Shiny Shelf

House of M round-up #2

By Jim Smith on 17 August 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

One thing Marvel have unquestionably got right this summer season is the idea of a crossover where a) you don’t have to pick up all the books to understand it and b) where the concept is reassuringly easy to grasp. While DC have gone for the multiple-conspiracy, multiple-book, ‘No, I don’t know what’s going on, and I understand “Hawkman”‘ angle, Marvel have chosen ‘They’re all in a parallel universe. Ha!’ path. In terms of accessibility, it’s not hard to see which the better idea is.

I am an absolute sucker for parallel universe and ‘altered states’ stories. That is, I know, tantamount to declaring that one’s favourite author is JRR Tolkien in some quarters (mine isn’t, by the way) but it remains true all the same. The ‘parallel universe’ or ‘altered reality’ plot appeals, principally, to my love of iconography. It’s nice to see something familiar taken and twisted inside out, the pieces moved to new places on the board and old ones put back in the game. Whether it’s Philip K Dick’s sobering ‘The Man in the High Castle’ or the crossover fun of the best of DC’s ‘Elseworlds’ there’s always a kick for me in seeing the familiar made unfamiliar, or distorted to mean something different. It’s probably the same reason I’m more than unusually interested in cover versions, remakes and seeing multiple productions of the same play.

Marvel’s ‘House of M’ is, then, an obvious potential hit with me, scoring far and away over ‘Infinite Crisis’ thus far (though ‘Identity Crisis’ itself was brilliant). This is unusual, in that I’ve always really been a DC boy at heart (the first American comic I bought was ‘Green Lantern Corps’ #202) although the post Quesada revolution Marvel has thrown me a few bones and I’ve been pleased to give them some of my cash in return. I suppose I could justify what seems perfidy on my part by suggesting that it’s the resemblance to DC’s old, aforementioned ‘Elseworlds’ that peaks my interest about ‘House of M’, but that would be a shabby defence at best.

So, while the main, slowly ticking, ‘House of M’ book is something I’m keeping a cursory eye on, it’s what’s going on in the peripheries of this re-envisioned Marvel world that really interest me. However, it is worth noting that this week’s issue of ‘House of M’ is the best yet, with a gorgeous final page (not a twist, exactly, but beautifully drawn) and some outstanding character work involving both Wolverine and Peter Parker.

The ‘House of M’ universe is a version of the usual Marvel universe which has been twisted out of shape by the reality altering powers of Magneto’s daughter Wanda, the Scarlet Witch. Mutants rule the world and the heroes are kept in check because they have all, mysteriously, been given thier hearts’ desires and thus don’t feel the need to question the Mutopia. (The brilliant exception is Wolverine, whose heart’s desire is self-knowledge, so he’s the only undeluded character.)

It’s the life of this new Marvel Universe’s Peter Parker that provides the best of the current batch of tie-ins with ‘Spider-Man: House of M’ a book from the talents of Mark Waid (an inconsistent, but occasionally brilliant, scribe) and the stylish and unique artist Salvador Larocca. It’s a tale of the life of Peter Parker in this strange, new world, where Peter is married to Gwen Stacey, not Mary Jane, and is a uber-rich and uber-famous megastar mutant rather than a struggling photographer/temporary teacher.

What’s that, Spidey’s a mutant? Well, no. He isn’t. This is ‘our’ Peter Parker, after all, the same one as ever (even if he is in an altered reality) and he isn’t a Mutant nor could he ever be. But in a world ruled by Mutants what would you do if you were a non-mutant super powered human whose powers appeared in adolescence? Exactly. This makes the mini-series a story about the (very American) concept of ‘passing’, of managing to appear to be genetically one thing while actually being another.

(For further information see, say the movie ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ or, if afraid to step out of genre, ‘Angel’ episode ‘Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been?’).

David also gives brilliant J Jonah Jameson (a character it’s almost impossible to write well in the main Marvel universe) showing us a version of the old obnoxious editor who has had his spirit crushed by this reality’s quietly sinister Peter Parker (his fame, wealth and high-stress life-style having turned the lad into something of a bully on the sly). When Jonah is offered the chance to ruin Spidey you absolutely understand why he has to grab it with both hands. Yes, Waid has you rooting for Jonah. Who’d have thought it?

Something else I’d never thought possible is that I would be interested in, never mind moved by, Hawkeye. The purple-hewed, arrow firing fool who met his end in or around ‘Avengers’ #500 is alive and well in the ‘House of M’ universe. When he unexpectedly winds up with his memories of the real world back (against the advice of his comrades) he realises that he ’should’ be dead. Now this is an interesting set-up for ‘The Pulse’ # 10, an issue courtesy of Brian Michael Bendis. It’s an odd one-off, this, heavy with pathos and dripping with both rain-sozzled scenes and unexpected pathos. This is an excellent individual comic even if you’re not buying ‘The Pulse’ already. (If not, why not? It’s ace.)

(A note though, this issue of ‘The Pulse’, released weeks ago, follows on from this week’s issue of ‘House of M’. Proof that Marvel’s scheduling horrors aren’t yet behind them.)

Another tie-in well worth checking out is Peter David’s ‘The Incredible Hulk’ #83-85. David had a vast, celebrated, run on ‘Hulk’ a while back, of which I’ve read nothing. His return to the book (picking up from a Bruce Jones run which achieved much but promised more) started well, but hiccoughed badly at the end of his first arc, by linking up silly old Hulk villain Nightmare with 9/11 and seeming to write much of Jones’ work out of continuity. This is the kind of highhanded selfishness you’d expect a writer of David’s calibre to avoid (and to be fair, this may simply be some fans’ contrarian reading of the end of David’s enjoyable, but inconsistent, ‘Tempest Fugit’).

David’s ‘House of M’ crossover, though, is rather good. In the ‘House of M’ reality Bruce Banner is living amongst the native people of Australia, trying to use their religion to calm the Hulk inside him. In ‘House of M’ world (as in reality) Australia has a government which is particularly intolerant of, and hostile to, minorities. In Magneto’s dream world, though, the Mutant-led government of Oz is preparing for a kind of Final Solution against the mere Homo Sapiens.

Banner is thrown into combat with this regime, through no fault of his own, and soon finds himself deep in Government matters in more ways than one. David’s scripts are witty and characterful and make full use of the ‘House of M’ setting to tell a story that a) uses Banner and his alter-ego well; b) has some points to make about real things and the real world; and c) couldn’t be told in any other circumstances. This constitutes good work all round.

I’m not sure what to make of Jorge Lucas’s art on this title. It’s certainly distinctive and while you wouldn’t mistake it for anyone else’s work, it’s also a bit static at times (page 4 of #85 for example) although some individual panels are simply gorgeous. His Hulk looks great, as does his tattooed Banner, but other characters let him down. Maybe he’s not helped by the number of people in uniform in the story and not even green washed hair can make his mother and daughter characters of General Rappaccin and Scorpion entirely distinguishable from one another.

This events critics are currently concentrating on one thing; while conceding that it’s providing bags of entertainment and new spins on old characters and concepts many have questioned how ‘House of M’ can really have any ongoing affect on the Marvel Universe.

They miss the point entirely. This isn’t really a ‘parallel universe’ story at all. It’s an ‘altered world’ one. The heroic characters won’t ‘escape’ the ‘House of M’ reality; they’ll ‘change the world back’. Or will they? Even if they do, should they continue to remember the trauma that transpired in that distorted world created by all the heroes’ wishes and the Scarlet Witch’s powers, the Marvel Universe really will never be the same again.

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