Books: Ultimate X-Men Collection(s)

In Brief:  Ultimate X-Men hits the reset button on Marvel’s mutant heroes about ten years ago, re-imagining and re-casting the familiar characters in a more contemporary light.  The Collections compile 12 issues – or roughly three trade paperbacks – each in four volumes.  The Ultimate line reached new readers more familiar with the movie versions of these characters and not well-versed in the voluminous back-stories that go with decades of comics.

Pros:  Marvel placed the hottest writers and artists of the day on the Ultimate books.  The stories have enough familiarity for those who know the characters, but they are (usually) fresh enough to be compelling on their own.

Cons:  Some of the narratives are rushed or weak – almost as if the writer had lost interest in introducing certain well-known elements of the X-Men mythos.  The metaphorical linking of mutants with terrorists gets old and played out, and the Ultimate War Storyline was pretty poorly done.

Full Review:   When I was growing up, the X-Men were favorites.  Not sure when exactly it happened – probably about 6th grade – but all through junior high and high school I pretty much read the X-books.  This period, now remembered fondly by many, had Chris Cleremont writing voluminous and ansgt-ridden tales that still managed to be action packed and heroic.  The X-Men, scorned by many for their genetic heritage, yet still rescuing humanity form monsters, aliens, and villains on a routine basis.  I stopped reading the books in college, but still enjoyed the movies (mostly) and would pick up a trade paperback from time to time.

Marvel’s Ultimate line came along about ten years ago and immediately became a critical and commercial success.  Simply put:  the writers and editors hit the reboot button and started telling the stories of their best characters from scratch.  Next summer’s Avengers movie is largely based on these comics, as were some aspects of Marve’ls other recent movies.  Ultimate Spiderman is very good – a great book particularly for pre-teen/teen readers.  So when I saw the Collections for Ultimate X-Men on sale recently, I decided to check it out.

The first three volumes are written by Mark Millar, a seasoned pro from Scotland who has since gone on to pen the basis for several movies (like Wanted).  Millar introduces us to Xavier’s school, with teen mutants training to better control their abilities and learning about the Professor’s ethos of mutant-human cooperation.  Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, and Storm are all present and in their late teens, while Iceman is younger.  Wolverine quickly shows up as an outsider sent by Magento, with the familiar memory problems from the movie.  More familiar mutants appear as the books progress, either in cameos or to join the team.  Colossus, Nightcrawler, Rogue, Gambit, Shadowcat, all have their roles.  It’s fun to see some of these characters imagined differently.

Millar does a great job with Professor Xavier, portraying him as an idealist/manipulator whose ambitions sometimes butt against his public persona.  Cyclops and Marvel Girl are well done and fresh – it’s fun to seem them as teens.  Wolverine features prominently and not all that effectively.  He does some pretty awful stuff and there’s never really much explanation  for his supposed switch to the light side.  It’s like Millar doesn’t quite know what to do with him, so he plays for cheap laughs, bad-ass moments, etc.  When Brian Michael Bendis takes over as writer in the final volume, Wolvie is suddenly a lot more relevant.

Another uneven characterization is X-foe alpha – Magneto.  Not much in the way of the complexities and humanity Magento developed in the original X-Men books; a lot more of the megalomaniac glimpsed in the movies.  Certainly this version of Magneto is dangerous and evil – capable of plotting and pursuing the extinction of homo sapiens.  And this bridges to one of my chief complaints with Ultimate X-Men…

That would be Millar’s insistence on casting the X-Men and mutants in general as stand-ins for a pseudeo war on terror.  Maybe Marvel couldn’t help itself; after all, this book started rolling soon after 911.  Stan Lee once said he cast the original X-Men in comparison to the Civil Rights movement, with Professor X as MLK Jr., and Magneto as Malcolm X.  But in this case, casting mutants as Muslims, the Brotherhood of Mutants as Al-Qa’ida, and Magneto as bin Laden just does not work.

The subtext is there from the beginning, coming to head in the ‘Ultimate War’ storyline in Volume 3.  Magneto has escaped and regained his memories, launching an offensive on the U.S. and the world.  The Avengers, under Nick Fury’s leadership start rounding up and detaining mutants, and become suspicious of the X-Men.  “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” Fury tells us.  So you have a Gitmo-style mutant camp, you have the X-Men dodging the authorities, while trying to stop Magneto, and you have Captain America and Iron Man acting like jerks.  It’s meant to be an event-type crossover storyline and it’s just not good.

There are other storylines that seemed rushed or ill-conceived:  those involving the Hellfire Club and Xavier’s son, Legion, come to mind.  There’s also filler, like the few issues devoted exclusively to Gambit and the lengthy Wolverine/Spidey cross-over that marks the beginning of Bendis’s run as writer.  But you expect that from big brand comics these days.  For the most part, the stories are entertaining, especially when drawing on the tried-and-true X-themes in the context of the team as a younger more inexperienced group.

Bottom Line:  As a re-imagining of the X-franchise in comic book format, Ultimate X-Men mostly succeeds.  There are flaws and probably not that much originality, but you could make the same case for most superhero books these days.  It certainly doesn’t hur that you can acquire these ‘Collections’ editions for a reasonable price.

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