You Humans Love Your Symbolism, Chapter 7:

Martyrdom in House of X #4

Chapter 7: Martyrdom in House of X #4 – It Will be Done

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Pepe Larraz
Color Artist: Marte Gracia
Cover Art: Pepe Larraz and Marte Gracia

Deeply tragic and yet strangely fitting, this paradox of story-telling: the greatest acts of heroism can only be performed when facing the most horrible kinds of evil. The noblest of sacrifices, the laying down of one’s own life, becoming a martyr; this only occurs as the result of the most violent wrong-doing. And we venerate the heroes who pay the ultimate price for the sake of good; all world religions and most movements, political or otherwise, have lists of those who have died for their righteous cause. (But, let us not forget, that one side’s martyrs are the other side’s justifiably killed enemies.) Martyrs become our most admired and respected heroes, in some cases literally achieving sainthood.

While doubts about the righteousness of the X-Men’s mission were raised by blurring the lines between the good guys and the bad guys in the previous issue (Chapter 6: House of X #3), here in Chapter 7: House of X #4 there is no questioning. The X-Men are our good guys, committing one heroic act after another. Having already suffered massive injuries and the deaths of two members, they fight on. Cyclops, manipulated into overcoming his doubts by Prof. X and Magneto in the previous issue, now boldly takes control of the situation, leading his team. They all do what is necessary in the battle against the anti-mutant Orchis organization. One by one they die courageously, either defending their teammates or destroying the genocidal Mother Mold before it can completely come online.

Well, everyone except Jean, that is. Hickman, in a terrible disservice to the character, reduces Jean to nothing more than a telepathic telephone. Although the only omega level mutant on the team (thus arguably the most powerful), she basically hides and screams at every sign of danger, rendered completely inactive, before meeting her subsequent death. This, along with one or two minor plot holes, presents the only unfortunate shortcoming in an otherwise wonderfully drawn and plotted action-adventure comic book.

And this comic needed to be well drawn and well scripted in order to give meaning to these heroic deaths. After all, death in super-hero comic books has become a bit of a joke; it normally doesn’t last all that long. In fact, more than half of this X-Men team have already died and come back (at least once) in the past. Wolverine, Jean, and Cyclops were all resurrected within the past five years. We readers know that the deaths in this issue probably won’t be permanent (although we might not have originally guessed how soon and how significant their resurrections would become). Accordingly, the creative team, from writer to artists to letterer, deserves praise for making these deaths actually mean something; pacing the action, underlining the stakes, crafting the dialogue and working with the relationships in a way that gets the reader emotionally involved. We care about these characters and what they die for. We feel that their sacrifice deserves to be honored; that they have become true martyrs of mutantdom.

The term “martyr” originally arose out of the Christian tradition from the word for “witness” or “one who bears testimony to faith”. Soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus and the sudden growth in the first Christian fellowships, the followers of Christ experienced persecution for proclaiming and spreading their new faith. It didn’t take long for the persecution to turn deadly: the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death after giving an impassioned and inflammatory speech to the Jewish religious leaders of the time (see Acts 7). From there, the number of Christian martyrs has increased without end. Many martyrs are revered by certain denominations of Christianity, often becoming saints in the Catholic Church, sometimes having holidays celebrated in their honor.

With the passing of time, the term has expanded to describe anyone killed for a cause, whether religious, political, or otherwise. Each group has developed its own ideas and traditions of who becomes a martyr and how they should be venerated. For example, Islamic extremists consider all who die for a jihad martyrs, deserving of heavenly rewards. The Civil Rights Movement honors the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, among others. Even certain fallen soldiers killed in battle attain the status of martyrdom.

The deaths of the X-Men in this issue most closely fit this last example of martyrdom, not religious, but rather political or military. They die as special-ops soldiers fighting against an enemy that would try to bring about the extinction of all mutantkind. Their purpose is noble, and although they haven’t initiated the principal conflict, they did initiate the battle in which they die. This contrasts greatly from most religious martyrs, who were most often killed not in military battle but because they refused to renounce their faith.

In discussing the religious themes in this series, it seems proper to review the parallel narratives of the X2 and X1 eras, as they now reach their culmination. As first mentioned in Chapter 2: Powers of X #1, religious prophecy commonly uses parallel narratives both to emphasize the sovereignty of God’s plan throughout the past, present, and future, as well as to highlight the universal truths that run throughout all time periods. Hickman uses these two coinciding stories to emphasize the universal nature of mutants’ struggles; but he also does something more. Both began with stolen information (X1 in Chapters 1 & 2; X2 in Chapter 2); which was then used to formulate a plan of action (both X1 & X2 in Chapter 4). The heroes of each era then set off on a suicide mission, leading to a victory paid for with their lives (X2 in Chapter 5; X1 in Chapters 6 & 7). Hickman’s great twist – setting the X2 era in Moira’s ninth life and the current X1 era in her reincarnated tenth life – reveals the X2 story arc to be the prequel to the X1 story; the information gained in the final X2 battle decisive in the X1 plotline (as detailed in a data page in Chapter 6: House of X #3).

