The twin miniseries of House of X and Powers of X have been dramatically reshaping the world of the X-Men. Written by Jonathan Hickman, with art by Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva, Clayton Cowles and Marte Gracia, the series look set to define the direction of the X-Men line and beyond for years to come.
The comics are filled with bold new ideas, symbolism and hints at what’s to come, but even as they draw to a close, there are more questions than answers. Like the rest of the comics-reading world, I’ve been devouring every issue, and slowly piecing together ideas in my head. This is (most of) what I have so far, assembled into a working theory (or at least a reading) of what Hickman is drawing on, and where it may lead.
Spoilers for House of X #1-5 and Powers of X #1-5, obv.
PART I: The gene grey area
First, some academic history.
In the 1960s, a new approach to evolutionary biology began to emerge, called gene-centred evolution. The idea posited that, rather than occurring among groups or individual organisms, the mechanics of evolution were driven at the genetic level. Individual genes, the approach suggested, have an inbuilt drive to replicate and spread, and the emergence of larger forms of life, from bacteria to human beings, happened as a result of that process being easier in larger structures. People were essentially genetic Trojan Horses, built because riding around in a big meat suit is an easier way to survive long enough to replicate. As is probably evident, I’m oversimplifying this whole concept, but you get the idea.
Gene-centred evolution got its central text in 1976 when noted geneticist and shithead Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene. The book expanded on the work of earlier evolutionary biologists like W. D. Hamilton and described how evolutionary stable strategies emerge from maximising the number of genes that pass on globally, rather than from an individual person, essentially positing a theory for selflessness and altruism that is driven by genetic selfishness.
As well as popularising the idea of gene-centred evolution, The Selfish Gene introduced the idea that there might be other “selfish replicators” out there, with Dawkins suggesting that cultural evolution could be driven by “memes”. That’s right – before it meant ‘an image with a caption written in Impact font’ or ‘any joke on the internet’, a meme was an academic term coined by that guy you don’t like.
The idea of memes and a memetic approach to human development caught on, and was best expressed in The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore in 1999 (which, unlike The Selfish Gene, I’ve actually read). It’s a fascinating book that explores the idea that what makes human beings unique is our ability to imitate behaviours, with a wealth of biological and psychological evidence to back up that assertion. Dawkins had already suggested that, just as genes gather together into organisms for efficiency, memes might form memeplexes: economic systems, building styles, religions. Blackmore takes it further and argues that consciousness itself could be a result of memes seeking better, more efficient replication.
We’ve had four paragraphs of pretty dry evolutionary theory, so let’s start talking about comics. The X-Men have always had a preoccupation with genes, as you might expect. While Stan Lee’s understanding of genetics and mutation was even woollier than mine, we have long been told that mutantkind is the next step in evolution. Mutants are humanity’s successors, born with extraordinary powers thanks to the X-gene. That genetic driver has resulted in the struggle between mutants and humanity, and will eventually lead to humanity’s obliteration. Mutants are genetically superior and, even though their children have a tendency to get lost in time or jump in from alternative dimensions, their descendants will prosper while humanity dwindles.
Except that’s not really how the world works anymore. While I’m sure Dr Ian Malcolm would be very unhappy with me dunking on “the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen”, genetic power is not really steering the evolutionary ship anymore. Of course a huge amount of our behaviour and impulses come from our evolutionary background, but evolution as a process relies on replication, and that is no longer determined by genetics.
Sure, your genes might give you symmetrical face and a strong body, but those aren’t the sole determining factor in who is having children. Changes in fashion, your sense of humour, your personality, even what physiques are considered attractive – these are all cultural forces. Whether your offspring survive long enough to pass on your genes is more due to economic factors and developments in medicine than something as straightforward as their genetically-determined health. Sorry Apocalypse, but from a wholly genetic point of view, “survival of the fittest” is as extinct as the dodo.
If the idea of mutant ascendency due to their ‘superior’ genetics is no longer a lock, then what does that mean for our merry mutants and their antagonists? X-Men stories often try to reduce the idea of the evolutionary struggle between humans and mutants to a straight-up street fight, where most of humanity lines up on one side, mutants and their allies line up on the other side, and only one emerges.
During those brief periods when the entire mutant population of the planet was able to comfortably fit in a single Boeing 747, humans wiping out every last mutant was a feasible threat. But once the population starts rising, that becomes a less applicable scenario, and in terms of mutants surviving and thriving, even the most hardcore of mutants rarely sought humanity’s total obliteration. And so we come back around to memetics.
While mutants may be genetically superior, they exist in the context of a human culture. They grow up dispersed throughout the population, mostly unaware they are mutants until their powers manifest – and even then, they may remain separated from other mutants. While mutant communities have existed in the past (the Morlocks, post-magistrate Genosha, Utopia) they tend to be short-lived affairs, and beyond being having a mutant population, there is often little to distinguish them from human communities. To date, we’ve seen little in the way of mutant literature, mutant art, mutant fashion – none of the markers that we’d traditionally use to differentiate cultures.
