Our book today is the Marvel Comics graphic novel House of M, which would more properly make it a subject for our esteemed colleague Gianni over at The Latest Issue, but we can’t help ourselves. The more we re-read this book, the more convinced we become that it’s the best thing Marvel’s put before its readers since Marvels came out a decade ago. This book’s storyline was the last gasp of the grand old Marvel style, a style that played out bittersweet Stan Lee style ‘what if’s against a backdrop of decidely unglamorous heroism.
Some of you will need some backstory. You can dig around on Gianni’s site for it (we assure you, his postings are more enjoyable the second time through), but we’ll provide a quick thumbnail sketch here in case any of you are too lazy to click over and do the requisite hunting.
One of Marvel’s master villains is Magneto, an Eastern Eurpopean Holocaust survivor, a mutant with complete control over Earth’s magnetic fields and a fanatic who believes, ironically enough, that mutants constitute nature’s true master race. Non comic-fans among you will know the character’s name because he was brought to masterful, indelible life on the big screen by Ian McKellan, clearly having the time of his life.
In the comics, Magneto had two children, both mutants like himself: his hot-headed son Pietro, codename Quicksilver, who can run at fantastic speeds, and Wanda, codename the Scarlet Witch, who can cast reality-altering ‘hexes.’ Magneto is a thorough-going bad guy (he wants his species to succeed, after all! What else could he be? It’s a well known scientific fact that homo sapiens gained ascendancy over Neanderthals – and half a dozen other species of modern human – through diplomacy and tea parties), but Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, after a rocky start, become full-fledged heroes, members of the Avengers, Earth’s most prestigious superhero team. Quicksilver can’t travel anywhere near as fast as DC’s Flash, and the Scarlet Witch at first can only cast three ‘hexes’ at a time before becoming exhausted, but there they are, mutants, fighting alongside Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor against all manner of threats to Earth’s very survival. Full-fledged four-color heroes, but it wasn’t destined to stay that way.
The Scarlet Witch fell in love with the Vision, the Avengers’ android member, and because these stories are written piecemeal by many different writers – some significantly brighter than others – there came a storyline in which she became pregnant and gave birth to twins.
Well, of course future writers had to deal with That. An android and a mutant? Obviously, those children, who couldn’t have been conceived in the tried-and-true birds-and-bees method, had to be accounted for somehow. Hack writer John Byrne made an attempt twenty years ago, chalking it all up to the machinations of an extra-dimensional demon, but that was never very convincing. Years and years later, our present writer Brian Michael Bendis came up with an entirely better scenario: it turns out that the Scarlet Witch’s probability-altering hex-spheres were always more powerful than she or we knew, little bubbles in which her subconscious got to rewrite reality itself. She wanted children, and so she made them, and what was the harm?
Except that in the comic book world, if you’re a woman, you always lose control of such awesome power, and the Scarlet Witch is no exception. And when she loses control of her ability (than which there can be, realistically speaking, none greater), all Hell breaks loose. In an Avengers story that need not delay us long here, she loses control and several Avengers – Ant-man, the Vision, and Hawkeye – die as a result. But all along she’s aware of what she’s doing to her friends, and it agonizes her. When the surviving Avengers converge on her, she offers no resistance – but her father Magneto shows up and demands the custody of his daughter. And since this particular team’s roster has no Thor to challenge a being of Magneto’s power, they stand by and let him take Wanda away to the ruins of his mutant state of Genosha. But all parties concerned know this is not the end of the matter.
This is where House of M – written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Olivier Coipel – begins. The book opens in the ruins of Genosha, on such a subdominant note as might a great symphony begin: two old friends, battered by time and circumstance, are talking on a shattered rooftop. The one is Magneto, but old and broken, without his metal helmet and scarlet cloak, rangy hair hanging in his face. The other is Charles Xavier, erstwhile leader of the X-men and the world’s greatest telepath. These two have been the closest friends and the most bitter enemies, and Bendis’ dialogue is a marvel of workaday compression. We can’t keep drugging her and psychically putting her to sleep, Xavier wearily tells his old friend. It’s inhumane. And it’s hardly foolproof. And it’s barely working.
I put my children through hell because of what I believe, Magneto confesses. I destroyed whatever hope they ever had, at a decent life … because of what I believe. My war against the humans. And the truth is – I waged my war against the humans and I lost. And now I’ve lost my war and my children.
They’re talking about Wanda, of course, who’s been removed from the battlefield but still remains the prize of it: a biddable young woman who shapes and reshapes reality itself to her whim. Xavier and Magneto know she can’t control her power, and Xavier – at least in front of her grieving father – can propose no alternative to what they’re aleady trying.
