Adventures in Bendisshitting #3: House of M by Ronnie Gardocki and Christopher Ludovici
Wanda Maximoff is having a moment, isn’t she, folks? “That girl whose powers are poorly defined and who occasionally has an accent” is now starring on a Disney+ show, which for Elizabeth Olsen is a step up from starring in a Facebook Watch series. It’s difficult to believe that a decade or so ago the character was radioactive, and no one is more responsible for that radioactivity than Brian Michael Bendis. In Avengers Disassembled he attributed all of the Avengers’ woes to Scarlet Witch freaking out about her nonexistent children, which is the closest you can get in modern comics to blaming a woman’s breakdown on “female hysteria” or “wandering womb”. That story ended with genocidal maniac Magneto whisking his then-daughter (I say “then-daughter” because comics are fucking stupid) away and the Avengers acquiescing because, listen, it’d been a long day. The followup event, House of M, brought together the Avengers and the X-Men to determine what to do with the reality warping crazy woman. The result is a derivative alternate reality yarn that features good art and little else that can be described as “good” other than it’s a eight issue series that’s somehow slight enough that it can be read over a single bathroom break.
Why are Cyclops and Elektra there?
It’s actually a perfect encapsulation of the Bendis Experience because it’s an incredibly ambitious concept with an intriguing hook and an A list collaborator that’s undermined by, well, it’s undermined by the fact that that’s all there is. There’s no actual story or insight or character or anything beyond what the concept, hook, and collaborator. It’s an empty suit, all hat and no cattle, a comic about nothing. But it feels like it must be about something, because it’s so good looking and everyone in the story is acting like what’s happening is very important, there’s lots of dialogue like:
Character A: My god.
Character B: I know, right?
Character A: The scope of it, I had no idea.
Character B: Take your time, it’s a lot to process.
Character A: How could he? How could he?
Character B: Don’t know. But it ends now.
Character A: Let’s go to work.
Pretty cool, right? Everyone’s all worked up! Must be important! See how character A is all disoriented and enraged while Character B is equally upset but in a cool, calm and collected way? That demonstrates that the Big Thing That Happened is bad no matter how you look at it! These characters sure are upset about what’s happened, as demonstrated by their terse, fractured conversation. See how they’re comfortable enough together to build off each other’s short statements? How the dialogue bounces back and forth in a comfortable, knowing shorthand? That’s because these characters have known each other a long time and have gone through a lot together. Though maybe nothing quite so Big and Scary as this time!
He sits backwards on the chair and has a fast food takeout bag on his head because, uh, well, that’s what urban people do. That’s what they wear. Bendis knows this. He’s down.
Bendis likes these conversations. He likes them a lot. You can tell because he writes it about twenty times (not a comical exaggeration) over the course of House of M, between about thirty different characters. Sometimes the nervous Character A from one instance is the more stoic Character B in the next in a fun mix and match style. A lesser writer would have written it once or twice and let the reader assume it kept happening in the background while the story continued to move forward to other plot points, but not Bendis! He knows that, like that guitar crunch in Creep, you gotta hit that same note over and over until everyone just wishes you were dead. Otherwise you’d have to think of something else to happen.
The Big Thing That Happens in House of M is that Wanda rewrites all of reality to make mutants the dominant species on Earth and to Give Everyone What They’ve Always Wanted. Presumably at Magento’s bidding. See, the Avengers and X-Men are debating whether or not to kill Wanda on account of her being an all powerful crazy killer, and she decides to simplify everything by making everyone happy so they stop fighting. It’s a confusing concept because presumably most people on Earth wouldn’t want to be an endangered species facing extinction, so how the Mutants Rule part of the new reality jibes with the Wish Fulfillment part is never really explained. Maybe she just fulfilled the wishes of her friends, the one’s trying to decide whether or not to execute her, but none of them have ever wanted humanity to be on the edge of extinction either, except her dad did. In 1963. That hasn’t really been his thing since the Carter administration and has nothing to do with the specific threat facing him at that moment either.
So yeah, it’s a real head scratcher.
The important thing is, everything is different now! Mostly! Mutants are everywhere! Cap never went into the ice! Spider-Man is a famous hero/celebrity who’s married to Gwen and Uncle Ben is still alive! Cyclops is married to Emma Frost and still needs his special glasses to hold back his deadly optic blasts! Wait! Pete gets Gwen but Scott doesn’t really want Jean to still be alive and for the two of them to be together? And he doesn’t want to be able to control his power? The thing that he’s always complaining that keeps him from being able to ever let his guard down for a single second? Guess not! Moving on!
The Sentinels with Magneto helmets are pretty cool looking, admittedly.
You might think that the altered reality offers a canvas with which Bendis can examine a number of issues and conflicts, but that again asks too much of him. Instead Wolverine–whose seeming lifelong dream was to remember everything–remembers the old reality and he goes around trying to remind people that they used to live in a different shitty unequal society. Like half the series is him and Layla Miller reminding people of who they used to be. You’re probably asking Who is Layla Miller? Is this some Marvel character I should know about because we collectively decided at some point that the MCU is the most important thing in the world and while I may not know what’s going on at the border or when I’m getting my Covid vaccination, by God I know that Rocket Raccoon only acts tough to cover his hurt over what society did to him!
