Each month I'm revisiting one of the big comic book crossovers of the last few decades. For my broad rules on what counts for consideration, see here.
If you’ve discovered superhero comics generally, and Marvel comics in particular, within the last ten years, it might come as a bit of a shock to discover there was a time when Brian Bendis wasn’t basically in charge of everything. But before he took over (and ended) The Avengers with the highly controversial Disassembled storyline ten years ago this summer, Bendis was best known for his extended run on Daredevil and as the only writer to date on Ultimate Spider-Man. (He’s still now, several re-titlings and a lead character swap later, the only writer of it.) Both of those were outstanding runs, but were well away from the core of the Marvel Universe - two series no one really expected greatness of anyway. Taking on The Avengers was a massive leap into the heartland. Destroying the Avengers as his first act took enormous nerve and an even greater show of faith from the Marvel powers-that-be.
In truth, “Earth’s mightiest heroes” were not at their best at this point. A series of unfortunate runs had knocked a lot of their shine off, and in terms of perception, the book wasn’t viewed as anything like the flagship it had frequently been. So a shake up was overdue, and Disassembled was that shake up - the so-called “Avengers’ worst day” - when as a result of psychosis, The Scarlet Witch ended up warping reality and killing a number of the team. Out of Disassembled, Bendis launched The New Avengers, and from there he created the direct path to Marvel’s first crossover in many years that followed what’s now the standard ‘central series with tie-ins through the regular line’ model.
Meanwhile, on the company’s other leading franchise, the X-Men had been radically rethought by Grant Morrison, and were around a year into an era-defining extended outing by Joss Whedon. Xavier’s School had gone public as a mutant establishment, a global mutant population well into the millions had been established, shifting mutants from oppressed minority to a significant presence, and generally, even though Morrison threw in a multi-million mutant massacre in his very first arc, the world was looking about as good as it ever did for the X-types. Which obviously meant they were due for something terrible…
Cue House of M.
House of M
Published by Marvel Comics in eight issues from June to November 2005. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, with art by Olivier Coipel, Tim Townsend and Frank D’Armata.
Following her descent into madness, Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, was taken under the care of her father Magneto and Charles Xavier, who have been working ever since to attempt a cure, hidden away on the former mutant nation of Genosha. Progress is limited. Wanda spends increasing amounts of time in a fantasy world that can be made real by her reality-altering powers, and Xavier finds it increasingly difficult to keep her anchored. Her instability threatens everything.
Consequently, the X-Men are summoned to a meeting with the New Avengers and Xavier to discuss the danger Wanda represents. Given her potential for destruction and her unstable state, extreme measures are discussed. But unknown to the official participants in the debate, they have been spied on by Wanda’s brother and fellow Avenger Pietro (Quicksilver). Moments later he is in Genosha, warning his father that the Avengers are coming to kill Wanda. In a moment of despair, aware that his daughter is beyond his help, Magneto appears to give up hope.
When the X-Avengers arrive, neither Magneto nor Wanda is in evidence. Exploring, they believe they are narrowing in on them when Xavier disappears, and then the world turns white.
In the following scene, Peter Parker is woken by a crying baby, in a reality where he is married to his long-dead first love Gwen Stacy.
Over the rest of the series, Bendis and the rest of the creative team explore a world in which mutants are in charge, where ‘Sapiens’ are second-class citizens, and the House of Magnus is the ruling faction. Wolverine wakes up on the first morning of the House of M apparently the only agent of SHIELD remembering the ‘right’ version of the world, but also able to remember all the previously lost memories of his very long life. Meanwhile in New York, a teenager named Layla Miller somehow also knows that the world is wrong, and has the power to make others see the truth too. Suborning a growing number of their former allies and joining a Sapian underground led by Luke Cage, Wolverine and Layla piece together what happened, and plan to revert Wanda’s changes.
Bendis, frequently accused of padding, packs a lot into these eight issues. In fact, he takes issue one as set-up and issue eight as aftermath, so the middle six chapters manage to cover:
- a pretty solid depiction of the various parts of this world’s society via a LOT of characters
- the introduction of Layla
- Wolverine’s awakening and escape from his colleagues in SHIELD (with mandatory chase sequence)
- the meeting and partnership with the underground
- the reclaiming of the old allies
- the assault on the House of M
- the revelation of what actually happened back on Genosha
- showdowns all round
- Wanda’s ultimate act of revenge
Along the way, Bendis also undoes one of the most controversial of the many dramatic incidents of Disassembled - the death of Hawkeye. He is recreated by Wanda when she assembles the House of M world, and remains around after the readjustment back to ‘reality’.
He even manages to include a few touches of humour, such as the realisation that, in a world where Wanda has given her former friends and allies their hearts' desires, Cyclops isn't with a resurrected Jean Grey the way that Peter Parker is with Gwen.
The main series is incident-packed, and Marvel expanded on it with a number of tie-ins, showing the bigger picture of the World of M. These were a combination of crossover-branded issues of regular series and several limited series bearing the main series’ name: House of M: Avengers, for example.
The tie-ins issues of regular series largely took predictable approaches, with a ‘tables turned’ basis for their protagonists, according to their mutant or non-mutant status. The Uncanny X-Men tie-in added an extra element to the larger story by showing the potential impact Wanda’s reality rewriting had on the Marvel Omniverse. Althought mostly it felt like Chris Claremont just wanted to play with Excalibur again.
