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Ultimate Comics: Divided We Fall, United We Stand – X-Men (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Wolverine later in the month, we’re taking a look at some classic X-Men and Wolverine comics every Monday, Wednesday and Friday here. I’m also writing a series of reviews of the classic X-Men television show at comicbuzz every weekday, so feel free to check those out.

I actually like the scope of Divided We Fall. It’s a big universe-altering event spanning Marvel’s three Ultimate Universe titles, but it isn’t so granular or so tightly-wound that the three books are tripping over one another. Each of the three books involved tell their own side of the story. Each can be read independently, with no real dependence on the other two. There’s a sense that the creators involved are being allowed a reasonable degree of creative freedom, and that Brian Wood is crafting his own X-Men epic that doesn’t exist simply to tie into the headline-making decision to bump Captain America up to superhero-in-chief over in Ultimate Comics: Ultimates.

In a weird way, for a book in the middle of a gigantic crossover, Wood’s Ultimate Comics: X-Men feels like it’s seeking a fresh start, like it’s kicking off a new chapter, and relishing the status quo shattering crossover as an excuse to just get on with it.

Mutant Pryde...

Mutant Pryde…

There’s an argument to be made that the Ultimate Universe is somewhat redundant. After all, we already have one version of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and all the gang. Adding another set is unnecessary, and dilutes the appeal of the line. (Then again, Marvel do publish quite a few Avengers books, just as DC can’t get enough of Batman.) I can understand this position, particularly given that the mainstream Marvel Universe has evolved to include a lot of what originally appealed about the Ultimate Universe.

On the other hand, though, I think there’s a lot of reason to support the Ultimate Universe. Part of that is down to simple quality. Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man is one of the best long-form Spider-Man stories ever published. Mark Millar’s run on The Ultimates remains one of the best comics of the 2000s. However, there’s also something to be said for the way that the Ultimate line allows new talent to steer an entire line with relative creative freedom. It’s often a nice way of easing independent creators into superhero comics.

Wolverine II...

Wolverine II…

The Ultimate Universe provided fertile ground for Mark Millar to develop Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates. Brian Michael Bendis really broke into mainstream comics with Ultimate Spider-Man and a stint on Ultimate X-Men. Brian K. Vaughn and Robert Kirkman both worked on Ultimate X-Men. It didn’t always make for the best comics (I did not care too much for Millar or Kirkman’s X-Men), but it was a great way of providing talent new to superhero comics a stage with much more freedom.

So a large part of the appeal of reading the Ultimate Comics: X-Men tie-in to Divided We Fall is the joy of watching Brian Wood playing with these iconic toys to tell his own story. Wood is a fantastic talent. He’d done some work with Marvel before (and took over adjectiveless X-Men for a brief stint around the same time as he started on Ultimate Comics: X-Men), but Wood’s primarily known for his stellar independent work. His long-running series DMZ and Northlanders come to mind, although he also recently reinvented Dark Horse’s Conan. (Vertigo have planned to release overdue deluxe hardcovers of DMZ, so check those out.)

Seeking a friend at the end of the world...

Seeking a friend at the end of the world…

Divided We Fall is the latest attempt to re-shape the status quo in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, allowing the writers a greater degree of creative control than they might otherwise have in the more firmly anchored mainstream continuity. The United States has dissolved. The government has been destroyed. Society is collapsing – the kind of set-up that Brian Bendis or Jonathan Hickman could ever get away with for an extended period of time the high-profile Avengers books.

Indeed, Brian Wood rather cleverly crafts his Ultimate Comics: X-Men as something quite close to the post-apocalyptic future of Stephen King’s The Stand. There’s the same mythical push west, the same sense of a broken world, the same sense of violence and uncertainty as militias and demagogues vie for power in the ruins of the old world. In a way, it feels vaguely like another iteration of all the crapsack alternate worlds from various X-Men stories like Days of Future Past or The Age of Apocalypse or Bishop’s Crossing. Of course, this is a world we’ve seen develop over a decade, and we’re witnessing the collapse rather than living in the aftermath.

The face of evil...

The face of evil…

Up-ending the status quo in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe was a bit of risky move. The line had initially been created to offer a more firmly grounded mirror of the modern world, daring to ask “what if superheroes suddenly emerged in a world not unlike our own?”, as opposed to the “what if superheroes had existed for decades?” that readers face in the regular Marvel titles. Of course, there’s really a limit to how long a world with superheroes can remain “not unlike our own”, and as the Ultimate line picked up its own complex continuity, a lot of the appeal was eroded.

