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Brian K. Vaughan’s Run on Ultimate X-Men – Vol. 5-6 (Hardcover)

Brian K. Vaughan is the accidental Ultimate X-Men author. Originally drafting a single arc to transition between Brian Michael Bendis and a potential arc by David Mack, his entire tenure was overshadowed by the near-constant suggestion that X-Men director Bryan Singer would be hijacking the title for a storyline or two. Neither of these two proposals came to pass, and Vaughan ended up working on the series for nearly two years. Perhaps because of the seemingly temporary nature of his stay – liable to end with any given arc – his run seems to lack overall consistency or direction. That isn’t to criticise his individual stories, which are arguably the best in the entire run of Ultimate X-Men, but an observation about the nature of Vaughan’s tenure.

Mojo is big... in television...

Indeed, the only true character arc to take place over Vaughan’s run is that of Rogue, who gets to go on her own little journey outside the team before dovetailing back into the narrative at the conclusion of Magnetic North. There’s no sense of growth or purpose or a sense that the series is heading anywhere – nor that its characters are either. In fairness, Vaughan actually works very well with his cast of characters. Over the course of his run, he typically splits them off one-or-two at a time, which is a smart move – it’s very hard to do good characterisation inside such a large ensemble. We get Rogue and Gambit, Wolverine and Storm, Kitty and Bobby and – to a lesser extent – Jean and Cyclops.

His character stuff mostly works – particularly when he focuses on the intimate rather than the grand picture. In Hard Lessons the smaller sequences with Storm and Wolverine work much better than the suggestion of a revived Weapon X programme. Magneto’s grand plan gets more than a little befuddled in Magnetic North (c’mon, surely there’s a more logical way for him to get the result he wanted), but it’s the Jean and Cylops moments that work. The arguable exception may be The Most Dangerous Game, which works at once as a less-than-subtle jab at reality television, but also as a meta-commentary on Marvel’s publishing policy – “There are merits to story tools like decompression,” the corrupt executive Mojo insists, “We can keep heightening the tension.” Indeed, as if highlighting the weakness on the serial monthly format of comic books, his henchman remarks, “viewers can only go so long with dramatic resolution.”

Magneto proves his metal...

Speaking of The Most Dangerous Game, probably the single strongest arc in the book, it’s fun to watch Vaughan pepper his work here with pop culture references. “There’s no fighting in the Danger Room!” yells a Cyclops who is evidently a fan of Dr. Strangelove. Dazzler compares a murder-rich island to the cult Japanese classic (and Tarantino’s favourite movie of the decade) Battle Royale. Such references generally fly by, without Vaughan making anything too obvious or forced (as Mark Millar arguably did during his own run).

We really wouldn’t be discussing an Ultimate book – particularly Ultimate X-Men – without remarking on how the writer deals with the relationship between this line and the regular continuity. Unlike The Ultimates or Ultimate Spider-Man, for example, Ultimate X-Men has suffered without a steady author, being shopped around whoever was available in the office at any given moment. Attitudes vary from writer-to-writer. Millar tried to rewrite the core attributes, while Robert Kirkman, in what was arguably a mistake, tried to adapt huge sections of the mythology. Vaughan makes if clear in his introduction here that “rather than rewriting, say, the Dark Phoenix Saga, a story that was already written perfectly once, [he] would try [his] best to reinvent cool old heroes and villains who never got a chance to fire on all cylinders in the ‘classic’ Marvel Universe”.

Yeah, if my head glowed like a mood ring, I'd be pretty ticked off as well...

It’s a clear statement of policy and one which stands to the credit of the collection here. His opening arc – The Tempest – gives us a boldly reimagined Mr. Sinister, who – for those unfamiliar with the mainstream X-Men – is a white-skinned guy with a blue suit (and what looks like flamingo feathers) and a red diamond on his forehead. Yes, he’s a one of ‘the weird ones’ as far as X-Men adversaries go (though I suppose ‘weird’ is a relative term). Here’s he’s simply a serial killer of mutants, driven to take lives by what may or may not be a figment of his imagination. Of course, Robert Kirkman would somewhat undermine this particular thread by making it perfectly clear he was killing for a reason, but there’s a welcome hint of ambiguity here. The rest of his adaptations are hit-or-miss. I like his reimagining of the bizarre alien Mojo as a corrupt TV executive, but I’m not too fond of his Fenris twins.

It’s strange that Vaughan pretty much waits until the end of his run to set up big ideas and arcs. He has Magneto escape custody, which is ultimately pointless unless this is going somewhere (which it doesn’t really). He puts Dazzler in a coma in his final issue, leaving Robert Kirkman to pick up that ball. He fundamentally alters the dynamic between Nightcrawler and Colossus in his last few pages. He moves to Angel to the Academy of Tomorrow as a spy. It’s hard not to get the sense that maybe, just maybe, he was being a little unfair to his successor, Robert Kirkman. However, none of these threads really undermine Kirkman’s work on the title (his own storytelling does that, with the end of his run being much weaker than the start). I don’t know. It’s just strange that, having avoided overarching themes and ideas his whole run, he suddenly kicks so many into gear in Magnetic North. And it’s just disappointing that none of the them go anywhere.

An enjoyable run...

The artwork varies across the title. It’s fairly decent overall, but I’m a big fan of Stuart Immonen’s stylised work on The Most Dangerous Game, Shock and Awe and Magnetic North. It handily segues into his work on Ultimate Spider-Man. I am a little confused, however at why Geoff Johns’ half-issue Burial Service is included at the end of these collected editions. It’s a short story which takes place during Mark Millar’s run on the comic (following Magneto’s ‘supposed’ death) and makes little or no sense placed where it is here (the fact that the character designs are off as well doesn’t help). Still, I suppose it had to be collected somewhere.

Truth be told, on an issue-by-issue basis, Vaughan’s run probably works the best of all the authors who have had a go at the title. But there’s very little there underneath the flash and dazzle. There’s some nice character work, but there’s no real consistency or exploration of ideas or themes across his arcs, which all seem distinctive and slightly disjointed. That said, most of his arcs work quite well and he gives each of his ensemble a voice. It’s just a shame really that this sort of arc-by-arc enjoyment is the best that Ultimate X-Men could offer. There’s no real underlying story, and no sense of progress. There’s no exploration of what it is to be a mutant or how the world must change to adapt. Just some relatively well-told stories.

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

2 Responses

  1. I know you wrote all these eight years ago, but these are really good reviews of all the Ultimate Comics you did. It’s a series that I think ALMOST worked as a cohesive whole, but got muddled down, honestly, by the fundamental tonal difference between the Millar stuff and the Bendis stuff, something that reverberated across the entire line long into its run. The constant writer changes hurt X-Men and made it the worst of the four original series, but the Ultimate Comics line may have been doomed from the start. There’s probably an interesting long-form retrospective to be had about it.

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