With the oversized concluding chapter of the four-part Inferno out Wednesday January 5, the Hickman era of X-Men has now ended—and what a stunning conclusion it was, with Hickman and a stellar team of artists managing to shock and satisfy in equal measure. Here we’ll look back at Hickman’s tenure as a whole, both as storyteller and as architect, to assess the revitalized line’s achievements—and its flaws—and above all, to recap the three radical changes inaugurated with the 2019 paradigm shift and how those big swings themselves have developed or even changed course since.
After a brief intro, I’ll run through: Hickman’s three core innovations to the franchise and then, having heaped much justified praise upon the man, we’ll look at the many things we didn’t get to see, and the very few that didn’t really work. The last stop is a brief look at what the end of Inferno #4 has promised us in no uncertain terms, as well as the architect’s own promise to all who have come to call Krakoa home—fan and creator alike.
Here at the start, though, I’ll include one of my favorite moments from Inferno #4, Emma’s moment—this is just so brilliantly earned:
Below, I’ll include some details that come directly from Jonathan Hickman himself in a recent interview with Jay and Miles on the beloved podcast Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men (released January 2).
With Inferno’s end, we know for certain that Hickman’s closing act did not definitively resolve or terminate any of the major elements critical to the essential makeup of the Krakoa era of X-Men. Reasonably enough, this is wholly unsurprising. As fans, we all know very well that the story potential of the new status quo hasn’t even come close to being tapped out; indeed, the possibilities of Krakoa have barely begun to be realized. This certainly isn’t to say nothing’s happened over the past two-plus years. It’s just that practically overnight the franchise went, overall, from unintentional and uninspired self-parody to the kind of originality and sophistication in worldbuilding usually seen only in highly acclaimed sf/fantasy novels and games.
In fact, with the X Office thoughtfully clarifying Krakoa’s complex geographies over time, we can start to see that this island society’s basic parameters have melded the two dominant genres of the fantastic: Science fiction’s at play throughout the island, from Forge’s biotech armory and the secret labs of Beast and Sinister to whatever aspects of the Resurrection Protocols that can be rationalized—not to mention the central conflict of mutant vs. machine; but we can easily recognize the most compelling ingredients of high fantasy at work in the baroque factionalism of the Quiet Council, the ambiguously barbaric ritual of the Crucible, and clearest of all, the mutant magic of Rictor and Excalibur generally. Working in tandem in a single narrative, these two modes of storytelling give us what’s always been my favorite genre: science fantasy. Unfortunately, it’s rarely done really well. Fortunately, Hickman and company have succeeded where so many haven’t. Obviously, with this ingenious recasting of Marvel’s merry mutants, everyone knows the show has to go on regardless of the departure of our Mapmaker extraordinaire.
I. The Three Little Revolutions
What’s so funny, and so revelatory, about Hickman’s three basic innovations is that they aren’t new at all or smuggled in from some other franchise. With the perfect balance of reverence and irreverence, Hickman instead mined these foundation stones right out of the heart of the mutant metanarrative itself:
1. The drama of death and resurrection in the X franchise had long become an enervated trope; some big character dies, Marvel waits a few years, and then we buy into a bloated “Return of X” story arc, wasting everybody’s time and money—for what? A reset that was already inevitable? Obviating the need to go through the whole tired exercise in the first place, and for what real stakes anymore?
Hickman’s solution? Accelerate this predictable process to its logical extreme: End death as endpoint; defang the reaper; pull those stakes right out. Result: Wide open time and space to tell a new story. Now, we can focus on building a world, a society, a culture, through the web of relationships among the mutants we already love so much. (And no more overly contrived and convoluted “Return of X” stories!)
With his chosen candidates who signed on to this new era, Hickman kicked off the 2018 writer’s retreat declaring that the paradigm now is: Everything must be additive; Marvel spent the previous decade plus breaking its once most-beloved property—no more. The first step, then, was to get all the broken toys back on the board. At the top of his mind, personally, was returning Synch, a Generation X favorite long dead. And once he was returned, Synch’s trajectory has catapulted him into one of the foremost X-Men, gaining wider popularity than he ever had before, an important step toward greater diversity of representation, too. (More on Hickman’s love of Gen X in section II.)
