NOTE: This article will spoil huge parts of HoXPoX. Read them first, then read this!
By Garrett Rooney — House of X and Powers of X, the recently-concluded series that launched a new era of X-Men comics, are a complicated pair of interconnected stories. While they are clearly telling one larger story, Jonathan Hickman has chosen to tell us that story by breaking it into two separate six-issue mini-series that are mostly released on alternating weeks. This is somewhat unusual, because you really can’t appreciate either of these series alone. In fact, in the back of each issue of HoXPoX (for brevity I will be referring to the overall work as HoXPoX going forward, and the individual books as HoX or PoX), you’ll find a reading order that makes it very clear that you are intended to read the issues in a particular intertwined order, “two series that are one” as it says.
So why was it done this way? There are a variety of relatively pedestrian answers to that, ranging from “Hickman likes it that way” (just look at his Fantastic Four and Avengers runs, both of which were structured like this) to “logistically in order to deliver a weekly series without endless lead time you need to have multiple artists and splitting the issues into two separate series gives you a less jaring breakpoint to do so”, or even “you get to sell two #1 issues, which for a variety of reasons will inevitably sell better than any subsequent issues in a given series”. But little of what Hickman does is pedestrian, so let’s assume he has a deeper reason behind this decision. What might that deeper reason be?
The First Clue - HoX #1 and PoX #1
The first clue can likely be found in the content of the two series. HoX tells us a story about the present day X-Men and PoX tells us a collection of stories that have occurred in X-Men year 1 (X^0), year 10 (X^1), year 100 (X^2), and year 1000 (X^3). Note that these years are not intended to be read totally literally, even with the traditional sliding timescale of the Marvel Universe it’s unlikely that we’re to assume only 10 years have passed between the founding of the X-Men and present day. Instead, just think of this as the rough order of magnitude.
These two books interconnect in various ways, at the very least in that the X^1 storyline from PoX corresponds to the present day story from HoX, which is revealed in PoX #1 when we see the outcome of Mystique’s raid, the start of which occurs in HoX #1. This raises an interesting point. If Hickman wanted to start a story in HoX #1 and finish it in PoX #1 (which released the next week), why didn’t he just make PoX #1 the second issue of a single 12-issue series? The first reason seems to be that the structure isn’t nearly as straightforward as that. PoX #1 isn’t just continuing a story that started in HoX #1, it’s also starting three other stories that at that point seem to have no clear connection to anything that is going on in HoX.
Additionally, Hickman has told us in an interview with comicbook.com that the weekly release cycle is part of the point of the series. He intends each week’s issue to make us reconsider what we have previously read, and the partitioning of revelations between the two books serves to emphasize and deemphasize different points as we move along. Switching back and forth between focusing on the current day story in HoX and the various different timelines in PoX keeps the reader both engaged and off their guard, which is particularly important when you consider that these books make up the introduction to Dawn of X, a line-wide relaunch of the X books that starts right after HoXPoX ends (next Wednesday, as it were). While HoXPoX needs to set the stage for these future books it also needs to build excitement, so keeping readers engaged and ready for more is a huge part of the point.
Keeping Readers Off Their Guard and Engaged - HoX #2 and PoX #2
Hickman’s goal of keeping readers off their guard and engaged becomes exceptionally clear when we hit HoX #2 in week three of the release cycle. This is the first red issue from the reading order, implying importance, and it certainly delivers by telling us about the many lives of Moira X, introducing the series most daring act of retcon gymnastics and clearly forcing us to reconsider not just what we’ve read so far in HoX #1 and PoX #1, but also what we know of the character of Moira MacTaggert throughout the history of the X-Men. The fact that this is done in HoX, the “present day” book, implies that this is 616 canon, not some weird alternate reality thing that can be easily brushed away. This is another benefit to HIckman’s dual series structure. It lets him establish what in his story we can expect to stick and what can potentially be left to alternate future shenanigans like Days of Future Past or the myriad other X-Men stories that tell us about some dark future that may or may not come to pass. We are led to believe that canonically the 616 version of Moira MacTaggert is living through a series of lives, the events of each informing the next. Additionally, the revelation of this in HoX #2 sheds light on the X^0 timeline from PoX #1, presumably this is what Moira was telling Charles Xavier when they met before he founded the X-Men.
