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Dissecting Jonathan Hickman's 'X-Men' legacy

Comic Books

Dissecting Jonathan Hickman’s ‘X-Men’ legacy

The good, the bad, and the gratuitous swordplay.

Over the last two years or so, the X-titles have undergone something of a renaissance. From the main X-Men title to offerings like New Mutants and Marauders, these books have helped usher in the compelling age of Krakoa, a transformative event/story that highlights the very best of X-Men as a whole.

And while there’s no discounting the creative teams, there’s also no arguing that this is all the masterwork of Jonathan Hickman, who has helped orchestrate these events with an expert touch. But now, with Hickman since leaving for other projects, we’re left to ask a singular question: what did it all mean?

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How much of the so-called “Krakoa Saga” has worked, especially as it comes to redefining the X-Men? Similarly, how much has been done to extend mutants as a stand-in for outsiders amid this intriguing landscape of inclusion, political intrigue, and social upheaval? How much of this story is a success amid the era of COVID, and how much was left unsaid when Hickman departed prematurely? Our staff took it upon themselves to answer these questions, and the resulting mini-essays offer nuanced insight into the Hickman era.

No matter the answer, though, one thing is clear: it’s a comics phenomenon we’ll be living with for years to come.

— Chris Coplan, Comics Editor

Asking “what if?” amid the darkest timeline

Dissecting Jonathan Hickman's 'X-Men' legacy

Courtesy of Marvel.

What would’ve/could’ve/should’ve been?

When I now look back on the two-and-a-half years of Jonathan Hickman being the “Head of X,” I can’t help but ask that familiar Marvel Comics question, “What if?”

One example: What if the sudden spread of COVID in the spring of 2020 hadn’t shut down the distribution of comic books for two to three months? The X-Men franchise was still riding high on a huge swell of momentum. Hickman’s House of X/Powers of X reignited our excitement in the franchise in the summer and Fall of 2019. The first wave of Dawn of X titles had just finished their first story arcs, and the second wave of titles was launching. We just couldn’t wait for next week’s X-titles to be released.

And then everything came to a screeching halt and all momentum was lost abruptly. Take, for example, the Wolverine series, which debuted in February 2020. Issue #2 released in March, but issue #3 didn’t come out until July. By then, the excitement had died down.

But, worse than that, storylines, future plans, and the launch of other new series had to be delayed, reworked, or completely thrown out. The big crossover, X of Swords, was pushed back from the summer to the fall of 2020. The Way of X series, meant to spin-out of X-Men #7, didn’t debut until over a year after that issue released. Who knows how much of Hickman’s grand plan had to be changed or scrapped entirely.

I wonder how the Hickman Era of X-Men would’ve developed without the COVID stoppage. Hickman strikes me as a meticulous planer, as one can see in his detailed eye for continuity, so I wonder just how frustrated changing his plans made him. I wonder if this frustration, not only due to COVID but also due to the creative differences with his team, contributed to his decision to leave the X-Men with so little of his master plan realized. And I wonder if he’ll return in the future to finish things the way he originally imagined.

— David Canham

In the Krakoa Era, the X-lineup hit its stride for depth and quality

Dissecting Jonathan Hickman's 'X-Men' legacy

Courtesy of Marvel.

Hickman’s House of X/Powers of X got me back into comics in a big way. I started going to my local comic shop, got myself a pull box, and read each issue of the dueling minis multiple times. It was a fresh take on the X-Men, and a much-needed injection of new energy into what felt like a book caught in nostalgia. I subscribed to all the subsequent Dawn of X titles and couldn’t help but want to write about the bigger themes introduced; I initially got involved with AIPT writing a series of articles exploring the foreign policy of Krakoa. Clearly, I was enthusiastic about a comic in a way I hadn’t been since my teenage years.

In total, I enjoyed that Jonathan Hickman’s run gave mutants strength and swagger in the Marvel Universe that was desperately needed. For decades, mutants were hated and put in a defensive position. They had attempted to build their own societies, but the threat of destruction seemed to hover large over their communities. With Krakoa, we got to see what a mutant society with leverage on the world stage and what dynamics that would create. They were still gods in their abilities, but leaders like Magneto and Apocalypse could sit comfortably across from heads of state and not need to flex to get their way. This was an exciting new place for mutants to be: confident, accomplished and ascending.