In addition to being the dominant culture in which mutants all exist, humanity is using information and ideas as its weapons in the war for survival. It’s human ingenuity and creativity that creates the Sentinels, and human ambition that continues to perfect their design – taking an idea, replicating it, changing it a little, and seeing if it thrives. On top of that, in House of X #2 we are told that AI is an inevitability, that “the machines simply emerge at a certain point during societal and environmental evolution”.
AI is an idea that will happen regardless of outside factors – an idea with an agenda. An idea that wants to spread. Moira’s many lives and her multiple attempts to stop mutantkind from being exterminated seem to suggest that if mutants want to succeed, they need to compete on a memetic level, as well as a genetic one.
PART II: Failure to replicate
Beyond the struggle between humans and mutants, the primary conflicts in X-Men history have been driven by differing philosophies. Charles’ peaceful co-existence. Magneto’s mutant isolationism/domination. Apocalypse’s slightly confused Darwinism. It has been a war of ideas, and that means we can try to approach it from a memetic point of view.
Xavier’s driving principle of peaceful co-existence between mutants and humans is a strong idea, and one that’s easy to spread. It links in with existing ideas of altruism, civil rights and equality, and appeals to those who would rather not get into a super-powered war for survival. But Charles has, quite frankly, done a piss poor job of articulating his ideas.
His approach has been to sequester a small group of mutants away in a single location and have them operate largely in secret. Beyond the occasional speech or TV appearance, he has barely reached out to other mutants or humanity to spread his idea, and for the larger part of his life, he didn’t even publicly acknowledge that he himself was a mutant.
The exception to this is in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, when the mutant population dramatically increased (in spite of the genocide on Genosha) and the Xavier Institute began genuine outreach efforts to both the mutant population and humankind. Even then, it was Cassandra Nova who actually outed Charles as a mutant, and beyond the foundation of the X-Corporation, we didn’t see much of the X-Men actually spreading their ideas. When it comes to advocating for peace between humans and mutants, Dazzler has probably done more than Charles Xavier in real terms. Hell, Jumbo Carnation probably has, and we didn’t hear about him until he’d already been killed.
There’s another problem with Charles’ dream. While the idea itself is relatively straightforward, it is also wildly open to interpretation; in memetic terms, it is highly mutable. One person’s peaceful co-existence can look wildly different to another’s, and it raises all kinds of questions, both philosophical and practical. Should the X-Men obey human laws, even when those laws hurt mutants? Should they kill? Should they be non-violent? Should they be reaching out to humans, or living in peaceful seclusion? Should those with visible mutations hide them, or show them off proudly? From a Doylist point of view, these kind of questions make for great drama and conflict in the X-Men books, but from a Watsonian one, shouldn’t Charles and his students have reached some kind of consensus on what his dream actually looks like?
I won’t dive into Magneto and Apocalypse’s philosophies in the same depth, but suffice to say they have shown similar levels of inconsistency over the years. Magneto’s approach to mutant supremacy has varied wildly, from peacing-out to live on an asteroid in silk pyjamas to the total destruction of the Earth, and while Apocalypse has had some consistency in terms of his iconography (the four horsemen, ”survival of the fittest”), his actual aims have been remarkably scattered. Whenever we’ve seen him succeed, be it in the far future or alternative timelines, the resulting world doesn’t seem to cling very closely to “survival of the fittest” as a mantra, and instead he seems to be a pretty standard despotic ruler. Maybe, at the end of the day, Apocalypse is just a big ol’ hypocrite?
All of this is what makes House of X/Powers of X such an exciting series, and such a fundamental shift in how the X-Men operate. The foundation of Krakoa isn’t just about uniting mutantkind or creating a safe haven, it is a manifesto made flesh (or made plant, I guess). It unites the three main philosophies of mutantkind under a single agenda, and it strengthens that agenda with ideas and symbolism that support it. Magneto lays it out in the first issue: Charles Xavier is, at last, trying to create a distinct mutant culture.
PART III: The information evolution
If the struggle between humans and mutants is now a memetic one as well as a genetic one, then mutants need to offer alternatives to every aspect of human culture. And beyond the hints we saw in Morrison’s New X-Men, this is the first time we have really seen that begin to form.
With Krakoan pharmaceuticals, mutants have begun to establish themselves as an economic and diplomatic power. Trading the drugs to human countries not only gives them political clout, but says to the people receiving those drugs: “this is what mutants can offer, this is a reward of peaceful co-existence”. Everyone who takes one of those drugs is becoming enmeshed in mutant culture, providing it with implicit support. It’s a lot harder to whip people up into an anti-mutant frenzy when they’re relying on the mutant nation for antibiotics and longevity treatments.
When the Krakoan habitats are established in House of X #1, the diplomats that Emma Frost and Magneto meet with are primarily concerned with their military implications, but perhaps they should be more worried about their cultural impact. Of course the ones on Mars or the Savage Land are there primarily as transport hubs, but those in New York, Washington DC and Jerusalem? They are monuments to this new mutant culture, a physical reminder that mutants exist everywhere, and that they are now united as citizens of Krakoa.
