Ultimate X-Men is a tough title to get a read on. The fact that the run has been broken down into blocks by all manner of superstar writers means that there’s really no consistent underlying principle feeding through the eight-year life of the title. On the other hand, the fact that none of these big name writers like Mark Millar or Brian Michael Bendis could create a book living up to the series’ potential indicates that maybe there wasn’t a writer who could steward the book through its entire life cycle. Ultimate Spider-Man serves in many ways as a fulfillment of the promise of the Ultimate line, it’s almost a single, decade-long story of growth and development, the very evolution of a world of superheroes. Ultimate X-Men is very much the opposite, the constantly bending backwards over itself, jolting, starting and reversing as it seems unable to decide where exactly it’s going at any given moment. Robert Kirkman’s run is perhaps the best examples of the series’ strengths and ultimately (ha!) its weaknesses.
Note: Some of Aron Coleitte’s work is covered in the Hardcover Volume 9 (with the rest of his short run spilling over into the Ultimatum Hardcover). If I can bring myself to pick up Ultimatum, I will run a review of his rather short tenure on the title. This review is only concerned with Kirkman’s run – up until the end of the Apocalypse arc.
I appreciate what Kirkman is attempting here, I really do. He’s attempting to use the “ultimate” streamlined continuity as a vehicle for the retelling and romanticising of the early nineties X-Men titles. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing necessarily incorrect about his perspective – Geoff Johns’ relaunch of Green Lantern is the same sort of nostalgia trip that Kirkman seems to be going for (albeit focused on the Silver Age rather than the Dark Age). The problem is that Kirkman doesn’t seem entirely sure of how to make that sort of nostalgia work within the context of the series he is writing.
Take for example the arrival of Apocalypse – clearly intended as the crowning moment in his run. Kirkman has ticked all the right boxes foreshadowing-wise. There’s the death of Sinister, the arrival of Cable, the schisms in society slowly appearing, the hints from Bishop. But when he arrives we get four issues of Apocalypse tearing through New York. Just action sequence after action sequence. There’s no hint of any stakes, he has no character, no motivations. Though his arrival has been given all these ominous connotations, we have no idea what it means. Is he going to enslave humanity, or destroy them? Why bother building statues of yourself in urban wastelands and so on?
It’s just an excuse for the character to appear, get trounced and a giant reset button to be hit. The fact that the reset button was hinted at (Liliandra’s explanation that the Phoenix doesn’t destroy worlds but remakes them in Date Night, Kirkman’s very first arc) doesn’t excuse it. I remarked in an earlier review that X-Men in general is stuck in a rut because the reader knows that the status quo can never change. What’s the point in a civil rights metaphor if the status quo never changes? There’s a whole host of fascinating ideas suggested – for example when the Phoenix suggests the consequences that the appearance of Apocalypse will have for Mutantkind, just before hitting that giant reset button. It’s a shame, because the wonderful thing about a separate continuity (in theory) is that it gives writers freedom. One of the most exciting prospects on paper for Ultimate X-Men is that it could have featured the integration of mutants into society. Unfortunately, it seems that never occurred to anyone.
It’s a damn shame, because Kirkman has a lot of good ideas at work here. His portrayal of Nick Fury as an adviser on the mutant problem is fascinating (if a little subtle), a character described as “a good man” in a near impossible situation. It’s a great idea to see Scott take over the Xavier Institute and actually run it like a school – his logic is quite compelling. Unfortunately that is also abandoned in the mad scramble. I think his Nightcrawler ideas might have had some potential, but they aren’t really fully developed. Kirkman never really demonstrates the necessary link between Kurt’s faith and his hatred of Pete.
Kirkman’s run is fascinating because it seems to shift tone remarkably quickly. There’s a sense that he had a plan half-way through the run and then abandoned it. His initial arcs suggest the idea that the Ultimate line has moved far enough that it can start developing its own characters rather than simply “ultimizing” existing characters – the arrival of “the Magician” in Pheonix? and Magical, for example – although admittedly the character seems very like Mark Miller’s interpretation of David, the Professor’s son in the strongest of his arcs, World Tour; so stealing from Millar’s best arc might not have been the best idea.
