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LTR: The Chimera mutant North, Xorn, the Chimera mutant Rasputin, and the Chimera mutant Cardinal striking a cool team pose in Powers of X #3, Marvel Comics (2019). Jonathan Hickman, R.B. Silva/Marvel Comics

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Marvel’s radical rethinking of X-Men is the galaxy-brain sci-fi that comics deserve

The X-Men fight the Singularity

In the world of superhero comics, line-wide reboots are a dime a dozen. And it’s for precisely those reasons that House of X and Powers of X — “TWO SERIES THAT ARE ONE,” as the back of every issue proclaimed — hit the comics community so hard.

X-Men fans were hopeful, of course, and those familiar with Jonathan Hickman’s previous work knew enough to expect something galaxy brain. But I think it’s safe to say that no one expected literal galaxy brains.

X-Men experts can attest to the series’ deep and specific roots in X-Men lore. But Hickman, and artists Pepe Larraz and R.B. Silva (with Tom Muller on graphics), have continued the legacy of Marvel’s Merry Mutants in at least one other way: They challenged our ideas of what science fiction could look like in a superhero setting.

Krakoa, the island that walks like a man

Science fiction in superhero comics is a messy, blended affair, and it has been for decades. It’s hard not to be, in one of the few modern genres that preserves the idea of the “mad scientist.”

There are solid reasons for this, of course. Modern superhero writers are continuing a tradition — often directly continuing a story — that began before man landed on the Moon, before the invention of television, before black holes were more than a theoretical object predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Before, indeed, the classification of the Hard Science Fiction genre.

The X-Men themselves have always been their own microcosm of this principle within the wider Marvel Universe. While the movies have (mostly) restricted themselves to the basic mutant metaphor, if you dip even your smallest toe into X-Men comics continuity, you might encounter time travel, vampires, alternate universes, secret societies, pocket dimensions, magic, alien empires, a literal Judeo-Christian Hell, omnipotent embodiments of fundamental cosmic forces, and concepts like a “techno-organic virus.” And this list is neither complete nor exhaustive.

Superhero comics resist hard science fiction. This a particular understatement in a setting with concepts that range from “organic steel” to “beams of pure force.” And it’s not necessarily a weakness. There is an undeniable joy in a setting where malevolent artificial intelligences regularly come into contact with things like “All-Black, the Necrosword.”

But it means that superhero comics have missed out on a lot of modern hard science-fiction trends. Hickman’s X-Men, by rooting itself in transhumanist themes, does not.

The X-Men vs. the Singularity

In retrospect, it seems obvious to bring the science-fictional framework of transhumanism into the X-Men. Many of the great works of scifi, the X-Men among them, imagine what the next leap in human evolution might be — whether it be biological, societal, or technological.

Transhumanist science fiction proposes that humanity’s next Great Leap Forward will be when we transcend our own biology through technological means, with human achievement accelerating on a rapid scale from that point. As Hickman describes in Powers of X #6, the series finale, “A machine leap makes a post-human leap possible, and a post-human leap makes a machine leap possible, on and on until one of these two eventually reaches an end state.”

The Phalanx speaks to the Librarian and other Post-Humans in Powers of X #4, Marvel Comics (2019). Jonathan Hickman, R.B. Silva/Marvel Comics

The new foe of the X-Men is neither man nor machine, but rather a the fusion of the two, and that’s a brilliant turn for mutants, who have always been defined by a biological quirk subject to the stochasticity of nature. Mutations are as harnessable as the power of the sun (which was once, canonically, their source), but just as impossible to blot out.

And House of X/Powers of X has only rooted mutants further in biology and the natural world, from the living island of Krakoa that uses plants and soil to furnish all they might need, to the medical drugs they use as a bargaining chip to force the human world to recognize their sovereignty, to hints that the mutant maker Forge is for the first time turning his talent to biotechnology. And that’s all without mentioning the new mutant access to bodily resurrection.

The miniseries has a subtle but still emphatic message of the biological nature even of mutant identity. House of X #4 included M-Day, the event in which Wanda Maximoff warped reality to de-power nearly a million mutants, among its incidences of mutant genocide. In doing so, it declared that divorcing a mutant from their superpowers is an act that severs them from their culture as emphatically as death (used to). This maps to real life, where we include the eradication of culture — as when children are taken from their parents to be raised in another culture or religion — within our definitions of genocide.

And if a mutant’s mutation is indivisible from their physical biology, then their very “mutant-ness” is indivisible from physical form. There is no technology-based ascension that preserves the mutant identity.

Mutants could not join a transhumanist singularity, even if they wanted to, because they would immediately cease to be mutants.

Children of Man

House of X/Powers of X begins by presenting a new mutant status quo, where a hated and feared minority has not merely drew a line in the ground to say “this far, and no farther.” The first issue of House of X alone establishes the military, technological, cultural, societal, and, eventually, population superiority of Krakoa over all other human societies. (Except, perhaps, for a few equally fictional Marvel nations, and I look forward immensely to finding out how T’Challa and Storm work all of this out.)

The series has closed by presenting mutantkind with a new existential threat that is beyond humanity, coupled with the reveal that over 10 functionally immortal lifetimes, they have lost to it, every time. And Hickman and his collaborators still did it in the most X-Men way possible: A sweeping retcon that involves time travel, resurrection, and no fewer than nine alternate universes.

Perhaps it is that reveal that can ultimately be traced to the ominous feeling that permeates House of X/Powers of X; fueling plenty of theories that something is wrong, that nothing is as it seems, or even that the Professor X we’re seeing is actually an evil Reed Richards from an alternate universe. It’s a basic human fear of our own irrelevance.

It’s not that the X-Men are no longer at war with humanity. It’s that they don’t even see us as a threat.