GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Ultimate X-Men Reviews

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Ultimate X-Men, vol. 6: Return of the King 2003 (SC TPB) 188 pages

cover by David FinchWritten by Mark Millar. Pencils by David Finch, Adam Kubert and Ben & Ray Lai. Inks by Andy Thibert, Danny Miki, Ben Lai, Ray Lai.
Colours: Dave Stewart. Letters: Chris Eliopoulos. Editor: Ralph Macchio.

Reprinting: Ultimate X-Men #26-33

Rating: * * * out of five

Number of readings: 2

Marvel Comics' various "Ultimate" titles is basically a separate reality. The X-Men in Ultimate X- Men are very similar to the X-Men in regular comics -- Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, etc., working for the wheelchair bound Professor X -- but it's not quite the same reality, re-booting the franchise from Day One, allowing new readers who might be intimidated by the forty some years of continuity to feel that they're getting in on the ground floor -- or like this is their series (kind of like what I suspected fuelled a lot of the initial enthusiasm for the TV series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" -- it wasn't their "dad"'s Star Trek).

Another impetus was undoubtedly the desire to fashion a comic for readers who might have come to the comics from the hit movies and would be intimidated by issue numbers in the hundreds (the characters wear black body suits and the back cover of this TPB even advertises it as featuring "all the characters you met in the movie").

It's a tad derivative since part of the point isn't just to re-imagine the characters, but to re-imagine key stories (past arcs have already recycled the Dark Phoenix Saga and the Weapon X program). As such, those familiar with the regular X-Men will have little trouble settling in to this alternate interpretation.. But, theoretically, a novice reader will find it an even easier fit.

Set upon the familiar terrain of mutant-superheroes-as-persecuted- minority, the story here -- the sixth consecutive Ultimate X-Men TPB collection -- has arch villain Magneto planning to deestroy the human race to make the world better for mutantkind. The X-Men, of course, want to stop him, even as they're being hunted by the very human authorities they're trying to protect...and with Professor X a prisoner of the U.S. government in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Already we can see some clear parallels to current world issues, borrowing allusions to the current War on Terrorism, with the government -- in the comic that is -- making little ddistinction between terrorists like Magneto and good guys like the X-Men.

The collection begins with a handy recap of some of what's gone before. Then the first chapter is largely self-contained and quite effective, detailing in progressing flashbacks the early days of Professor Xavier and Magneto's friendship, their ideological parting, and their gradually becoming enemies.

When the main story begins, the first thing you notice is that writer Mark Millar almost seems to be approaching it like a political thriller, cutting between the various groups plotting their machinations. It's talky...but quite effective, with good dialogue and brisk pacing. An early action scene is a car chase on a mountain road like something out of a Jason Bourne film. Part of the fun, for old time readers, is trying to adjust to this new continuity, orienting yourself as to the character nuances. Married with David Finch's beautiful, brooding, meticulously cross-hatched art, the story generates a certain aspect of sophistication...rather than just being a four colour free-for-all.

In fact, we're well into the saga (perhaps two or three issues -- though issue breaks are not made obvious in this collection) before the X-Men themselves even appear! But that begins to betray the comics' weakness -- and hubris. Because once they do appear, it doesn't seem significantly different from -- or better than -- any other super hero comic. Not a criticism, perhaps, unless you assumed the comic was supposed aspire to be a more sophisticated take on the franchise.

The early stuff was intriguing precisely because Millar seemed to be laying the groundwork for a complex socio-political adventure-thriller. But that never happens. The X-Men basically sit around for a few issues, wondering how they're going to stop Magneto. Then, out of the blue, they learn where his secret base is and the fight is on -- an extended fight that puts us smack dab back in superhero/action territory. And not even especially interesting or interestingly staged super hero territory. The story is a long build up, a big fight, and then a long epilogue -- never quite becoming a complex, epic saga.

Magneto also succeeds in detonating a nuclear reactor, requiring some of the X-Men to intervene -- with equal perfunctoriness.

It's all perfectly O.K. But it's hardly that original, sophisticated, complex, or any of the other adjectives that the early issues seemed to promise (or the 8 issue length would justify).

