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Nick Spencer’s Run on Ultimate Comics: X-Men (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Strangely enough, it’s the second relaunch of the Ultimate comic book line that feels like it is finally dealing with Ultimatum. Jeph Loeb’s “kill ’em all and let editorial sort ’em out” event had served as the catalyst of a relaunch for the entire line, ending long-running books like Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate X-Men. The line was re-tooled and re-focused and relaunched following that event.

However, that relaunch quickly fizzled out. Mark Millar’s run on Ultimate Comics: Avengers could not quite measure up to the dizzying heights of his original run on The Ultimates. Jeph Loeb’s Ultimate Comics: X shipped sporadically at best and his run on Ultimate Comics: New Ultimates was something of a mess. Meanwhile, Brian Michael Bendis continued his run on Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man as if nothing much had changed.

A song of ice and fire...

A song of ice and fire…

Oddly enough, it was the second relaunch that seemed to click. Coming out of The Death of Spider-Man, the slate was cleaned and the various books all got new beginnings. Jonathan Hickman took over Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates, Nick Spencer helmed Ultimate Comics: X-Men, while Brian Michael Bendis launched Miles Morales in a new volume of Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man. This was a very real shift in the status quo, and one that marked a clear departure from what came before, with bold new vision.

One of the more interesting attributes of the latest relaunch of the Ultimate line was the sense of heightened continuity between the various books. In particular, Jonathan Hickman’s run on The Ultimates overlapped quite heavily with Nick Spencer’s work on X-Men. As a result, the first year of each of the three titles seemed to be building towards Divided We Stand, a massive crossover between the various titles.

Sentinels-of-not-quite Liberty...

Sentinels-of-not-quite Liberty…

Spencer’s X-Men doesn’t work quite as well as Hickman’s Ultimates, suffering from the fact that nothing seems to get resolved. Dealing with a massive cast and an epic scope, Spencer’s Ultimate Comics: X-Men spends its first year establishing where all of its characters are and how their situations reflect on the larger story that is in motion. It’s an ambitious storytelling model, as Spencer crafts one big story from the ground (or the sewers) to the heights of the Oval Office, but it means that everything is barely set up before it is time to knock it down again.

Spencer’s Ultimate Comics: X-Men is a run with no shortage of great ideas and impressive scale, but one that suffers from the fact that the writer never gets to follow through on the world that he has built.

Shocking treatment...

Shocking treatment…

Spencer’s approach to Ultimate Comics: X-Men is interesting. The events of Ultimatum served to draw a line between the Ultimate Universe and Marvel’s more mainstream continuity. The Ultimate line, accruing a decade of its own continuity, no longer existed as an easily accessible version of mainstream continuity. Bendis’ version of Peter Parker almost had as much back story and history as the version appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man. So Marvel decided to shake things up.

All of the Ultimate comic books were affected by Ultimatum one way or another. The story killed off an incredible amount of supporting characters, effectively culling the Ultimate universe. The Ultimates lost Janet and Hank Pym, for example. Originally, Marvel had planned to kill off the Ultimate version of Peter Parker over the course of the event, but Bendis decided that he still had a few more stories to tell. However, the mutant population of the Ultimate Universe was most profoundly affected by Ultimatum.

Going Rogue...

Going Rogue…

Professor Xavier, Magneto, Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Nightcrawler and Wolverine were all killed over the course of the five-issue miniseries. More than that, the fact that Magneto was responsible for a tsunami attack on New York meant that mutant rights issues were set back by quite some time. As if that weren’t enough, the miniseries Ultimate Origins revealed that the Ultimate versions of these iconic mutants were not actually the next leap in evolution at all. They were a fluke concocted in a laboratory.

This obviously represents a massive shift in the status quo for this version of the X-Men. Not only did the line lose its most iconic and recognisable characters, but the fundamental premise underpinning the comic was eroded. Ultimate Comics: X-Men was no longer about something that had been a part of the X-Men mythos since the days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It was a massive and brutal reversal.

Storm bringer...

Storm bringer…

One has to wonder if this was necessary. After all, Marvel had already worked hard to re-conceptualise mutants within its mainstream continuity. House of M ended with the culling of a massive amount of mutant characters, and pushed the species to the brink of extinction. It radically altered the mood and trajectory of the mainstream X-Men books. Suddenly every story was about the survival of the species, whether on a textual or subtextual level.

As such, one images that the Ultimate Universe could have stuck its own balance by offering an alternative – rather than using House of M to cut back on the number of mutants, it could explore what might happen as mutants become more and more of a pressing political and social concern.  Existing outside mainstream continuity, that narrative could be pushed a bit further without running the risk of “breaking” the status quo.

