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Mark Millar’s Run on Ultimate X-Men – Vol. 1-3 (Hardcover)

There’s a reason you don’t hear a lot of people talk about this particular addition to Mark Millar’s bibliography. Very simply, it’s not very good. It’s as if Mark Millar has taken the usual explosive energy that underpins his work and turning it up so high that all we can discern is just a screeching noise. It doesn’t help that the book manages to turn just about every strength he demonstrated during The Ultimates into a weakness.

Because it wouldn't be an X-Men book without Wolverine on the cover...

Because it wouldn't be an X-Men book without Wolverine on the cover...

There area lot of notions that feel like cheap copouts during Millar’s run, devices designed solely for the manipulation of the audience rather than for any value of themselves. I think I see what he was attempting to do, but it falls flat because it seems like he wants to go for an all-out ridiculousness, but there’s something holding him back. I read a commentator who suggested that this has always been the problem with X-Men in print: the stakes they deal with are so ridiculously high, and the future seemingly so ridiculously inevitable, but nothing ever actually happens because it would mess up continuity with all the other Marvel stories. I can see the point and Millar is bound to it, as much as he may pretend otherwise.

I say ‘pretend’ because – with all credit to Millar for this – he has the guts to open his story in what seems to be a fascist dystopian United States. He doesn’t seem to care that this screws with the bright and shiny New York in Ultimate Spider-man, and he’s right not to. But this showmanship is undermined by the fact that he can’t really change the status quo. I’m not talking about having the bad guys win and destroy humanity or anything crazy like that, I’m talking about the evolution that the series needs in order to seem to be moving forward. If the series is about evolution or integration, it needs to show us that, instead of treading water and offering superheroic battles.

A class act?

Millar seems to know what the series is about (he reportedly based his adaptation on the movie), and seems to want to talk about integration and prejudice and hatred. It almost seems like he has something to say about terrorism through Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants, by no means a new slant on things – the old comic book lore is that Magneto is the militant Malcolm X to Xavier’s peaceful Martin Luthor King. The problem with Millar’s desire to actually discuss the issue and motivation for terrorism is that it’s undermined by the aforementioned crazy and daring break from reality.

He has Cyclops join Magneto’s brotherhood – implying that there is at least some grain of sympathy for these devils and murderers and terrorists, even allowing for the folly of youth (and Millar tries to make his Cyclops seem sane and level-headed). That would be a brave notion to express in today’s climate – but they don’t live in today’s climate. They live in a world where the US government has given shoot-to-kill orders on children just because they are different. If that is what is required to generate some form of moral complexity, then Millar does his ideas a disservice. It’s hard not to get the sense that Millar’s politics are writing the plot as Magneto humbles President Bush, and I am somewhat glad that Millar himself seems to have toned down these tendencies in his run on The Ultimates – it’s meant to be cutting edge, but it comes off as infantile.

Does Wolverine carry this collection on his back?

Millar doesn’t seem to understand prejudice – or, if he does, he doesn’t care. It’s not about slavery (when the X-Men are forced into the service of the US government in Return to Weapon X), at least not in this day and age – if that sort of prejudice still exists, it isn’t prominent enough to be the kind we need to worry about. The hatred that the X-Men experience is another aspect rounded up to eleven, but it’s never insightful or well-observed, it’s always crude and exaggerated. There’s none of the gnawing, clawing and festering prejudice that really claws society these days, it’s all racism with a capital RACISM. And the only way to deal with racists, even those relying solely on oratory (like the Senator exploiting Bobby Drake)? It’s to use your powers on them (Bobby freezes his testicles, in a petty display), thus justifying their position from their own perspective and preventing any necessary discussion. Whatever you do, certainly don’t apply reason.

And then there’s the characters. I don’t mean that I don’t like Millar’s universe because he changed the characters (I don’t mind many of the fundamental changes which Bendis made to Ultimate Spider-Man), just that they aren’t interesting or compelling. Millar can’t write teenagers, which isn’t to pretend that everybody can, but it’s very noticeable when he’s writing a book populated with them. They all seem horribly forced and hip and ‘totally rad’ with all their popular culture references. Beyond that, many are just too dumb to live. Maybe Millar is saying something about teenage alienation with Cyclops remaining in contact with the Brotherhood of Mutants after returning to the X-Men, but he is dealing with a bunch of sociopathic killers. I can understand Xavier meeting with Magneto or the leadership of the terrorists, and it is an established trope to have enemies hang out socially, but this pushes it, particularly when Cyclops’ main disagreement with them is that they kill people. It isn’t exactly over something that teenagers are liable to work around, like music tastes or political views: they think taking life is acceptable and he doesn’t. That isn’t something you just “get over”.