Next we move on to PoX #2, rejoining our four timelines. Xavier and Moira meet up with Magneto (presumably this occurred in the past of the 616), we see some more present day developments regarding the Mother Mold under construction near the sun, and in the distant future the Phalanx are brought into the story. All of this is interesting and moves the story along, but the real gem is the X^2 storyline, were we see the beginning of our first deviation from the alternating series structure. Hickman tells us of a mission gone wrong, where Rasputin and Cardinal are attempting to retrieve a data disk (stunningly paralleling what Mystique and co were doing in the present day), but they have failed to escape detection and two of their band are lost. Picking up this storyline happens the very next week in PoX #3.
This deviation from the initially established structure adds even more complexity to the release structure of the larger event. Not only are we expecting readers to buy two separate series, but we’re no longer giving them a simple alternating reading order. This necessitates the inclusion of the reading order in the back of each issue, and presumably some number of readers will fail to follow it, becoming more confused, so if we’re going to take that risk and spend that page space we must be getting something out of it, right?
Changing the Order - PoX #3 - #5, HoX #3 - #5
The very fact that we’re changing the order also buys us some things. First off, we get to tell a story that is longer than a given single issue would normally allow. This also deviates from the internal structure that PoX has used so far, instead of a collection of smaller stories about four timelines we spend the entirety of PoX #3 on the X^2 story. This deviation from the norm let Hickman lend weight to this story. It’s clearly important, and he wants to drive that importance home to us. Why is it important? Well, it introduces a major character (Apocalypse, normally an antagonist but here an ally of mutantkind) and even more significantly it links PoX’s X^2 timeline back to HoX by telling us outright that the X^2 timeline is actually Moira’s ninth life. We’ve resolved the dark possible future Hickman was previously crafting, this time we will not be left wondering if the events of the X^2 timeline will come to pass because in fact they already have during Moria’s 9th life. Recall that according to Destiny Moira will have at least 10 lifetimes, so that dark future is merely a stepping stone, not the final endgame the 616 is barreling towards.
Having messed with our alternating series order once if he still wants to end with PoX #6 Hickman must do so again. There will need to be two consecutive issues of HoX at some point, so he bites the bullet and does so at first opportunity, using HoX #3 and #4 to tell a single larger story about Cyclops and his strike team assaulting the Orchis project’s Solar base and its work-in-progress Mother Mold. Using two issues for this portion of the story again allows Hickman to tell a single longer story without breaking it up to dip into the other series. This provides us with a shorter cliffhanger between HoX #3 and #4, immediately resolving the question of who survived the suicide explosion and then dashing headlong into a pyrrhic victory where Cyclops’ strike team is successful in destroying the Mother Mold before dying to the last mutant. The consecutive issues let Hickman relieve our tension somewhat before shattering our hopes and killing off characters we had just been relieved to see survive. Sticking with the alternating issue structure would have changed the feeling of this larger story by pulling away from it to tell us something else.
After this dual set of consecutive issues we’re back to alternating ones again, but PoX #4 is only telling us about three timelines. We visit Bar Sinister in X^0, see Doug Ramsey introduced to Krakoa (with the accompanying back story he discovers) in X^2, and see the Librarian’s attempt to ascend into the Phalanx in X^3. The X^2 storyline is no more, as Moira’s death at the hands of Wolverine brought that timeline to a close. This raises some interesting structural questions. Two of our three remaining storylines have a place in the 616 based storyline of HoX, the ones that appear to occur in our past. This leaves only the X^3 storyline as a potential dark future (or perhaps the lone missing life of Moira, the as yet conspicuously unspoken of life 6). The intertwined structure now serves to keep us in the dark regarding the nature of what we’re reading, but note that the next issue is again marked as red in the reading order. Significant events are coming.
This break between the HoX 3-4 and HoX 5 itself serves a purpose though, letting readers spend a week stewing about what will be done in response to the death of the mutants on the space mission. The reveal is stunning, the assembly of a resurrection machine out of a motley crew of five mutants and some previously unrevealed details of what Cerebro does. To shock readers even more we are shown the arrival of a number of X-Men antagonists to Krakoa, culminating with Apocalypse shaking hands with Xavier. The red issue has truly delivered, granting us a form of immortality and an alliance with the X-Men’s former enemies. Hickman is really trying to reshape the status quo.