The final two chapters -- two whole issues -- amount to an extended epilogue. No fighting, no heroics, just a lot of talking and interacting. Mildly diverting stuff, sometimes amusing, but longer than it needs to be. Millar subscribes to the conceit of modern comics writers that more is more -- so word balloons are dense paragraphs and character-intensive conversations consume multiple pages...without necessarily seeming any smarter, more incisive, or more affecting and human then when such scenes would be a few pithy lines in a couple of panels.

Finch also only draws three of the eight issues collected here. Ben and Ray Lai do competent work on the opening chapter, and Adam Kubert brings a nice, kinetic style to his issues, but his style is more cartoony. One begins to realize that a big part of the the aura of grown up sophistication the series seemed to have derived from Finch's brooding, realist style.

The Ultimate line is, I think, meant to appear edgier than regular comics. Although the characters are still basically good guys, it's a grittier, slightly more sullied view of the X-Men and the Marvel Universe. But much of that air of "sophistication" is more surface than substance. I don't mean that in an especially critical way, but for all that I mentioned a lot of the story entails people sitting around and talking...the character development isn't always that detailed. There are some nice character scenes...but for an eight issue run of issues, there's not that much.

The characters are reinvented as younger, brasher, actually robbing them of individuality. A lot of them talk the same tough talk, using the same idioms, and are drawn in an achingly "hip" way with Johnny Depp-like van dykes or almost comically cliched five o'clock stubble (how the naturally hirsute Beast can also support stubble is unexplained). Ironically, in a comic whose underlining metaphor is all about accepting differences, the Ultimate X-Men are a surprisingly homogenous, exclusive bunch.

The impetus here was to allow new readers to jump on board. But this is already mired in continuity references and on-going plot threads. Although titled Return of the King, the story begins with Magneto already back on the scene, wreaking havoc, as if the story had begun an issue or two earlier. Magneto refers to having issued a deadline...but nowhere in these pages do I recall him doing such a thing. If Marvel, or any comics company, really wants to create a series that is accessible to new readers, they need to think more in terms of crafting stand alone story arcs. Sure, there will be on-going relationship plot threads, and villains like Magneto can recur, but people need to read a TPB collection and feel that that's all they need to read.

I can't help thinking that the main audience for Ultimate X-Men isn't some "new" readership, but the same old X-Men fans who pick it up as a novelty along with their regular X-Men comics. I found the book reasonably comprehensible, but that may have had something to do with my passing familiarity with mainstream X-Men mythos since The Ultimate X-Men has clearly paralleled events from the regular title (the Cyclops-Marvel Girl-Wolverine triangle).

So it's briskly paced, but trods familiar ground for an X-Men saga, without an especially complex or clever plot -- all the talk and large ensemble cast notwithstanding. Finch's art is especially striking...but he draws less than half the issues. In the end, it's mildly enjoyable...without being special, let alone an "ultimate".

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $16.99 USA


Ultimate X-Men: The Tempest 2005 (SC TPB) 100 pages

coverWritten by Brian K. Vaughan. Illustrated by Brandon Peterson.
Colours: Justin Ponsor. Letters: Chris Eliopoulos. Editor: Ralph Macchio.

Reprinting: Ultimate X-Men #46-49 (2004)

Rating: * * * out of five
Number of readings: 2

Marvel's "Ultimate" line imagines a kind of alternate Marvel Universe. Supposedly the point was to provide a series for newer fans who just couldn't get their heads around the forty some years of backstory in the regular comics. The impetus, no doubt, was Marvel's recent success at the movie houses, and the assumption new readers might be flocking to the comics shops.

Curious, if true, because the Ultimate X-Men don't bear any closer resemblance to their movie counterparts than they do to their comicbook kin. Not that any of the versions are radically different from each other -- Prof. X, Cyclops, Wolverine, etc. Personalities are quirked here and there, the mythos is tweaked in spots, but nothing that's going to throw you as long as you understand the basic conceit.

The other point of the "Ultimate" version -- and perhaps an indication that its target audience is actually assumed to be long time X-Men fans as much as any imagined "new" readers -- is the way it constantly recycles and "tweaks" ideas from the main universe. So in this arc alone we have Storm going a bit "punk" (as she did in X-Men comics in the 1980s) and meet a villain named Sinister -- even though he has little to do with the Mr. Sinister from the regular X-Men comics (but obviously long time fans are supposed to enjoy the resonance).

