Moral Dilemmas: The Ethical Ambiguity of Mutant Resurrection (HoX/PoX)
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
This one is a doozy, so a couple quick notes to start us out:
1) Major spoilers going forward if you haven't read House of X/Powers of X, as well as spoilers for a few other pieces of fiction including Magnetic Press' Paris 2119 and the video game Soma.
2) The last X title I read was X-Men #9 back around March, so apologies if I'm overlooking any major updates in this material. I'm aware of some of the content surrounding the X of Swords handling of death so I'll bring some of that up.
So without further delay, let's talk about death, how it's broken, and how reinventing it creates a fantastic door into the realm of existential horror.
For those who don't keep up with X-Men comics, HoX/PoX was a 12-part story published in 2019 that acted as a much needed relaunch to the X-Men comics. To briefly summarize (and breeze over a lot of the complexities, seriously go read it), the story focuses on a paradigm shift as Prof X, Magneto, and Moira MacTaggert create a new nation for all mutants on the mutant island Krakoa. One of the major revelations to come out of the series is that mutantkind has apparently conquered death through the abilities of five mutants whose powers in tandem allow them to bring back any dead mutant with the aid of Prof X's Cerebro.
As a jaded ex-X fan who's been pretty tired of the franchise for over a decade, this series rekindled my interest in this corner of the Marvel Universe and I find this aspect to be one of the more engaging ones Hickman has introduced. In general, death is a pretty broken concept for superhero comics as a whole, losing its weight as a plot device as we've seen resurrection after resurrection negate the impact of said deaths and reducing all future deaths to be suspect of being sensational money grabs. For me the X-Men are some of the worst perpetrators, partially because of how many characters it happens to with regularity and partially because of all the connected abusive tropes ranging from clones, doppelgangers, time travel, magic, and so on. At best we can generally assume a 'death' story just means the character is going on vacation, such as when Johnny Storm was killed 'off camera' in 2011 or when Thor totally for sure permanently died in 2004's Ragnarok story arc. I'm still surprised we never saw a death event advertised with the phrase 'For realsies this time True Believers!' published, but there's always the future to look forward to.
Anywho, after the past few years took a toll on the X-Men in a lot of very painful storylines, Jonathan Hickman's solution to the 'death' problem was probably one of the most adaptively inventive ideas for modern comics; to kill death as a concept and reinvent its purpose as a plot device.
As a change in the status quo of storytelling elements, removing the spectre of death in X-Men fiction has a number of merits. For one it will (hopefully) reduce lazy writing and knee jerk editorial decrees of killing characters in the hopes of increasing sales. It should also ideally force writers to focus on more important elements of characterization and interpersonal relationships, especially considering the new socio-political nature of this paradigm shift. For me though, the most important door it opens is the one to some very morally ambiguous questions and concerns, of which I was unsure if Hickman was truly going to follow up on until X-Men #7 was released. I'll circle back to that particular issue later.
Now unfortunately, this shift in the meaning of 'death' does also means that certain elements of tension are deflated for the foreseeable future. That is unless they come up with creative ways to circumvent the new rules, which they did for the 2020 X of Swords event. I can't really speak much to that though as I haven't read it, but the idea sounds kind of like a necessary capitulation for the sake of increasing the dramatic tension of the event. Which I get from a sales and editorial standpoint, but I also don't really care. I think that the tradeoff of decreasing any potential tension by 'killing' death as a threat is well worth the thematic and conceptual payoffs we'll get in the long term. Gimme some of that sweet sweet existential dread plus a dose of theological crisis for good measure over the fake possibility that Wolverine might die at the hands of Omega Red. News flash, Logan will be fine.
So with all of that in mind, where does the existential crisis and moral ambiguity come in? Well, let's check in on Nightcrawler, shall we?
Kurt Wagner has been established as a devout catholic, so whenever the X-Men need to talk about any issues of faith and all of the attached relevant issues that come with faith then he's the go-to character. Such is the case of X-Men #7 (2020), where it really only briefly teases on these issues as the story starts to scratch at some of the societal implications of resurrections in this new culture that mutankind is building. Seriously, it was one of my favorite single issues of the year and it didn't even really breach the deeper implications of the questions it brought up.
One of the tricks of the resurrection protocols is that while the body of a dead mutant can be reborn through the efforts of the Five, that still leaves the body as a vacant shell essentially. Which is where Cerebro comes in.
Cerebro is consistently making back-up copies of every mutant on the planet. More accurately, back-ups of their memories. So if Cyclops gets murdered six hours after his last back-up, they can bring him back but he's missing those six hours. And while the above pic states, "So he could one day put a soul back into its mutant shell.", that's just Magneto's narration identifying the essence of memories as our soul. It's not as clean cut an idea as that.
Now of quick note as I just reread the whole HoX/PoX HC, there's an interesting exchange between Wolverine and Nightcrawler before their deaths that Nightcrawler mentions above. Knowing that they are going to die, Wolverine asks:
Now it's a little fuzzy in the storytelling whether or not the suicide team knew that the resurrection protocols where in place, but I'll assume they did which makes this exchange interesting. Because keep in mind that both of these characters have died previously, and I'm pretty sure Nightcrawler went to Heaven (Amazing X-Men Vol 2). Indeed, because this is comics and this is the Marvel Universe, we know the afterlife exist in numerous fashions. While you can argue all day if there is a Hell then which hell is the 'true' Hell because we have so many different ones run by Mephisto, Belasco, or Ghost Rider on every other weekday, it can at least be accepted that there are souls at play.