One of the cleverer tie-ins was an edition of the in-universe newspaper The Pulse, which ran news stories from around the world, gossip features on main characters, and more, all of which helped to give the changed world more depth and flavour.
This, like most of of the crossover-specific ‘branded’ limited series, mostly did a good job of establishing the world by showing the history that Wanda had created. Doctor Doom’s discovery of the crashed Fantastic Four’s ship and the subsequent reshaping of his narrative for example, and the story of how Luke Cage came to be the leader of the Sapian resistance. It’s often the case in these ‘changed reality’ stories that it feels like a switch has been flicked and everything is just different. The House of M world manages to feel like a properly alternate reality with a story that’s been unrolling for decades at least.
The other strong selling point here is that, unlike a lot of other crossovers, you can get absolutely everything you need out of the primary series. You really don’t need the tie-ins - they just add detail.
Alongside Bendis’ excellent writing, House of M boasts some of the best art on any Marvel crossover of the last ten years, courtesy of Olivier Coipel on stunning form, well supported by Tim Townsend's inking and Frank D’Armata’s colours. I’m an unashamed Coipel fan, and have been since his work on DC’s Legion Lost. I’ve never met a Coipel drawing I didn’t love, but his style works particularly well here, contrasting the flashy world of SHIELD helicarriers with the stately court of Magnus and then again with the dinginess of the underground’s existence. His character work is also great, and he does a good job in conveying the effects of Wanda's powers and the fraying of her various realities.
The painted cover art for the series, by Esad Ribic, also sets a specific tone. It’s not bombastic or even comic book-like at all. The tones and figures are soft and give the whole package a slightly unreal quality that works well with a series whose whole premise hinges on the malleability of the world. Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of them, but I can’t deny that they do their job very well.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about House of M without examining its real game changing moment. Wanda is finally pushed over the edge by Magnus’ reaction to the revelation that it was Pietro who convinced her to reshape the world in his name. She lashes out and, in an effort to repay her father for everything his quest for mutant supremacy has cost them all, she utters three fateful words before the world turns white again:
All of issue eight is given over to the immediate effects of this act. The Avengers wake up in Avengers Tower, and discover that not all of their number remember the House of M’s existence. Meanwhile the Xavier School is a scene of chaos as most of its students and a number of the faculty find themselves no longer mutants. The world finds itself confronted by the reduction of its mutant population back to an endangered species on what is called ‘M Day’.
This final issue contains some of the strongest sequences in the series - Peter Parker’s demand that his memories of the changed reality be removed, Doctor Strange’s acknowledgement that he has wholly failed in his responsibility to protect reality, the chaotic scenes at the school and the confrontation with Magneto on Genosha are all outstanding. However, it’s the scenes of Emma Frost trying to work out what exactly Wanda did - while shell-shocked by the realisation of exactly how devastating this is - that really stand out. Bendis is writing a great Emma at the moment in Uncanny X-Men, and this is where he showed how well he gets her; she’s desperate, analytical, passionate and determined, even while she’s shattered by the events around her.
It’s traditional for a crossover to be touted as ‘changing everything’, but often the changes are largely cosmetic, or quickly undone. That would be the case for a number of the later ‘chapters’ in the Marvel Universe story that followed this one. Though some of its effects were short term, the most significant of House of M’s effects are actually still influencing stories being told. The mutant population remained devastated for years, and, even though new mutants are now appearing again, their situation remains precarious. As noted above, the series was the first in a chain of crossovers which fed into one another all the way through to Avengers Vs X-Men, and the impact of that continues to shape both franchises. Far less obvious long-term effects are also still in evidence - in the World of M, Carol Danvers, then the mainstream MU’s Ms Marvel, was America’s most popular superhero. The realisation that she had not been living up to her potential in the 'real world' led her to rethink and refocus on a new drive to be ‘the best of the best’ in a new series spinning out of the crossover, which ultimately brought her to her current status as Captain Marvel and probably the most prominent in Marvel’s ever-expanding line of leading women.
House of M didn’t only mark Marvel’s wholehearted leap into ‘event’ crossovers, it set a standard that very few of those which have followed ever quite (or in some cases remotely) managed to reach. It has scale, drama, emotion, consequence and cracking art, and reading it now - even knowing how it ends - it still packs several punches. Hugely recommended.
The Snappy Round-Up
Best moment: It has to be ‘No More Mutants’ - almost understated, but following the emotional build-up of the previous pages the understatement actually makes it stronger
Worst moment: It’s really hard to find one - if I had to choose it would probably be Hawkeye’s confrontation with Wanda - yes, she killed him, but he really comes across as a whiner.
Key debut: Layla Miller - she just knows stuff.
Best spin-off: Several series explored the impacts of M Day on the mutant population, but I’m actually going to go for the new Ms Marvel series.
Best tie-in: House of M: Fearsome Four
Best cover: Issue 8 - Wolverine about to execute a helpless Magneto
Worst cover: Issue 3 - Wolverine’s motorcycle escape
On the comic book grading scale: 9.8: Near Mint/Mint
People you think you know may not be who you think they are. Or even what you think they are. There's been an invasion. But shhhhhh! It's a secret.