But there are others no less involved, and when Xavier turns to them, this fantastic story starts in earnest. Because of course the two other groups of people concerned with the fate of the Scarlet Witch are the Avengers, her former teammates, and the X-Men, her fellow mutants. Xavier calls an extraordinary gathering of the two groups, telling them, I have made this special trip to New York to discuss with you an almost impossible matter. We need to decide the fate of Wanda Maximoff.
It’s a mixed group he’s talking to – there are idealists like Spider-Man, moralists like Captain America, and cold-hearted pragmatists like former villainess telepath Emma Frost and perennial fan favorite Wolverine. It’s the latter two who immediately answer Xavier’s question with hard reality: the Scarlet Witch must die. Someone do the math for me, Wolverine says, How many more of you does she have to kill before you snap out of it?
The rest of them aren’t so sure, and eventually pity wins out and they decide to go to Genosha and try to talk to Wanda directly. But when they get there and approach her tower, the world goes white.
And when it resumes, it’s radically changed. Mutants are no longer a feared and persecuted minority – they’re the majority, walking openly among dwindling and well-treated humans. Emma Frost is a successful lawyer living in (where else?) Connecticut; Spider-Man, known openly as Peter Parker, is married to his childhood sweetheart and beloved of his Aunt May and Uncle Ben (the latter of course being alive in this world); Wolverine (and many others) are contended government agents; and then there’s the biggest change of all: Magneto is no longer an outlaw master villain – instead, he’s the internationally recognized leader of Genosha, ruling alongside his children and grandchildren – the House of M. At first glance, it looks like a mutant’s paradise.
Naturally, it’s Wolverine who starts to unravel it all (Bendis’ only explanation is that Wolverine’s had his memories altered so many times this new reality can’t really take root … ignoring what seems to us the more likely explanation, Wolverine’s ever-present healing factor, constantly restoring him to ‘normal’). He wakes in the arms of a woman he doesn’t love, on a great government heli-carrier high above Manhattan, with flags of the House of M flying everywhere. In response, he does the only thing he can: he jumps overboard.
He survives the catastrophic landing, of course, thanks to his healing factor, and he immediately sets about learning the truth – i.e. stealing some mook’s bike and going to Salem Center, to Graymalkin Lane: to the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, where the whole X-Man dream began. He finds it occupied by a normal suburban family who’ve never heard of Charles Xavier.
The government wants Wolverine back, and they send super-powered mutants to track and retrieve him. He’s running from them when he’s abducted by another group of super-powered mutants, this time a group of underground counter-agents who’ve monitored his escape and think he can help their cause.
The root of their cause is a little girl from Hell’s Kitchen named Layla (“Like the song?” “No.”) who can cause people to remember the previous reality and their lives in it. She’s given each of these underground renegades that vision, and with Wolverine’s help, they go looking for other recruits.
Their first stop is Connecticut, where they awaken Emma Frost. Bendis gives her reaction all the visceral punch he an, ably assisted by Coipel’s enormously powerful visuals. With wild rage in her eyes, she growls:
House of Magnus! House of Magnus? Logan, we’re gonna – we’re going to find Magneto and oh! That is it! This is it! We’re going to kill him! And his kids!
They awaken Cyclops too, but the real tragedy is still to come: Peter Parker. As long-time Marvel fans will know, the core set of Stan Lee/Jack Kirby characters from the 1960s have one thing in common: deep down, they’d rather not be heroes. With the possible exception of Thor (although even he would probably have preferred not being exiled from Asgard and physically bonded with a crippled surgeon), each of these core characters was turned to heroism by tragedy: the Fantastic Four (especially the Thing) want their normal lives back; Tony Stark wants his healthy heart back; Stephen Strange wants his surgeon’s hands back; the mutants of course would like their afflictions lifted – but most of all, most heartbreakingly, there’s Peter Parker, whose life is so full of tragedy that he can only benefit from the curse of the Scarlet Witch. His beloved uncle Ben is shot to death at the beginning of Peter’s career as Spider-Man, and a little later his first great love Gwen Stacey dies during a pitched battle with the Green Goblin.
Say what you want about him, Bendis knows where his Marvel drama is to be found: the prolonged scene in which our renegades confront Peter Parker and awaken him is the most moving and harrowing sequence in the whole of the graphic novel. They find him out for a stroll with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, his wife Gwen, and their little boy – long-time fans can’t help but wince at the perfection of the picture that our renegades are duty-bound to rip apart.
And when they do, Peter’s response is predictable: he freaks out worse than anyone has so far. But when Wolverine calms him down and gets him past the initial shock, what the normally-gentle Peter has to say is reminiscent of Emma Frost:
Logan, I swear to God … I think I’m going to kill them. Magneto. His stupid daughter. I’m gonna kill them with my bare hands. I’m not … I’m not going to be able to stop myself.
