When the X-Men reboot from writer Jonathan Hickman debuted in 2019 with The House of X and Powers of X series, Marvel’s resident mutant team was given a new, sleek look that utilized white pages of supplemental text. This helped establish the world of this new era of X-Men stories, making it instantly recognizable for its emphasis on graphic design. Aside from creating a unified aesthetic that all X-Men books have followed since, these pages have enclosed journal entries, letters, and reports that give the reader an unprecedented level of omniscience into life on the island of Krakoa.
This type of storytelling that uses found documents is rare to see in superhero comics, as it harks back to a literary genre known as the epistolary novel. With stories such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the epistolary novel is a story composed of documents such as letters and diary entries, giving the reader a unique sense of immersion into the story. For Hickman’s X-Men, the use of epistolary techniques has shaken up the comics’ form, telling a fascinating story within a story that highlights the dangers of Krakoan life.
The cues taken from epistolary novels is perfect for this current era of X-Men books, because it emphasizes key areas of disunity taking hold on Krakoa. In addition, it also outlines the policies and protocols that shape mutant life on the island. This stems largely from the resurrection protocols that have fundamentally changed mutant society. With death no longer an issue to the majority of Krakoa’s population, the X-Men have entered a new age of depersonalization that is eroding the unity that they have sought to forge in the first place. With the fate of individual bodies no longer tied to the fate of the people who inhabit them, there is an eerie sense of disposability that has pervaded Krakoa’s culture, evident in the documents included in each comic.
The documents enclosed in each issue of X-Men and their related books thus tell a story of how mutants have lost their ability to relate to each other and to stand united against the forces that threaten them. Resurrection has given mutants a sense of clinical detachment from life, manifested in the sterile tone and appearance of the documents. When viewed all together, this unique hallmark of Hickman’s X-Men tells the series’ deepest story, one that challenges the form of superhero comics to begin with.
What is crucial about the documents themselves is that they counter many of the ways that comics work as a storytelling medium. When a reader picks up an X-Men comic, or any other Marvel comic, they typically expect to see characters interacting with each other and to follow the story’s emotional beats through the book’s art. But the documents that intersperse the action of Hickman’s X-Men are devoid of art, and other visual cues that readers rely on in order to gauge the emotions of the scene. What they provide instead is raw information, whether it be into a character’s mind or in private correspondence. This emphasis on information from the documents segments the reader’s experience with the heroes’ emotions, providing both an immersive look into their private thoughts whilst also losing a visual representation of it.
This sterile appearance and tone of the documents are utilized to great effect in X-Force #17, providing a portrait of resurrection’s problems (written by Benjamin Percy, art by Joshua Cassara, colors by GURU-eFX, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna, design by Tom Muller). A resurrection report in the issue shows a list of requests that Kid Omega (Quentin Quire) made to the Five, the body responsible for resurrecting fallen mutants. Among the quests are changes to his hair color and adjustments to his eyes, making them purely superficial.
This report shows the new approach that mutants have to being reborn. Rebirth is like going to the grocery store, a fact of life rather than a duplication of it. The document’s matter-of-fact tone conveys this bizarre aspect of Krakoan life in a way that comics art could not.
Conversely, other resurrection-related documents demonstrate the flip side to the mutants’ new relationship with life. In New Mutants #15, Wolfsbane (Rahne Sinclair) finds out through a letter from Elixir (Josh Foley) that her son, Tier, is not in the resurrection queue (written by Vita Ayala, art by Rod Reis, letters by VC’s Travis Lanham, and design by Tom Muller). The news is crushing, and the letter from Elixir tersely breaks the news. In the next scene, Rahne sobs to Dani Moonstar about the news. By including the letter in the comic, the development for Rahne’s character is made even more gut-wrenching because of how impersonal it is. While Elixir states that he cares about Rahne, the letter is so brief and so devoid of personal touches that it fails to convey any emotional support.
The letter also provides an important point that the epistolary aspects of Hickman’s X-Men stories have embodied. Elixir could have just told Rahne in person about the bad news, or readers could have been given a scene where Rahne finds out from another one of her teammates. But instead, the news is broken to both Rahne and the reader in the exact same way through the form of the letter, placing the reader in Rahne’s shoes. Both character and fan are awoken to the emotional devastation of resurrection and its reality through the letter’s depersonalized tone.
This bold vision of the X-Men has effectively conveyed Krakoa’s core problems surrounding resurrection. While the epistolary form has been used prominently as a way to document horrifying circumstances (like in Dracula and Frankenstein), the documents themselves in Hickman’s X-Men are pieces of horror. They provide a look into an X-Men team being broken up by forces meant to preserve and protect them.
In accompanying the events of each story, the documents used in the X-Men books expand fans’ reading experience with superhero comics. They immerse the reader in the world of secrets and underlying danger that pervades Krakoa, creating a foreboding sense of danger. As the future of the X-Men on the island looks more and more grim, readers can only hope that the secrets they have been privy to will finally break out into the open before it is too late.