Mark Millar scribed the original run of Ultimate X-Men and these issues greatest appeal, to me at least, was a cast of five young X-men who were completely unburdened by continuity. None of them had died and come back to life, were raised on Mount Wundagore by an anthropomorphic cow, or spent the early half of their life in an alternate dimension being raised by their own sister who was also from the future of a completely different dimension. I love me some comic book schlock but the idea that before they had put on their X-duds Scott Summers, Jean Grey, Hank McCoy, Bobby Drake, Peter Rasputin and Ororo Munroe were just normal people who been living their reasonably normal lives made each one of these young heroes deeply human and relatable.
However at the same time they could also feel incredibly shallow and vapid. Remember when Storm and Jean Grey went roller skating and talked about how much they dreaded turning twenty and becoming "old and fat and uncool" or when Beast revealed the secret location of one of X-Men's most powerful enemies because he thought Blob was a chick on an internet dating site? This problem stems from the combination of two things.
One is the Ultimate Universe's continuous, desperate effort to be edgy, hip, modern and just generally spelling cool with a K and a W. The other is Mark Millar and the all encompassing feeling of loathing, contempt and utter hatred for ALL OF HUMANITY that seems to seethe within the pages of every book of his that I have ever read. It was in The Ultimates and it was certainly in Ultimate X-Men.
No one is likeable, everyone hates/ mistrusts every one else, the X-Men don't even really seem to want to be heroes and the book pounds home at every opportunity that humanity is repulsive, loathsome and not even worth protecting. By the end the only thing that really seems to separate the hero's from the villains is the that the heroes have killed slightly less innocent people over the course of their lives than the villains have.
This got off track quick but I've had that stored up for awhile. The Ultimate Universe has a weird draw that both attracts and repulses me. As much as I claim to hate it I find myself wandering back and rereading it because there is alot there that is exciting, engaging, new and genuine. I leave and come back and slowly the resentment boils until I can't contain it anymore. It might as well come out now. The point is that I'm constantly drawn to the Ultimate X-Men, constantly intrigued by it's potential despite the result never quite hitting the mark I've set for it in my head. But despite my totally biased and unrealistic personal tastes, Ultimate X-Men is usually pretty good(Ultimatum and that general period not withstanding). I liked much of Bendis's run though it was marred by the whole thing where Beast dies to prove how edgy and unpredictable Ultimate universe is. My favorite runs were by Brian K. Vaughan and the first half of Kirkman's because both focused on expanding the stories of less appreciated characters like Nightcrawler, Havok, and Rogue by using smaller scale but more personal stories. Ultimatum has pretty much been covered and I was not reading at the time Loeb's Ultimate X and Nick Spencers' Ultimate Comics X-Men were coming out so I can't talk much about those.
That brings us to the newest face in Ultimate X-Men line up, popular independent writer Bryan Wood. His run has much the same effect on me as previous ones, there is some recurring stuff that rubs me the wrong way but I have to keep reminding myself that overall these are really good comics. Wood's premise is very interesting so that while, yeah, the idea of a mutant nation is not completely new I don't think it's ever been done from this very "on the ground, nuts and bolts" sort of level. Wood uses a large cast of very young characters to show readers the birth of the next generation of mutants. There is no Professor Xavier, Magneto, or even a Cyclops to guide them as they determine the new status quo for mutants in the Ultimate Universe. I love the core cast and the fact that Brian Wood is dusting off a bunch of smaller x-characters and reinventing them This includes one of my personal favorite 90's left overs, Husk of Generation X. Wood takes the X-Men into territory that feels genuinely new and unexplored, stripping away almost all the classic superhero trappings and approaching one of their main themes from a completely human perspective. The X-Men are no longer costumed vigilantes but mutant freedom fighters, an oppressed minority struggling for liberty and self determination against an antagonistic society. There are few things still weighing the series down in my opinion, though.
