“I am here. I have always been here.” – Moira MacTaggert, “House of X” #2 (Jonathan Hickman and Pepe Larraz)
2019 in X-Men comics was the Year of Moira MacTaggert. This was a development that few would have predicted when the year began. After all, Moira had been dead for almost twenty years – a lifetime in comics, and an eternity in X-Men comics (For context, the resurrections of Cyclops and Wolverine a year earlier followed absences of roughly three and four years respectively). Moreover, even when she had been alive, Moira had hardly been one of Marvel’s more exciting or notable characters. Virtually her entire existence since her creation by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum in December 1975’s X-Men #96 had been spent as a stoic but very much secondary supporting character to the X-Men, playing the role of the team’s dutiful human ally whether by taking wounded mutants to her Muir Island facility or by failing to cure the Legacy Virus, the X-line’s 90s mutant-targeting AIDS allegory.
That all changed in August 2019 with House of X #2, as Jonathan Hickman’s reboot of the X-line drove both comics discourse and sales charts through the roof. In a sensational set of retcons that would be fleshed out in the issues that followed, Hickman and his collaborators, pencillers Pepe Larraz and later RB Silva revealed that Moira was not a human but a mutant, with the power of reincarnation, annihilating her timeline to start fresh with each rebirth. Furthermore, she had done this already – nine times to be precise, leading to her current incarnation as the tenth Moira – Moira X. A series of apparent dystopian alternate futures, a well-worn cliché of X-Men comics, were in fact only her past lives, from which she had learnt a great deal. And rather than a peripheral side character – introduced initially as Charles Xavier’s housekeeper! – she was a secret mastermind behind the X-Men from the very beginning, scheming alongside Xavier and Magneto, using her knowledge to steer mutantkind. The issue itself was well aware of its own audacity, with Moira herself dispelling any idea that this might prove to be a fake-out or a trick of some kind. “Here’s the thing, Charles,” she tells the character who had so long defined her. “It’s not a dream if it’s real.”
Attempts to retcon franchise history on such a scale are almost always doomed to failure, tending towards clumsy execution, fan rejection, or a sense of pointlessness – see the divided reaction to revelations around Thor’s parentage in recent issues of Jason Aaron’s Avengers, or the controversy around J Michael Straczynski’s “spider totem” retcons of Spider-Man in the mid-00s. Despite this, the Moira retcon was an immediate success, generating hugely positive reviews and fan reactions. The execution was careful, utilizing the expanded page count of the effectively 12-issue limited series to shade in details, including data-page journal entries and flashbacks to key scenes ‘between the pages’ of X-History. It was also directly relevant to the present-day plot, presenting the creation of the mutant nation of Krakoa and the accompanying ability to resurrect deceased mutants on the island as the fulfillment of a plan decades in the making – while simultaneously seeding the threads of future plots in the continued secrecy around Moira’s pasts, and in her insistence that the prophetic mutant Destiny could not be resurrected.
More than this though, the retcon achieved that holy grail of successful retcons by casting virtually all of X-Men history in a new light while generating excitement about the future. In the months after the release of HoX #2, the internet was awash with fans digging out Moira scenes from decades of comics to argue about how they could or could not be made to fit with the changes. Moira’s contraction of the Legacy Virus, for instance, supposedly as the first human ever to get it, could certainly be read in a new light; so too could conversations with Charles Xavier or Magneto about future plans, or her complicity in the creation of the ‘original’ X-Men in Deadly Genesis, itself a far less successful earlier retcon to X-history.
Above all, the retcon placed Moira herself in a brand new light, and in so doing upended some of the core traditions of the X-franchise. It had long been somewhat awkward that a franchise celebrated as a metaphor for marginalized groups was defined by the leadership and rivalry of two white men; one of them a Jewish holocaust survivor, yes, but this was hardly an unambiguous positive given his traditional status as the more allegedly morally dubious of the pair. At a stroke, the Moira retcon transformed this by inserting a woman as not only an important figure but arguably the central figure in this relationship – still white, of course, but a step forward nonetheless. Indeed, in a brilliant touch, her exclusion from the narrative as seen prior to this point could itself be seen as social commentary; the idea of the intelligent and experienced woman as the main force driving an agenda in private while louder men dominate the public conversation and reap the rewards is an all-too-familiar one.
For all these discoveries, what was most exciting about Moira at the end of House of X was just how much remained to be done with her. Despite the seismic uncovering of her past, the present version of Moira was kept off-panel throughout almost all of House of X and its companion miniseries, Powers of X. She emerged only in the final issue, October 2019’s Powers of X #6, which revealed her to be hiding in a No-Space at the heart of Krakoa, secretly conferring with Xavier and Magneto as their grand plan neared its culmination. But her ultimate goals and motivations remained thrillingly opaque, and ambiguous. Was her insistence that Destiny could not be resurrected a purely selfish act born from her past bitter experience, or was it driven as she said by a sincere concern that this could disrupt mutantkind? Was she right to be wary of the arrogance of her two co-conspirators, or unduly pessimistic in her insistence that mutants ‘always lose’? All that was beyond doubt was that Moira had been radicalized by her experiences to the point of ruthlessness, ready to do whatever it took to bring about her dreams – and that this seemed destined to unleash enough chaos and complexity to power years of stories ahead.
By the end of 2019 then, Moira MacTaggart represented something unique in X-Men Comics. She was in one sense now the ‘Founding Mother’ of the X-Men, her machinations directly revealed to have led to the creation of first the team itself and now the new mutant nation of Krakoa. From a minor supporting player constantly in the shadow of male protagonists, she had been transformed into a visionary lead, who not only possessed agency but ruthlessly wielded it to the point that even her own consignment to the shadows of No-Space was through her own choice. Even the name of the miniseries that revealed her past and revolutionized the X-line could be seen in light of this choice; while the reader would naturally assume that the titular House of X referred to Charles Xavier, it was every bit as much the House that Moira X built.
For a year and a half after the conclusion of House of X / Powers of X, her appearances in X-Men comics were as regular as they had been in the two decades beforehand – that is to say, essentially non-existent. Yet everything else had changed entirely. Now, fans were clamoring to see more of the character, debating every coded reference to her, smirking at suggestions by oblivious characters that she was no more, and hotly debating the morality and motivations behind her insistence on keeping Destiny dead in the face of her wife Mystique’s growing rage. Moira, it seemed obvious, had become the bomb hidden at the heart of Krakoan bliss, whose future moves would reshape the world of the X-Men as much as her now-uncovered past had done. It wasn’t a dream; it was real.