Marvel at 80: House of M
It was 2004, eight years since Marvel had launched their last line-wide event. The sales bump had certainly helped Marvel’s bottom line for a few years, but they quickly found themselves facing bankruptcy thanks to a ton of horrible decisions. One of the things that helped drag Marvel from the depths was Brian Michael Bendis. Working on both the critically acclaimed and best-selling Marvel Knights line and starting the Ultimate Universe with Ultimate Spider-Man, Marvel was able to turn a profit on their products finally. Other things, of course, helped during this time.
After all, it was this era when Marvel sold the movie rights to their most popular properties, which eventually lead to the Marvel Cinematic Universe we have today.
Writing not just Ultimate Spider-Man, but also the recently launched New Avengers book, Bendis was one of the most famous writers Marvel had. Someone high up gave Bendis the chance to bring back the significant events that Marvel had tried in the past, but with his own touch. What the readers were treated to in the mid-2000s was a fantastic concept. But, like all things Bendisian, the execution had its ups and downs.
The backstory for this event is that the Scarlet Witch’s own reality-altering powers had driven her insane. The end result of the storyline covering this, Avengers Disassembled, was the utter destruction of the Avengers as the fans knew it, and the death of several long-running members like Hawkeye. Wanda was taken away to the desolated island of Genosha, cared for by Professor Xavier, Doctor Strange, and Magneto. However, her grasp on reality was weakening, and something had to be done.
Like killing her. Because the first thing Professor Xavier does is compromise his morals when things get hard.
However, something happens when the heroes gathered all try to work things out, and the world goes white. What results is a world where Mutants rule, mankind is on the way out, and Magneto himself is in charge of America as the King of the country. Wolverine, the long-running amnesiac since his addition to the X-Men back in the 1970s, wakes up in this new world with memories of the world as it is now, and every memory of his past unlocked from before the change.
What results is a massive chase sequence, with Wolverine slowly recruiting this world’s altered heroes and villains to his side thanks to a literal walking plot device known as Layla Miller.
Eventually, the heroes all gather to pummel on the House of Magnus, and all is made right with the world. Eventually. Except for one minor thing.
We’ll get to that in a moment.
House of M was eight issues long, but Bendis has some serious pacing issues with these comics. The concept is actually excellent, making for some delightful moments of character development and anguish. Spider-Man’s world is especially flipped, with a living Gwen Stacy and a son with her that doesn’t exist in the real world. However, this is dragged out agonizingly long, and the entire first issue is dedicated to filler setting up why the world happens. Wolverine running from his own SHIELD agents and gathering allies takes four chapters, and the final battle drags out over the next two. The last issue winds up being slow, dragged-out epilogue work, which sets up Marvel’s new status quo when most people would be expecting a massive punch-up.
It’s hard to tell if this comic was an example of Bendis being given complete creative control and suffering because of it, or if Marvel had forgotten how to write a significant event by this time. Characters like Layla Miller are introduced and tossed aside as plot devices, and the entire idea of Wolverine leading SHIELD is ditched four issues into the event despite him running the world’s security forces. Professor Xavier is hyped up as a plot point but vanishes entirely after chapter one, and the twist over how reality was altered makes almost literally no sense for the characters involved. In retrospect, cutting off the first issue would have resulted in a story that not only worked as a “how to set things right,” but also as a “who done it” tale. However, this is where Bendis’ love of exposition and talking really worked against him. A different writer or an editor who wanted to try to focus Bendis might have given us a better product.
The art is… remarkably weird for a flagship event. Oliver Coipel does an excellent job on pencils, making sure everyone looks different in crowd shots. However, characters also often wind up with inhuman facial expressions, or with incredibly strange body proportions.
The rest of the art crew do an excellent job, however. Tim Townsend and Rich Magyar as inkers, Frank D’Armata as the colorist, and Chris Eliopolis place the letters on the page. While the dialogue may sink the story into a swamp, the book at least remains attempted energetic.
House of M was also Marvel’s first major event that featured a slew of tie-in comics. Some comics were utterly derailed by the world change, like every X-Title at the time and the Incredible Hulk. This was for about four months, and those issues featured House of M banner art. Tie-in miniseries would also be released, focusing on Iron Man and Spider-Man. These comics are entirely unneeded for the main story of House of M but are utterly integral to making the world feel like a permanent change that may not be fixable.
Written during Ed Brubaker’s legendary Captain America run, the single issue written for House of M focuses on the life of this Steven Rogers. In a world where Bucky and Cap survived World War II without falling into an ice-based coma, Steve Rogers speaks out against McCarthyism, and it’s additional anti-mutant overtones. The tale is told as a retirement party for Steve and does a fantastic job setting up the past of this world in a mostly organic way. Top-notch stuff.
Other tie-ins featured expansions of the world in general, like Australia under the management of the Hulk or Spider-Man as a movie star. Nearly all of these stories are at least worth reading the synopsis for, as it helps to raise the stakes by making the world more real.
House of M was also the first major comic event from Marvel to promise significant changes in almost two decades. DC by this time had done two major retcon-based events to shake up their world, and Marvel looked to be playing their own game. As seen above, Wanda restored the world by wishing for there to be no more Mutants. Reduced to 199 Mutants worldwide, they would stay at dramatically low levels until 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men story. Until then, Marvel would play fast and loose with depowering characters, but the Mutants were once more a minority to be persecuted.
Clint Barton would return to life with this event, though he would initially return as the second character to be called Ronin. Layla Miller would be a corner piece of Peter David’s impressive run of X-Factor a few years later, and her origins would finally receive some kind of explanation.
Spider-Man would angst for less than an issue before forgetting about his lost wife and son.
House of M has aged… strangely. As I mentioned, the core concept is a fantastic one. However, the story meanders where it shouldn’t, and it really expects the reader to know what’s going on in way too many current Marvel books to indeed be a stand-alone event. The gimmick of interrupting ongoing comics was a cool one but also made it harder for collectors to find the right issues sometimes.
These issues can be found for relatively cheap online, and digital copies are just about everywhere comics are sold. Despite my earlier mocking of Bendis’ work, it is still a great read all at once. It’s just that the book starts to fall apart the minute you begin to kick the tires and look at the surrounding material. This is well worth looking into, and it is an essential piece of Marvel history for kicking off the new run of yearly event books.
Speaking of, control of the Marvel events goes to another significant name, at the time. Mark Millar takes the helm in 2005’s Civil War.
Which side were you on?