In House of X #5, Magneto tells Polaris that humanity only really ascended as a species after it switched from a hunter-gatherer model to agriculture, a statement that ignores the hunter-gatherer cultures that continue to exist up to today, and straight up forgets entirely about herding cultures. Despite his questionable grasp of the subtleties of early human history, Erik is correct that this was around when what we’d consider human society started to develop. One of the primary driving forces in that was the emergence of written language, and mutantkind gets to skip a lot of the legwork here, creating a new language with the help of Cypher and then teaching it telepathically to everyone who arrives.
We are yet to see Krakoan being spoken out loud, as the language Krakoa uses to communicate with Doug appears to be distinct from the Krakoan script the X-Men (and the comic itself) is using, but presumably it can be. As Krakoa fills up with mutants from across the world, having everyone speaking a single language that has no historical baggage or national associations beyond Krakoa itself could be important for unifying people. Just as Magneto mentions in House of X #1, it will also help create the mutant culture they are striving for.
A distinct mutant language means mutant literature, mutant poetry, mutant music and mutant slang. It means people around the globe having to learn a new language if they want to interact with this vibrant new culture. There are all kinds of studies about how language shapes thought (and vice versa), and it begs the question just what exactly Xavier asked Cypher to have in mind when he designed the mutant nation’s voice.
House of X #5 also introduced the Five and the Machine, the mechanism for resurrecting dead mutants. As Cyclops, Jean Grey and the other mutants are reintroduced to the population of Krakoa by Storm, we see another aspect of mutant culture, and another method of memetic transmission – ritual.
People have said that these scenes remind them of a cult, and with good reason. The call and response of the crowd, the repeated motifs in the language, these are all markers we associate with religion. While the X-Men may not be trying to start a religion, they are using the semiotics of one to further promote unity and establish the norms of this new society. The way the crowd reacts suggests this isn’t the first time they’ve seen this process take place. With Proteus regularly burning through bodies, along with the ongoing project of resurrecting the lost population of Genosha, these gatherings with all their pomp and circumstance are surely becoming a regular occurrence. Imitation, repetition, replication – the foundations of memetics.
If the creation of a mutant nation and a mutant culture are two prongs of Xavier’s new plan, then the ability to resurrect mutants seems to be the third leg of the tripod, and it’s here that some fascinating parallels emerge. The Five and their Machine have clearly been elevated by the mutants of Krakoa, held up as the living embodiment of their newfound immortality, but there are two other essential parts of the process: the mutant DNA database created by Mr Sinister, and the mental ‘back-ups’ created by Xavier.
While the Five may be the mechanism for these resurrections, it is these two ingredients that fuel the Machine. House of X #5 notes that while the DNA database started off as biological samples, it now uses holographic storage, and in Powers of X #5, we learn that both the DNA database and Xavier’s Cerebro copies are stored on Shi’ar logic crystals with multiple back-ups. The essence of every mutant, their body, their mind, their memories and their soul, all turned into data. Information that can be replicated, copied and imitated.
It’s here that we can start to glimpse the meaning behind the X3 sequences in Powers of X, where an advanced mutant society appears to be courting integration into an interstellar empire. Going back to the dialogue between The Librarian and Nimrod in Powers of X #1 with this new context suggests that this ascendency may be due to, of all things, data storage issues. Nimrod appears to be tending the same database of mutant DNA and minds that Xavier established back in X0, but after a thousand years, there are problems with maintaining its integrity.
The way that ideas can be converted and stored is a subject that Blackmore explores in The Meme Machine. Spoken language allows you to spread an idea without having to demonstrate it physically, or clarify the meaning behind your actions. Written language means that your idea can outlive you, and spread to anyone who can read the same language. We’ve constantly developed more advanced ways to preserve and disseminate ideas, and memetics would suggest that it’s the ideas themselves that are driving this advancement. Memes are seeking more efficient ways to be copied into as many minds as possible, with the highest possible fidelity.
If the mutants of the future exist largely as information, and that information has reached the limits of how it can be preserved and copied, it’s only natural that this society would be seeking a better way to transmit itself. The Phalanx, and the Titans, Strongholds and Dominions that exist beyond them, represent this. Their intelligence is distributed throughout every part of their physical presence. In the case of the Titans and beyond, it becomes part of the very universe, written into the subatomic particles and carried across singularities.
In House of X #3, Magneto tells Cyclops that to die “you would have to be forgotten”. The debate the characters of X3 seem to be having is whether or not to cast aside the last vestiges of their physical existence and become beings of pure information. Mutantkind would become a culture without citizens, a final leap from the genetic to memetic, and in doing so would have finally won the evolutionary struggle. They would become part of the universe, never to be forgotten. If this is the destiny of the X-Men, then the question that would hang over the rest of Hickman’s era on the title would be: was it worth it?