The Unheimlich-y X-Men

For a bit now, I’ve been encouraging my Waiting on the Trade co-hosts to take a stab at writing some text pieces. The ever-gentlemanly and -thoughtful Callum Smith finally decided to take me up on it – because he can’t shake the discomfort he feels reading Jonathan Hickman and co.’s X-Men books.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for some recent X-books, most notably Way of X.

The X-Men are more uncanny than ever, and I love it.

There is already a significant body of discussion about Jonathan Hickman’s successful revitalisation of the X-Men line, starting with the paired publication of House of X (HoX) and Powers of X (PoX) in 2019. Since then a range of creators have produced a strikingly varied line of new books that tell stories with a range of themes and tones but surprisingly consistent quality. All of these books appear to have the licence to tell ambitious stories whilst also progressing an overarching meta-narrative about the mutants railing against their likely doom in the form of inevitable conflicts with humans and artificial intelligences. Throughout these stories there is an undercurrent of the weird and the eerie that feels unique to mainstream superhero comics at present and has me hooked on ongoing X-Men stories for the first time in my life.

The sense of unease that permeates the X-Men books’ current meta-narrative can be partially understood through Sigmund Freud’s definition of the unheimlich, often translated into English as uncanny, but more accurately understood as unhomely. Freud noted heimlich referred to things belonging to the house, things that are dear, intimate and homely. The comfort that this understanding evokes is critical to understanding why its inversion through the unheimlich is so effective and powerful. Freud positions the unheimlich to represent the secrets concealed in the domain of the familiar; unheimlich slips away from the cosy intimacy of the safe home, reverses its meaning, becomes strange, unreliable, or even deceitful, taking on a potentially insidious element. This understanding is complemented by Mark Fisher’s wonderful book, The Weird And The Eerie, which posits that the weird relates to that which does not belong (including things that do not belong together), and the eerie concerns two fundamental questions: “Why is there something here when there should be nothing? Why is there nothing here when there should be something?”

These concepts can help to understand why the current X-Men line is so memorably uncanny, in a way that far exceeds anything in their previous publishing history. Morrison’s New X-Men embraced the strange with abandon but ultimately was not focussed on exploring the lingering tension that comes from the unheimlich. Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men subverts the familiar, with Cyclops’s missing visor for instance, but does not dig into what makes this arresting.

One of the more interesting examinations of the effects of the unheimlich comes in Uncanny X-Men 204, which follows Nightcrawler after the events of Secret Wars II. Having come face to face with the Beyonder, Nightcrawler’s faith, identity, and understanding of the universe is shaken, and all nearly slip out of his grasp. Whilst this crisis is wrapped up remarkably quickly, it echoes the shattered psyches of the unfortunate inhabitants of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, who are irreparably damaged by glimpses of things that are beyond their ken.

Hickman and co.’s X-Men line is this scene writ large. For me, the appeal of Hickman’s vision for the X-Men books is neatly summed up in the opening two pages of the first issue of HoX, in which naked, slime-covered figures hatch out of giant eggs beneath an alien-looking tree before crawling toward a coyly-stanced Charles Xavier. Xavier’s face (arguably his most recognizable and therefore comfortingly familiar feature) is almost entirely obscured, save for an eerily ambiguous smile. Readers will not find out the context or meaning of this scene for some time (not until the series’s eighth issue!) and gratifyingly, the knowledge of what it depicts only deepens the sense of unease. The X-Men have progressed so far beyond humanity that they have left death behind; the figures from the opening of the first issue are mutants who had recently been killed in a catastrophic and possibly unsuccessful mission to prevent the birth of a new form of artificial intelligence. The mutants have grown new bodies, and copies of their minds from before the mission started are implanted in these husks, ushering in a new society where death is no longer a meaningful phenomenon and being killed is no worse than an inconvenience.