While the statecraft elements are what I found stimulating in Hickman’s run, the way he injected new life into the human/mutant/machine conflict is the bit of storytelling I did not expect to like as much as I clearly did. The X-Men always had conflicts between man and machine and their hybrid conglomerates, but to see the conflict expand to three-way competition gave a whole new meaning to what it meant to be “superior.” It’s also this element of Hickman’s run that is left unclear; clearly there was a story that he meant to tell that we won’t get (at least for now, and I find it highly likely that Hickman returns at some point to tell another X-Men tale). I hope we one day know what changes occurred behind the scenes at Marvel that altered his initial plan, but I trust that another writer will explore this conflict between the machine, humans, and mutants in future arcs.

As for the non-Hickman books, I feel generally satisfied with the X-line spawned by the Krakoan age. One of the best aspects of the X-books as of late is their distinct identity and styles. Rather than having a bunch of books which were basically the same concept just applied with different characters, I knew that each title in the line would give a different take on the new life mutants would build for themselves and allow for creative teams to dig into the stories they wished to tell. I hope this continues to be the trend in the Destiny of X era, and based on the solicits, it seems that will be the case.

I’d be remiss not to note the incredible additions various artists made to the X-line during this run. For all the high-minded concepts Hickman constructed, they landed competently thanks to the astonishing images created by folks like Pepe Larraz, Russell Dauterman, and Leinil Francis Yu.

Not all X-fans were happy with the conclusion to Hickman’s run, but I find myself coming away from it devoted to Marvel’s merry mutants, with an enduring sense of curiosity like the one I obtained reading the comics as a child. That alone should be a testament to the quality of the X-line in the last few years.

— Ryan Sonneville

The Krakoa Era made believers out of comic fans new and old

Dissecting Jonathan Hickman's 'X-Men' legacy

Courtesy of Marvel.

I stopped reading comic books in 2007. Major life changes were happening; I found myself without a car, and I stopped going to my local comic book store. However, I stopped reading X-Men comics long before then. The stories were not grabbing my attention and I stopped consuming…until I heard a rumor at San Diego Comic-Con from someone inside the comic book industry. He told me that the X-Men were going to relaunch under Jonathan Hickman, and that it was going to change everything. I trusted this person and found myself at a local shop on release date picking up House of X #1. Hickman’s run brought me back to comics, back to supporting a local shop, and going in weekly to read the next installments. I cannot thank Hickman enough from bringing me back to one of my favorite hobbies and fandoms.

The Hickman run was truly an incredible experience. Mutants were finally given a home — a relatively safe place to be themselves, unashamed of their origins, and able to lead with forgiveness instead of animosity. It was inspiring to read stories about long-term enemies united under a common cause and the efforts they made to see their dreams become a reality. Moira X was mind-blowing to experience. The supporting titles started strong. Everything was looking bright.

X of Swords was the first misstep for me. A stumble on the balancing beam caused my judgmental eyebrow to raise and question the direction of the series. Departing from the strong narratives happening across all the titles left me annoyed and reading the crossover event like it was homework. The gathering of the swords was tedious, and the final revelations did not have a lasting impact on me at all. Nevertheless, I stuck with all the titles into and beyond X of Swords, knowing we were out of the mist and back to the storylines that were started. However, coming into the sophomore season felt a little sluggish, and I felt myself drift from my born-again fandom until the Hellfire Gala ripped me right back into place.

The Hellfire Gala brought out all the elements that I love about the X-Men in a way that I never knew I needed. The X-Men have always been superstars to me, so to see them portrayed as literal red-carpeting-walking-celebrities was absolutely divine. I loved the marketing that went into the event — the way fans could be drawn onto the pages and into the party directly. And, of course, the giant flex of Planet-Size X-Men cemented itself as my favorite comic book moment of 2021. The combination of superheroics and science was brilliant, and the humorous moments throughout the gala — most expertly written by Gerry Duggan — were hilarious. Emma Frost exclaiming that she reminded Captain America of his mother had be howling as she demanded another drink from Kate to forget the interaction.

The remaining run continued to prove my love of the X-Men as we climaxed into Inferno. The resurrection of Destiny felt like a triumph. Being led to think that Inferno was all about Mystique’s goal to resurrect Destiny, only to be given it immediately, left me dying to know what was to come. Revealing that the machines are not with the humans left me with a chill and made the threat feel like there was no way to reason or relate with Nimord and Omega.

Reflecting on the Hickman run, what stands out to me most is the introduction to the incredible talent that surrounds this era. The incredible work by Leah Williams, Vita Ayala, Russell Dauterman, Pepe Larraz, Al Ewing, Rod Reis, Phil Noto, Gerry Duggan, and others, certified that I will be sticking around — ready to live on Krakoa with all my favorite mutants.

— Chandler Poling

The Krakoa Era beamed with potential — if only it was fully explored

Dissecting Jonathan Hickman's 'X-Men' legacy

Courtesy of Marvel.