So we can read that last scene a few different ways. Either they didn't know about the resurrection protocols (unlikely), they knew that their current selves (souls) would be truly dead and the resurrected selves were different entities entirely, or they just weren't sure either way so best to say goodbye to be safe.
It's that middle option that's the most engaging and horrifying.
Are we simply the sum of our memories? Is our soul a separate element, if we indeed have a soul? Is the resurrected entity that comes after our death, with our memories up to a certain point, an equivalent entity with the same rights even if it may not have the same soul? Does it have a soul? Does that matter? Do any of these questions matter in the face of the value of resurrecting a version of Magneto to defend mutankind? Xorn in the future would likely say yes, that's all that truly matters:
But Xorn has a singularity for a brain, plus he has one of the most stupidly convoluted histories in X-Men canon, so let's maybe not take his word as gospel.
Let's veer away from those difficult questions to another disturbing concept. I recently read a graphic novel called Paris 2119, a story featuring the progression of transportation technology to the point where people can use a service called Transcore to teleport anywhere on the planet. As the story progresses though it's revealed that while you can be disassembled you actually can't be reassembled. Instead you're copied, while the original you basically vanishes.
And while the copy may be a perfect duplication of your memories (although bad copies can happen, and memories can be altered in transit as well), the original you has been murdered. In the case of this story, we're talking about repeating mass murder on an unthinkable scale. A secret that Transcore would like to keep secret, otherwise they lose everything.
While the scope and the motivations are entirely different, let's keep in mind that Prof X in any timeline and continuity is a duplicitous motherfucker who generally shouldn't be trusted. He's also pretty smart, so he's probably played with these ethical issues a bit before proceeding with his plans in HoX. So the question now is has he made it perfectly clear that to the best of his understanding (and hey, maybe call Doc Strange for a second opinion on this) if you die then technically YOU die: and what comes back is a copy, an echo of the creature you once were in this world? Because that might alter some of the mutant publics decisions in the long run, just saying.
See, if you tell everyone that yeah it will suck a little if you die but you'll be right as rain later, then you got guys like Apocalypse making statements like this willy nilly. Hey I don't really want a sentinel to step on me, but oh well, at least I'll be back in time for the big kegger Wolverine is hosting! Headstrong mutants will be all the more willing to throw their lives away in the name of mutankind because they don't fully understand the full repercussions of their actions now. If the idea that the individual consciousness of a mutant will truly die and be replaced by a new creature isn't honestly put forth to the Krakoan public, then one of the cornerstones of their new society is a lie.
Tired yet? One more nightmare before we go!
In 2015, Frictional Games released the survival horror game Soma.
To quickly summarize, the brain patterns of a cancer patient are scanned in modern times and they wake up inside a machine in a post-apocalyptic future. The original entity whose brain was scanned is long dead, and as you proceed through the game you transfer your consciousness to new bodies. Or more accurately, you copy your consciousness to a new vessel, leaving the previous 'you' behind to suffer a different fate. The end of the game features a version of you leaving for the stars in a digital utopia, while the previous version is trapped at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, alone in the darkness. Conceptually I find this to be horrifying.
I bring this example of this type of horror up because one of the teasers Hickman has laid out in his graphic design text work in HoX/PoX is that the resurrection protocols require confirmation that a mutant has died before they can be brought back. This means that while we are in the realm of cloning as a trope there's a bit more room here for some disturbing psychological horror elements. Will mutant society allow for two versions of the same person to exist? Will the memory back-ups be different enough to qualify them as two unique individuals? Will this be some sort of terrible ST: TNG Will Ryker/Tom Ryker situation, and we eventually get stuck with a Logan Howlett and a James Howlett? See, the potential horror is in bad storytelling as well.
As nightmare scenarios go, this one is pretty up there.
What could be more interesting though is that if we do end up with multiple versions of a character they can not only explore issues of the soul versus memory, but also to what extent are the different copies of people valued? One of the elements of Soma is that you have an option to euthanizing the old you or to just let them be. Is that murder? Or is it just erasing redundant files?
I'll leave you with this last tidbit. The group of X-Men that died in House of X #4 include Monet, Cyclops, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Jean Grey, Husk, Archangel, and Mystique. If it's eventually resolved that their resurrections are copies without the original soul (assuming we accept souls exist as we've seen them in the Marvel Universe), then that means that all of those characters are truly dead. So if you're a big Nightcrawler fan, you're guy is dead again. Cyclops, Jean, and Wolverine were just resurrected right before HoX/PoX, only to die again.
And we have probably a few years before this paradigm shift gets retconned, so get used to the idea that those people are dead. Now, how much does it matter to you that you're reading about memories of them, echos that resonate after their passing but still echos?
As a piece of fiction, how does that affect your enjoyment of fiction and the characters? Is it enough that it looks like a Nightcrawler and sounds like a Nightcrawler, so it may as well be Nightcrawler? Or does your mind now compartmentalize them as a different entity, and if so how does that alter your interpretation of the work? Or is it business as usual?
What does this mean for you?