While Hickman and the creative team only indirectly imply the prominent theme of martyrdom found throughout this issue, in the span of three pages and two scenes Hickman directly references a few other interesting religious topics.

In the later of the two scenes, the Mother Mold awakens after Dr. Gregor – in an act of desperation – prematurely activates it. Its first conscious thought answers the existential question: Where did I come from? Hickman has always been a fan of creation myths; he realizes how our identity and purpose are fundamentally rooted in the origin of our being. The Mother Mold comes to the same conclusion that most world religions have: our creator must be God; its first statement: “If man made me, then they are God.”

The Mother Mold then fills the rest of its first and only speech with symbolism from Greek mythology. Having already ordained humans as the Olympian gods, it refers to mutants as “titans, their spoiled lineage,” and mentions their war. In the Greek myths, the Titans were the offspring of the primordial deities and the Olympian gods the children of two of the Titans.

The Mother Mold uses this symbolism to place itself into the Greek succession myth, in which those who come later conquer and overthrow the previous gods, taking their place of dominance. In Greek mythology, the Titans overthrew the primordial gods and then the Olympians conquered the Titans. Analogously, as the Mother Mold contemplates humans and mutants battling for dominance, it responds, “we children sit in judgement of those above us… We judge and find you both wanting.” In doing so, the Mother Mold fulfills the prophetic warnings of Karima, the Omega Sentinel, voiced in the previous issue, that the Mother Mold may decide that not only the mutants, but also all humans should be conquered or eliminated. This brings to mind the circumstances of the X2 era, in which the machines had taken over the Earth, with Nimrod as their dominant leader. Fortunately, even as it speaks, the X-Men succeed in their mission. And as it falls into the sun, the Mother Mold alludes to the famous Greek myth of Prometheus: “We have stolen your fire…and with it, we will burn you all,” the fire of the gods symbolizing the source of their power.

While this scene alludes to our origins in a creation myth or a creator God, the previous scene (just two pages back) reflects on our ultimate fate. It may be the most beautiful moment in the whole House of X/Powers of X series; a moment of vulnerability and brotherly love between two best friends as they stare death in the face.

Earlier in the issue, Larraz brilliantly illustrates the contrasts between these two friends in subsequent panels. Wolverine, the hardened, suffering soldier, always willing to kill to get the job done, leaves behind a pile of bodies after completing his part of the mission. Nightcrawler, the meek and faithful believer, always acting benevolently and selflessly, leaves behind two scientists tied up.

Now standing at death’s door, Wolverine allows himself to be vulnerable, asking his believing friend one of the most important questions of faith: “You still think there’s something waiting for us on the other side?” Here, at the end, he searches for hope in a life after death. Nightcrawler recognizes the deeper need of his friend and asks: “Worried about your soul, Logan?” Staring contemplatively into the distance, Logan’s answer is sincerely honest: “Just wonderin’ what someone like me should expect.” It is a confession of sorts; he knows how he has lived his life and what he is responsible for. He acknowledges that he does not deserve life in the hereafter, even as he hopes for it. Placing his hand on Wolverine’s shoulder, Nightcrawler offers these words of grace: “When you wake from this earthly slumber, my friend, look for me. I will be there, waiting for youradiant and with open arms.”

This scene, and especially Nightcrawler’s final words, are reminiscent of the interaction between Jesus and the two criminals he was crucified with, as they all hanged on their crosses (see Luke 23:39-43). When one of the criminals insulted Jesus, “the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said… ‘We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong’” (Luke 23:40-41). Like Wolverine, this criminal also realizes and, in a way, confesses what he has done with his life; knowing he has earned execution and not salvation. In these dying moments, he asks Jesus for mercy: “’Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’” (Luke 23:42). Jesus’ response, while maybe not as poetic as Nightcrawler’s, is just as full of grace: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:43).

Nightcrawler then transports himself and Wolverine to the one place where they can finish the mission. It costs them their lives, but Wolverine delivers the final blow that destroys the Mother Mold. Cyclops then telepathically tells Jean, “…it’s done. It’s cost us our friends – our family – but it’s done.” Soon afterwards, they too are killed. This team of X-Men may have won the victory and should be duly honored for their sacrifice, but the reaction of Prof. Xavier and the other mutants on Krakoa reminds us that especially a martyr’s death is a profound tragedy.

Note: All biblical quotes are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version NIV, Copyright 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

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David L Canham (@BBelafat) grew up in Arizona watching X-Men: the Animated Series and reading mostly X-Men and Spider-Man comics of the 90s. After a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics with Minors in Math and Religious Studies from the University of Arizona, he received a doctorate in Physics from the University of Bonn in Germany. He now teaches Physics and Math at the junior high and high school level in northern Germany, where he lives with his family. He still loves comics; especially the ones that make him ask deep questions.

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