First of all, calm down. The border is still a shit show and there were just openings for the shots at the clinic up the street from you, but the spots all filled up while you were reading the last paragraph. Better luck next time, stupid! Second of all, Layla Miller is a plot device character who shows up with no real explanation or back-story with an ambiguous power set that’s extremely specifically useful and then is never used again because how often do you need to be able to make people aware that they’re living in an alternate reality? It’s fine, Peter David reinvents the character in X-Factor to the point that her appearance in House of M is an interesting-ish footnote. At the climax of the series Dr. Strange says that Wanda created Layla because subconsciously she knew rewriting reality was wrong so she inserted Layla to undo everything. That’s an idea that’s not terrible, but by making her identity a mystery that’s revealed at the end of the story the reader is saddled with a confusing, random character for five issues as opposed to a literal representation of Wanda’s warring nature.
Luke Cage’s dream in life was to have cornrows and to be a gang leader. Good to know.
Who’s this kid people ask Logan, dunno, he says, some kid. Doesn’t matter. Look into her eyes. And then we get that scene where one character is emotionally upset and another is cooly upset. Again and again and again. Wolverine keeps on collecting characters for his “kill Wanda and also maybe Magneto and fuck, at that point Pietro is a witness soooo” posse. And then at the climax, Strange’s head pops into a frame and says oh by the way, Wanda made Layla because she was always conflicted about creating House of M and so she built a back-door, TTFN! There’s no detective work to uncover her identity or discussion about it, it’s just a piece of information that’s shoved in when everything is wrapping up to make sure the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted. Throw it on the pile of shit introduced in House of M that doesn’t go anywhere.
“Let’s see what you got here… PIETRO BEER? Fuck this reality, bub.”
You might think that there’d be some sort of conflict about undoing a reality that, while not the true one, is certainly more advantageous for mutants. On the contrary: giving characters conflict, opposing agendas, is too much work, so the alternative Bendis presents is Kitty Pryde wondering whether they’re meant to undo it while Spider-Woman calls it a “wash” because sure, humans are oppressed, but Carol Danvers got to be a big celebrity and Luke Cage gets cornrows. She even claims this might be “natural selection”, akin to a meteor hitting the Earth, suggesting the gaps in Bendis’ knowledge includes natural selection, meteors and their relationship to Earth. Anyway, this all occurs in two pages and never comes up again as Cyclops gathers together teams of splash page participants to take the fight to Magneto. “You…are going to have to fight without any restraint”, he says. Oh goody, finally, I get to see a Spider-Man ready to punch holes in people’s heads, that’s what I’ve always wanted. At another point a character yells “we can’t lose this”, presumably to distinguish this particular adventure from all the previous, much more loseable, adventures.
Marvel Studios has also made this wish in recent years.
I want to take a moment and applaud Bendis for masterful use of the anti-climax in a few cases. A runner for the first several issues of the mini was the characters just need to find Xavier and everything will be all right. One issue ends on Magneto in Genosha going to the Xavier Memorial Park. Now, why do none of these people with their fake reality memories know that Xavier is dead in the House of M? They fucking named a park after him, his demise is not some secret! Another occurs when they’re going around “awakening” the likes of Daredevil and She-Hulk: they spot Captain America across the street…but he’s 100 years old. That makes him fit for a high position in Democratic leadership, not for being a part of the “Kill Magneto” posse. It’s just really funny to me that they basically decide since he’s too old to do anything of consequence they may as well let the Sentinel of Liberty stay ignorant indefinitely. I’m surprised no one snarked “the revelations might give the geezer a heart attack”. If Bendis isn’t going to be any good at reveals (the infamous “break the Internet in half” moment in House of M is that Hawkeye is alive), he may as well trade in deflating reveals.
Don’t worry, this recurring imagery doesn’t mean anything or go anywhere.
Speaking of deflating reveals, the climax of House of M points the finger at Quicksilver, not Magneto, for suggesting to the mentally ill woman she reshape reality. Does it matter? Not really. Magneto yells at Pietro a bit but that’s about it. It doesn’t reshape the story or anything, it’s not a satisfying twist. Bendis smartly gets out of the way for the battle scenes so Coipel can do his thing, but even then it’s broken up by tedious conversations and flashbacks. Again, what difference does it make that Quicksilver cajoled Wanda into remaking the world? The climax devolves into a clusterfuck of yelling and Wanda deciding there can’t be mutants because her father was shitty towards her. Nevermind the fact that she found out Magneto was her dad as an adult and had a whole childhood being raised by the Maximoffs and I guess a cow person (look comics are REALLY REALLY STUPID). Fuck it, Avengers Disassembled had baby craziness, why not throw some daddy issues into the mix! She says “no more mutants” and everything changes, except for most things.
