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'House of M' and the vilification of mental illness
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‘House of M’ and the vilification of mental illness

The saga of the mutant decimation is more harrowing than you’d think.

For years she was known as a pivotal player in the Avengers lineup, a powerhouse, the daughter of Magneto. But ever since 2005, the Scarlet Witch had a new claim to fame: She said “No more mutants,” forever changing the trajectory of the Marvel Universe. House of M is surely an important event in terms of how it impacted the inner universe of the comics, but its legacy isn’t really a favorable one — least of all for Wanda Maximoff.

Stories of heroes breaking bad are nothing new — flip open any comic book and you’ll find dozens of examples of a “dark period” for your favorite heroes which were likely retconned away years later. So, what makes Wanda’s House of M heel turn so bad? She’s not really the bad guy — but her mental illness is.

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In House of M, Wanda is undergoing a breakdown fueled by the loss of her children — an extreme reaction to an extremely distressing event. From the early pages of the comic, our heroes are afraid of her and her destructive potential. To make matters more dehumanizing, there are sections of the book where the Avengers and X-Men gather in a room to discuss whether the best course of action is to simply kill Wanda Maximoff before she can harm anyone. I’ll repeat that: the solution to a mentally ill woman’s suffering is to put her down like a dog — her own peers and people she regards as family are arguing whether or not she’s too dangerous to be kept alive.

House of M

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

For many of us who have struggled with mental illness, this moment is quite harrowing. It’s easy to feel like a burden on your family and neurotypical peers who just don’t seem to understand you. House of M takes that very real experience then says yes, her mental illness is a burden. After all, Wanda’s breakdown ultimately results in the decimation of mutantkind for years to come, so the heroes’ worries of keeping her alive are then justified by the story’s writing itself.

In the grand scheme of things, Wanda Maximoff is a really problematic villain figure for this story. While eliminating the X-gene didn’t really kill anyone (save for a select few mutants who needed their mutation to stay alive on principle), in this fictional universe, such an act is likened to genocide. The mutant species is almost extinct for the 10 years of comics that follow, all because of this one event.

Wanda Maximoff’s parentage has changed a bit over the years, but in 2005 it was quite solid: her father was Magneto and her mother was Magda Eisenhardt, two Holocaust survivors. To then have a Jewish-Romani woman who is the descendant of Holocaust survivors responsible for this fictional universe’s equivalent of superhero genocide? It’s a bad look. To blame her mental illness specifically on top of that? It’s an even worse look.

In the grand scheme of X-Men stories, what makes mutants so relatable to so many marginalized readers is that they reflect a piece of them –the parts of ourselves that few other people can truly understand outside of specific communities. This real-world application is what makes villains like William Stryker so interesting, using these stories to become a reflection of our world where right-wing religious extremist groups often target certain minority groups. The mutant metaphor doesn’t work when characters who represent real oppressed minorities (like mentally ill, Jewish, and Romani women) become villains for them. It pits a real-life minority as the oppressor of a pretend one — mutants don’t exist in the real world, but the mentally ill do. It’s satisfying to see the X-Men beat up bigots, not the downtrodden.

'House of M' and the vilification of mental illness

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

Wanda’s breakdown is meant to be the worst moment of her life, an expression of the immense grief she’s experiencing in that moment. As a mentally ill woman, I am not who I am when I have a meltdown — those are my lowest moments. While I’m responsible for my actions and the people I may hurt in those moments, it’s not a reflection of who I am in my everyday life.  House of M should not be seen as a reflection of Wanda in the same way.

I can’t say I’m proud of everything I’ve done during breakdowns –I’ve lashed out, gotten poor grades in school, wished harm upon myself, and neglected to be a good friend during emotionally distressing times– but this isn’t me on an average day, it’s me on my worst days. It’s part of what makes these moments so distressing, knowing that this isn’t you and it’s hurting those around you just to see you so sad and unlike yourself. And just like me and thousands of other mentally ill people out there, Wanda had her worst days in House of M –but the problem is, 16 years after publication, that lone moment is treated as the only part of her character that matters.