The fastest mutant alive... (Although, after Ultimatum, it may be by default.)

The fastest mutant alive…
(Although, after Ultimatum, it may be by default.)

Still, as interesting as it is to speculate on what might have been, Nick Spencer found himself writing Ultimate Comics: X-Men in the wake of Ultimatum and Ultimate Origins. The writer had to engage with the changes made by those stories, and had to work to re-contextualise the comic book. A bunch of genetic anomalies created in a lab, it was necessary to jettison a lot of the existing social subtext associated with the characters.

The fact that the X-gene is a man-made accident rather than something naturally occurring breaks a lot of the “mutant as minorities” metaphors. What is most immediately striking about Nick Spencer’s work on Ultimate Comics: X-Men is that he gets this immediately. He understands that trying to present these new and reimagined mutants as a stand-in for ethnic minorities or LGBT individuals would be problematic at best.

Wreaking Havok with continuity...

Wreaking Havok with continuity…

As such, the closest we get to a metaphor for racial identity during his run is Johnny Storm’s repeated attempt to brand himself a “mutant.” In modern culture, issues of appropriation and identification can be difficult to navigate. One of the recurring themes of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run was the idea that human teenagers had begun to “appropriate” little bits and pieces of mutant culture. Here, Johnny Storm begins to call himself a “mutant.” Spencer never labours the point, but it does raise some interesting issues.

Instead of treating mutants as a minority, Spencer instead opts to treat them as a stand-in for disaffected youth in general. It’s a very clever twist, and one which fits quite well with the recurring trend of sixties nostalgia in popular culture. There’s a sense that youth has become disengaged and disconnected from the world around them, disillusioned with the promises made to them and the futures assured to them.

All fired up...

All fired up…

As such, Spencer paints mutants as a lost generation. They were a bunch of people born in the wake of the Second World War, in the shadow of America’s most dramatic military victory and to a world that was accepting America as a global superpower. They were told that they would be the future – that they represented the best of mankind’s potential to transcend our mortal limitations. Professor Charles Xavier believed that his children would inherit the Earth.

And now, decades later, this has been exposed a lie. They were an accident, a fluke. Their beliefs are absurd and meaningless. There is no larger purpose for them, no grand evolutionary design. These are not the children of tomorrow, they are legacy of past mistakes. It’s a pretty harrowing reveal, one that would shake a person to the very core of their being – one that would make everything seem meaningless and pointless.

Heralding the Apocalypse...

Heralding the Apocalypse…

Trying to figure out what the revelation about the nature of mutant kind means to her, Kitty Pryde reflects, “I guess, if I had to say, what it comes down to is that we found out we weren’t special anymore.” Rallying a camp to her, Storm goes a little bit further. “Last night, the world told us that we aren’t the next step in evolution,” she observes. “That we weren’t improvements, that we weren’t God’s chosen. That we were abnormalities. Freaks. But I say that’s up to us to decide!”

In a way, this fits quite comfortably with the reflection creeping into Marvel comics during the second decade of the twenty-first century. After all, this was fifty years after the start of the Silver Age, when Marvel had managed to tap so efficiently into the national zeitgeist. So it felt interesting to look back on many of the ideals associated with the sixties – and established in those comics – so as to compare them against modern realities.

A bolt from the blue...

A bolt from the blue…

Ultimate Comics: X-Men doesn’t play with sixties nostalgia as overtly as Mark Waid’s celebrated Daredevil run or Brian Michael Bendis’ All-New X-Men work. However, it does fit within a broader trend at Marvel in the 2010s, a tendency to look at the core principles of the various franchises and try to contextualise them in light of present day realities. Nick Spencer contrasts the youthful idealism of those original comics with the cynicism associated with today’s youth.

(This doesn’t take place in a vacuum. There is a larger contemporary pop cultural trend towards analysing and exploring the attitudes and optimism of the sixties. Mad Men is perhaps the most obvious example in popular culture, but there are others. JJ Abrams took Star Trek back to its sixties roots, while Matthew Vaughn did the same for the cinematic X-Men franchise with X-Men: First Class. You could argue that Ultimate Comics: X-Men is just one tiny part of that.)

Racing against time...

Racing against time…

Indeed, Ultimate Comics: X-Men is very much grounded in real-world anxieties and concerns. It is a story about a nation coming to terms with the consequences of decisions made long ago. “Rather than focus on who’s to blame for mistakes made decades ago, this President has to concern himself with the national security threats of today,” Valerie Cooper tells the press, a line that could easily have been lifted from any number of press conferences about the War on Terror or other concerns.