They organize (under the tactical leadership of Cyclops, since in this altered reality Steve Rogers was never frozen in suspended animation as Captain America and is a 100-year-old pensioner) and decide to take the fight directly to Magneto in Genosha. But before they do, some team-members voice classic Bendis misgivings (at least, they were once upon a time: these days it’s sadly less in evidence):
My point is – when something of this magnitude happens – you have to step back for a second and and say: maybe this was time for this to happen. Who are we to decide how the world’s supposed to be? When the meteors hit the earth and destroy a species – it’s natural selection, right? Maybe this is how mutants become the next dominant species.
Misgivings or no, they go, interrupting the grand proceedings at Thunder Bay, where Lord Magneto is being joined by dignitaries from all over the world: King T’Challa of Wakanda, Princess Ororo of Kenya, a conspicuously unscarred Victor Von Doom of Latveria, King Namor of Atlantis … and last of all, the House of Magnus itself: Magneto, Quicksilver, Wanda, the green-tressed Lorna Dane and the two little boys who are Magneto’s grandsons – Coipel renders them all in pathetic Prussian splendor, the women with hair heavily bedangled, the men in epaulets with breastfuls of gaudy medals. It’s when they first appear in all their finery that we’re given our first clear visual clue that everything they stand for is not only corrupt but powerfully, quintessentially wrong.
Their grand gathering is terminally interrupted when Wolverine and his counter-insurgents crash the party. A furious fight ensues (as Cyclops tells his troops, they’re literally fighting for everything), during which Doctor Strange discerns that the Wanda they’re seeing isn’t the real one – he spies a light on in her tower window and spirits himself up there to see her, finding her playing with her two little boys. As the fight rages below, Doctor Strange eventually discovers that the evil genius behind the Scarlet Witch’s re-writing of history wasn’t Magneto at all but Pietro her brother, and Bendis shows us the heart-breaking scene: the two of them, brother and sister against the world as always, the perfect coda to over forty years of watching these two conflicted characters in one incarnation after another. I’ll take you from here, Quicksilver tells his sister.
Wanda: And they’ll follow. No.
Quicksilver: I will fight them for you. I won’t let them take you from me again. I won’t –
Wanda: It’s over.
Wanda: It should have ended months ago.
Then, a little later, in a perfectly-done sequence (Coipel’s artwork here is very still and very heavily shadowed):
Quicksilver: We never had a chance. Magnus chose his ‘mutant race’ over us. We were just little kids, and he abandoned us. Even so – we fought so hard to get out from under it all.
Wanda: How was it supposed to be?
Quicksilver: We were supposed to be a family.
Quicksilver: We were supposed to be great heroes.
Wanda: We were, for a bit.
Quicksilver: I liked being an Avenger more than I ever said.
[for old-time fans, that line is worth the price of the whole graphic novel]
Wanda: Me too. And look what I did to them. I would do anything to take it back.
This line gives Pietro his horrible inspiration: he tells her she can take it back – that with her vast reality-altering powers and access to Xavier’s vast telepathic powers, she could re-make the world so that they get all the things they’ve ever wanted. That was the genitive moment of the House of M.
Back in the present, the course of the battle has brought Magneto in contact with Layla, and when he learns that Quicksilver, in rewriting reality, also re-wrote him, his wrath is limitless: he effortlessly brings the battle to a halt – and then kills his son in a fit of rage. This shatters whatever tenuous hold Wanda had on sanity completely: she restores Pietro to life, and then in a wonderfully escalating monologue that wanderingly follows its own logic, she reacts to it all:
Look what you’ve done to us, daddy. Pietro was right – you – you ruined us before we even had a chance. Why would you treat your own children this way? Babies. Why? Because you actually think you’re better than everyone else. The arrogance of you. You think because we’re mutants we’re better than them. That we deserve to rule. That’s what you wanted and I gave it to you. But look … look what it becomes. Even when you get what you want, you’re still this horrible man. We’re not the next step. We’re not gods. We’re freaks! Look at us, daddy! We’re freaks! MUTANTS! You chose this over us and you RUINED us! Daddy …
Off to one side, Emma Frost whispers, “Oh no …”
Then Wanda says: “No more mutants.”
And the world goes white again.
Bendis’ storyline goes on from there to a final chapter in which everything has changed again: the world now has fewer than 200 mutants, and most of our central characters now remember vividly not one but three different realities. Marvel is still spinning out stories based on this new reality, some good some not so good. But House of M stands apart for its intelligence and old-fashioned Marvel might-have-been mucking around. We can scarcely imagine a better rendition of the essential tragedy of Magneto and his children, but we’ll wait ten years and see if Marvel surprises us once again. In the meantime, comic book fans and non-fans alike have our strongest recommendation for this sad, bittersweet book.