And yet despite this early temptation to try something new, the rest of Kirkman’s run is a sprawling adaptation of a “classic” storyline. There are also other threads which seem to be hinted strongly at early in the run and then cast aside in the race towards a conclusion. Take, for example, Cornelius Stirk’s experiments on Wolverine revealed at the climax of Date Night – these are dealt with in the opening three pages of the penultimate story on his run, The Shadow King. Speaking of which, the Shadow King has been hinted at from the very start as well, but ends up getting crammed into an overcrowded single-issue story (with “the Brood”). Or the reintroduced Hellfire Club in Pheonix?, quickly dealt with in a few panels of Sentinels. I’m no expert, but I sense that there was quite a bit going on behind the scenes.
In defense of Kirkman, his way of structuring his story is generally effective. Despite being broken down into arcs, it reads like one huge epic. Unfortunately none of the threads really deliver effectively, but he does manages to tie most of them up. He works well with most of the characters – even if I don’t necessarily buy his writing of Nightcrawler. His characters seem young but – for the most part – they avoid the attempts to be cool or hip that plagued Mark Millar’s tenure on the title. Kirkman also effectively sidelines Wolverine, which gives the other characters room to breathe (particularly Storm, Jean and Cyclops).
There’s also an interesting exploration of mutant subculture provided here. The Morlocks are a welcome addition to the world of the X-Men, as is the suggestion of growing unease among mutant society (the Mutant Liberation Front). It’s also interesting to see the emergence of human militias responding to this (the Friends of Humanity) – between that and the Fenris twins attempting to make the policing of the mutant issue a corporate matter (albeit ridiculously), Kirkman seems to tangentially suggest the privatisation of the mutant issue. It’s an interesting idea which suggests that perhaps the book has been closed on government response to the mutant issue, but societal prejudice remains. It suggests progress and evolution – however faintly. It’s a shame that Kirkman doesn’t really explore a potentially novel aspect of human/mutant relations – particularly when the book seems intend on revisiting the same creative well indefinitely.
It’s more of a shame that he relies so heavily on traditional devices. For example his decision to kill and resurrect Professor Charles Xavier (while turning him into a gun-tooting badass) offered numerous storytelling opportunities – the growth of the school, the emergence of his pupils from his shadow and the impact on human/mutant relations. Kirkman toys a bit with these ideas – even though I think there was a lot more to the civil rights angle than the Sentinels arc would suggest - but bringing the Professor back undermines everything we’ve seen. Similarly, Kirkman’s decision to revive Beast undermines the impact of the death during Brian Michael Bendis’ run on the title. It undermines the sense of drama which should accompany a character’s demise (and yes – it’s a traditional device in superhero comic books, but it’s something that the Ultimate line seems to have tried to avoid).
There’s plenty here for a nerd to appreciate – obscure references from the trifaced character appearing in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men to a reference to the team’s time in Australia in the 1980s – but that’s besides the point. The purpose of the ultimate line was supposedly to streamline the story, to boil it down, to offer an ultimate version of it. Not to cram as many references into a story arc as possible and make it arguably as tangled and complicated as mainstream continuity – in fact, the line was created to sidestep these continuity issues, instead getting tangled up in them itself.
The art is actually fairly strong here, which also helps excuse some of the problems with the writing. Much as throughout the title’s history, there are quite a few artists at work here. It helps that – unlike during Millar’s run, for example – the artwork within individual arcs is (for the most part) consistent. The highlights include Tom Raney’s work on Date Night and Salvadore Larocca on Apocalypse (the best thing about that story, to be frank).
Ultimately it’s a mediocre run undermined by a very weak conclusion. There’s a sense of fun to be had in watching what seems to be an epic story unfold, but Kirkman seems to lose himself a bit near then end, rushing to close open threads and simply offering a four-issue fight scene instead of a true climax.
If you enjoyed this review, you might want to check out our other reviews of the complete Ultimate X-Men runs:
- Mark Millar’s Run (Hardcover Vol. #1-3)
- Brian Michael Bendis’ Run (Hardcover Vol. #4)
- Brian K. Vaughan’s Run (Hardcover Vol. #5-6)
- Robert Kirkman’s Run (Hardcover Vol. #7-9)
Filed under: Comics Tagged: | 1990s, apocalypse, bishop, cable, comic books, date night, magical, marvel, marvel comics, pheonix?, retrospective, review, robert kirkman, sentinels, the magician, ultimate apocalypse, ultimate marvel, ultimate universe, ultimate x-men, x-men