity of years this trio would spend together surviving there.
One of the hardest elements of writing X-Men is deciding which of the MANY mutants to focus on, and this focused story is a masterclass in taking three mutants nobody would have expected to put together and sending them into a unique enough situation that you can’t imagine anyone else fitting in that space.
Structurally, X-Men #19 is the most formally inventive work of the run, utilizing data page timelines to convey hundreds of years of story as infographic, which then intersects with the more traditional panel by panel progression of our three mutants. The effect is a longevity and history of story that is nearly impossible to achieve in 22 pages of a single issue.
For all the thrill of data page structure, and foreboding quotes leading into issues of House and Powers, X-Men #19 is one of the rare reminders how Hickman’s chart-based infographic thinking can exceed the limits of single issue comics.
Likewise, narration by Synch, aka Everett Ross, takes a mutant I had little knowledge of, and makes him the beating heart of the story, alongside his centuries in the making romance with Laura Kinney. It’s a story that I actually found more emotional on re-reads. For all the talk of Hickman as the cold calculated plotter, here the creator is with a capital L Love Story as the heart of his run on X-Men.
The biggest downside to all of this is that even after Synch and Laura escape the Vault, we’re left with more questions than resolution. What is the fate of Darwin still trapped inside and used by the Vault? What of the 4th generation of Vault warriors now enhanced by Darwin’s mutant DNA? The threat is entirely unresolved, and if anything only made worse.
This is definitely a theme of the run, as so many threats are made worse by mutant meddling. Nimrod only comes online after the mutants attack, and after Mystique attempts to derail. The Children of the Vault only evolve to a 4th generation after capturing Darwin. And Amenth’s Annihilation wave only threatens Earth after Apocalypse creates an External gate granting access. I don’t know that the run is arguing instead for inaction, but it seems especially true that attempts to shape the future have a habit of backfiring and creating the thing mutants feared.
Hickman utilizes his 4 issue run on New Mutants to set the stage for 4 more issues of Cosmic centered X-Men issues, in stories that probably feel the most familiar to his work across Fantastic Four or the Avengers during Infinity. Primarily, the comics set the stage for mutant relations with longtime cosmic counterparts the Shi’ar and the Brood, and even work in a surprising War of Kings related mystery for 3rd Summers brother, Vulcan.
As a whole, this run of Hickman cosmic never touches the heights of Powers of X and the seeded plots involving black holes, galactic intelligences, and the Phalanx. Nonetheless, like elsewhere, we see the issues set the stage for a lot of potential even if left wholly unfulfilled.
Early on in New Mutants, some mysterious seeds are planted, in one case almost literally, as Doug Ramsey and Mondo discover the impact the Krakoan gate has on alien biomes, with the revelation that the Krakoa gate naturally wants to terraform. This will trigger alarm bells for those familiar with mutantkind’s terraforming work in Planet-Size X-Men, but it’s also a largely unresolved mystery of Krakoa – we still don’t know much about the sentient island’s thoughts or plans itself, and that remains an intriguing story to tell.
In addition to retrieval of a King Brood Egg which comes into play later in X-Men, Hickman concentrates primarily on the Shi’ar empire, including its power structures and organizations like the Death Commandos. Of the most import, we see Gladiator stepping down from a role as Emperor, as Xandra, the genetic offspring of Lilandra Neramani and Professor Charles Xavier inherits the throne, with the likes of Deathbird at her side.
Like everything in comics, misunderstanding based fights breakout, but primarily the story works to realign mutant and Shi’ar alliances, with New Mutant OGs Sam and Bobby staying to live in Shi’ar space, and Gladiator bequeathing Cyclops a gift of one of their beach moons. For me, the major takeaway from much of the cosmic conversation is that the mutant longgame is very much a core part of Marvel Cosmic – they are thinking about evolving and advancing beyond the stars, not just on earth – and the alliances they make with cosmic power players are an enormous part of why the Krakoa era is grander in scope than anything previous.
Speaking of cosmic allies, X-men issues 8 and 9 focus on the Brood and their reclamation of the King Egg, which – spoiler alert! – is comically eaten and subsumed by lil ol Broo, the new King of the Brood. This turns one of the X-Men’s longest running alien enemies into a potential new ally and frankly a weaponized horde force, with Broo given the opportunity to wield the Broo hivemind.
Although as recently as an issue of Vita Ayala and Rod Reis’ New Mutants we’ve seen that Broo may not fully be in control.
The Brood issues are a really good example of Hickman’s desire to break all the rules, reconfiguring longtime adversaries as political factions on the side of mutantkind, as they scheme bigger and bolder than ever. It’s also a good example of Hickman’s sense of humor, with the Broo turn undercutting an enormous battle vs the Brood.
One of the most underrated elements of Hickman’s Cosmic X-Men is how the writer weaves in the Kree Supreme Intelligence – a favorite of his since fantastic four – as a schemer controlling Brood behavior across the ages. On the surface level, this is a deft touch making full use of the Marvel Cosmic tapestry. But on a more interesting level, I think the Supreme Intelligence here is meant to mirror a stand-in for Hickman’s Moira X.
The Supreme Intelligence is the combined intellect, perspective and experience of the Kree people, and is consistently portrayed as an amoral end result of pure pragmatism and species dominance across the galaxy. While Moira lacks quite the same adaptive combined learnings of her people, her experiences across lifelines are comporable, and I anticipate her end goals are very similar. The Supreme Intelligence can wait eons for the Kree to strike, and to thrive. Same goes for Moira and mutants.
My favorite cosmic mystery in the Hickman run is also the most unexpected, and it’s the saga of Gabriel Summers, aka Vulcan. In the comics from X-Men Deadly Genesis through War of Kings, Gabriel is a scorned omega level mutant with a vendetta against Professor X, and an increasingly cruel manic disposition as he ascends to the role of Emperor of the Shi’ar. Put simply, last we saw Gabriel, he was an absolute enemy of the X-Men, and suddenly his resurrection in House and Powers has him as a hard drinking himbo lazing about in the Summers house on the Moon. Something changed!
In War of Kings, Vulcan and Black Bolt, king of the Inhuman Kree faction, fight to the near-death, creating a fault in space that goes on to connect to the Cancerverse (as seen in Thanos Imperative). And what we learn in these X-Men issues, is that Vulcan never actually died!
And what we learn is that Vulcan was captured by a mysterious alien race, and implanted with something to conceal his true nature. So as far as we still know, Vulcan is a plant in service of these beings, and that bomb – perhaps quite literally given Vulcan’s power set – is just waiting to go off. I’m hoping this means in inferno, but we shall see!
All in all, the Hickman run of X-Men won’t be uttered in the same hallowed breaths as Fantastic Four, Secret Warriors or New Avengers. Like a lot of the Dawn of X, it coasts along the power of House and Powers, and is powered on the thrill of potential and possibility. Nonetheless, I quite loved having this central tour of Krakoa at the heart of X-Men comics, and for my money, Hickman’s presence as a grand plotter and maker of mutant mystery will be sorely missed in the post-Inferno X-Men landscape.
Up next: Inferno
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