…Okay, let’s do this.
House of M is bad. It’s really bad. There’s no overstating how bad it is. But in a weird way, it’s kind of adorable. Given just how terrible Civil War and Avengers vs. X-Men are, House of M just does not rise to the level soul crushingly awful. It’s the sort of bad that you just want to pinch its cheeks.
Part of why it is bad is that it is a spine story. There are generally two types of crossovers. The first is sequential. With those crossovers each part is laid out in direct order, you read part one in one book and then part two in a different book. Spines are different. The core series forms the spine of the skeleton, with the tie ins building off of it like bones build off the body. In these crossovers, theoretically, you can skip any stories you are not interested in, and not miss anything. But that also makes them unwieldy, messy and flabby. The tie in series can intersect with the main series at any point in the narrative, and so lots and lots of time has to be dedicated to a holding pattern where nothing much is going on, lest some tie in spoil a major plot point. It also means the middle section of the main series is basically just an advertisement for a dozen different books (“If you want to see why Doctor Doom is mad at Magneto, see House of M: Fantastic Four #1 on sale now!”). So yeah, it’s not a style that usually delivers great material.
But anyway when we last left off, the Avengers had given the insane, reality warping, murderous Scarlet Witch to her father who also happens to be the world’s most infamous terrorist. Not really willing to admit just how poorly conceived that idea was, the Avengers invite over the X-Men to have joint discussion on the fate of the woman they no longer even have access to. Emma Frost suggest killing her, an idea everyone hates. Then Wolverine suggest killing her, and everyone is pretty much sold on that idea. Captain America decides they should go have a talk with her, even though (and I shit you not) she’s already talking to Doctor Strange and Professor Xavier. What, exactly, Captain America thinks he can accomplish that two doctors with the most relevant powers to the situation can’t is left unsaid. So the gang travels to Genosha and the world suddenly goes bonkerballs.
Magneto is now king of Earth and everyone else gets free ice cream because their greatest dreams all come true. And then… nothing happens for many, many issues. Well, I suppose not “nothing,” a little girl, who is nothing more than a walking plot device because she has the convenient powers to make everyone remember the world as it originally was, shows up. So we are treated to Wolverine individually recruiting every member of the X-Men and Avengers because it is an eight issue comic and nothing important can happen before issue seven.
The whole series is just fairly banal trip through an alternate reality. The highlight of the crossover really is House of M: Fantastic Four as it does dig deep into what Doctor Doom could possibly want, and the sad truth it finds is that it isn’t possible for him to feel happy. But most of the rest of the tie ins are exactly what you would expect if you gave a writer the directive to write what each characters’ fantasy world would be. It’s all horribly tedious and dull. Do we really need to revisit the idea that Spider-Man is married to Gwen Stacy and his uncle Ben is alive?
And, for the most part, no one even does anything with the setting. The world is run by mutants. A talented writer could run with the utopian or dystopian views of what that could mean. But no one really contemplates any consequences that would flow from placing Magneto as king of the world (other than the occasional mention of monarchy being a resurgent form of government).
I suppose the series can’t be analyzed without looking at the ending. The Scarlet Witch, still insane, decides to magically genocide mutants out of existence by literally saying “no more mutants.” Due to a combined magical/telepathic protection spell by Doctor Strange and Emma Frost, a small number of mutants (originally stated to be 198, but regularly fluctuating both up and down over the next decade) the mutants in their general vicinity were protected (so they could justify the X-Men’s biggest loss to depowerment being Jubilee). It remains a baffling and terrible ending. First off, it comes at the close of a silly little story where Wanda’s powers were presented as just putting wallpaper over existence. There’s no justification for why House of M was not really real, but this is really real. And more importantly, just having a major superhero casually magical genocide an entire minority out of existence… is a pretty dark resolution to what was, as I said, a pretty silly story.
Even more puzzling was how it played out in the real world. House of M was the baby of Avengers writer Brian Michael Bendis. It was supposed to be the big resolution to the steaming pile of dog excrement that was Avengers Disassembled. It didn’t particularly resolve anything, it just added more shit on the shit sandwich. And it was left to Bendis to explain what happened. His justification was nonsense, he claimed the ending was because he felt mutants weren’t special enough now that they had become a more of an actual minority with millions of people. But once more… why the fuck was an Avengers writer who had no plans to write the X-Men making vast sweeping editorial decisions for the X-books? We can never know what went on in the offices of Marvel, and maybe the ending of House of M originated with the X-Men writers and Bendis simply had to explain it because he happened to write the main series. But also it could have been his idea all along. Either way, it was unsatisfying, particularly since it undid decades of work, in particular Grant Morrison’s much beloved X-Men run.
And the X-books didn’t really even have a handle on the story they were given. It would be one thing if Decimation (the X-books line wide title for how each book dealt with the fallout from House of M) was uniformly excellent. Then it could be dismissed as a painfully bad piece of table setting to get things where they needed to be. But for every X-Factor vol. 3, there was a The 198 that was just terrible. And for the most part the X-books were just listlessly sluging along in that aftermath. Eventually writers took over who legitimately did have story ideas for the new status quo, and the X-books snapped back into an unheard of line wide excellence. At least until the garbage dump that was Avengers vs. X-Men.
What the X-books did do correctly right from the start, was that they didn’t shy away from the horror of what happened. Many, many people died when their powers suddenly didn’t work. And many more people were left deformed because while energy manipulating abilities could simply vanish, Wanda wasn’t so great at making physiological powers simply go away. It was presented uniformly as a horrifying, traumatic tragedy, in direct contrast to the more sedate versions of the various cures. And as the storyline played out, the X-books shifted to being about an incredibly fragile ethnic minority that was always one bad day away from ceasing to exist. The books almost prognosticated the existence of groups like ISIS and how they treat groups like the Yazidis (which, I mean, granted its not like history isn’t full of similar stories).
At the time House of M felt apocalyptically bad. But that was without knowing something as terrible as Civil War was on the horizon. In retrospect it seems like a fairly banal and bloated crossover that had a particularly bad ending. It’s hard to even properly hate it anymore, now that stuff as excellent as Messiah Complex and stuff as atrocious as Avengers vs. X-Men exist. It’s neither, it’s just kind of bad.