Now that that's over with, let's consider The Tempest story.

Despite the fact that comics these days are slatted for TPB collection even before they hit the stands, this doesn't always translate into stories that neatly begin and end in the collected volumes -- like a graphic "novel". But this introduces a new threat -- Sinister, a super powered serial killer targeting mutants -- and resolves the matter all within these pages. Plus, there's a use of emotional themes that come to a head in the climax. There's on-going character stuff -- the team is dealing with the death of one of their members from a previous story line -- but it's easy enough to pick up on. And, granted, the story ends leaving us to suspect we're going to hear more about the events depicted here in a later story arc...but not right away.

So if you're picking up a TPB just for something to read for itself and itself alone, this, more or less, is that.

Here writer Brian Vaughan emphasizes character stuff. Grief stricken over the loss of his student, Prof. Xavier approaches the latest crisis gun shy and with exaggerated caution, even grounding some of his students rather than risk losing them to this current menace, creating some consternation among the team who feel he's being overly protective. And despite the grief angle, Vaughan also keeps things light with the prerequisite quips and witty asides.

The story is surprisingly low-key. No time paradoxes. No fights that level city blocks. Just a guy with minor super powers and a couple of pistols. It's both pleasantly refreshing, a chance to root the characters in a "real" world -- and it's also a bit mundane, the characters getting worked up about a menace that Batman could tackle in one issue.

And the plot itself is rather thin. Sinister's appearances are sporadic until the final chapter, and it's not like he has some complex scheme.

The focus is more on the X-Men, just hanging, or dealing with the grief over the death of their friend. It's applaudable, Vaughan counting on the characters to keep us reading, rather than fight scenes. But characterization is often defined best within the context of a plot. By shoving the adventure story into the background, many of the character scenes exist in isolation. And I still wasn't always sure who these people were, inside, or what drove them. They're all basically brash teenagers -- all attitude and, like, cool, dude. As well, at least in this story, Vaughan hasn't created much sense of who is best friends with whom. Interpersonal dynamics the key to writing a team book -- especially the X-Men. Now maybe long time readers of The Ultimate X-Men would say there is all that, but I'm just going by reading a four issue arc (after re-reading the 8 issue Return of the King arc) and I still didn't find myself terribly engaged by these guys.

Storm, who was the lover of the dead teammate, is hardest hit by his death, and reacts by going all punk -- well, sort of (another homage to the regular title). Nightcrawler warns her not to become a "monster" -- uh, because her hair isn't coiffed perfectly? Wow. Tough dress code at Xavier's School! Later, she objects because the rest of the team can't stop interfering in her life. But, other than the scene with Nightcrawler, I'm not sure anyone said "boo" to her. It's character scenes...without genuine context.

I realize that can be a problem with TPB collections. Serialized over four months, a line, or a single scene, can take on a profound significance that, when the saga's read together in one day, seems too minor.

The whole idea of "becoming a monster" is meant to act as a kind of theme, building to a climax and Storm (and Rogue) having to choose between vengeance and justice. But though you can recognize Vaughan's intent (largely because he spells it out for you), it doesn't altogether work viscerally partly because, as noted, there isn't enough devoted to Storm and her emotional crisis throughout the saga. Besides, given that earlier Storm and Wolverine gain information by threatening someone, Vaughan's definition of what constitutes "becoming a monster" seems all too vague.

The art by Brandon Peterson is pretty good, with detailed figures and faces. He has a distracting penchant for drawing women as if they're mainly legs but, for those who decry the sexploitation of many comics, he also tends to favour small bust lines. (For those who don't mind the sexploitation in many comics, well...) But as much as I liked some of Peterson's work, he's also of the school (Jim Lee comes to mind) that kind of imbues a cold, plasticy sheen to his characters and their environment. The art was technically accomplished and visually impressive...but left me a bit cold, keeping me from really being drawn into the characters and their emotions. Perhaps the blame could as readily be laid at the colourist, or even the glossy paper.

With a plot that begins and ends in these pages, and a nice attempt at tying it together with emotional themes, Tempest is certainly an O.K. read. But it's a small story and despite trying for bigger themes, it doesn't fully pull them off.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the comics/

Cover price: $__


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