But of course there had to be one shocking and dramatic return in each bookend to Hickman’s tenure—starting with Moira and ending with Destiny, mutual enemies across lifetimes. In his Jay & Miles interview, Hickman also affirmed his lifelong fascination with the mutant seer, making her return a big achievement for him personally, knowing it would strike fans of the Claremont run powerfully, as well.
And while individual death is no longer a focus, the narrative drama has now been elevated to the threat of species-level extinction, whether from machine or human—a twisted mirror of our own world’s anxieties.
2. Fans have been told over and again since 1963 that mutantkind is distinct from humankind. In practice, though, when has that ever really felt true? Even looking at them as has always been suggested, as a minority feared and persecuted, has mostly resulted in some painfully awkward real-world analogies that if anything made a mockery of the complexity of America’s history of racism, leaving fans of color deeply conflicted about their love of these characters and stories. And because Marvel’s editors and creators have mostly been white, the primary view of mutants we get is from middle-class white male assumptions and desires*.
(*The grand exception is what Claremont did from 1976 to 1991 creating an epic soap opera rooted in cultural liberalism and a strong feminist sensibility (which, granted, was problematic—but what isn’t?) while seeding, knowingly or not, the groundwork for the very notion of a fictional and immersive minority society of persuasive vitality and complexity. But for almost 30 years, what most writers failed to do was step up and be true to the implicit spirit of Claremont’s vision; most couldn’t even carry the baton of his basic ability to tell a good yarn, though the clearest exceptions include Grant Morrison and Mike Carey.)
And yet, undeniably, the mutant metaphor has spoken to a variety of intersectional identities, powerfully so. There can be as many interpretations of a given metaphor as there are people, more than. The problem is that Marvel’s creators haven’t been as diverse as their audience, especially now in the modern era. But if mutants are a distinct minority, where is their unique culture? And given that they can be from any society anywhere in the world, why don’t they have a complex relationship between their various cultural identities? In other words, why aren’t they really depicted as fully inhabiting a dynamic subculture unto themselves? Where’s their art, fashion, music? Spirituality? Science and tech? Magic and ritual? Philosophy? Politics?
Hickman’s solution? Give them a damn island—for real this time! And make it a sovereign nation, thereby forcing the franchise to allow mutantkind to become, themselves, sovereign, self-determining, free to forge an identity, a panoply of identities, out from under the shadow of nonmutant hegemony. They now also have the freedom to make tragic mistakes that will have to be dealt with collectively. Individual actions affect the mutant community in a way we’ve never seen before.
Did Hickman do as much with this as I would’ve liked? No. But did he radically open up that potential and create an open venue for the possibility of a multicultural society distinct from the mainstream? Hell yeah he did. And right away, he began fostering a range of talent that’s been, relative to Marvel’s history, diverse. Should it be more so? Of course. But the precedent the X Office set during Hickman’s tenure in tandem with the fan response coming from many intersectional backgrounds helps guarantee this inevitability—and that it will happen sooner rather than later (though it’s still embarrassingly, shamefully belated). More on these matters in the section on what was missing.
Still, with subtly making a thruple of Scott, Jean, and Logan as a first step in House of X #6 and X-Men #1, Hickman was clearly intent on irreverently breaking away from oppressively mainstream expectations. Again, in his Jay & Miles interview, he affirmed his view that the end of binary thinking in our own world is just around the corner in historical terms.
For now, though, what Hickman has given us in terms of internecine mutant politics has been a revelation. All the seeds were already there for a more interesting political dynamic than the tired ideological dyad of Xavier/Magneto, but revising that original pairing with the Moira retcons, followed by bringing in Emma, was some masterful maneuvering on Hickman’s part, unraveling Xavier/Magneto’s overweening centrality. With Emma’s role clearly set up as a reluctant but inevitable mother-savior of Krakoa, the sharing of power across nine other councilmembers allows for each member to be seen now in an analogous position—or some twisted version thereof. (The notable exception, of course, is Colossus*.)
We can now easily imagine a complex society in which everyday Krakoans look to certain councilmembers and not others as best representing their own values and/or interests. Will there be a pro-Shaw faction? Could some mutants wholly get behind Sinister’s deal—or try to manipulate him? After all, constituents manipulating their representatives occurs all the time among the wealthy elites. But now envision Exodus building his own congregation of the devout from among the anonymous masses. Is civil strife on Krakoa inevitable? It would certainly make for fascinating drama, with a high-fantasy bent no less, making it more palatable than our own real-world politics while still darkly mirroring this grubby world of ours.