It’s created a precarious situation because the decimation of mutantkind can’t be ignored by storytellers left to write in a post-House of M Marvel, especially X-Men writers who dealt with the brunt of it. But at the same time, Wanda was never the right “villain” for the story to begin with — from a writing standpoint, she never should have been the bad guy because of a mental breakdown.

In House of M, Wanda herself barely has any agency as she spends the book manipulated by the people around her. Pietro, trying his best to save his sister from being murdered, convinces her to make a new reality possible. Wanda’s agency is stripped from her further with the introduction of Children’s Crusade, which claims Wanda was never responsible for M-Day at all — it was Doctor Doom all along! The Doom retcon is silly and that’s likely why it hasn’t been referenced since Children’s Crusade. But that story’s lasting impact makes Wanda even less of an agent in her own story in House of M. Yet, she’s the only one who continually is repenting for the event while the factors that pushed her to her breakdown are soon forgotten and left off the hook.

'House of M' and the vilification of mental illness

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

I want you to think for a moment about your favorite heroes — are they canonically mentally ill? I can sit here and talk about how I see a lot of my own social tics in Scott Summers, who I could reasonably see as ADHD (he has a tendency to hyper-fixate, he often displays thoughts similar to rejection sensitive dysphoria, and he hates being idle) but that’s ultimately a head canon. There’s no explicit text that proves my claim — or for most heroes for that matter, especially back in 2005. If they are mentally ill, it’s probably mentioned once or twice but it’s not something that’s ever really explored or seen as an important recurring facet of the character — other writers probably ignore it after it’s been introduced. “So and so has PTSD” is often treated as something akin to a little character trivia rather than something actually explored in depth by most stories.

Now think about some of your favorite villains — are they canonically mentally ill? Probably. Batman’s got almost a whole rogue’s gallery stuck in Arkham Asylum, after all. The caricature of the mentally ill villain has been around for ages, one that many scholars have been pointing out as ableist for years. Just look up some think pieces about films like Psycho.

Wanda Maximoff could have become something different from a majority of the Marvel lineup, a major hero whose mental illness was a big part of her character like Moon Knight. We could have gotten her recovery, seeing how she dealt with loss and her intense grief in some really powerful moments. But House of M (and Avengers: Disassembled before it) exist to tell a story about how her mental illness doesn’t just make her scary, it makes her dangerous because she all but wipes out a species and kills several teammates.

'House of M' and the vilification of mental illness

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

I often think back to the Jeff Lemire/Greg Smallwood run of Moon Knight and how the story hinged on self-acceptance, forcing Mark to finally accept all his personalities as a part of himself. It’s a beautiful story –and that’s the kind of care Wanda’s story deserved as well.

The story most often told is that the editor-in-chief of Marvel at the time, Joe Quesada, thought there were too many mutants and mutant titles, and so House of M was the project created to reduce that number. If the problem was too many mutants, why was this the vehicle to make it happen? Why did a woman’s mental breakdown have to be the catalyst for the decimation of mutantkind? It seems cruel and unnecessary to choose to vilify mental illness in such a way.

In the years since House of M, Marvel has admittedly gotten a bit better in its portrayal of mental illness. Series like Si Spurrier’s X-Men Legacy is a great example of this, telling a story about a mentally ill teen who’s rejected even amongst his own in the mutant community. Through the support of his peers like Ruth Aldine and a little self-discovery, David learns to love and embrace himself for who he is. While moves like this are appreciated, it doesn’t make Wanda’s House of M debacle any easier to swallow, especially when she’s still repenting for it 16 years after the initial story.

House of M is a low point for Wanda and how comics deal with the topic of mental illness overall, vilifying a woman’s mental breakdown by having her virtually wipe out a species (one she also belonged to in 2005, mind you) and kill several of her own teammates. The story strips her of her own agency while making her the sole bad guy left to pick up the pieces years later. It’s a story that says the mentally ill are dangerous, that we’re capable of horrible things and maybe we should be “put down” before those things can happen.

This is its legacy — and it’s a bad one.

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