When Johnathan Hickman first started House of X/Powers of X, it was weird for me. Big changes were presented right off the bat, and they can be hard to adapt to for me, especially with a series I know inside and out like the X-Men. I didn’t like a lot of the changes at first, but as time went on and I became accustomed to the Krakoa era more and more, I realized that House of X/Powers of X was a good story in itself and that the era it had set up had a lot of promise.

HOX/POX was a game-changer and a really intriguing story in and of itself. The era it set up was just brimming with promise and excited me for so many possibilities, most of which haven’t been touched on yet. After HOX/POX, though, the series started to stall a lot. I initially wondered if this was just how Hickman wrote — that he just played long games with his writing and set up things to be touched on later. So I went and read everything he ever worked on at Marvel just to get a taste of his style. And his X-Men is…probably one of my least favorite things he’s done?

There’s a lot of promise baked into his premise. As I said, HOX/POX is a great book, but most of his X-Men title feels like fluff. (Don’t even start me on how annoying it is to just remarry Jean and Scott off-panel — let alone add Jean/Logan and Emma/Scott to the mix off-panel.) I feel like such crucial things have just been left off-panel for us to fill in the blanks on, and it still frustrates me at times. Why did Scott suddenly forgive Gabriel? How did he do that and was it hard for him? What about Alex and Gabriel? The issues of his X-Men I find the most intriguing don’t even involve the Summers clan. When it comes to Johnathan Hickman’s X-Men, the place where he thrived the most was a place I never would have expected him to: with Mystique.

What he’s done with Mystique is the highlight of this run for me — even more so than the Moira X retcon — because he took this iconic character and gave her layers that we’ve wanted to see her have for years. His Mystique is just as tragic as she is cunning and self-centered. He adds this heart to her that so few writers have given her in the past, and it really really works. The fact that Destiny is alive again in an X-Men comic is insane in the best way! And years ago, I never thought that would have been possible.

Both Mystique-centric issues of his X-Men title might just be the two best issues of that run (the Vault ones are excellent as well). And Inferno was the best the Krakoan era ever got to be (thus far). I assume COVID struggles were to blame for a lot of this meandering around in-story (and boy, X of Swords was the worst case for “pussyfooting around”). But it still feels like Hickman’s X-Men run is half a run — it’s not like his Fantastic Four or even his Avengers.

And that’s what I keep coming back to with Hickman’s run. It feels…incomplete. When the highs are good like Inferno or the Nimrod/Mystique issue of X-Men, my god are they good. But when the book is slow? Boy, is it slow. After I read HOX/POX, I was sure there was something big on the horizon that we were building to, like how Avengers built up to Secret Wars and the whole time it was a fascinating read. Inferno was a great comic — but it wasn’t as explosive as I believed it should have been.

At times, it felt like Hickman’s book was the only book telling a story that mattered. Marauders, X-Corp, X-Factor, etc. — all of them were so contained. It didn’t feel like anyone but X-Men was actually building a plot that progressed the era itself forward. And once Hickman left X-Men, that aimless feeling set in the main title as well. Some titles are great — I adore Hellions and New Mutants — but admittedly, none of them feel like anything I have to read. I stick around those series because I love the direction they go in, but I wish the franchise itself would build towards a goal overall like X-Men had been building towards Inferno or Avengers had been building towards Secret Wars.

I have huge problems with characterization where characters often just feel unrecognizable to me. And, unfortunately, that’s been happening to me with a lot of characters I consider mainstays in the series. The Krakoan era for me becomes most exciting when I’m getting to know more about characters I never loved before. I adore Greycrow and Kwannon thanks to Zeb Wells’ amazing writing on Hellions, for example. This era of X-Men becomes interesting because I really can’t abide by the way most of my longtime favorites are written at all, but I find my enjoyment by getting to know and love new characters like Kwannon. And I think the way the Krakoan era is set up makes it perfect for introducing new characters, or putting lesser-known characters in the spotlight. I adore that Synch can finally be used again and his power upgrade in the Vault issues is so damn exciting.

The Hellfire Gala event felt as irrelevant as X of Swords did for me, more fluff than anything else. The idea of terraforming Mars was so cool, but it was given away in previous issues in the event. Sure, there were great moments, but the events overall felt bloated and filled with fluff. For me, the series’ strides are HOX/POX and Inferno, two books filled with interesting character drama and stakes that feel huge — two things the X-Men should always be about.