At this point, PoX 5 serves multiple purposes. The primary one is to fill in some blanks, explaining how Cerebro was given its newly revealed abilities and showing the recruiting of Emma Frost, plus a view into the summoning of the world’s mutants to Krakoa (and our first confirmed case of one not coming, Namor). The stakes are intentionally lowered after that red issue, so we can raise them again for PoX 6 later on. Perhaps most interesting though is the continuation of the X^3 timeline, and its depiction of the ascension of humanity via the Phalanx. Hickman has been dragging this part out, refusing to tie it back to Moira’s lives or the main present day plot, and he continues to do so here. The alternating issue structure gives him an easy way to do so, trickling in bits and pieces of this future timeline and then jumping back to the present day.
The Finales - HoX #6 and PoX #6
After using an issue of PoX mostly to fill in the blanks HoX 6 is the emotional peak of the whole HoXPoX extravaganza. The beginning of the book shows us Xavier’s telepathic speech to humanity, fills in some details of how the ruling council of Krakoa works and neatly wraps up the Sabertooth storyline that had been left hanging until now. Fresh from this distasteful example of justice, Hickman pivots hard into full on fan service ending the issue with a Return of the Jedi-esque celebration scene filled with cameos from mutants who people have been waiting for, sometimes for years. He puts in a number of interactions between big-name characters that can be read with as much subtext as you want for all the shippers. The reader finishes the issue on a high note, walking on air.
Finally, PoX 6 indeed shows us that the X^3 timeline was Moira’s 6th life, the one that kicked off her more radical attempts at changing the course of mutant history. This is followed by some revisiting of scenes we’ve already seen, but with this new twist. Moira has been manipulating events all along with the developing goal of creating the Krakoan nation and the Resurrection Machine. Not everything has been done with her explicit approval (for example, Xavier and Magneto went to Sinister without her knowledge), but for the most part she’s been pulling the strings. The whole book casts what we’ve seen, particularly in HoX 6, in a different light. The future is no longer known and the ending remains uncertain. Will Moira’s plan to avoid the seemingly inevitable fall of mutantkind be successful? We’ll have to wait to find out.
So that’s what the split between books enabled. It gave Hickman a framework that let him tell both a present day story that mostly progressed linearly while periodically casting that story in a different light via revelations about both the past and various future timelines. Deviations from the structure imposed by the two interconnected books let him lend weight to particular events. In the end, the whole endeavor served to raise the stakes among the reader base, when each week cast previous weeks in a new light the excitement among the fan base grew. Sometimes we put the pieces of the puzzle together, sometimes we didn’t, but for the most part we ended up at the doorway to Dawn of X excited and ready for more.
Let’s not pretend that this doesn’t come at a cost though. If nothing else, HoXPoX as it will eventually read in a collected trade will be a completely different experience than HoXPoX as it read during its initial release. Even if you read it in the correct order (and every indication is that’s how it will be collected) you’ll be missing the temporal element, so it will lack some of the tension that was built into its initial release cycle. This is unfortunate, but since the tension largely exists to build excitement for Dawn of X it’s understandable that this sacrifice has been made. Beyond that though, the structure itself has a cost associated with it, Hickman needs to contort things somewhat to make sure he dribbles out the right amount of information in each book, and that means portions of the story that might have otherwise taken less or more time instead have to fit in the space provided to them. I think overall the end result is a good one, but it would also be fascinating to see what this story would have looked like without those sort of constraints.
In the end, Hickman has accomplished something truly impressive. He’s reset the stage for the X-Men books in a way that opens doors for a whole new generation of stories, hopefully one that will go on for years. While doing this he’s gotten the reader community excited in a way that hasn’t been seen in quite some time. The structure of HoXPoX has been a big part of his plan for doing so, and while real world concerns almost certainly fit into the decision making process that lead to the dual series approach I think it’s fair to say that making use of an intertwined pair of books that played off each other allowed Hickman to do things that would have been hard to do in other ways. I enjoyed reading it and I look forward to seeing what he’s going to do next.
Thanks to Zack Rabiroff (available on twitter as @zachrabiroff) for feedback on an early draft of this article.
Garrett Rooney is a Software Engineer from the Boston area who spends an unreasonable amount of time reading comic books. This is tolerated by his lovely wife, his wonderful daughter, and his overly enthusiastic basset hound.