*We know Colossus isn’t trustworthy, of course, and in a fine bit of dramatic irony, Mikhail Rasputin is sitting next to us in the audience; well, more than that: he’s in the X Office with Chronicler! 😉 However, adding a deeply unsettling ambiguity to this already painfully ironic status quo, the narrative identification of Piotr as “trustworthy” followed by the labeling of Doug as an “innocent” poisons any assumption that anyone on the Council is fully understood. And this is delightful—because who wants their mutants predictable? Even the reliably “faithful” Kurt and Storm might end up finding faith in surprising places.
And hey, even the machines can talk back these days… Again reflecting our own world, factionalism is everywhere—amplified and refracted by technology we barely understand.
3. Since 1965, with the Sentinels’ debut in X-Men #14, humans have been trying to terminate mutantkind by way of killer robots. In 2019, this seemingly exhaustively played out conflict could not have been more unwelcome to readers hoping for something all-new, all-different. And yet if you think about it, this drama has always been inevitable, a fact of fate that the franchise just has to keep circling back around to. Why? Well, if humanity was one day faced with adolescents gaining superpowers through the random activation of some mysterious X gene and said teens running off to join up with either a paramilitary or terrorist outfit, what do you think they’d do? Wouldn’t they use science to engineer the ultimate preemptive defense? Enter the Sentinels, time after time, occasionally in somewhat unusual but still recognizable permutations. Unfortunately, in an endless shared universe that needs to be periodically reset there can be no resolution. Wash, rinse, repeat—to infinity.
Hickman’s solution? Extrapolate and accelerate the logic of this conflict to its ultimate expression. But notably, outside a few brief glimpses of some strange spidery future Sentinels in Moira’s Ninth Life, we haven’t seen the traditional killer robots at all during this new era. Of course, we get Nimrod, which, granted, is the final step in Sentinel evolution, but the version we have now was a melding of human mind and machinic form*, very different from Claremont’s (from an alt-reality future). What really matters is that it’s the fact of machine intelligence itself that becomes not only mutantkind’s unavoidable apocalyptic threat but humanity’s as well.
And Hickman depicts this three-way animosity with real urgency, an authentic sense of things to come in our own world. In his Jay & Miles interview, he reiterated his view that AI, biotech, and gene science are on the cusp of radically transforming our reality^. No X-Men writer has ever picked up these nominally familiar themes and imbued them with such vivid anticipation and dread. Again, sci fi has come to the franchise in a way that’s much more sophisticated than Claremont’s light homage to Star Wars but also much more convincing than Morrison’s conceptual breakthroughs (which were more mythopoeic than realistic by design, anyway).
*But it’s clear that in the very debut of Nimrod’s activation with Erasmus’ ghost in the machine, we also saw the guttering of that human spark—a metaphor for what will happen to us when we marry our ingenuity to weaponizing technology? (See X-Men #20).
[Note the deliberate parallel here with Life-Nine Nimrod’s bone-chilling deadpan sadism in the above Powers of X image]
^It’s worth noting, however, that Hickman himself doesn’t seem pessimistic about these nascent revolutions in science and technology. He seems genuinely fascinated but agnostic about making hard predictions—beyond promoting and prophesying a radical shift in human thinking, for the better. Undeniably, though, the processes that will accelerate us into these future unknowns are already at work, irreversibly.
Most astounding of all for X-Men fans, the vision of an endless conflict between mutant and machine has necessitated Xavier and Magneto bringing the likes of Apocalypse and Sinister into the fold, a consequence of the extremity of mutantkind’s ultimate outside enemy.
Granted, Hickman’s gone much further than just giving us another robopocalypse. There are black holes allowing for some timey-wimey shenanigans that we’ve only barely begun to explore (the first confirmation being Omega Sentinel’s journey). And there’s a whole cosmology of machine intelligences, none of which have made an appearance post-HOX/POX.
We also now know what Doug was doing in Powers of X #4, which seemed so devious at the time.
But we still don’t know why Xavier was dressed up in a Cassandra Nova-style safari outfit. Just a McGuffin?
Whatever the case, Inferno #3 showed us that it was Doug and Krakoa working together who really gave us the material foundation of the mutant nation. Astounding. Xavier was just along for the ride—and unsurprisingly took all the cred.