It became “just another” comic book world with its own barriers to entry and a lot of overlap with the regular Marvel universe. It begin to feel somewhat redundant, and there were several editorial attempts to redefine or re-purpose it. Ironically, the most high profile of these – Jeph Loeb’s Ultimatum – only wounded the line further. Trying to give the line a fresh start, he wrote a miniseries which traded on the gruesome death of any number of major heroes. If anything, the grim nihilism of Ultimatum only expedited the line’s decline.

She's got drive, I'll give her that...

She’s got drive, I’ll give her that…

The second relaunch was more interesting. It was decided that the Ultimate Universe would try to define its own identity, separate from that of mainstream Marvel. Brian Michael Bendis killed off Peter Parker in The Death of Spider-Man and introduced a new Spider-Man in Ultimate Fall-out, and he turned Reed Richards into a villain in Ultimate Doomsday. Writer Jonathan Hickman effectively destroyed the United States during his Ultimates run, which served as something of a warm-up for his on-going work on Avengers and New Avengers.

And, like all the other Divided We Fall tie-ins, Ultimate Comics: X-Men suffers from the fact that Marvel have yet to collect nice over-sized hardcovers of the runs leading up to this. Divided We Fall takes place in the wake of a year of comic book stories told by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Spencer. While this deluxe hardcover was thrown together to cash-in on the publicity of “Captain America becomes President”, I do hope that Marvel eventually picks up the oversized hardcovers where they left off.

Carrying a torch...

Carrying a torch…

What’s interesting about Divided We Fall is that it provides an interesting exploration of the America of 2012, the country polarised and divided in the lead-up to (and aftermath of) an incredibly bitter election. It’s interesting how intensely focused Woods’ Ultimate Comics: X-Men is on American identity, even as the country falls apart. This isn’t just the dissolution of the Union, it’s the breakdown of social order.

The racism against mutants on display here doesn’t fall along the traditional speciest lines. After all, Ultimate Origins reveals that mutants are a genetic aberration created by experiments following the Second World War. They are a sub-species. However, Wood’s X-Men find themselves facing a more nationalist prejudice. “They aren’t Americans — they aren’t even human,” one officer yells as his troops prepare to open fire. Although the second half of the sentence suggests mutants are sub-human, the first half denies that they are American.

A lightning (Nim)rod for change...

A lightning (Nim)rod for change…

It reflects the heated bitterness of the election politics, and none-too-subtly racist politics of the “birther” movement – a political campaign so cynical and toxic that Obama felt the need to actually publish his birth certificate to try and dispel the rumours. Like the prejudice against mutants here, it was couched in patriotic terms – racism that claimed not be based on the colour of his skin, but rather on his innate “American-ness.”

Somehow it’s easier to express racism when you can couch it in nationalism terms, rather than overt reference to differences in skin colour or genes. Wood concedes that there’s something very wrong with the country when that sort of vocal prejudice has gone from being a minor and offensive irritation to being a genuine political force. “There was a time when you could just ignore people like that,” Kitty concedes, “ignorant and hurtful but ultimately harmless.” When an African-American man needs to provide his birth certificate to prove he’s truly “American”, something has gone horribly wrong.

Heart of stone...

Heart of stone…

It’s interesting that Wood sends his X-Men into the southwest, towards the American heartland. It feels rather pointed that the X-Men find themselves landing “somewhere in Kansas.” In terms of comic book geography, Kansas is inevitably and inexorably linked with the old-school American values of the Kents, the family which adopted Kal-El from Krypton and turned him into Superman. When Superman first appeared in 1938, Kansas had voted for the Democratic candidate in the previous two elections.

It had voted Democratic four times in the previous seven elections. There was a sense that the state would vote which ever way it chose, and that it could lean one way or the other. It wasn’t a strongly Republican or a strongly Democratic state, but one capable of voting on the issues, the policies and the candidates. Since Superman first appeared, though, Kansas has been firmly Republican. It only voted Democrat once, in 1964.

Days of present present...

Days of present present…

Somewhere along the way, politics became more firmly adversarial. It was more about digging in and fighting the other party than it was about policies or politics. Even the notion of “red states” and “blue states” suggests that each election is about drawing battle lines. It’s not so much about winning as it as about beating the other guy. Everything becomes so polarised that it’s almost as if the country goes to war with itself every four years.

It’s no coincidence that the character of William Stryker is crucial to Wood’s Ultimate Comics: X-Men. Stryker was created as a religious fundamentalist by Chris Claremont for his graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills in 1982. Stryker went on to have a new leash of life when he was used as the primary villain in X-Men II, albeit reimagined as a military officer. Wood uses Stryker, but emphasises the character’s religious politics. We get the notion of his eternal soul haunting the X-Men, surviving as a literal ghost in the machine. We witness Sentinels chanting “thy will be done” as they cleanse and purge in his name.

On the run...