As Ultimate Comics: X-Men points out, the metaphors and subtext of the original X-Men comics are just as important today as they were decades ago. Despite progress made in the rights of minorities, and huge strides made for equality, reactionary elements are becoming more and more vocal – and edging closer to the mainstream. It is difficult to imagine a white President of the United States having to put up with something as xenophobic as the “birther” movement.

Shed...

Shed…

When Stryker visits a militia, he wonders about its membership numbers. “Well, we’re like most places — saw a big increase after the last election, then a bigger one after Magneto’s attack,” he is told. The scene acknowledges that the rise of these sort of racist groups is not something exclusive to a fictionalised comic book universe. The numbers may have been increased by an attack on New York by a mutant terrorist, but Obama’s election is implicitly connected to the rise in popularity of racist militias. After all, the real-world secessionist Texas National Movement saw its membership jump 400% after Obama’s re-election.

Spencer devotes a considerable amount of Ultimate Comics: X-Men to world-building. The comic book jumps around a large ensemble to offer multiple perspectives on the same event. For example, one of the later issues is devoted to exploring what Storm was doing during the first half of the run. It’s a very ambitious structure, one which requires very careful and meticulous construction. It is easy to see why Spencer works so well with writer Jonathan Hickman, both writers have an intricate approach to the mechanics of their work.

Deeper underground...

Deeper underground…

Spencer also does a good job trying to balance the two competing demands on any writer who finds themselves working on the Ultimate line. He has to tell his own story, while still respecting that he is drawing from decades of mainstream continuity. So there’s a need to find an equilibrium between what came before and the need to distinguish these comics from their mainstream counterparts. So Spencer includes all manner of nice shout-outs and acknowledgements of continuity (from Layla Miller through to Alex Summer’s “white hot room”), while not hewing too close to what has came before.

In particular, his take on the character of John Walker is fascinating. Walker is the mainstream superhero known as “USAgent.” He’s a hyper-patriotic stand-in for Captain America who is portrayed with varying degrees of instability – he is generally more jingoistic than Steve Rogers. Here, however, Spencer casts him as a man who has been inspired to basic decency by a well-meaning father figure. “I hope you’re happy, old man,” he mutters as he helps to save the X-Men from a Sentinel assault. In short, Walker is cast as a human counterpart to the X-Men, a young man who has been taught the value of tolerance and coexistence. It’s a nice twist.

Out with the old...

Out with the old…

That said, Spencer’s Ultimate Comics: X-Men run isn’t quite perfect. It has a number of significant problems. The most obvious is that it reads a lot better in a single sitting than in twelve monthly instalments. The actually story progression in the issues is somewhat minimal – Spencer devotes considerable time to the various character involved, approaching the story form multiple angles. This is a nice approach, one that clearly lays a solid storytelling foundation. One imagines that Spencer knew exactly where he planned to take Ultimate Comics: X-Men, and this is just paving the way.

However, Spencer’s run ends with the twelfth issue. At that point, he is off the book. It is up to Brian Wood to decide what he wants to follow up on, and what he is happy to leave with he predecessor. This is perfectly understandable – it’s a reality of comic book writing – but it means that Spencer’s run feels more like the start of a story than a whole story itself. It sets up all manner of interesting plot points and ideas, but Spencer is gone before he gets a chance to follow through on any of them.

The status quo receives a shot in the arm...

The status quo receives a shot in the arm…

The end result is a sense that it’s all a little pointless. His successor, Brian Wood, is put in the awkward position of trying to decide between finishing up the plots that Spencer set in motion and telling his own stories. The same problem echoes through Jonathan Hickman’s Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates, but to a lesser degree. Hickman doesn’t have so many balls in the air and isn’t setting up so many disparate threads. As such, it reads a lot better as a single story than Spencer’s Ultimate Comics: X-Men run.

(This problem is compounded by the fact that Spencer’s last issue heaps on more revelations that seem to come out of nowhere, broaching the interesting idea of private corporations seeking to harness the X-gene and reintroducing the characters of Mr. Sinister and Apocalypse. These are pretty seismic twists, and introducing them in the last issue of a writer’s run feels like a wasted opportunity, particularly since they don’t feel like organic developments from what has come before.)

A moral (Jean) grey area...

A moral (Jean) grey area…

Still, Ultimate Comics: X-Men is off to a strong start, even if there’s a sense that Spencer was taken off the book too soon. He handles a lot of the challenges facing with book very well, and sets up a wealth of interesting plots that could pay-off down the line. It’s just a shame that he never gets to follow through on any of them.

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