4. Beyond Hickman’s core innovations to the line, he also gave us the greatest event of the franchise since Claremont’s 1988/89 Inferno—30 years before! And what a bizarre but very satisfying epic X of Swords was. Architecting the master narrative alongside Tini Howard, who did the Otherworld worldbuilding herself, they expanded the remit of the franchise’s storytelling into a complex fantasy venue that promises to open into even more such venues, tapping into a variety of genre possibilities still ripe for exploration. No doubt much of the basic content is Howard’s, but the younger writer has happily acknowledged her time working with Hickman as a kind of apprenticeship, a priceless experience for anyone relatively new in the industry.
In a very real sense, then, Hickman’s fourth and perhaps greatest innovation has been the empowerment of this younger generation of creatives—and a stellar boost to his contemporary Gerry Duggan’s own career. But of course this was ultimately down to the collective synergy of the X Office, working closely and diligently even through the hardest time our society as a whole has experienced in living memory.
II. All That We Missed Out On—and Hickman Too
But now we have to address what Hickman didn’t get to give us—and follow up with the very few things that made it in during his tenure but didn’t really work.
A. Titles That Might’ve Been
First of all, we now know from his Jay & Miles interview that he wanted an ongoing title for each generation of students—so, not just a New Mutants but a Generation X and an Academy X (presumably also a Generation Hope/Schism-era book? Sorry, I forget if he mentioned this one!). What’s excruciating to me is that he had even intended to give us an OG Hellions series!!! Yes, we’re talking Emma’s first students, which would’ve been a wild ride in the right hands. That said, the Hellions we got, which included Empath, an OG Hellion himself, was pure gold (my personal favorite thanks to Zeb Wells, Stephen Segovia, Carmen Carnero, et al).
And it’s been clear for some time that he’d wanted an Imperial Guard book starring Bobby and Sam, and now we know it’s what he’s “probably most bummed about.” Still, we know something will have to happen in this regard, since the new take on X-Men Cosmic was seeded in Moira’s Ninth Life in HOX/POX (with more mutants in Shi’ar space than in Sol System at that point—and Xandra as Majestrix). And of course Planet-Size X-Men gave us Mars as a mutant/Arakki nation, with Storm as Empress of Sol.
We’ll just have to wait—but hey, maybe that’s good for the soul sometimes! Let your own imagination do some of the work, feeding your anticipation with possibility.
B. Dangling Plot Threads
Still, he believes it’s all in great hands but has to keep mum, of course—because worry not, dear fan, all of it will be folded into what’s happening going forward without him.
And all of it means: Vulcan’s secret purpose; Namor’s long game; Apocalypse’s “retirement”; Darwin’s fate; even Dr. Gregor’s feelings and beliefs… There’s much more I’m forgetting—like the Sidri in the Mansion?
C. Giant-Size Mess
What he could discuss was the Giant-Size one-shots: They were initially meant to be entirely different, and he readily conceded that what they ended up with was “kind of a mess.” The first was going to focus on Storm’s sickness, and it would still have been an homage to Morrison/Quitely’s classic New X-Men #121, but it was going to turn out that she’d just been pregnant with her and T’Challa’s baby! The following issues would’ve seen her leaving this “heir to two worlds” to be fostered inside the World—without any knowledge of their parentage. So Fantomex’s venue would’ve been a much bigger deal; whereas now, it’s not at all. What was the obstruction? Marvel’s had other plans for Black Panther, but it was too late for production to just stop on Hickman and co.’s side project. The idea would’ve bridged Krakoa and Wakanda while creating much more interesting dramatic potential than the current Kree-Skrull alliance. On the face of it, though, I’m fine with the fact that Hickman got his “first no” on this. Was he getting too carried away? Well, it’s hard to say without knowing more. It could’ve been great.
It might’ve been an even bigger disaster—since it would’ve meant bringing in all things Wakanda, potentially the Avengers, too, in long-term coordination with the X books and Marvel Cosmic. Presumably, the latter will be revitalized with Al Ewing at the helm and mutants in space at the fore. But even that is a tall order.
I feel like there’s a wild Hickmanian dream trying to go as big as possible here: To coordinate all of Marvel, from the Avengers franchise to the X-Men to Marvel Cosmic, in a kind of permanent widescreen epic. There’s something really seductive about that—but it also sounds doomed to spectacular failure.