On the run…

It feels like a fairly subversive and brutal twist on the rise of the religious right, and particularly the way that those groups have manoeuvred themselves into positions of power by appealing towards hatred of anything deemed different. I’ve always found it deeply ironic, as somebody raised in Christian values, that so much passion can be harnessed in hatred and spite and fear. The resurgence of the religious right is a massive contributor to the fractionalisation of American politics, and the extremism in the rhetoric which diminishes the opportunity for meaningful discussion.

Using Stryker as an opponent for the X-Men in this day and age strikes a chord, and is a very shrewd move for Brian Wood. Divided We Fall features the election of Captain America as President of the United States, but Wood makes it a much broader debate on election politics. Kitty Pryde is shocked to find at how easily mutants have accepted their internment and attempts to destroy them. “It seems like the mutants could have rebelled any time they wanted,” we’re told, in a line that evokes every “power to the people” cliché associated with get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Here there be dragons...

Here there be dragons…

These mutants have been browbeaten and bullied into submission, rendered numb by all the rhetoric. They’re disillusioned, excluded, defeated. They can’t muster the energy to fight back or to fight for change because experience has taught them to cynically expect defeat. Things don’t change, they can’t change. It’s a powerful sequence, and perhaps a commentary on how difficult it is to engage in a political system that is so heavily polarised – where the sense is that the only way people can be heard is to raise their voices so incredibly loud.

The fragmenting America in Divided We Fall feels like a brave and potent metaphor. It has been an incredibly tough decade for the country, and it’s easy to understand how things became so deeply divided. The collapse isn’t as simple as ceding states or independent republics. It’s more about personal identity. Is it possible for Kitty to be both American and a mutant at the same time? Or must she choose one over the other?

Underground movement...

Underground movement…

Fury tries to rally the mutants using patriotism. “This ain’t no third-world craphole. Never forget what we’ve got here, what we’re trying to preserve. What we need to preserve.” However, Kitty has been so bitterly disillusioned that she can’t even bring herself to identify as American any longer. “He means America. But I’m not here for that. I’m here to fight for mutantkind.” It’s a more subtle form of dissolution, but it’s just as corrosive.

It’s nice to see Wood using Kitty Pryde as a main character. Pryde is one of Chris Claremont’s truly wonderful creations, and she’s been the focal point of several truly wonderful story arcs and runs in the comic’s history. Part of it is simply the fact that Pryde is one of the most relatable X-Men ever created. She’s a young person who feels like an outsider without any offensive power to protect herself in a hostile world. All she can hope is that she might slip into and out of rooms without anybody noticing.

In America we trust...

In America we trust…

I am a bit frustrated ad how brutally the Ultimatum event hit the Ultimate X-Men line. It seemed like the carnage and death of Loeb’s massive crossover was specifically targeted at those characters. However, the X-Men actually benefit from the purging of all these older characters. X-Men has always been a comic about evolution, and it has always had an expansive cast with older characters teaching younger characters, so it makes sense to pass the baton from one generation to the next.

Seeing Kitty take command of what remains of the X-Men feels like logical character development, even if this isn’t the same character that Chris Claremont introduced decades ago during The Dark Phoenix Saga. It feels like genuine change and growth, even it the catalyst was hardly the most fluid and graceful. It’s fun to see Wood picking up on these ideas and running with them, finding a way to capitalise from something which almost killed the line.

Silent Fury...

Silent Fury…

I’m certainly interested in the cliffhanger at the end of the run, as Wood sets up a status quo which feels very Claremont-ian. That said, it also feels like it owes a debt to post-House of M status quo in mainstream Marvel. If Robert Kirkman’s Ultimate X-Men run was a clear attempt to rehabilitate the excess of nineties X-Men comics, could Brian Wood be trying something similar here with slightly more recent takes on the characters? I do hope that Marvel picks up the hardcovers where they left off so I can continue.

Wood is assisted by wonderful work from Paco Medina. Medina’s style fits the younger team that Wood has assembled here, and he does well with character interactions. It’s always fun to watch artists working with X-Men characters, if only because of the sheer diversity on offer when it comes to powers and appearances. Medina’s work is suitably eye-catching.

Into the wilderness...

Into the wilderness…

Divided We Fall is a solid event, but I’m disappointed that Marvel haven’t properly collected it. It isn’t an isolated event in the same way as Civil War or Siege, but instead the collection effectively joins books in the middle of their on-going story arcs. It takes a moment to acclimatise and it’s not always easy to follow where these books are going from or coming to. That said, it’s a nice collection of work by some great writers with a wonderful amount freedom and some solid artistic support. I just wish it came with context.

You might be interested in our review of the other comics tying into the Divided We Fall crossover:

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