For one thing it's really, really dry. Painfully dry, with Brian Wood making it clear straight from the get go that if there is one thing no one is allowed to do in Ultimate Comics X-Men it is make a joke. Or smile, or basically do anything other than brood and discuss how dire the situation is. I've found myself wondering why Iceman is even on the team since in seven issues he receives almost no panel time, no hint of an arc and is seemingly in the series only to get shushed by the other characters for not realizing that "this is for real." Rogue's presence is similarly baffling. Her character is dealing with some vague, inconsistent type of schizophrenia that causes her to look sad all the time. It is talked about but never explicitly shown or explained fully, I assume because this story point is a hold over from the previous writer that Wood cares absolutely nothing about but has trouble figuring out how to get rid off. He finally does through the random introduction and then disappearance of Quentin Quire however he continues to bring it up for some reason, make her problem that is not even a problem anymore Rogue's defining character trait.
But anyway, yeah. Really dry. It's nice to see smart characters who look at a situation and try to figure out the repercussions of their actions instead of just jumping in and punching stuff because that's what superheroes do, but the cast of Ultimate Comics X-Men is a walking debate club. They analyze every situation, discussing the societal, moral, political, and practical ramifications of what they're going to eat for breakfast in a disjointed imitation of Bendis-speak at it's worse. As this goes, on six panels with nothing but characters talking has eaten up space that could have been used to show them actually doing something. It's visually not very interesting and the characters, for all their words, don't manage to convey a whole lot of distinct personality or humanity because all their conversations are painfully obvious exposition dumps that don't follow the beats and rhythms of real human interaction. Kitty's overhead narration serves the very practical purpose of allowing the writer to convey large amounts of information easily, something that is necessary in a story that is so detail oriented. However they are a little over used, sometimes describing things that the artist either has or should have already made clear visually. Overhead narration regulates all events to the past tense, draining away their immediacy and thus the readers emotional involvement. When Kitty picks up the assault rifle( and later the pistol given to her by Nick Fury) we are flat out told that the gun is a source of emotional conflict for her, a symbol of both the responsibility she feels as the new leader of mutant kind and the threat of violence that her mutant revolution might lead to.A teammate turns traitor and sets off a bomb in the mutants camp, however rather than show the event and the characters reactions in real time the issue has Kitty narrate from the future and describe what happened and how every body felt about it. Because the revelation of a traitor, a bomb going off, and the effects of a "cure" for mutants were not nearly interesting enough for one issue, it really needed those four and a half pages of Kitty being snarky to a SHIELD agent to work.
And it does not help that the single most talked about subject in the entire book is Kitty Pryde. How she is obviously a natural leader, how she saved mutant kind and earned each characters trust or conversely, how terrible she is, why she should not be the leader of the group, and why each character hates her.
Kitty Pryde is this, Kitty Pryde is that and ironically every one spends so much time talking about Kitty that the only character we get to see her interact or form a relationship with is Jimmy Hudson.
The second frustrating point might have to be the art. Paco Medina strikes me as strange choice for this book because his style seems like it would fit better in a straight super hero book. Everything seems so bright, colorful and energetic that while reading the books you are just dying to see him draw dudes in full costumes flying around, shooting lightning out of their butt cracks, and just generally doing awesome superhero stuff. Meanwhile Wood is doing a toned down, no-costumes book about mutants banding together to fight a guerrilla war in the deserts of the South Western United States. This is a story where real world rules about violence apply (i.e getting shot by bullets = death) and for the characters victory means not dying of dehydration by the end of the issue. However Medina adapts just fine, bridging the gap excellently by providing visually interesting environments and characters that look natural both in and out costume, which is something many regular superhero artists have trouble with. The issues by him are usually the best in the series but the same can not be said for some of the fill-in artists backing him up.
There is a small host of back-up artists who's styles range from unique but a little jarring
to stock filler artist
Barberi in particular sticks out like a sore thumb. His style is vaguely similar to Medina's but the characters are top heavy and weirdly distended, often veering into cheesecake territory.
I hate to get too negative or sound like I am making a personal attack so I'll make a parallel to kind of illustrate what I'm trying to say.
Barberi's style reminds me a lot of Mark Brooks, another artist with a more cartoonish look. Both artists would be completely acceptable and even at home in a lighter, funnier, book. Both artists worked on Deadpool books for a time. Both artists are wildly out of place on Ultimate X-Men, especially when the comic tries so desperately hard make the audience take it seriously
As always the curse of Ultimate X-Men is that it has so, so much potential. It could be completely amazing instead of just kind of good sometimes. Whew. Now that that I'm done complaining about stuff I actually like, I promise next post I'll be going back to my happy place. It helps that the next item on my list is none other than All-Star Western.