Hickman was most upset with himself, and the unforgiving production process, when he didn’t have time to clarify a piece of dialogue for X-Men #8 that had an ever-grieving Gabriel hallucinating Petra and Sway, who died well before the Cerebro backups started. This caused fan confusion and obsessive speculations for how to account for what no one knew was a mistake, until now.
But it doesn’t matter, Jonathan! Because the denouement of Leah Williams’ Trial of Magneto sees Wanda finally enjoy a successful act of atonement with her chaos magic allowing for twenty million mutants who had died before Cerebro to be added to its resurrection queue. See? Hickman started this ball rolling, but there are other creators who get to add to and even revitalize our shared vision of Krakoa.
D. What’s Really Important: Greater Intersectional Representation
Acknowledging in his Jay & Miles interview that the franchise’s creators “serve a lot of masters,” both corporate and editorial, Hickman assured us that he believes his team of creatives pushed the envelope as much as they could on getting more queer representation in the books, especially given how important personally and creatively it’s been to a number of the writers and artists. He said he always had their back when going to bat for their ideas at highest levels of IP control. Still, he also admitted, entirely realistically, that the X Office was only “moderately happy” about what they ultimately achieved in this regard. But hey—that really is an achievement! Hickman’s statement here is also respecting our intelligence, and he knows it, embracing this aspect of being an occasional ambassador for the franchise, encouraging us not to give up hope or give in to cynicism—while remaining realistic—“That’s just life in the corporate lane […] We don’t own any of this stuff, and we do the best job that we can.”
III. Forging a Pact for the Future—Between Creators, Characters, and Fans
With Inferno #4, Hickman has come full circle, delivering us eager readers into a broken mirror version of the radical new paradigm he introduced in 2019. And what a masterful breaking he’s achieved—because all is not lost; the secrets and schemes revealed remain additive even while these twists and revelations have wrenched the world sideways. Shards have fallen away—and who knows where they’ll land—but the frame, the gameboard, remains intact—more strongly than ever.
It sure seems so! The very end of the issue sets us up for the next phase, Destiny of X, and Kieron Gillen’s Immortal X-Men*. But much more than that, Hickman’s closing scene is a message to fans both from himself and the X Office generally; indeed, it’s a pact: The mutant nation of Krakoa is here to stay—forever, though? Well, that’s a tall order. Even so, I for one have faith that it will be with us for years to come.
*In the Jay & Miles interview, Hickman spoke of his enthusiasm for the way Sinister’s character was “unlocked” by Gillen, the first creator to turn the cipher into a rounded character. Indeed, Gillen’s take was so infectious that this new Sinister’s place was assured in anything Hickman did for Marvel going forward: He was vital to the architecture of Doom’s Battleworld in Secret Wars.
And so, exactly a decade now since the classic arc “Everything Is Sinister” opening Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men volume 2, Hickman is giving us as one of his final gifts Kieron Gillen as the new Quiet Council storyteller: “I never stopped building that [Sinister’s new characterization] for Kieron to come back in even when he didn’t know he was coming back in; and so, um, so I tricked him—I pulled my own little Sinister thing there, and Kieron is where he belongs. And the stuff that he has lined up Council-wise and Sinister-wise is pretty great.”
Thus, in parting, he’s done what he did with House of X / Powers of X: powerfully and effectively hype up a new line of mutant comics. It remains to be seen how the X Office fulfills that promise, but there are many good reasons for even more optimism this time around: We won’t see the same intense disruption that the early months of the pandemic wrought, but through that time of tribulation the team learned how to work not just “without ego” as they like to say but as an openminded collective of close friends, learning from each other and their own mistakes without resentment, always having each other’s backs, all to produce lots of something special every month, fostering one another as they foster a new generation of fans … who in turn will one day be creators themselves.
Papa Hickman can be proud of what he started even as he steps aside to let the younger talent shine on their own—and Unky Gerry too 😉 (doing his career best with the current X-Men).
Still, ya gotta wonder: What was so enticing to Hickman that he gave up his top spot as Head of X?!?!?!
Apparently, Hickman didn’t lock himself in! But does anyone really believe he won’t be pulled back someday?
(Images drawn from: House of X / Powers of X; Mark Brooks’ HOX/POX promo; X of Swords: Creation one-shot; X-Men #19, 20; Planet-Size X-Men one-shot; X-Factor #10; Inferno #3, 4)