The Hickman run feels like you expect a huge splash and what you get is a very tiny one instead. I respect all that he did with the series, and the things he brought to life, allowing this franchise to bring back faces we never thought we’d see again, like Synch. And for that reason, the franchise still excites me — there’s so much left to unpack, if only someone would! While I had a lot of fun with Hickman’s run at times, I also believe it’s a victim to circumstances and I can’t also help but think “what if” COVID hadn’t inevitably rocked the boat on some of the larger plans or plots’ execution.

— Lia Williamson

Maybe the Krakoa Era just isn’t for an outsider like me

X-Men

Courtesy of Marvel.

The X-Men was how I got into superhero comics. Discovering a group of superpowered “others” was like lightning in my outsider teenage years. Later learning about my queerness and exactly how othered I am, I realized just how much their struggle and symbol meant to me.

Somewhere along the line, I fell off from the current X-books. But then I heard about the HOX/POX relaunch, which was getting a lot of hype and intrigue online, and thought it was my chance to get back in. And it was a treat, delving into the new world of possibility that came with Krakoa. It was like discovering them all over again.

After HOX/POX, I read as many X-titles as I could, revisiting my favorite characters in new lights. It was, and still is, incredibly interesting to see mutants like Rictor and Storm have their status quo shaken to points where they can grow in different directions, or at least have the potential to explore these paths. But ultimately, the Krakoa era has grown to become a bit of a letdown for me because it’s not using that fantastic potential it initially brought to the fullest extent.

Consider S.W.O.R.D. #5, when Fabian Cortez is debating with the Quiet Council about the relevance of the “Kill No Man” rule. Overall, it’s such an interesting exploration of intersectionality with human/mutant identity, and it gets even more fascinating when Magneto subtly reminds Fabian that he’s a mutant and a survivor of the Holocaust. It felt monumental that a major X-character’s intersectional identity was being acknowledged. For a beautiful few panels, Erik’s Jewishness was as much a part of his character as his mutant/Krakoan identity. This is the kind of potential I’m talking about.

This exploration of intersectional identities has only been seen in slivers in other X-books, where mutants still struggle with being queer or a person of color in the supposed haven of Krakoa is never fully explored. I find those moments the most compelling, the truest to what the X-Men are all about: mutants reconciling with their othered identity and trying to find a place in a world that hates their existence.

It’s grown to be one of the biggest metaphors of X-comics, that mutant oppression/self-expression is a metaphor for LGBTQ+ and otherwise marginalized folks. While this “Mutant Metaphor” hasn’t been so strong pre-Krakoa, isn’t widely accepted, and isn’t quite the underlying force that keeps X-comics running, looking back it was the driving force of my initial interest in mutantkind all those years ago. As such, it’s always what keeps them engaging for me and many others today.

But with this new status quo where mutants use duplicitous ways to inject their sovereignty into the world, I can’t help but be reminded of anti-Land Back sentiments, where people think the Indigenous-led Land Back movement is something that wants to violently reclaim the world, rather than simply wanting liberation. While Krakoa itself isn’t quite vying for total global domination (yet), there are still things like in X-Force where Beast is trying to colonize South America. Yeah, that’s just Beast being Beast, but even the deployment of the idea at all leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

It’s been said that this new mutant regime is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable as a human. But what about as a queer person? A person of color? How should it make me feel when I see the people that are supposed to represent me claim the role of the oppressor? Don’t get me wrong, the idea of mutants making their own country and the systems that come with it is the shake-up that X-comics needed and a cool philosophical concept to explore. But when it keeps just being a big, conceptual “what if?” idea to explore, the meaningful purpose gets left behind.

This is like how most of the big events so far have played out. The Hellfire Gala, X of Swords —  they felt like nothing of character value came out of them besides ways to move mutants around, to launch new series, and give a nice boost to Marvel’s wallet.

Series like Way of X, Children of the Atom, and Vita Ayala’s New Mutants all felt like something meaningful was happening. Characters new and old were exploring what it means to be mutant, to be Krakoan, in our human age still rife with conflicts related to identity and not. It was adding depth to this new Krakoan era rather than skimming for surface-level superhuman stories. Give me these stories that go beyond the superficial superhero comic touchpoints to the depth that I know X-comics can bring. I’d take those any day over sudden Mars expansions and pointless sword jousting.

I’ve stopped reading every single X-book that comes out now. Some I just lost interest in the arc at the time, and others felt like filler where only the art was enjoyable. But upcoming titles like Al Ewing’s X-Men Red, Kieron Gillen’s Immortal X-Men, Si Spurrier’s Legion of X, and Steve Orlando’s revitalized Marauders are the most excited I’ve been since the initial Krakoa launch. Hopefully, this fresh direction for the X-books will bring that meaningful substance, but if they don’t, then maybe the Krakoa era just isn’t for an outsider like me.

— Madeleine Chan

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