In an alternate reality, someone who is supposed to be dead is not dead? Stop the fucking presses!
Contrary to the declaration, mutants don’t cease to be. All the popular ones remain, but everyone else gets depowered. “No More Mutants”, like Spider-Man losing his marriage, was one of the ‘genies’ Joe Quesada wanted to bottle during his tenure as EIC. His perception was that mutants had become too populous a minority and had to shrink in size to about 200. Given the paucity of named characters losing their powers (and of those that did, nearly all regained them within a year or two), this basically meant the nameless background extras were gone, so artists had to populate crowd scenes with the likes of Toad and Mondo instead of some nondescript funky skinned dude. It seems to escape Quesada that 200 people is not a minority that can be a metaphor for anything in the real world, and preventing future births made the X-Men an endlessly depressing story of a genetic cul de sac. I think history has vindicated those who decried the stunt as a stupid move given how creatively suspect the X-books were for years afterwards. I myself have an obscene amount of not-very-good comics from that time. Remember when the Sentinels guarded the X-Mansion? It was like having a giant Eichmann robot on Israel’s border. This is relevant because House of M doesn’t end with a climax; that’s the seventh issue. The eighth is all about setting up for what happens next, an irritating trait Marvel events would display for years to come.
Replace “more” with “unpopular” and it’s much more accurate.
Like, the first handful of pages of House of M #8 depict characters waking up, from Layla Miller to Spider-Man to Emma Frost (who hilariously wakes up on the Xavier mansion lawn for some reason). I’m not a big shot comic book writer, but I like to think I’d come up with a more kinetic finale than “people get up in the morning to discuss the events of the last several issues”. Moreover, I like to think I’d write better banter than Bendis’. The X-Men find a good number of their students depowered, Spider-Man wants Dr. Strange to erase his memories of his alternate wife and son (Strange can’t, though years later he can mindwipe the entire world of Spider-Man’s secret identity), and Wolverine can remember everything, including that time he didn’t have a nose because of evolution or something. Other characters experience changes from the event: Hawkeye has defaced the Avengers Mansion ruins with his own costume and a newspaper clipping about his death, proving he went to the lengths of clipping out a newspaper article before doing all this; Iceman lost his powers so he should really be called Hotman; Magneto can’t move a fork anymore; and Scarlet Witch has fulfilled her dream of being a sexy Little Red Riding Hood in a nondescript Eastern European village. I mean, sure, these are all great ideas depicted by Bendis and Coipel. But where’s the House of M in House of M? There’s maybe 5 issues of story in here, tops. Not exactly a new complaint when it comes to a Bendis comic, but still.
“If you made it with your mind, why is it so basic?” Also I like how Wanda can create a whole new reality but can’t make children who aren’t soulless abominations.
The fatal flaw to this thing–as opposed to all the fun flaws that give Bendis stories their character–is that it’s more of an editorial edict stuffed into a standard dystopia plot than something of its own. It’s as though they came up with the decimation of mutants first and then reverse engineered everything from there. That the alternate reality is one in which mutants oppress humans with Magneto as the ruler is irrelevant; it could’ve been anything that caused Scarlet Witch to scream “no more mutants” and rewrite reality. There isn’t even really a reason why she says that other than she’s mentally unwell. “Because crazy” does a lot of heavy lifting in the miniseries. The plot of this is the same as Chicken Little: both consist of a group venturing to a location, adding more to the party as it goes on. There’s a similar level of entertainment too, the difference being Chicken Little at least concedes it’s for children.
“Although you had no role in House of M and were as much a victim of Wanda’s mentally ill reality warping as anyone else, we’re gonna let Wolverine almost murder you and then pass judgment on you. Fuck off, old man.”
In someone else’s hands, this could be something. The design of the world itself and Coipel’s art are both top notch, and a number of the redesigned characters have intriguing possibilities, some of which are explored in the tie-in issues. The Mark Waid written Spider-Man is a particular stand-out. Others fare less well, like Colossus’s wish to be a tractor. What the fuck is there to say about that? The fact that Marvel has pumped out several miniseries set in the House of M reality after the fact suggests there’s still fertile ground for storytelling, for exploring this conceit. But in House of M itself it’s instead nothing, a premise in search of a plot, and the fault has to lie with Bendis, he’s the guy who’s supposed to come up with a compelling story to take us through this world, and he just whiffs it. Even if House of M was just an excuse to get rid of important mutants like Marrow and Chamber, it doesn’t mean the dystopian alternate reality had to be so dramatically inert or the plot so flat.
The point of blind items is they don’t have names in them, you idiots.
Next time: we skip past a few non-Bendis written events onto Secret Invasion, about a secret cabal of non-human elites who seek to subvert our will for their own purposes. No, it’s not about the Israel lobby, it’s about Skrulls, and it’s soon to be a Disney+ show you’ll ultimately consider “pretty good” and never think about again after seeing it. I hope they take a page out of Avengers: Age of Ultron’s book and not resemble the source material at all. That’s all I hope it takes from that…
Wanda moves to the village from Beauty and the Beast.