Not quite a perfect storm...

Not quite a perfect storm...

The adult characters don’t come across much better. I admire what Millar is attempting to do with Charles Xavier. The power to bend people’s wills is a truly frightening gift for someone to have, and it would undoubtedly produce the arrogance which we see in Xavier (and the same doubt that his students express over their own free will), and Millar is brave to acknowledge these and even have Xavier himself realise this. However, having Xavier acknowledge this (as he does at the end of World Tour) can only be a brave move if it leads to character development. Instead the character remains as arrogant as ever. Maybe in any other comic Millar’s Wolverine would seem a refreshing anti-hero, but here he just seems too much – sociopathic and almost pedophilic in his relationship with an underage Jean Gray. He seems like a predator, all right, but probably not the kind that Millar was going for.

And then there’s Magneto. Perhaps the most philosophically interesting villain in the pantheon of comic books – reduced to a raving lunatic cannibal. Millar is likely trying to make a point with Magneto’s cannibalism – we eat lower animals, of course, so why wouldn’t he eat humans? – but it’s undermined by the general fact that his Magneto is not only seemingly evil for the sake of being evil, but he’s also an idiot. When plotting to destroy the world, he preserves two of every creature (including man). As interesting thematically as that might be, it’s also just stupid – for a creature supposed to be the next evolution of mankind, he doesn’t seem to get that you need more than two to create a genetically feasible community. It’s almost as stupid as Xavier flying around on the back of a Sentinal.

At least you don't have to wade through continuity...

All this might be understandable if the stories were particularly interesting or compelling, but they’re not. Millar is more interested in funky high concepts than in pacing or narrative. Everything seems to happen simply because it needs to happen for what happens next to happen, rather than flowing from character or logic or themes. Admittedly this means that amid all the horribly clichéd plot threads (Kitty Pryde proves herself, Colossus has doubts), there’s one or two interesting ones thrown out (Magneto’s computer ‘evolving’ as a counterpoint to organic evolution and Xavier’s son, David) – but these are crammed on in there with dozens of different, competing ideas, meaning that reading the book is a lot like eating Revels – you never know what you’re going to get, and it is as likely to be vomit-inducing as thought-provoking.

The plots themselves are packed with internal inconsistencies. I don’t pretend that The Ultimates or Ultimate Spider-Man are always bulletproof, but they generate enough momentum to allow the reader to ‘gloss over’ the more ridiculous elements. Here there are far too many questions – what kind of recruitment policy does the Xavier Institute have, letting Wolverine into their midst without batting an eye and then allowing Cyclops to change allegiances like he’s changing his shirt? What is Magneto smoking if he plans to repopulate with just two of every species? How come Xavier – the most powerful telepath in the world – can’t tell that a whole mansion full of party people are planning to betray him? And so on.

Putting the "team" in "extream"... And no, English is not a course at the Xavier Institute...

That said, credit where credit is due. Millar can write action. In the final confrontation with Magneto during The Tomorrow People, it looks like he may pull it together. It helps that there’s generally less teen angst in these segments. And his one-shots are very good and interesting reads of themselves (take A Different World is Possible, for example). The problem is that – for the most part – they really have little impact. Xavier’s logical and reasoned epiphany in a later issue changes nothing.

I’m really not sure what to make of the art. It’s from a wide variety of different artists with styles conflicting and contrasting. Some are good, others are less so. Some are clear and fit quite well with the other Ultimate books, but others are nearly abstract (not really – I’m slightly exaggerating). It doesn’t help that most of these transitions happen between chapters of the same story – further throwing audiences for a loop.

Jetting into action...

As you can probably tell from this, the bad really outweighs the good in this collection. Admittedly X-Men is a tough cookie to adapt to this sort of medium in this manner – it can’t run solely on the fun and playfulness with defined Ultimate Spider-Man, nor can it count on the blockbuster philosophy which defined The Ultimates. X-Men is fundamentally a story about hate and prejudice and difference, which are big important themes. Not that they can’t be handled in a fun and spontaneous way, but here Millar seems to be primarily concerned with distorting and exaggerating them until all the necessary resonance with reality is lost – what you’re left with is a parody that is the only one in on the joke. I really hope that this isn’t the definitive take on the iconic superhero team – as this defines nothing of what they are about.

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to check out our other reviews of the complete Ultimate X-Men runs:

2 Responses

  1. http://sequart.org/magazine/54863/mark-millar-ultimate-x-men-the-tomorrow-people/

    What do you think of this author’s interpretation of Millar’s X-Men? It seems they view the series a lot more highly.

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