The triumph and joy of this moment are undercut in two interesting and effective ways. First, readers of HoX and PoX have been thrown between the birth of a new utopian mutant nation on Krakoa and scenes that are at first seemingly from the future, showing the utter ruin of mutants, hunted almost to extinction by humans, AIs, and unsettling combinations of them both. It is worth noting that the furthest future scenes involve galaxy-sized intelligences, drawing upon classic Lovecraftian imagery and therefore directly homaging the ur-weird literary canon. The knowledge that this conquering of death may come to an end, in bloody fashion but for as yet unknown reasons, is a captivating dramatic tension that is only heightened by the second source of undercutting, namely the mutants’ reaction to their ability to resurrect those who have died.

The first time we witness a resurrection in the series, the new mutant society greets it with joy, and R.B. Silva’s art does an excellent job of showing us a rapturous outpouring of awe from the crowds of mutants who bear witness. This paves the way for an increasingly glib and casual approach to death that starts to permeate the new mutant society, highlighted in the ritualised deathmatches in the Crucible (shown in issue 7 of X-Men) and younger mutants talking about being killed and then resurrected in Si Spurrier and Robert Quinn’s Way of X (WoX) in terms that suggest the process is now akin to losing one’s virginity.

In WoX, Nightcrawler, a famously spiritual mutant, is exploring his apprehension with the evolution of a new mutant society that hinges upon cheap resurrections and even cheaper deaths. After two issues of the series, there are already interesting ideas being highlighted, not just about what role spirituality has in a society where everyone believes they are functionally immortal, but further exploring the anxiety of what it means to die and be brought back into another body. This idea dates back well over a thousand years and is explored exhaustively in Caroline Walker Bynum’s brilliant book, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity 200-1336, which examines centuries of theological contortions around what it truly means to die and be brought back into a new body. Early and medieval Christian obsessions with the body included discussion of the doctrine stating that we will all be reunited with our individual appearance after the last day. From the earliest days of Christianity, the resurrection of the body was a central plank of the faith: a tenet of the Nicaean creed, a testing-ground for heresy that is echoed in Krakoa, with a visible and increasingly sinister degree of dogma developing around the resurrective capabilities of the new mutant society. There are questions emerging within these stories about the possibility of people reborn into another body, with central characters voicing their opposition to this, without quite being able to articulate their feelings of, for want of a better phrase, ethical ickiness. Interestingly, this is a conversation that has been a part of the discourse surrounding X-Men books for years, albeit due to the racial insensitivity surrounding Psylocke’s rebirth into the body of an Asian woman.

There is a popular conception of the X-Men that centres around them having something of a revolving door policy with death, possibly as a result of the prominence given to the Phoenix storyline in comics, film, and cartoons. But the Hickman-era’s resurrections are something quite different and quite unheimlich. Not only does moving past death speak to an unsettling post-humanism as the mutants embrace outpacing their homosapien peers, but it takes something that is familiar, “nobody stays dead in comics,” and renders it unusual and sinister by making it a part of the text and raising questions of what it means to be able to bring back the dead on a whim.

The grandeur and euphoria of the resurrection ceremonies sits in contrast to the detailed explanations of the underlying mechanics of bringing back dead mutants. The descriptions of backing up memories and personalities to servers, which can later be physically injected into cloned husks, is clinical and leaves little space for a concept of a soul. Although I myself am not a religious or spiritual person I am still left with a sense of deep unease by the presentation of the idea that my essence and consciousness could be reduced to data and stored, to be injected into another body. The inherent eeriness of this concept is reflected in the furthest future timeline of PoX, where the prospect of having an entire species’s consciousness uploaded into a Lovecraftian galactic hive mind is detailed.

Going forward, WoX appears poised to dive into broad issues of morality and spirituality, as well as what happens when people assume too much knowledge or mastery over forces they do not fully comprehend. There is a standout moment in the first issue with a cheese toasty that is equal parts unsettling and upsetting that hints at a reckoning to come, resulting from the mutants’ arrogance blinding them to the weirdness and the eeriness of the society that they have built.

The current era of X-Men comics has shown itself willing and eager to pose big questions and to leave readers with a deliberate sense of disquiet for prolonged periods of time. The resulting depth and ambiguity of stories are a direct product of how fertile a ground the unheimlich can produce. It is genuinely thrilling to be reading these stories and to have a well-founded faith that not only will they continue to explore profound ideas, but that they will also continue to leave readers feeling discomforted and uncertain as to why that is.


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