Monday, March 30, 2015

Marvel Comics: House of M

As I am making my way through the letter "H" during my comics PURGE, I ran across the House of M limited series from 2005.  I remember being moderately satisfied with it at the time, but ultimately saw it as just another piece of the flawed attempt to resuscitate the floundering House of Ideas. However, upon my second read this weekend, a decade later, my eyes were opened to what is actually a rather good story with some really strong, character defining moments.  Let's take a look:

Just after the turn of the century, Brian Michael Bendis, for all intents and purposes, acquired complete control of the Marvel Universe with the goal of bringing it back from the brink of disaster.  Heroes Reborn/Return had flopped, Spider-Man Chapter One was yet another disaster in the life of that franchise, and the rest of the Marvel U was just all over the place.  Bendis swept into the Marvel offices like a less skeevy Rasputin with a grand plan to save the comics giant from becoming another DC.  His plan centered around completely destabilizing the status quo of most of the signature characters and then filling in the gaps with extremely solid characterization and a lot of "realistic" dialogue.  Whether he was successful or not is really a matter for debate and, at least for me, hinges upon how much you loved the Marvel Universe before about 1995, but either way, Bendis undeniably changed the way Marvel Comics were written, thought about, and executed.

It was also during this time that the "Marvel Way" became synonymous with "write for trade."  And for good reason.  Bendis is the king of the big picture.  His strength is in writing the long story.  His single issue work is extremely hit and miss, with a lot of misses, but when it comes to writing a 6 or 9 part story (or longer in the case of his absolutely riveting run on Daredevil), he is a master.  House of M demonstrates this better than any other series of his I've read thus far.

The story is a bridge between two of Bendis' main events.  The preceding event, Avengers Disassembled, was a huge story that rocked the world's greatest heroes to their core, Marvel-killed* a few major players, and led to the creation of a very different kind of Avengers team.  This event was caused by the Scarlet Witch losing control of her powers after going quite mad.  (*Marvel-killed, of course, means that the character "dies" with the full intention of bringing them back as soon as sales dwindle or fan reaction is negative enough).  House of M was the next step in the plan.  After determining that the Scarlet Witch was the cause of the crisis, all of the major players in the Marvel Universe came together to decide what to do with her.  This sets the stage for issue #1 of the House of M limited series.

The story is a little slow to start with the first four issues slowly establishing the world we are about to play in.  First we see the world in the aftermath of Avengers Disassembled and the major players deciding the fate of Wanda Maximoff.  Then, in a literal flash the world is remade into one where mutants reign supreme.  Magneto is the monarch of a world in which humans are the minority.  One of the interesting side effects is that all of the heroes involved in the Avengers Disassembled event have been given their most cherished desires.  All would be just fine, except that one very important character remembers things the way they were (and are supposed to be).  That character is Wolverine, whose greatest desire was to have complete memory of his past.  Unfortunately, that level of recall also allowed him to remember that things used to be different.  Armed with this knowledge, Logan realizes it is up to him to set things right.  Along the way he encounters another mutant, a new character named Layla Miller, who can awaken the same realization in other people.  Together, they set out to convert the other key players and find a way to reverse the effect of the House of M.

All in all a good premise and a pretty good superhero yarn.  And then we get to issue #5.  Issue #5 firmly plants this story into the Marvel Archive as one of the classics.  In this issue we get the full impact of the consequences of the House of M because it is here that Logan must show Peter Parker that his ideal life is a lie and must come to an end.  Peter does not take it well.  Nor should he.  In the House of Magnus world he has it all.  He's married to Gwen Stacy, Uncle Ben is alive and well, he has a child, and he is famous for being Spider-Man.  He has everything he could ever want and it is all as real as anything could be.  There's no "too good to be true" aspect to his life, it's just his ideal life realized.  So, of course, Logan has to come and literally destroy all of that by having Layla awaken the reality inside him.

Bendis shines in his depiction of Peter's suffering as a result of the loss.  His grief and rage are real and powerful.  From this point forward, the character of Spider-Man should really never be the same.  (sadly, that becomes all too true, but not in a good way)  As a reader and life-long fan of Spider-Man, I can honestly say Peter's turmoil hits home hard.  It is painful to see the character put through these paces and presented with such profound anguish.  But because Bendis is smart and a true character writer, it is also a very satisfying read.

The story goes on as planned with the heroes banding together to right the wrong that created the House of Magnus alternate universe.  I'll not spoil some of the better twists of the story here. Very entertaining and all in all a good superhero plot, but the real strength of the writing is the handling of the characters and their various reactions to learning the truth.  Peter's reaction is the one that really resonates with me, but there is a lot of great character work being done in this series.  When the awakened heroes all get together to plan their attack, Cyclops is laying out the battle plan explaining that there will be three strike teams.  Then Jessica Drew interrupts with the apt question as to whether or not reverting things is even the right thing to do, suggesting that maybe this was meant to happen and is the right thing to have happen.  The heroes all go down that theoretical path with her for about a page and then Cyclops basically says, "are we all done with that?  Good.  There will be three teams..."  It is an incredible moment for that character as well; perhaps one of my favorite Cyclops moments of all time.

There is also a nice moment with Spider-Man and Logan, shortly after Spidey learns the truth, where he emotionally crosses a moral barrier he once held sacred.  I'll let the comic speak for itself here:

If you are a classic Spider-Man fan of any measure, that is a huge moment.  Bendis makes it very easy to get caught up in the moment with Peter.

And then of course, there is the iconic moment at the end of the series where the Scarlet Witch strikes again with her incredible power, this time in reverse, wiping out all mutants except for a tiny handful. This sets the stage for the next big Marvel event.  The Bendis era at Marvel was defined by yearly, mythos-shattering events that constantly rewrote the Marvel status quo.  The only real downfall in the House of M is the lack of a truly satisfying ending. The end of this series is really just a prologue to the next big event as the Marvel Universe deals with the sudden near-extinction of the mutant population and it feels like the story is more of a transition than a fully told tale.  If this story was allowed to have a more complete end, it would easily stand up next to classics like Days of Future Past or the Dark Phoenix Saga, but since the end feels more like a prologue, the denouement of the main plot is a little hollow.

But if you want a good look at how to tell character driven stories in a microcosm, you really cannot do much better than House of M issues #5-8.  Bendis gives a clinic in how to take established characters and put them through their paces.  I am extremely, pleasantly surprised to rediscover this series after nearly dismissing it a decade ago.  There is some tremendous work here if you are a fan of classic Marvel.

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